Musings from the Power List: Roy Goodacre
Some of the finalists from our 2021 Power List share their insights on the analytical chemistry field. Here, Roy talks about the biggest breakthroughs over the last decade, the instrument he couldn’t live without, and what he’d be doing in another life…
Lauren Robertson |
What’s been the biggest breakthrough in analytical chemistry over the last 10 years, and why?
Analytical science and data processing (chemometrics) go hand in hand. In the last year or so, researchers have made huge progress in solving protein structures using computational approaches. This was due to the generation of an artificial intelligence program developed by Google’s DeepMind called AlphaFold. Many of the predicted protein structures were previously indistinguishable using gold standard methods based on X-ray crystallography or cryo-EM. This to me is a real game changer and shows the power of the approaches. The translation into analytical chemistry will be awesome. If you’re interested, check out the Nature article: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03348-4
Is there a particular instrument you would not have been able to live without over the past 10 years?
People will expect me to say a particular Raman or MS instrument, and while that is tempting, the real answer is a lot closer to home – I have fantastic coffee machines (I guess I better not name the make) that employ coffee pods. I use mine several times every day. While a trip to a café with an expert barista would be preferable, that would bankrupt me – so an at-home near-equivalent is great. They don’t necessarily make the best coffee in the world, but they do make a consistent brew. This reproducibility is what I like and – just in case you thought this coffee talk had no relevance – in our own analytical science field, integrity in the measurements we make is a vital part of the pipeline.
In metabolomics, we were one of the first groups to develop long-term metabolomics that allows fusion of GC-MS and LC-MS data collected over 12-24 months. This is largely based on the use of pooled quality control (QC) samples that can be used to assess how reproducible the data are. As these QCs are chemically identical, they can also be used to correct for any (unavoidable) chromatographic and MS instrumental drift. We published this in Nature Protocols (https://doi.org/10.1038/nprot.2011.335), where our approach has been very well received by the community, and have applied this method to generate profiles from ~1200 normal human serum samples (https://doi.org/10.1007/s11306-014-0707-1) and to investigate human frailty in ageing populations of approximately 2000 individuals (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12716-2). To me, reproducibility in metabolomics is as important as reproducibility in my morning coffee!
What is the single biggest challenge facing the field in 2021 – and beyond?
I think one of the biggest challenges facing the analytical sciences in 2021 (and beyond) is making what we do scientifically understandable to the public. Numerical values mean very little to some people, and few people grasp the concepts of scale – especially when one is talking in orders of magnitude. I strongly believe that analytical scientists must report the results in a manner that is comprehensible and that gives the true meaning of the findings. Education is key here.
Let’s consider these statements:
“The drinking water in my house contains copper at 1 part in 109 copper (1 ppb).”
“Copper is toxic to humans.”
Both statements are true and someone could therefore conclude: “The water is unsafe to drink.” However, the WHO has set the safe limit for copper in drinking water at ~2.0 mg/L (2 ppm), so the water is safe to drink. And thus an understanding of scale and units is very important.
Now, of course, even scientists can get this wrong – as detailed in a recent review of ours (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trac.2018.03.005). Let me illustrate with a story. In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter didn’t insert into orbit around Mars, but rather it carried on hurtling to the planet surface and was smashed to smithereens. An investigation ensued and, rather embarrassingly, it was found that failure had resulted from navigational commands from Earth being sent in imperial units (pound-seconds) and these should have been in SI units (Newton-seconds) (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/mars-climate-orbiter/in-depth/). Oopsie!
Do you have any predictions for the field over the next decade?
I think the obvious prediction is more at-home testing, alongside remote consultations with your doctor. The pandemic has taught us that lateral flow devices can be used in both home and work environments to assess whether someone has COVID-19 or not. These devices use reagents, but I believe reagent-free methods based on spectroscopy or electrochemistry will be developed. Such devices will be used for more point-of-use (PoU) settings, where results are sent directly to your doctor.
In addition, the adoption of the "Internet of Things" – where results are embedded in technology and shared automatically – will enable real-time epidemiology and thus can be employed to track diseases. And that would be pretty cool. Currently, testing requires buy-in from the person doing the self-testing, so rather than manual testing being done, one can see that such PoU devices could be embedded within an ‘Intelligent Toilet’ where readings are made automatically from urine and faeces...
We recently hit 100 issues of The Analytical Scientist. What’s your favorite In My View article?
It’s one by Ian Wilson from about four years ago entitled “Managing MS Mania.” In this article, Ian reminds people that, while MS is important and has changed the face of analytical science for the better, it is not a panacea. What Ian said is still very true today; one needs an array of analytical tools to perform comprehensive analysis of a complex mixture. Ian highlights that LC with a UV detector can solve many problems, as can NMR spectroscopy. And then we could of course add other methods to these, including techniques based on visible or vibrational spectroscopy, or bespoke analytical pre-treatments.
Name three up-and-coming researchers in the field who deserve recognition...
Justin van der Hooft is a postdoctoral researcher at the Bioinformatics Group at Wageningen University. He has been making fantastic progress in the annotation of metabolites – a huge task as most metabolites measured in biological systems do not have a known structure.
Baljit Ubhi is a research scientist and vice president of strategic marketing at MOBILion Systems. Bal is also a director and the treasurer of the Metabolomics Society and has been carrying out some excellent studies in metabolomics and lipidomics applications applied to precision medicine. Howbeer Muhamadali is a Tenure Track Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool. He is a microbiologist who works in both mass spec metabolomics as well as infrared and Raman spectroscopies. The focus of his work is to probe metabolic behavior of bacteria on surfaces; in particular, he is developing analytical science to understand antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and therefore combat it. Three great researchers to keep your eye on!
If you weren’t an analytical scientist, what would you be doing?
That’s a loaded question; it depends on what I know I can do versus what I would have dreamed of doing. I’ll answer the first by saying I went to university when I was 18, and three decades (and a bit) later I found that I’ve never left! I got hooked on science and analysis early on, and I think being good at maths helped. When I was studying for my PhD at Bristol University, I worked in an off licence (liquor store) and then in a Sainsbury’s supermarket in the warehouse. I used to work late shifts. After a few months in Sainsbury’s, I was offered a deputy manager position within one of the sections, which I turned down as I had the science bug. If not, I’d possibly be an area manager for some supermarket or other...
However, what I dreamed of doing was being a surgeon. But that all went pear shaped when I realized that I can’t stand the sight of blood and can’t watch an injection in my own arm, let alone slicing and dicing in an operating theater! A lucky escape I think.
What advice do you have for those following in your footsteps?
Don’t! But I’d probably say find a research area, perhaps a little bit niche, that you are passionate about and committed to. Think about translating science – and I don’t mean from analytics to the clinic, I mean look at other disciplines and see how those principles can be translated into the research arena that you are passionate about. And remember to walk before you run! It takes years to establish something that you can feel proud of, so patience and perseverance are essential. It’s not a race and I believe it’s better to be right than first.