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Business & Education Education, Mass Spectrometry

Analytical Education: a Joint Responsibility

I followed the discussion surrounding education in instrumental and analytical chemistry in The Analytical Scientist throughout 2019. By the time the December issue hit my desk, I felt a need to express my own opinion on the matter.

I absolutely agree with Editor Matthew Hallam’s statements about an unengaged public in his editorial, “A Call to Communicate,” and also with Michelle Misselwitz’s points regarding lost education from instrumental vendors in her piece “The Principle of the Thing” – not to mention Terry Berger’s points on the dominance of research over industry (in The Power List and beyond). These are significant issues, stemming from public separation from science and a lack of experienced experts in instrumental analysis, and also academic dominance in that area. However, other important drivers are rarely addressed, such as the loss of youth and non-academic apprentices to the analytical sector – the so-called “craftsmen dilemma.”

I am a researcher, (university) teacher, and consultant of more than 20 years, specializing in the sophisticated (and expensive) world of chromatography and MS. I came in contact with many analytical systems during my apprenticeship in the 1990s and while studying chemistry, but mass spectrometers were never allowed to be touched! When doing research for my dissertation, I began working in high-performance LC-MS, and had the luxury of access to three MS systems in my postdoc. In that period, I realized that MS has intense power, but for the most part, almost exclusively available to PhD students and academic staff. It was also clear 20 years ago that MS use, and thus the need for experienced operators, would increase drastically in the future – meaning a need for improved education on the topic. 

I formed my first independent research group in 2003, and we immediately started to give students, pupils and chemical apprentices hands-on experience with our chromatographic systems and mass spectrometers, as well as key learnings in these instrumental analyses. Doing so allowed us to build also a group of experienced chromatographic and MS specialists from non-academic backgrounds for our institution and others. We consequently set up national and international consortia for such non-academic educational initiatives over the past two decades, and these have been very fruitful; for example, the EU-CHEMLAB consortium (https://bit.ly/35hc8Uo) and the open access e-learning platform Analytics+ (https://bit.ly/2Sh9IjC).

Yet, the momentum of this sophisticated education would never survive long in the industrial analytical community. Why? There are two main reasons. First, employers still hire academics as operators for such sophisticated systems; second, employers still do not invest enough in the qualification of their non-academic employees to become experts in such operating systems.

Though today’s life is somewhat hectic, we need to invest more into our development than is provided by 15-minute YouTube clips and online tutorials. As an institution for education and teaching, we notice that courses of only a single day, or workshops of two days, are provided to many analytical employees. Long-term education is needed not only before, but also during employment in a lab – the necessary skills could be gifted in this way, but only given that employers and colleagues are willing to inject the required time and finance to do so.

As long as we are not willing to invest more in excellent education, we will continue to lose our connection to the digitized generation and science interested (non-academic) youth. E-Learning tools, webinars and short courses cannot be the solution – they are only a starting point. Let us all begin to invest more resources (especially time) for a glorious future of experts in analytical chemistry!

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About the Author

Thomas Letzel

Executive Director, AFIN-TS GmbH, Augsburg, and University Teacher at the Technical University of Munich, Germany

Executive Director, AFIN-TS GmbH, Augsburg, and University Teacher at the Technical University of Munich, Germany

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