Culturing cells in a Petri dish has been among the central technologies driving modern biological research since the technique became commonplace in the 1970s. Cultures are vital; once animal cells are isolated in a dish, scientists can delve much more deeply into their biological mysteries. Kettering didn't have a cell-culturing facility, and it wasn't until the arrival of Associate Professor Robin Treichel in 1987 that the procedure even took place at Oberlin. Following in Jewett's low-tech footsteps, Treichel, the current department chair, made do with a jury-rigged facility in a crowded corner of a general-purpose lab, where her cultures could too easily be contaminated by dust kicked up by passersby.

The arrangement illustrated one of Kettering's continuing problems--technology was surpassing the building's capabilities. In the Science Center, the cell culture lab is a room unto itself, free from potential contaminants. The ability to conduct research in such areas is key to attracting top science students, says Treichel, who is making strides in examining why cancers become immune to anti-cancer drugs. "High school students who have had advanced biology classes read about these techniques, and they want to be able to do them if they come here," she says.

The facility also has a new device called an electroporator, which zaps cells with electricity. The electricity creates microscopic pores in cell membranes through which researchers can insert foreign DNA into cell nuclei during biotechnology experiments.

Whereas Oberlin's biologists and chemists worked productively in Kettering for several decades, plants in the building's greenhouse suffered from the start. With just one growing area, desert and tropical plants shared a common environment suitable to neither. Single-pane, aluminum-frame windows disgorged heat in the winter. Most plants did not thrive due to Oberlin's hard water. As time went on, the swamp coolers began to break down.

"We had heat failures in the winter and overheating in the summer," says David Benzing, Danforth Professor of Biology (above). During one unusually troublesome malfunction of the cooling system, Benzing's collection of tropical and desert epiphytes began to succumb en masse. "It fried a third of the plants," he recalls. To cope, Benzing improvised. One summer, he popped some particularly heat-sensitive plants into a makeshift wood enclosure, onto which he hung an air conditioner. The challenge, he said, was not to study the plants in a near-natural environment, but to keep them alive.

Oberlin's new 2,000-square-foot greenhouse, which sits atop the biology research wing, has three sections for growing plants, each with separate, sophisticated controls for heat, light, and humidity. Benzing now sets the conditions needed by the plants electronically, such as hot and dry, hot and humid, or cool and humid. For the minority of plants that prefer hard water, there is still Oberlin City water. The remainder are fed deionized water, which approximates rainwater, from an internal unit that also serves chemistry laboratories elsewhere in the building.

With Oberlin's new nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer (below), Assistant Professor Manish Mehta bounces radio waves off proteins to determine their chemical makeup. He then runs the data through a computer to create 3-D images--information that is especially useful in creating drugs to fight new bacterial or viral diseases. The work done on selected human proteins at Oberlin is a first step in that process; pharmaceutical companies rely on this research to help synthesize drugs that mimic the disease-fighting capability of our immune systems.

With a $500,000 price tag, the spectrometer is the most expensive instrument the College has owned and is 50 percent more powerful than resonance spectrometers found at any other liberal arts college. The workhorse of any chemistry department, says Mehta, it allows researchers to study the composition and structure of organic compounds without destroying the sample, as older methods of chemical analysis require. It can be used for many kinds of biological and chemical research and allows Oberlin students to gain graduate-level experience at the undergraduate level--a huge boost for those vying for spots in the top graduate and medical schools.

"To use an instrument of this magnitude anywhere else, you have to be a graduate or postdoctoral student," says Mehta. Space for the spectrometer--with its requirement of 12 feet of ceiling clearance and a large magnetic field that must be isolated from such disturbances as floor vibrations--was incorporated in the design of the new facilities.

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