Earth and Mineral Sciences

Penn State researchers look to build on Deines legacy in lab named in his honor

A recently dedicated lab at Penn State bears the name of a longtime geosciences faculty member who used isotope geochemistry to better understand processes deep within the Earth.

The Peter Deines Isotope Mass Spectrometry Laboratory was dedicated on Oct. 28 in a ribbon-cutting ceremony officiated by Penn State President Eric Barron, Geosciences Department Head Andrew Nyblade, Evan Pugh University Professor Katherine Freeman, John Leone Dean in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Lee Kump, Melissa Deines, wife of the late Peter Deines, Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss and Emeritus Professor and Former Associate Dean of the college’s Office of Graduate Education and Research John Hellmann.

The facility, which is housed in a newly renovated portion of the basement of the Deike Building, features state-of-the-art equipment designed to benefit the research of the geosciences department at Penn State, and beyond. The lab features a large suite of instruments that can analyze isotopes within a wide array of molecules and minerals.

Several of these instruments were developed by Penn State researchers and are truly one-of-a-kind worldwide, with the ability to analyze diverse isotopes and elements in solids, liquids, and gases in very trace quantities, even at the nanomolar or picomolar scales. One instrument can measure if two isotopes are right next to each other in a mineral, and another can measure trace isotopes and elements carried in some of Earth’s oldest minerals. Few labs have the same wide-ranging capability all in one location.

The lab features a high-mass accuracy and high-mass-resolution mass spectrometer that is being used in novel ways to measure isotope fingerprints within organic compounds. Researchers are using such position-specific isotope patterns to chart the origins of carbon molecules from microorganisms, ancient oceans, and from the solar system, delivered by meteorites.

At the dedication, Freeman said it was fitting that the facility be named after a scientist and educator who used these same technologies and light stable isotopes to drive his research, addressing diverse geological problems. Freeman said the facility links researchers around the world to Penn State due to the powerful and new mass spectrometry tools for determining isotopes within molecules. 

“Peter Deines represented the best of what a Penn State faculty member has to offer, and he is missed by those of us who were lucky to know him,” Freeman said. “But his scientific legacy at Penn State is already being carried forward by a new generation of geochemists who are precisely measuring all kinds of isotopes in all kinds of samples. I am genuinely delighted that they can now do so in a space that bears his name.”

Fittingly, Freeman said, the lab could unlock clues to solving questions Peter Deines strived to answer in his career, including the evolution of the Earth’s interior, the origins and fates of diverse forms of carbon, and novel ways to measure isotopes in molecules and minerals.

Much of the space houses the Freeman Research Group, including equipment supporting the NASA-funded Astrobiology Center for Isotopologue Research, which looks to shed light on ancient climate, the carbon cycle, microbial biogeochemistry, and the signatures of life on Earth and beyond.

Several early-career researchers have also had a hand in shaping the facilities, including Andrew Syme and Jesse Reimink, who co-direct the geochronology lab; Miquela Ingalls, who researches how terrestrial environments respond to climate change and Max Lloyd, who researches isotopic geochemistry.   

Nyblade said the lab is a “tremendous investment” in the department by the university, and reflects Penn State’s deep commitment to the geosciences, for which the department is most grateful. 

Last Updated November 18, 2021