The National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, is creating a 30-year ecological database for any researcher to compare changes in the environment throughout time. There are many different areas of expertise involved — identifying and storing how life and the environment interact on the planet is large undertaking — but the University of Wyoming Stable Isotope Facility plays an important part.
“We have the soil contract for all of NEON,” Facility Manager Craig Cook said. “There’s lots of other analytical things NEON does, but in terms of stable isotopes for soils, we’re the lab.”
The isotope lab gets thousands of soil samples from NEON to test.
The isotope facility submitted a bid for the soil contract and won, signing a three-year, $80,000 contract in 2014. Now, the facility is set to take more NEON responsibility after the group decided to analyze and record plant data.
“Earlier this year, the NEON folks approached us to see if we would analyze their plant samples for them,” Cook said. “This was a noncompetitive thing — they came to us and they asked us, it didn’t go out. We’ve now been given the plant analyses for stable isotopes.”
The year-long contract will likely continue to be renewed as long as the isotope facility maintains high quality testing, Cook said.
Bill Gern, vice president for research and economic development, said such recognition without a competitive grant shows quite a lot about the lab.
“The recognition shows the high quality of work they do,” he said. “It is a very strong facility. This is how universities gain distinction — for example, we have highly regarded faculty and the centers to support them. This brings in great graduate students and allows us to compete at the highest level.”
Cook agreed the UW Stable Isotope Facility is one of the best.
“We have one of the best ones in the country, if not in the world,” he said. “We’re a smaller one. I think the reason we were selected originally for the soil samples, and probably the plant samples, is because we have a very, very high level of quality assurance. I don’t know of another lab in the country that is any better than us in the quality of data coming out.
“We’re a small lab,” Cook continued. “There are labs that will run over a magnitude more samples that we do. But when you’re a number factory, you can’t take the time to look at the results you get from the instrumentation and make sure it’s right. We do.”
The three levels of quality assurance start with the person doing the analysis, then moves up to the facility manager and finally to Cook. All three are looking at the data for possible outliers that don’t add up.
The decision to record plant data was controversial in NEON administration and Cook said they eventually made the right decision, regardless of if the UW facility got the contract or not.
“You’re talking about a 30-year project to look at ecological change in this country,” he said. “Why not get some baseline data on everything and then see where it leads?”
The one-year, $35,000 contract consists of analyzing thousands of plant samples that come in batches of about 800, he said.
“When we get 800 samples, I think we’ve agreed to a turnaround of 3-4 months,” he said. “And then we get the next batch.”
This is not the only project the isotope facility is working on — about 70 percent of its work is from UW faculty.
“They’re not contracts,” Cook said. “They’ll bring over a tub of samples and they want specific analysis done. We do that and give them the numbers.”
Analyzing the very small samples consists of quickly burning them in a tube at about 1,800 degrees Celsius. The gases produced pass through another tube filled with copper to filter unneeded gases and the remainder are analyzed. The end results show the ratio of stable carbon dioxide isotopes and stable nitrogen isotopes and allow scientists to determine what is in the soil such as animal waste or automobile pollution.
While the actual analysis of a sample takes about eight minutes, the entire process takes much longer, said Chandelle Macdonald, the laboratory’s manager.
“If we have a queue, it can take 4-6 weeks,” she said. “But if it comes in directly, it takes a day to grind, a day to weigh, a day to run.”
Most samples are done in groups of 100, however, speeding up the process.
Grinding is an important and essential part of the entire testing process, Cook said.
“We have to make sure all samples are homogenized,” he said. “Because we take very small samples, we have to make sure it is representative of the entire sample. For example, if you give me a leaf and I break off one tiny piece of it, the part of the leaf closest to the inside can be slightly different.”
Gern said the work being done in the isotope facility is an important and growing area of the university for years to come.
“As our ecology program grows and our technology expands, we find new ways to do analyses and stay at a high level of recognition,” he said.