From Micro to Macro

Researcher’s molecular-level investigations could unlock much larger secrets, including how the universe evolves

posted 14 June 2011
By Katie Chalmers-Brooks

(Reprinted with permission from ResearchLife, Winter 2011 issue, University of Manitoba,

The poster on the wall in Jennifer van Wijngaarden’s lab shows a cartoon woman from the 1940s peeling back the sleeve of her blue-collared work uniform to reveal a flexed bicep. She looks determined. The caption above her declares: We Can Do It!
The war-time replica provides meaningful support to the physical chemist, who is perched on a stool, sandwiched by two pieces of hulking equipment used to study minute molecules—one of which is the only of its kind in the country.

“I like the poster because it gives encouragement. In research, you have an idea but don’t know the outcome. You put in a lot of effort but just don’t know if your work will pay off,” says the 36-year-old assistant professor. “It’s also encouragement when I look around this lab and think about how I inherited this as an empty room filled with tossed away junk and how we’ve turned it into a research lab with instruments that we built with raw materials, stainless steel, wiring. It’s sort of a reminder of what we’re capable of.”

“It’s also nice that it’s a woman on the poster,” she adds with a smile, noting how few female physical scientists there are.

The fundamental science of the movement of molecules

Van Wijngaarden is an expert in microwave spectroscopy. That’s the science of studying the movement of molecules at a microscopic level. Her goal? To uncover all she can about the properties of these structures, including how they interact with each other. These tiny components that twist and bend are a big deal since they’re in everything around us. “Everything in the universe, all our actions, all behaviour of matter,” she says.

Van Wijngaarden’s work isn’t industry-driven—she doesn’t have patents on the horizon—but rather focusses on the fundamental side of science. “Which fortunately is still supported in Canada in the funding environment,” she notes, having secured more than $1 million in grants since arriving at the University of Manitoba four years ago.

But since Van Wijngaarden and her team are among the first to study unstable reactive molecules in such great detail, one never knows what off-shoot discoveries could result. After all, it was scientists studying the basics of ammonia molecules who stumbled upon a unique property that ultimately led to the development of the laser, a major scientific breakthrough now used around the planet.

Chirped pulse microwave spectrometer

The molecules van Wijngaarden investigates are highly unstable so they require special equipment to isolate them long enough for actual study to occur. Van Wijngaarden uses a custom-made 600-pound machine called a chirped pulse microwave spectrometer. There are only a handful of these devices in the world; the technology has only been around for a few years. She and her team built the $276,000 spectrometer with funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

The molecules are put into a vacuum chamber at speeds greater than sound, which makes them extremely cold. The chilly temperature, which drops to roughly -270 C, keeps them from reacting or interacting with neighbouring molecules, allowing scientists to take a closer look.

Light plays a big role. Every molecule has a set of distinguishing energy levels, similar to how humans have signature finger prints. The spacing between these levels corresponds to certain wavelengths of light. By figuring out what wavelength the molecule absorbs, scientists can uncover the spacing of its energy levels, which in turn reveals the molecule’s structure, bond lengths and angles.

The range of light they are interested in, the one that applies to their targeted type of molecules, is the microwave region.

When people hear microwave, they might think the kitchen variety that warms food. That everyday appliance is similar in that it involves microwave wavelengths but it’s designed to interact only with water molecules in food (which does the heating). Van Wijngaarden’s equipment allows her to look at any molecules she wants.

She admits the structure of molecules “might not sound super exciting or sexy” but the new technology her team is using has only recently become available thanks to advancements in digital electronics. At one time such parts were reserved for the defense industry, specifically those involved in radar and sensors. Some government control still exists; when buying parts for the spectrometer, van Wijngaarden had to sign a declaration that ensured the components wouldn’t be mounted on aircraft or missiles.

Her work can help astrophysicists

This science will help researchers better predict how new molecules will behave if they were to design them from scratch. But the greatest contribution of this heightened molecular knowledge could be its ability to help astrophysicists—those who model the chemistry of the universe and study clouds, stars, meteorites and the atmosphere of planets and moons. Molecules in space are most often identified by the microwave emission signal they give off, just as they are in van Wijngaarden’s lab. Since she can uncover the unique energy spacing of molecules using the microwave spectrometer, she can tell the astrophysics community what molecules they are looking at. This can help them make sense of how our universe is evolving.

Van Wijngaarden has undergone her own personal evolution, from a little girl growing up in Essex, Ont. (population 6,000) with a passion for science but who didn’t think a research career was possible to an award-winning professor who loves teaching and runs her own groundbreaking lab.

Van Wijngaarden’s mother was a school teacher; her dad worked in the auto industry. “I always had this idea that to have a PhD and to do science required genius, that it was not something that was accessible. I always had good grades and scholarships and was highly successful but still it seemed to me really out of reach,” she says. “There are great things about small towns, but you’re not exposed to people who do these types of other jobs. You know teachers. You know a doctor, a dentist, sales people, so I didn’t know any scientists.”

That all changed when she arrived at the University of Western Ontario to do her chemistry degree and spent a summer working in a research lab with grad students. “I started to think, Hey wait a minute, these are regular people.”

She set out to do her PhD at the University of Alberta before heading to the University of Basel in Switzerland for a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)-funded postdoctoral position. Now she’s the one playing host to PhD students—and colleagues—from around the world who are eager to use the spectrometer.

2007 Teaching Excellence Award

In 2007 she won a University of Manitoba Teaching Excellence Award. The recognition was particularly special since it’s the students who nominate the contenders. Van Wijngaarden makes a point of learning her students’ names, getting to know them and being a mentor. It’s a style she adopted while teaching for two years at the prestigious Mount Holyoke College (MHC), a liberal arts institution for women in South Hadley, Mass., founded by a female chemist in the early 19th century. “I taught the core physical chemistry courses at MHC and had the pleasure of watching several female students from my class continue in physical chemistry at top graduate schools—Caltech, Rice, Northwestern, Cornell,” she says. “I can't describe how excited and emotional I get when I think about the futures that lie ahead of these talented young women.”

She tries to reach out to her female students here as well, encouraging them to continue with their studies in a field where women are still the minority. “At the undergraduate level, the number of men and women in chemistry is maybe 50-50. It’s when you go up to the higher levels that women don’t stay in it. It’s the same for engineering. I don’t want to dwell on it, but when I see the chance to do something one-on-one I try to do that. I try to encourage students to apply for internships in the lab and that kind of thing,” she says.

Van Wijngaarden enjoys being in the classroom as much as being in the lab. Sometimes her investigations take her west to the Canadian Light Source facility in Saskatoon, home to a $173 million synchrotron project, one of the largest science projects in the country to date. She is one of few researchers with frequent access to this technology, which complements her research at the University of Manitoba. Instead of exploring the structures of molecules, the device examines their vibrations. And the wavelengths of light involved are in the infrared rather than microwave regions. Van Wijngaarden is a member of their Infrared Beam Team. Findings from that project could lead to a number of advancements—from the development of new ways to reduce greenhouse gases to the design of new drugs and the construction of more powerful computer chips.

Whether van Wijngaarden is working with the synchrotron, or in her own lab planning ways to enhance the capabilities of her spectrometer, or busy teaching the next generation of researchers, her attitude remains the same: to continuously grow. She prefers to keep moving like the molecules she probes. “I like to evolve,” she says. ”That’s the important thing.”

Photos by Katie Chalmers-Brooks

Jennifer Van Wijngaarden

Van Wijngaarden working in her lab


Dr. Van Wijngaarden's website