An Eye on Mobility
Sitting Down With… Erin Baker, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, California, USA.
Where does ion mobility fit into your research?
We like to combine multiple analytical techniques to gain answers to complex questions. Ion mobility is great for separating molecules of the same molecular weight and studying their structures – this structural information can then be used in combination with other separations to improve molecular identifications. We work across omics fields -proteomics, lipidomics, metabolomics, exposomics, glycomics - and ion mobility is invaluable when it comes to separating isomers in these studies.
For example, in lipidomics, we’re trying to determine if different double bond positions are related to disease states by comparing samples from healthy patients with those suffering from a given disease. Our main focus, however, is the combination of different omic analyses – or multiomics. Here, we try to gain a more systems-level (holistic) view of the protein, lipid and metabolic changes to paint a more complete picture of the impact of a disease. When studying toxins, for instance, we can use exposomics to quantify toxin levels in a patient, and then proteomics to study potential changes in protein levels, which gives a more rounded view of how that toxin makes a person sick.
How did you become attracted to ion mobility?
My fourth-year undergrad project at Montana State University focused on ion mobility spectrometry, and I enjoyed it so much that it encouraged me to continue with this technique. From there, I joined Mick Bowers’ group at UC Santa Barbara for my doctorate and then moved onto a postdoc position with Richard Smith; both focused on ion mobility. I will admit that the transfer to Smith was largely a stroke of chance… I needed a job and they needed the position filled as soon as possible – the fact that they were working on ion mobility was just a bonus really.
Tell us about your role at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
I worked as a postdoc there for two and a half years, after which I was hired as a research scientist. My job was to bridge ion mobility technology to specific applications, and so I worked on all kinds of assays from soil to those based in human health. In these studies, we found that ion mobility was capable of identifying more molecules than MS alone. At PNNL, some groups were funded by the US Department of Energy, but we relied almost completely on external donors like the NIH. Now I’m using the grant writing skills I developed at PNNL to apply for a number of further grants to support my research.
As an associate professor at North Carolina State University, what’s most challenging?
The biggest challenge is probably the acquisition of funding, which is time consuming – especially trying to figure out which programs you fit into best; we’ve looked into environmental exposure for toxin analyses, and health analyses for molecular pathway elucidation. Plus, technological funding is really hard to come by in the US, which complicates matters further. At North Carolina State University, I was lucky enough to start a solid program, and was able to use my previous 13 years of research experience and a grant I had obtained to negotiate an amazing postdoc. We started on the same day and I have been acquiring graduate students over the last year. It is so important to build a strong team – nobody thrives in this field alone! And I’ve been blessed with a great group.
How important is a positive attitude?
Generally, I would say it’s important… but especially so in the sciences! In our field, rejection and failure are around every corner – from having papers turned down by journals to refused proposals to bad days in the lab and broken instruments. It’s important to look at the positives to survive. For me, it’s about staying motivated and, when rejection slaps you in the face, you just need to shake it off and keep going! That’s definitely the attitude I encourage in my group.
And what keeps you motivated?
Our overarching motivation is to help the scientific community, hence our focus on developing tools that everybody can use. We’ve released databases for different molecules and we’re also working to incorporate ion mobility functions into commonly used software, which can then be passed onto further teams; we recently accomplished this with the Skyline informatics group. We’re hoping to achieve a sort of symbiosis: we produce the tools to help other groups and in return we can use the outcomes of other groups’ research to challenge the big issues. After all, nobody will cure cancer alone… We need to centralize our collective knowledge and push forward together.