Separation Science – Slammed!
We celebrate the success of three up-and-coming analytical chemists who excel at an all-important “soft” skill: communication
Rich Whitworth | | Interview
HPLC 2019 in Milan bore witness to something special. Six young scientists took to the stage in the main auditorium to share their research – but these were no ordinary conference talks. Inspired by poetry slams, “science slams” are slowly taking over the world. The obvious next step? The Separation Science Slam. “The most fun I’ve ever had at HPLC,” said one unnamed but esteemed figure of the field. “Well – at least outside of the social calendar…” they admitted.
Assessed by a panel of judges for both “science and style,” the quality was high across the board. But three presentations stood out in particular: a gripping tale of two brother molecules, a compelling love story, and a story about insulation foam… Our three winners were awarded spectacular trophies and cash prizes – courtesy of KNAUER and Merck. And the final part of the prize comes from the third sponsor…
Here, we introduce two bold orators and one even bolder rapper to find out what went down at the HPLC 2019 Separation Science Slam.
What was your research – and how did you present it?
Lambert: I’ve been working on chromatographic column insulation to minimize the well-documented band broadening caused by evolving radial thermal gradients during frictional heating. I created a polyurethane insulation to maximize column performance in isocratic separations, and presented my work by rewriting the lyrics of a rap song (Jon Lajoie; Everyday Normal Guy 2), with an accompanying video...
Felletti: My research focuses on the adsorption and enantio-recognition mechanisms in chiral LC. I presented my research with the help of LEGO characters by comparing the (complicated) relationship between enantiomers and chiral selectors to a love affair – and presented a guide on how to become “the enantiomer’s Cupid” regarding selection of the best chiral selector for a given enantiomer.
Breuer: I develop detection methods for a microfluidic device capable of performing multidimensional spatial LC separations. I took the audience on a journey through such a device, including current detection approaches and challenges, through the eyes of a molecule undergoing separation.
Can you offer a few more details about your research project?
Breuer: My work is part of the Separation Technology for A Million Peaks (STAMP) project at the University of Amsterdam, under the supervision of Peter Schoenmakers. A lot of fields – and particularly omics – are struggling with the increasing complexity of samples. Our aim is to improve separation power by giving a peak capacity of one million via three orthogonal separation mechanisms. Our next step? Further development of the substrate, on which the effluent from the microfluidic device is stamped; I would like to increase the sensitivity and reproducibility to better deal with low volumes and concentrations.
Lambert: The thermal conductivity of the insulation material is crucial to minimize the size, and reach the adiabatic conditions in chromatographic columns. Gritti and colleagues showed that the utility of vacuum-based columns can be effective, but fabrication of this hardware is difficult and expensive. Our (super cheap) polyurethane column insulation demonstrated similar efficiency, and we hope that this can be commercialized in the future.
Felletti: My research uses experimental overloaded measurements and theoretical computer simulations to identify a suitable adsorption isotherm model, capable of describing the adsorption behavior of enantiomers. This approach may shed some light on important unanswered questions concerning enantio-separations, such as the effect of experimental variables on the chemical composition of the surface around the chiral selector, or how loading the loaded amount of chiral selector affects enantio-recognition.
What inspired your creative approach to the Separation Science Slam?
Felletti: I’ve always been creative, open-minded... and a little bit crazy. I’m also very interested in art, which may explain (in part, at least) my bizarre fantasy.
Lambert: The motif of the song “I’m just a regular everyday normal guy” is frequently used online to ironically highlight peoples’ skillsets. Given the uncommon approach that my group takes to chromatography, I found some parallels between the song and my presentation topic.
Breuer: I was focused on the issue of peak splitting when I heard about the Separation Science Slam, and had been noting my ideas with simple illustrations. That’s when the idea was born; all I had to do then was to switch the perspective to that of the molecule, which came naturally to me!
What were the challenges in creating your masterpiece?
Lambert: Everything. I used to write poems in my mother tongue, but that was just for my own fun. And rapping, especially in English, was not particularly easy for me.
Breuer: The challenges are best summed up in my lack of artistic skills. I used hand-drawn slides to present my story, but in developing them it soon became clear why I chased a scientific career, not an artistic one. Suffice to say I’m grateful for technological developments, among them the options in PowerPoint that alter reality to a point it’s hard to discern what is hand drawn from what is not.
Felletti: I used graphics programs to modify photos I took and had to think of interesting things to convey in a comedic way. Modifying the lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and recording the final song was also a challenge.
Were you nervous ahead of the Separation Science Slam? And what did your colleagues make of it?
Felletti: The Separation Science Slam was more stressful than a usual oral presentation, but I had a great time both during and after the presentation. Overall, it was very exciting, and the feedback I received was great too – my peers said they died with laughter. To would-be separation science slammers of the future, I say: go for it, and be as creative as you like!
Breuer: All was (relatively) fine until an hour before the actual Slam – that’s when the nerves kicked in. I think I saw the ground floor of the building from every possible view in that hour while walking around to get my mind at ease, but I became totally at ease as my talk began. The audience were great, and the applause I received still gives me chills. As for my colleagues, they gave comments ranging from “crazy boy” to awesome. In retrospect, maybe I did sway too far towards the more fun side of the assignment; some scientific results may have boosted me up a place or two!
Lambert: I have honestly never practiced so much for a presentation in my life. I was really excited and nervous before the presentation, but could hardly believe the incredible response I got from the audience! The whole experience was really enjoyable. My supervisor only saw my presentation when it was half prepared, but he’s a fun guy – and I think he liked it.
What are your views on the importance of science communication?
Breuer: Science is generally not understood by those outside the field. A lot of what we do sounds like science fiction to a layman – and our community is partly to blame. Once the public hear of scientific endeavors, they become interested and ask questions, opening the door for us to provide them with even more information. Science communication today has the power to change the views of many, and we should capitalize on this opportunity. Good communication is one of the many reasons I admire my supervisor Peter Schoenmakers – his confidence and use of humor is inspiring.
Lambert: To say that we are living in an accelerating world is a cliché, but it’s also true. It’s hard to capture the attention of some – particularly young people – when we are surrounded by so many stimuli on a daily basis. Communicating science is important – whether it be a short chat during a coffee break or wider discussion of key topic, and can result in long-lasting collaborations and change.
Felletti: Science communication is very important to spread and share our ideas and our studies. Moreover, presenting our research in a simple and attractive way can be useful to make science accessible and open to everyone, since it is the link between the science world and non-scientists. It’s for these reasons that I admire all those who had the courage to present their work – we can all learn something from one another when we share in this way.
Finally, where do you want to be in 10 years?
Lambert: That’s hard to visualize. Though I would like to try my luck in an industrial environment, I feel that I will always find my way back to academia. In ten years I also hope that I am close to Pécs again.
Felletti: I hope to conduct research as part of a large, international group to continue contributing to science.
Breuer: On a personal level, the common story of a nice house, wife and kids. On a professional level, I would like to be in a position focused on problem solving. Finding a solution and (over)seeing the development is what thrills me, and what I would love to do in the future… As long as it is science related that is.