Look What You Missed
Speakers from some of the analytical world’s biggest events reflect on the impact of COVID-19. With many of our lives returning to normal, let’s consider what we’ve missed – and where we go from here.
Lauren Robertson, Frank van Geel, James Strachan | | 12 min read | Interview
How has COVID-19 impacted your life and work?
Gert Desmet: Two years after our campus shutdown to “grab the virus by the throat and put a speedy end to its spreading,” I still haven’t attended a single scientific meeting in person or visited a colleague to discuss collaborative work. In academia, we all sorely missed eye-contact with the students and their feedback when teaching. And I also dearly missed the little conference corridor gatherings where the real latest research results are discussed (most presentations in the lecture halls and on Zoom are about yesterday’s research); those same meeting points are often where new collaborations are forged. I even started to miss long-haul economy flights! The pandemic also caused problematic delays for PhD students (especially during the first lockdown) and a great deal of stress for those of us trying to secure research funding.
Joseph Loo: Initially, when COVID-19 shut down everything, panic struck. How are we supposed to teach our classes? What are the students going to do without access to a lab? How long is this going to last? I think though teaching has been challenging for the instructors, it’s been especially hard for the students – switching between in-person and remote learning because of the different variants has not been easy.
Christy Landes: I couldn’t agree more!We’ve all felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for new students and postdocs it really has been a disaster. Developing the skills and muscle memory of working within a team, impromptu problem solving and brainstorming, sharing joy or frustration with in-the-moment research outcomes – all have been hindered by COVID-19. And for postdocs in particular, they’ve really suffered from the inability to give in-person talks and establish important soft skills for their future careers. I’ve observed a new generation of students who, when we returned to in-person meetings, didn’t even know what they didn’t know because they weren’t interacting.
Julia Laskin: For our group, it was the first year graduate students – those who didn’t have enough training prior to the shutdown nor much data to work with – who were impacted the most. But for me personally, teaching during COVID was by far the most challenging and time-consuming task.
In the fall of 2020, I was teaching a new course with four of my graduate students as teaching assistants. We prepared materials for teaching in the hybrid environment, developed several new laboratory experiments, developed laboratory materials for students who were quarantined, and handled a discussion board that was monitored seven days a week. It was a tremendous effort, and I am grateful to my graduate students – it would not have been possible without their support.
Jared Anderson: The lockdowns have certainly been a challenge, and we will likely deal with the repercussions for years to come. For the most part, my students continued working safely in the lab under occupancy restrictions, which allowed them to make progress on their research projects.
Some of the biggest setbacks were not being able to get timely access to certain chemicals/reagents, as well as some instrumentation needed for materials characterization. Fortunately, most of these limitations were not long-lived.
Michael Lämmerhofer: It really is hard to believe that we are now more than two years in – partially paralyzed, but always in hope that it will be over soon. Luckily, like Jared, our research labs stayed open throughout, with MS instruments running 24/7. The most deleterious effects were on our group’s social activities (PhD thesis defenses without a physical audience and subsequent celebrations felt strange and incomplete) and on teaching.
Jessica Reiner: Besides the issues mentioned by others, I also saw a direct impact on my research. Just before the start of the pandemic, in January 2020, I started an interlaboratory comparison study on the measurement of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in aqueous film forming foams (AFFFs). NIST shipped out AFFF samples in January 2020 with the anticipation of getting data from participating laboratories in April 2020. As you can imagine, with most laboratories being shut down for some time starting in March 2020, we needed to extend this deadline. And even when laboratories started to get back up and running, there was a backlog of samples that needed to be processed.
Is there a silver lining?
Desmet: Every cloud has its silver lining. The pandemic drastically slowed down life, allowing me to discover the most beautiful hiking trails (surprisingly close to home) and to drastically increase my running mileage. Another great joy came with the new electronic meeting format; suddenly and magically, all meetings started and ended perfectly on time – unprecedented in academic media!
The pandemic also gave me the rest and quiet to work on some of my favorite ideas in the theory of chromatography, such as the velocity- and retention-factor dependence of the eddy-dispersion term or the establishment of an analytical expression for the retention factor dependency of the mobile phase mass transfer. This theoretical work helped me keep up publishing pace in a period where the data stream from the lab was drying up.
Loo: I saw the same change in my own work. After the initial shock, it was as if time stood still – almost like being in an episode of Twilight Zone! All of a sudden, we had the time to work on manuscript drafts, reports, book chapters… Two years ago, nobody would have imagined we’d be using “Zoom” as a verb, in the same way we use “Google.” Today, there’s no excuse not to Zoom with colleagues and potential collaborators from around the world at all hours. Waking up early in the morning to Zoom with scientists in Europe or staying up late at night to communicate with people in Asia is fairly normal these days. In a way, finding alternatives to having in-person meetings has strengthened scientific ties worldwide.
Anderson: Yes! Though running group meetings online is certainly not the same as an in-person meeting, I believe it has helped students improve their communication skills as it is more challenging to explain results in a virtual format as opposed to grabbing a marker and jotting something on the board during an in-person meeting. There’s no doubt the pandemic has taught us all about the need to stay connected!
In my experience, the pandemic also provided a cohort of my students the ability to focus more on learning and developing computer programming skills to expand 3D printing capabilities towards separation science.
Laskin: We became more flexible in the way we conduct research and teach. Most of us have gained new skills, such as learning how to code and performing simulations we did not have time to explore before. We spent more time reading literature. We learned how to manage our time and stay focused while working remotely. And we transitioned some of the meetings that do not require in-person attendance to virtual platforms.
Woolley: Four of my PhD students graduated in the middle of the pandemic, and they’re all doing great things. One started a company, another is a postdoc at a university, one is working for the government, and the last is teaching at a university. Despite the challenges, or maybe even because of them, these recent graduates have succeeded in important ways. It feels like we finally might be on the tail end of this pandemic, but, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that predicting this pandemic’s trajectory is impossible.
From a scientific perspective, what have we missed?
Woolley: A key take-home message from the pandemic has been the power of science and medicine to solve problems. We’ve certainly seen that in chemical analysis, particularly with COVID-19 testing, which received strong support from the separation science community.
In my own lab, we have been able to focus on using 3D printed microfluidics in assessing risk for preterm birth with maternal blood serum samples. We have made significant progress in multiplexed immunoaffinity extraction, solid-phase extraction and fluorescence labeling, and microchip electrophoresis of these biomarkers. We’re also making strides to combine those three processes together in a miniaturized platform.
Desmet: One breakthrough that probably would not have happened without the pandemic, and the insight of a brilliant young PhD student called Bram Huygens, was the extension of the Taylor-Aris theory to complex generic chromatographic media, which has opened the door to establishing analytical forms for the van Deemter-equation in a whole series of geometries – something that was previously unthinkable. I am convinced this will bring our understanding of packing quality and its effect on column performance to the next level, which will help us design new types of chromatographic supports.
The peace and quiet also allowed me to develop some ideas for new experimental approaches and for new column designs. A great deal of attention in our group also went to finding new ways to pack particles in much more ordered and open configurations than the randomly packed columns we have to live with today.
Loo: We presented some of our new results at ASMS 2021, but we have a lot more work to be presented at ASMS 2022! Our work centers around protein structure, and we recently discovered new acyl-lysine post-translational modifications. Using top-down MS, we have also developed methods to increase sequence coverage for large proteins, locate the sites of ligand binding, map the positions of disulfide bonds, and derive 3D structural information for protein complexes using native MS. Busy, busy, busy!
Laskin: Despite the setbacks, our group has been very productive. In the past 18 months, we have developed a new ion soft landing instrument and used it to characterize the structures and redox properties of several types of nanoclusters of interest to energy production and storage applications. We have also conducted the first experiments focused on understanding and controlling the reactivity of fragment ions on surfaces, providing a path to designing new cluster-based materials with interesting properties. We have worked on isomer-selective imaging of lipids using photochemical approaches and ion mobility separation. We have developed a robust microfluidic chip for imaging of biomolecules in tissues using MS and obtained the first proteoform-selective imaging data. And our work to enhance the sensitivity of nanospray desorption electrospray ionization (nano-DESI) imaging shows great promise for future experiments. Look out for us at ASMS!
Anderson: At the upcoming HPLC 2022, I will discuss some of my group’s ongoing work in developing rapid oligonucleotide extraction methods that are able to achieve single-nucleotide differentiation. This work has been pushed forward by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to develop rapid nucleic acid isolation methods that are compatible with downstream amplification methods, such as qPCR.
We have recently introduced a new class of liquid magnetic supports that do not suffer from aggregation, clogging of devices, and low capture efficiencies. Coupled to these supports are probes featuring ion tags that are capable of distinguishing between complementary DNA and single-nucleotide mismatches. HPLC has enabled us to precisely measure the amount of the probe captured by the liquid support so that we can better devise probes featuring higher loading capacity. I will also discuss some of my group’s most recent results on using deep eutectic solvents as extraction solvents that are compatible with HPLC.
Landes: One of the lines of research in our lab is applying data-science methods to experimental chemistry. Because of the shut-down, we were all forced to work from home and away from the experimental lab, and that forced us to shift some data-science projects to the front burner. The new students, who hadn’t ever been able to get into the lab, were able to take the lead on these projects and find a new way to contribute.
What does the future hold?
Landes: Long term, I’m still passionately confident that we have not begun to tap the potential of new basic science advances to provide a transformative impact on separations. But I truly believe the shortage of students and postdocs in this field should be looked at as a crisis. Even before the pandemic, we were experiencing a drop-off in interest and access for international students and postdocs. With shut-downs and entry restrictions, that pipeline was almost completely eliminated for an entire year. I don’t think we will return to having a large population of outstanding international students wanting to come to the US, but we don’t have enough domestic STEM students. If all of the big money industry jobs are in biotech and semiconductors, and all of the big money federal grants are for quantum and energy, separation science is going to suffer even more in the future.
Woolley: I am looking forward to attending in-person scientific meetings once again this year. Looking further down the road, I still see a significant need for advancing miniaturized systems for chemical analysis – and we hope to be part of that. One new branch of work that my lab started during the pandemic is in droplet microfluidics, and we’re excited about the potential to use the approach to study antibiotic susceptibility.
Reiner: Even though the interlaboratory study took longer than originally anticipated, waiting for the results was worth the extra time. We have now implemented the recommendations for the participants in the interlaboratory study and we are developing a suite of AFFF reference materials with PFAS of varying concentrations and structure to provide quality control materials for laboratories measuring AFFF-contaminated environmental samples.
Desmet: I think the pandemic has forced us to rethink our way of working and living. And I do believe that if we could retain some of the positive aspects, such as a more efficient way of organizing our working days and less unnecessary travel, we will be living in a better world than before March, 2020.
Loo: COVID certainly forced many to reevaluate their career (and life). Life in academia certainly won’t be the same as it was during the pre-COVID days. Prior to coming to UCLA, I worked in industry, and I have some experience working in a national lab. There are pros and cons to each of these different working environments.
But who knows. Last year, we all thought things would be back to normal soon, especially after the vaccines were developed. Today, it’s not clear whether we’ll ever get (completely) back to the pre-COVID days – perhaps that’s for the best. It’s like that saying, “diamonds are made under pressure.” COVID has made all of us stronger.