It started with a vision – a vision to build a world class research-focused laboratory to support stable isotope research while providing hands on graduate and undergraduate instruction that also encourages a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas and techniques. The result is the UNM Center for Stable Isotopes or UNM-CSI.

UNM’s CSI, which recently celebrated its official grand opening, is a non-profit research focused laboratory and analytical facility founded in 2014. UNM-CSI offers a wide range of isotopic analysis for both UNM researchers and external off-campus clients. Scientists and students from across many disciplines including Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the Biomedical Sciences, all work in the CSI.

The facility is designed to provide broad access to state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation capable of measuring stable isotope ratios of light elements including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur and chlorine in organic and inorganic substrates at affordable rates. The isotopic composition in these phases tells scientists how they formed, where they came from and the temperatures of formation.

“Our Center for Stable Isotopes is really unique in North America and maybe the world,” said Zach Sharp, Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and director of the CSI lab. “What we do here is take natural materials and put them in a form that can be measured in a mass spectrometer.”


UNM–CSI consists of four newly-renovated climate-controlled rooms equipped with seven isotope ratio mass spectrometers, one quadrupole gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) system and laboratory space for processing a variety of samples for isotope analysis.

“All of the gadgets that in here are the complicated interface to take something we find in nature that allows us to make the measurements we’re trying to make,” Sharp said. “The nice thing is not only do we serve dozens of graduate students, but there are an equal number of undergraduates who are doing their senior honors thesis here in the lab. We’re able to hire undergraduates to do the dirty work and get their hands right into the thick of things to make some of these measurements so they get a sense of what it’s like to do science.”

An experiment is prepared for analysis in a mass spectrometer at the UNM-Center for Stable Isotopes.

Karen Ziegler, a core faculty member in the UNM-CSI and a senior reseaerch scientist in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, utilizes the lab to analyze meteorites, which are composed mainly of oxygen. She looks at the different oxygen isotopes to discover the source of the meteorite and its origin – a planet or an asteroid. By conducting this type of research, Ziegler hopes to piece together the history of the solar system.

“CSI is a very multidisciplinary facility," Ziegler said. "All the different disciplines, biology, ecology archaeology, pharmacy, meteorites and geology, come together here in these two labs so we’re putting together a lot of different applications together in this center and that makes us really unique.

Some of the recent student involved research at UNM-CSI includes the effects of sea ice loss on protein and fat stores of food-deprived polar bears, the role of gut microbiota in supplying amino acids to their mammalian hosts and Water in Martian meteorites: oxygen isotope compositions.

Interested researchers can also submit samples to be analyzed. UNM-CSI offers a wide range of isotopic analysis for both UNM researchers and external off-campus clients. Fees for routine analyses are typically assessed on a per sample basis (see below).

UNM-CSI also provides pilot grants and educational support in the form of training programs for undergraduate and graduate students, while encouraging a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas and techniques at UNM and beyond regarding the application of stable isotopes in the planetary, life and medical sciences.

(l. to r.): Vice President for Research Gabriel Lopez, former Vice President for Research Michael Dougher, retired Professor Kevin Malloy and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Mark Peceny discuss the new UNM-CSI.

Additionally, UNM-CSI hosts a weekly brown bag seminar series that helps provide an open and intellectually stimulating environment where graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, and faculty present project ideas and practice talks for conferences. For more information on this semester’s speaker lineup, visit UNM-CSI Brown Bag Seminar schedule.

“Thanks to the University’s generous support, we are, if not the largest, one of the top 2-3 largest stable isotope laboratories certainly in North America,” Sharp said. “The range of things we can do is unequaled in any other laboratory in the country.”

For more information, visit UNM-CSI.