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The word among geochemists is that Patrick G. Hatcher-Old Dominion University's new Batten Endowed Chair in physical sciences-should be 10 times more famous than he is. That is how he was described at the American Chemical Society's national meeting last spring in San Diego when he was awarded the 2005 ACS Geochemistry Division Medal.

But Hatcher is more of a "scientists' scientist" than a headline grabber, and the technical aspects of his work tend to defy snappy descriptions.

Not many people outside of organic and environmental geochemistry can appreciate Hatcher's innovations with off-line tetramethylammonium hydroxide (TMAH) thermochemolysis, which segments large molecules for analysis by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The same could be said about his vanguard use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to define how certain macromolecules look and behave.

Suffice it to say that during the past 15 years or so, scientists from universities, hospitals, industries and government agencies have lined up to work with him on projects requiring chemical analysis of hard-to-analyze compounds. His research applies to some of our biggest 21st -century environmental and health challenges, such as global warming and the origins of disease.

Organic molecules-those originating with living organisms, as well as those that are synthesized-are typically very large and complicated in the relative scheme of chemical compounds, and their structures have been difficult to elucidate.

But Hatcher's creative analytical strategies have given science a much better understanding of coal, petroleum and natural polymers, of the ways sediment and soil interact with pollutants at the molecular level, and of how natural organic material can thwart the treatment of drinking water. His work also has advanced biochemical studies of proteins and other biological compounds.

The university's new College of Sciences Major Instrumentation Center (COSMIC@ODU), which is expected to be operational by March and will be directed by Hatcher, will be among the best equipped in the world. The centerpiece of COSMIC's array of instruments will be a 12-Tesla Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometer that promises to be a monument of sorts to the university's increased emphasis upon research.

ODU's 12-Tesla mass spectrometer will be only the second of its type to be installed in a university facility in the United States, and the only one devoted to broad analytical use in earth sciences as well as life sciences.

The central component of the $1.3 million mass spectrometer is a four-ton superconducting magnet nearly 500,000 times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field. The magnet, together with the other parts of the mass spectrometer, will be delivered by two large trucks Thursday morning, Feb. 2, via Elkhorn Avenue to the Oceanography and Physics Building.

The delivery also will include a $500,000 400 MHz solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer with the latest High Resolution Magic Angle Spin (HRMAS) capability. It contains a 9.4-Tesla magnet that is considerably smaller because of its design than the magnet in the FT-ICR mass spectrometer.

The installation and startup processes for the two instruments will require the services of about a dozen experts who are employed by or have been hired by the Bruker Companies, the instrument manufacturer. Perhaps the most complicated of the services is a 10-day procedure to cool the superconducting magnets, by means of liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, to temperatures approaching absolute zero (about minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit).

A half-dozen ODU employees have spent a great deal of their time over the past three months preparing a laboratory space for the instrument, upgrading electrical and exhaust systems, widening doors for deliveries and handling a mountain of smaller details.

"We are providing state-of-the-art scientific equipment that will allow Dr. Hatcher and others in our colleges of sciences and engineering to perform the most advanced analytical research possible," said Roseann Runte, president of the university. "COSMIC@ODU has one of the country's top researchers as its director and is one of the best equipped facilities of its type in the world. We thank Frank Batten for the gift that enabled us to attract Dr. Hatcher, to create this facility and to take a giant step toward our goal to become a Top 100 public research university."

Batten, the founder of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications Inc., gave $32 million in 2003 to promote research at ODU, paving the way for the university to plan a facility such as COSMIC and attract a highly qualified scientist to run it.

Hatcher earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from North Carolina State University, a master's in marine chemistry from the University of Miami and, in 1980, a doctorate in chemistry (geochemistry) from the University of Maryland. It was while he was a graduate student that he began experimenting with new ways to use spectrometry and spectroscopy. He elaborated these experiments into a specialty while he was employed first by the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., then by Penn State University and Ohio State University. He and his wife, Susan, a mass spectrometry specialist, came to ODU earlier this month from OSU, where he directed the Environmental Molecular Science Institute and she worked in the chemistry department.

"When I was doing my Ph.D. work at Maryland, I was challenged to find new ways to understand the chemistry of organic matter," Hatcher said. "I recognized that advanced analytical equipment could be brought to bear toward our understanding of compounds found in nature. It has fallen to me to lead the charge in the area of the environment."

FT-ICR mass spectrometry provides chemical analysis by means of a sample's molecules being ionized (electrically charged) and transferred to a cell in a strong magnetic field, which causes the ions to assume circular orbits in the cell. The radii of the orbits are directly related to the molecular weight of the ions divided by the charge (usually +1). Because the frequency of the orbits can be measured very accurately, the molecular weight can be measured very accurately, usually to an accuracy of 5 decimal places.

NMR is essentially the same as the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in medicine. By measuring the frequencies at which atoms absorb energy, NMR instruments provide scientists with clues about the local environment of each atom in a test sample that is dissolved in a solvent. From these clues, a computer can develop a three-dimensional image of a molecule.

Innovations to allow analysis of a wider variety of samples-such as those that require testing while in the solid state-came on line early in Hatcher's career and he was quick to apply these processes to earth sciences.

Hatcher's knowledge of analytical chemistry, of geology and oceanography, and of NMR and mass spectrometry technology has moved him to the head of the class in fundamental studies of environmental problems. "These technologies have been used in traditional fields with chemistry, and have flourished in molecular biology and proteomics, but they have not been utilized as much in peripheral areas such as environmental chemistry or oceanography," Hatcher said.

One of his ongoing projects involves pollutants that have combined at the molecular level with organic particles in marine sediments or soils. This can make the pollutants hard to detect or analyze, and perhaps render them temporarily harmless. Until more is known about these compounds, many questions remain about the dangers they may pose to the environment. For example, what happens when the organic portion of the molecule begins to disintegrate?

"Our new instrumentation center will elevate ODU to a new level in earth sciences, to a level higher than most universities," Hatcher said. "It will be a feather in the cap of the ODU ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences and chemistry and biochemistry departments. Certainly one major reason for our coming here was that ODU has seen fit to make available the latest technology."

Hatcher has a joint appointment at ODU to the chemistry and biochemistry department and the ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences department.

COSMIC and the arrival of the Hatchers, according to Richard V. Gregory, dean of the College of Sciences, will provide a major boost to ODU's reputation as a research university. "We can attract outstanding faculty candidates as a result. We expect to establish new funded areas of research, to dramatically improve our own research infrastructure and to enhance our collaborations in research with EVMS and other institutions."

Gregory credits several members of the ODU faculty with championing Hatcher's candidacy, including Kenneth Mopper, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Andrew Gordon, professor of biological sciences.

"ODU, and Hampton Roads in general, will greatly benefit from Dr. Hatcher's arrival," said Mopper. "We are indeed lucky to have recruited such a renowned and highly accomplished scientist. Dr. Hatcher has a long record of catalyzing and leading interdisciplinary teams that have secured large interdisciplinary grants dealing with important environmental issues. In addition, he is well versed in advanced analytical instrumentation and has adapted these techniques for investigating nature and reactivity of complex natural organic matter in terrestrial and marine ecosystems."

Gordon said he has known Hatcher since the late 1970s when they shared a mentor at the University of Miami. "His thesis work dealt with long-term geological/chemical changes to natural organic compounds such as dead plant material after they are deposited in marine sediments. These are the processes that eventually make fossil fuels. Characterization of these complex organic compounds and what is happening to them with time requires the type of instrumentation and analytical skills at which Dr. Hatcher excels. I am looking forward to getting reacquainted with his work and to possible collaboration."

COSMIC analysis will be available to ODU researchers and for a fee to academics and other scientists outside the University.

Hatcher and his wife said they are eager to begin experiments with the new, high-resolution instruments. "Collaborators and customers are starting to line up. I'm planning all of these experiments that I want to start the minute we are on line," he said.

"Yes," added Susan Hatcher, who will be the day-to-day manager of COSMIC, "I've already got four customers eager to get started. I have to tell them to be patient, to stick their samples in the freezer."

This article was posted on: February 2, 2006

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