Where Are They Now?
With the return of the Top 40 Under 40 Power List this year, we catch up with some of our 2018 finalists to find out how their careers have progressed, what excites them about current research, and where they’re heading
Margot Lespade | | 18 min read | Career
Co-head of the Metabolomics and Proteomics Core at Helmholtz Munich, Germany
Michael Witting, described in 2018 as a “dynamic young scientist working at the cutting edge of metabolomics and lipidomics,” started in his new position as co-head of the Metabolomics and Proteomics Core at Helmholtz Munich in January 2021. According to Witting, his highlights include being awarded two major grants, which allowed him, alongside several collaborators, to “further develop new strategies for metabolomics data analysis.” One of his recent publications has also been selected as winner of the 2022 Metabolomics Publication Awards in the “Original Article” category.
“I really enjoy shaping the future of the metabolomics part of the Metabolomics and Proteomics Core,” says Witting. “I have the ambitious goal of developing the Metabolomics and Proteomics Core to one of the best metabolomics facilities in Germany – and in Europe. And as I’m still under 40, who knows, I might make the Top 40 under 40 Power List for a second time!”
Associate Professor at Rowan University, USA
James Grinias was commended in 2018 for being “independently successful” and for “securing grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the American Chemical Society (ACS), which is impressive for a new professor.” So, what has Grinias been up to in the past four years?
“I would say the most obvious thing to note since 2018 is the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says. His laboratory shut down for several months and then operated with reduced capacity for several more, but, according to Grinias, working remotely gave him the opportunity to submit proposals on new directions in capillary LC, funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program and as part of a collaborative NIH project with Axcend LLC. “Using capillary LC for routine pharmaceutical analysis can have a significant benefit by reducing solvent and energy consumption, helping make our standard measurement techniques ‘greener,’” he notes. “A compact, portable instrument platform will also enable this technology to be employed in a variety of point-of-need settings.”
Another major occurrence for Grinias was the first complete personnel transition of his research group since starting in 2017. “Of course, this happens in all academic labs but experiencing it as an advisor has been very different,” says Grinias. “I am truly proud to see this next generation of separation scientists make positive contributions to the world.”
Associate Professor at the Luxembourg Center for Systems Biomedicine, Luxembourg
Emma Schymanski was keen to note her students’ successes as one of her main highlights of the past four years. “My research group has grown from two to 15 members, which has been incredible to behold,” she says. “We are a very diverse set of individuals and I have learnt a lot from my team. I’ve had the privilege to witness many of my students submitting and publishing their inaugural first-author papers, and one of our Master’s students won a prize for academic excellence for her thesis.”
Since October 2021, Schymanski has also been working on the H2020 project ZeroPM, which she describes as a “really exciting and energetic consortium looking at persistent and mobile pollutants.” Furthermore, as part of her collaboration with PubChem, they have just released their PFAS and organofluorine collection of over six million entries, meeting the latest OECD PFAS definition – which is orders of magnitude above other PFAS lists. “By making our efforts openly available, we are able to contribute our bit to making a difference, and improve access to chemical information for millions of scientists and researchers around the entire world.”
Leandro Wang Hantao
Assistant Professor, Institute of Chemistry, University of Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil
Also wanting to contribute to global advancements in analytical science, Leandro Wang Hantao and his team have set up new infrastructure to run their GC×GC-MS experiments, while advancing into sample preparation and data science. According to Hantao, he is particularly excited about the recent GC×GC-MS developments within his lab using an FT-Orbitrap mass spectrometer. “It is certainly not a trivial coupling, but it is definitely an incredible addition to the portfolio of GC×GC solutions,” he explains. “We are also working on machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to process large and complex MS-based data, as well as realizing the potential of parallel computing platforms by harnessing the powerful structure of GPU accelerators.”
Associate Professor of Forensic Sciences and Chemistry at Chaminade University of Honolulu in Hawaii, USA
For Katelynn Perrault, whose career was described as a “tour de force” by one nominator in 2018, these past four years have been “a time of extreme growth and development as a researcher, educator, and human being.” According to Perrault, her highlights include receiving the John B. Phillips Award at the 18th GC×GC Symposium in 2021 and building relationships with the Search and Rescue community in Hawaii, using her field of research to support their operations. “Seeing so many undergraduate students graduate in spite of the adversity brought forth during the pandemic has also been extremely heartening,” she adds.
Perrault has also been working on an exciting project: profiling the volatile organic compounds from a Pacific Island beverage known as kava, alongside researchers from the Chaminade University of Honolulu. Their use of GC×GC afforded a detailed characterization of the chemical profile of kava, allowing an improved understanding of the secondary metabolome. “This project has been a great way for me to learn more about the rich culture of the Pacific region,” she says. “My students have also been having fun learning to use GC×GC in our instrumental analysis class where they have been injecting the samples for this research. I love it when projects allow me to unite my passion for teaching and research simultaneously, and this is something I enjoy greatly in my current role.”
Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, USA
Another scientist to be honored with awards since 2018, Russ Algar received the McDowell Medal from his institution for excellence in pure or applied scientific research by a young faculty member. “It was particularly exciting for analytical science to be so highly regarded in a pool of outstanding research from across science and engineering,” says Algar. “Another honor was the McBryde Medal from the Canadian Society for Chemistry. This award has a 35-year history, so it was very cool to see my name added to a list of great analytical scientists that I’ve admired since I was a student.”
Although he admitted that things did take a challenging turn with the pandemic, Algar notes that, after a hiatus and some setbacks, research is now thankfully accelerating again. “One example of an evolution of our research over the past four years has been a shift toward cellular analysis,” he says. “Looking back, ideas that were rough sketches in 2018 have now come to fruition. It is also the case that more people have noticed our work, and some of that attention definitely came from my inclusion on The Power List.”
But what about the importance of a healthy work-life balance? For Algar, the past four years have only further demonstrated the value of time. His most recent recognition, a Killam Accelerator Research Fellowship, not only provides lab funding, but is most valuable in its protection of time for research. “Things like family, personal health, and research seem to exponentially benefit from more time spent on them,” he says. “And, although there is definitely still room for improvement, I’m getting better at maximizing time spent with my research team, meaning there’s more time for family – fatherhood is still the best, although I have notably less hair now than four years ago…”
Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Andrea Gargano has also become a father recently, which he describes as one of the highlights of the past four years – emphasizing that it is possible to continue in academia whilst also becoming a parent. As well as raising his “tiny little human,” Gargano has also started teaching and supervising PhD students. “Teaching for me has been both a struggle and a joy,” he says. “The struggle comes from the intense preparation it requires, but it is incredible to realize how the concepts and skills taught are helpful, and see that I can transmit these to my students and see them progress.”
However, Gargano emphasized that “lowlights” were there too. “Failures are a big part of my work and it is hard to share them. One of my most significant disappointments, so far, came from a grant application,” he says. “Twice, I reached the final stage of a grant application that could have significantly impacted my career, receiving very high scores, but it was not enough to get awarded the grant. What I have discovered is that there is a lot to learn from failures – it is normal to fail and I think it is important to share that.”
Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA
Another 2018 nominee who has had a fascinating four years is Matthew Lockett. His lab continues to develop micro- and meso-fabricated devices to generate 3D tissue-like environments to study intercellular signaling and develop disease progression models. A major effort over the last few years and, according to Lockett, one that is starting to bear fruit is the incorporation of targeted metabolomics to quantify drug metabolism in 3D colorectal tumor model and in a 3D liver model. A common theme for many of the bioanalysis-related projects in his lab is making tools and model systems to characterize the role oxygen plays in regulating cellular responses to drugs.
“We also recently became part of a multi-institution DOE Energy Innovation Hub, CHASE (Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels),” he says. “This multidisciplinary research environment allows me to focus on my other research passion: developing models to better understand the role of disorder, the heterogeneity that arises from chemically modified surfaces and electrodes that cannot self-assemble. In this area of the lab, I am learning all sorts of new techniques to characterize the role of lateral interactions between molecules on the surface.”
Lockett also notes that one of the best parts of his current role is that tenure allows him to spend more time in the lab, working alongside the students. “Every day is a new experiment and a new discovery for me!”
Full Professor at the University of Montreal, Canada
Jean-Francois Masson has been very active in developing antibody and neutralization tests during the pandemic, which are now used in epidemiological studies across Canada. “My main lesson learned in the past four years is that our research really matters to society. Our antibody detection work from 5–10 years ago was fascinating to us, but attracted little interest from funding agencies. As such, I would have never anticipated that we would eventually be part of a national network of scientists monitoring antibodies in the Canadian population during a pandemic.”
According to Masson, the COVID-19 pandemic has only further illustrated the need and impact of analytical science for humanity. Predicting exciting advancements in portable sensor technologies to monitor the health of individuals, he adds, “I anticipate that these sensors will be able to monitor complex chemical dynamics in tissues very rapidly and with high chemical resolution, addressing pressing challenges in medicine.”
Masson has also progressed in some interesting directions in the past few years. His lab has now moved to a brand-new science campus at the University of Montreal, which brings many new opportunities. The labs were designed specifically for his group’s needs, and they now have a biosafety level 2 laboratory that allows them to conduct clinical trials. “This has been an absolute game-changer for us,” he explains. “We are currently working on a series of clinical tests for COVID-19 in a longitudinal cohort of 300 individuals, and another one in the context of blood transfusion and blood donors.”
Masson’s interest in neuroscience has also grown – with multiple projects in the pipeline to monitor a broad range of neurochemicals in the brain, using a combination of Raman spectroscopy and optogenetics. According to Masson, they are aiming to detect proteins in brain tissues, which brings new technical and analytical challenges that they hope to resolve in the near future. “In both cases, we are building new microscopes and designing new sensors, and that is very exciting to see!”
Hong Heng See
Deputy Director of the Center for Sustainable Nanomaterials, and Associate Professor at the University of Technology, Malaysia
Hong Heng See's academic career has progressed rapidly over the past few years, with a growing research group and a recent appointment to Deputy Director of the Center for Sustainable Nanomaterials. His latest research is divided into fundamentally analytical studies and applied analytical approaches, which are both well-aligned with current needs in academia and industry. “My ultimate career goal is to transform interesting new technological knowledge into ‘down-to-earth’ approaches, as this could be advantageous for both social communities and private sectors,” he says. “In fact, I have also founded a university spin-off company that aims to provide rapid analytical solutions and technical consultancy services, mainly to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.”
Associate Professor at the University of Messina, Italy
Francesco Cacciola, described as an “outstanding researcher in the field of comprehensive two-dimensional liquid chromatography, […] especially in food analysis” in 2018, has now started international collaborations with several PhD students from Morocco in the field of natural products. “We are exploring the characterization of polyphenolic compounds in plant extracts by conventional and innovative liquid chromatography techniques; we are focusing on very challenging applications and we hope they will have an impact on the field of health and life science,” he says.
Assistant Professor at the University of Ferrara, Italy
Flavio Franchina, since we last spoke to him in 2018, has moved from a Research Associate position at Dartmouth College, USA, to a postdoctoral researcher position at the University of Liège in Belgium, and finally onto assistant professor at the University of Ferrara, Italy. He emphasized the challenge of integrating in different cultures. “I think this has definitely taught me to adapt my lifestyle and organization – and to understand others’ viewpoints better,” he says. “As mentors and teachers, I think that’s an exceptional quality to have.”
And teaching is clearly a passion for Franchina: “What I enjoy the most about my work is being around the students – both undergraduate and graduate – to help them develop their understanding and critical thinking. This is a constant learning exercise for me.”
Head of the Laboratory of Metabolomics at the Institute of Physiology, Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic
After five years at the West Coast Metabolomics Center at the University of California, USA, Tomas Cajka joined the Institute of Physiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in December 2017. The first part of his new mission was to establish the Metabolomics Core Facility. He describes this as a “very exciting but also challenging time.” According to Cajka, he and his team pushed the limits to streamline the metabolomics and lipidomics workflow to develop a simple, fast, and robust protocol to be applied to diverse sample types.
The result was an LC-MS-based workflow called LIMeX (LIpids, Metabolites and eXposome compounds) that includes simultaneous extraction of simple and complex lipids, polar metabolites, and exposome compounds, and allows untargeted and targeted analysis. Over the last four years, they have analyzed more than 15,000 samples, each with two to six different LC–MS platforms. “In my opinion, our lab serves as an example that even a small core facility can run multi-platform analyses as well as large metabolomics studies,” Cajka adds.
Currently, he is also involved in building metabolomics and lipidomics atlases in cooperation with the Laboratory of Metabolism of Bioactive Lipids at the same institute. “As many currently published research papers are limited to the number of examined matrices, the breadth and scope of metabolomics and lipidomics methods, and reporting a complete list of annotated metabolites, we assumed that such comprehensive, open-access atlases characterizing different biofluids and tissues would be valuable for researchers,” explains Cajka.
Associate Professor at the Iowa State University, USA
Since 2018, Anand’s research group has more than doubled to a team of sixteen graduate students, seven undergraduates, and one postdoctoral research associate. They have also secured funding from diverse sources, including NIH Early Investigator Trailblazer, NSF CAREER, and Cottrell Scholar awards. With this support, they have developed methods for circulating tumor cell analysis, electrokinetic enrichment and separation of chemical species within water-in-oil droplets, and more sensitive bioanalysis at arrays of wireless bipolar electrodes. “These achievements led to my recognition with several awards, and I am grateful to have such a dedicated and creative team,” says Anand. She was recognized in 2021 with the Pittsburgh Conference Achievement Award, the Satinder Ahuja Award for Young Investigators in Separations Science, the Royce W. Murray Young Investigator Award, and the Analytical Chemistry Young Innovator Award.
According to Anand, her group is now leveraging these methods to tackle current challenges in human health, and revisiting their fundamental underpinnings to support further advancements. Currently, in collaboration with the University of Iowa, they are evaluating patient-derived blood samples for circulating melanoma cells, and developing a point-of-care device to detect viral RNA without the need for an amplification reaction, such as polymerase chain reaction.
“I am most proud to see students taking leadership of these initiatives and proposing new research ideas. Over the past several years, I have learned the importance of relationships, particularly with collaborators and students, to both scientific impact and loving what you do,” she adds.
Full-length interviews are available online. Nominations for the Top 40 Under 40 Power List are open. Click here to find out more
Our Power Listers reveal the “most exciting developments” in their respective fields today
Michael Witting: If I had to pick one, I would say ion mobility for lipid analysis. I think lipids are just in the sweet spot of ion mobility – big enough to show interesting differences in conformation, and therefore separation in the ion mobility dimension, but small enough not to be overwhelmed by too many conformations.
Francesco Cacciola: The possibility of demonstrating the potential of both liquid chromatography but also mass spectrometry techniques – triple quadrupole-based instrumentation for determination of natural bioactive compounds, in particular, comes to mind.
Leandro Wang Hantao: Chemists taking active roles in developing solutions using chemometrics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and deep learning.
Emma Schymanski: I am excited to see the momentum growing for open and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Re-useable) data exchange, together with so many amazing resources for open-source developments. Over the past few years, opportunities have evolved that were not even conceivable reasonably recently. Community projects are now co-developed on GitHub/GitLab and other resources, served up through containers and web apps, and we can already write fully compilable papers that contain the entire publication contents and can re-run and reproduce the results. A new era of reproducibility, with a dramatic change in the way we publish science, lies ahead. It will be exciting to see where this goes, and whether the community can group together to take advantage of these opportunities in a collaborative spirit.
Andrea Gargano: In my opinion, the single-most exciting development in my field excitement now is charge detection mass spectrometry. This technology can help realize amazing results in analyzing large and complex molecules. I'd love to be working on this and see what needs to be done to make it compatible and possible to be coupled with separations.
See Hong Heng: One of the recent focuses of research for my team is to design low-cost and user-friendly integrated point-of-care (PoC) devices for the quantitative detection of various molecular targets in healthcare studies. Several recent PoC prototypes—in particular those using smartphone-based detection—have produced some astonishing results!
Flavio Franchina: Even though there is still space for technology innovation in GCxGC, it is interesting to see how the technique is now exploited transversally with other disciplines and how it is widely applied to solve actual problems. I personally plan to keep an eye on biomarker discoveries, both of disease and food quality, and on the valorization of waste products for their reuse and industrial recycling.
Russ Algar: The most exciting ongoing development in my particular area of research is single-molecule detection. There is no better detection limit than a single molecule, and nothing is hidden when measuring molecules one at a time. With technological advancements, single-molecule fluorescence imaging has gone from exotic to almost routine. That’s exciting in itself, but I think I’m more excited by the number of different approaches to single-molecule detection that now exist. Of course, there are challenges to address, but single-molecule detection and digital assays have tremendous potential. I’m definitely enamored with the idea of low-cost, portable devices capable of single-molecule detection.