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RTI Stories

The Rise of the Machines at RTI

"The universities provided resources that we couldn’t possibly provide on our own"

There was much to cheer about at RTI's Bacon Street Annex, in downtown Durham, when a 7,000-pound, high-resolution mass spectrometer tailored to the needs of the Natural Products Laboratory was delivered in 1967. Chemists were in the thick of research on hormone synthesis, steroid and drug metabolism, and tumor inhibitors like camptothecin, and this new device (which measured the mass of particles, ions, and isotopes with unprecedented accuracy) was a boon to their work.

"[The spectrometer] gave chemists the ability to take a sample of camptothecin that weighed not much more than a name on a piece of paper and determine its organic structure in the smallest amounts," explains Bill Little, a chemistry professor at UNC-CH at the time and Marcus Hobbs' successor as chairman of RTI's executive committee. True to the collaborative nature of the Institute, UNC-CH, NC State, and Duke played pivotal roles in the mass spectrometer's acquisition, which cost far more than RTI could hope to afford on its own.

The four organizations submitted a joint application to the National Institutes of Health for a grant to buy this formidable piece of equipment. NIH came through, and also awarded a 10-year operating grant that allowed RTI to host a regional mass spectrometry center, one of only a handful in the country and the only one in the South. The spectrometry center also assisted the Institute's burgeoning environmental studies and served the needs of two Research Triangle Park neighbors: the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Center for Air Pollution Control (the predecessor of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was created in 1970).

Elsewhere in the Triangle, RTI's survey capabilities were augmented in 1965 by the creation of the Triangle Universities Computation Center (TUCC), once again with the aid of its three founding universities. This computing facility was a boon to the survey specialists and data analysts who formed the core of RTI's statistical competency, and was a big upgrade over Bunky, the nearly obsolete computer in the basement of the Ragland Building. "Bunky was designed for online production data, not scientific data processing," statistician Dan Horvitz explains. "The universities provided resources that we couldn't possibly provide on our own."