Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Machini

One of the main reasons Emma came to the Mara this summer was to train us how to use a very cool piece of equipment she was willing to loan us for the field season. In scientific terms, it is called a Suitcase Flow Injection Analyzer for Colorimetric Analysis. In the field, it became known as "The Machini" (Swahili tends to end all words with a vowel, even those words appropriated from English).

Emma and The Machini
In the past, I have had to preserve all my water samples with sulfuric acid, store them throughout the field season, and then transport them out of the country for laboratory analysis of nutrient levels. Major drawbacks of this approach include, but are not limited to, the following: some nutrients, like ammonium and phosphate, are very sensitive to preservation methods and can change over time; water samples are fairly heavy and add a lot of weight to your luggage, thus the need to bribe friends and family to visit you and return carrying bags full of water; and all of your data is tied up in water samples that can't be analyzed until the end of the field season, which is scary for several reasons.

While working on a project studying ecosystem function of large rivers in the US, Emma and her colleagues had several of these machinis built so they could do real-time nutrient analysis in the field. As that project is winding up, she was incredibly gracious enough to loan us one for our work, and to test to the concept that these machinis could be used in even the most remote locations.

Running the machini took a bit of preparation and set-up. On our side this included sourcing in Kenya reagent-grade chemicals that couldn't be flown over due to airline restrictions, 40 gallons of ultra-pure water (a challenge in a country where drinking water can be hard to find), and about 10 glass volumetric flasks (which now makes me nervous every time I hear an elephant walking near the lab tent). On Emma's side, it required getting the machini up and running for three different nutrients, packing up a supply kit for every possible troubleshooting fix that may be needed for the next several months, and getting through airport security with a machini covered in detectable levels of nitrate (since, of course, that is one of the things we analyze with it).

It also required pre-filtering of all of my water samples through very fine filters, which Pat and Chris took on very graciously.

Pat and Chris pre-filtering water samples
But all of our efforts paid off when we started it up and smoothly (more or less) ran through nutrient analysis of all 150 water samples I had collected thus far. This is a really exciting step forward for our research, as we can analyze and interpret our data as we go, and make any necessary changes to our sampling regime. The coolest part is that we can use this really fancy piece of equipment in a tent in the middle of the Masai Mara. Asante sana Emma!

Running The Machini inside the lab tent

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