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Superheroes of Science

Mar 23, 2020

Jani Sparks, Stable Isotope Specialist at the Purdue University Stable Isotope Facility, discusses the process of analyzing samples for Professors at Purdue University. To begin, isotopes can be thought of as chemical tracers. Carbon-14 is not a stable isotope, which makes it useful for radiocarbon dating. However, the Stable Isotope Lab looks for differences between stable isotopes over time, such as the relationship between Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. A variety of isotopes exist and common light, stable isotopes are referred to as “CHONS” - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Stable isotopes of these elements are the most common to be analyzed in the Purdue University Stable Isotope Facility. An Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer is the instrument used by Dr. Sparks to analyze gas samples. Applications of the Stable Isotope Lab include looking at food webs and determining trophic levels of different species. By analyzing bones or hair using carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes, Dr. Sparks can tell whether or not someone is a vegetarian. Archaeologists can analyze bones to determine where animals may have migrated from using various stable isotopes. Additionally, national labs like the FDA make use of stable isotopes to determine whether substances such as honey, lemon juice, and maple syrup are pure or adulterated. Dr. Sparks advises high school students to check out stable isotope facilities, either at Purdue or other large Universities, and recommends that interested students seek out a Stable Isotope courses.