Over the past seven years, the X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) lab has put Hamilton on the map in the world of geochemical analysis. The lab uses x-rays, a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, to determine the chemical composition of rocks, minerals, and soils. This data can be used to interpret important information about a rock’s history, including how and when it formed.

From its inception, the lab has held a competitive $300,000 contract with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to chemically analyze rocks and provide the USGS’s volcanic hazards team with the data necessary to make more accurate risk assessments. As the lab became more established, it began hosting an international XRF class and offering its services to nearby academic institutions.

The Geosciences Department has even used the state-of-the-art machine as a kind of bartering chip when seniors are interested in specific thesis research. As David Bailey, XRF lab director and professor of geosciences, said, “We can provide some of the best chemical data.” That was an intriguing offer for an Icelandic volcanologist, for example, who agreed to work with Annika Tullos ’23 this spring while she studied abroad in Iceland. 

XRF lab
Clara Zhou de Magalhaes ’24 removes a tray of fused glass beads from a 1000oC furnace in the XRF lab.

But as the lab heads into the summer — during which it will continue to employ student lab assistants — it also heads into a period of transition. To run a reliable XRF lab, Hamilton not only requires state-of-the-art equipment, but also lab technicians to ensure that the machine produces high quality data. Richard Conrey and Laureen Wagoner have acted in this capacity since the lab began in 2015. They will be retiring this summer.

At the same time, Bailey was searching for funds to buy a new XRF machine in 2015, friends Conrey and Wagoner were looking for a change after 10 years at Washington State University’s Geoanalytical Lab. With 30 years of experience in geochemical analysis, the duo were the perfect candidates for the new lab’s technicians. Bailey hired them, and in the seven years since, they have built the XRF lab into the commercial machine it is today.

As lab technicians, Conrey and Wagoner are the backbones of the lab. In addition to overseeing the lab and training student assistants, they also helped compile the lab’s commercial clientele. Conrey’s reputation as a geochemical analyst and professional connection to the USGS, in particular, played a key role in the lab winning USGS contract.

Though the lab may experience some changes in Conrey and Wagoner’s absence, it will continue to run as a part commercial/part research lab, providing important opportunities to students and staff. Conrey and Wagoner will train the newly hired technician before leaving at the end of July. 

“The lab is good publicity for the [Geoscience] Department and for the school, and it offers good experiences for students,” Bailey said. “It’s been a huge win-win, and now we just want to keep it going as long as we can.”

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