Did you always know you’d be a chemist?
My father was a chemistry professor, and I grew up running around the halls of Virginia Tech – I don’t think that was the deciding factor in my becoming a scientist, but it certainly helped. At one point, I thought I might become an archaeologist – I wanted to be Indiana Jones – but a ‘D’ in my “Intro to Archaeology” class meant those hopes were dashed! I played football in college and a lot of other football players started out as chemistry majors and switched to less demanding disciplines, but I went in the other direction; I gave up football and stuck with chemistry.
Why specialize in analytical science?
In my sophomore year, I contacted three or four professors at Virginia Tech in the hope of getting a summer internship. Harold McNair was the first to get back to me and had the best funding offer, so I decided to go and give this chromatography thing a try... It was a great experience; I participated in the short courses the group taught, got to do some research and gained hands-on experience. The next summer Harold arranged an internship for me at SC Johnson & Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, as a quality assurance technician. I suspect he did it to trick me into going to graduate school! By the end of the summer, I had learnt a lot, but the work was repetitive, and I was ready to move on and pursue a graduate degree in analytical chemistry in Harold’s lab.
Harold’s been a big influence on you...
Harold’s lab was a fantastic environment for a graduate student – a diverse group of people, great training, and interesting science. He taught us how to connect with people, and to value both research and teaching. The way I run my group is very much influenced by how I was managed by him, and also by my postdoctoral adviser, Wolfgang Lindner at the University of Vienna. Their mentorship was exceptional. From them I learned humility, to treat people with respect, and that the old adage “there are no stupid questions” is true at any level. I also gained the ability to communicate with a variety people from professors, to the person on the street – the importance of being able to explain your work to any audience is something I now preach to my own team.
How important have industry partnerships been for you?
I consider them a real strong point of our group – we’ve had some great industry partnerships with Shimadzu, Restek, VUV Analytics and others. In fact, the vast majority of our support is from non-traditional funding sources – industry contracts or private donations. It’s been absolutely essential to have that support for our environmental analysis, because there just aren’t traditional funding mechanisms available to research things like the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction. Securing federal funding can also be a long, drawn-out process. You can easily spend 60 hours writing a 15-page proposal, and then wait six months for a 15 percent chance of getting the money. That’s one benefit of industry funding – you can meet with somebody, write up a paragraph or two outlining the work, and solidify a contract all in a couple of months. I don’t see it becoming any easier to get federal funding, so our ability to get funds from industry will become even more important. I’m lucky that my university considers industry involvement as a major positive, so the fact that I don’t currently have government funding has never held me back in my career.
What are you focusing on right now?
Our 20-strong group has three main research areas: the first and biggest is CLEAR (the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation) – assessing the real or potential environmental impact of industrial processes. The second area is our work with VUV Analytics, and involves GC-VUV for environmental analyses, but also petrochemical, biological... you name it! Essentially, we’re exploring the application of new technology, trying to prove where they have novel utility. The third area is bioanalysis, focusing on LC-MS and on-line sample preparation, and now moving to multidimensional separations. We’re trying to push the envelope on dimensionality for preparing samples and resolving complex mixtures – with a strong focus on analyzing intact proteins.
You contributed to The Cannabis Scientist recently – where does that fit in?
For now, it might be characterized as an application of new technology, but I think cannabis being such a wide-open field, there’s a lot of room to contribute in future. We’ve had some experience with natural products, and in this case, we were able to use GC triple-quad mass spec in some interesting new ways, showing how triple quad systems can overcome interferences from complex mixtures to detect cannabinoids, terpenes or pesticides. Currently, I’ve got one student working on that, and I definitely see it as an area of opportunity, given the ongoing discussion about medicinal benefit and legalization.
Sounds like you’re busy – how do you keep on top of it all?
Sometimes it’s akin to controlled chaos, but by and large things run pretty smoothly. The way the group has been structured has been critical, with talented research scientists and post docs overseeing many of the graduate and undergraduate projects. As for me, I jump back and forth, have regular group meetings, spread my arms wide and try to keep it all pushing forward.
And where do you see the future of the group?
I think we’re already heading in the right direction, and will continue to pick up momentum. We’re ramping up our efforts in multidimensional HPLC. I went to Italy and spent a semester with Luigi Mondello at the University of Messina to learn about this approach and to bring it back to the US, because it’s a largely underutilized but very powerful technique. There are great opportunities to apply it in the protein analysis realm.
On the environmental front, we’re starting to make some important connections across the board. We hope to be a bridge between the environmental and industrial lobbies and be trusted as an independent voice. We must find common ground if we’re to provide best practices and recommendations to keep things clean, whilst also maintaining the extraction of energy that has become so important. We’re even organizing a conference in April in Dallas, called “Responsible Shale Energy Extraction”, bringing the different sides together.
Our relationships with Shimadzu and VUV are ongoing – they will keep releasing new instruments, and we will continue to relish the opportunity to play with them first!
What drives you?
I’m easily distracted by shiny objects! I’m motivated by curiosity, and by the prospect of doing something new. Analytical chemistry is a wonderful field in that there’s a vast array of unanswered questions and ways to approach them – that makes it very exciting to develop new technologies and methods.
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