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Mass Spectrometry Down Under

Is there a theme for this year’s International Mass Spectrometry Conference (IMSC)? 

 

Yes, we’ve been thinking about what we wanted the conference to look like since early 2020 when we made the bid. We’ve all been to a lot of conferences and they are, naturally, quite similar. So, for delegates making the trip to Australia, we wanted to do what we can to make it fresh and future focused. So one thing we’ve done is ensure the lineup of speakers features plenty of early- to mid-career researchers. Of course, if you look at the list of keynote speakers, there will be plenty of “big names” who readers will recognize. But around half of our invited speakers are people who the larger community perhaps aren’t yet super familiar with, but ought to be, because of the absolutely phenomenal work they’re doing. In addition, we’ve also thought hard about diversity – across the board. This is the first time IMSC will be held in the Southern Hemisphere and only the second time in the Asia/Oceania region  so we wanted to make sure mass spectrometrists from these regions are strongly represented.  

In terms of content, one central focus for the conference is sustainability. IMSC will be held at the world’s first six-star green environmental certified convention center (I’m sure we’ll talk more about the location later…), so it’s a good fit. We also want to showcase where mass spectrometry is playing a key role in areas such as the development of the circular economy, and helping to address issues related to climate change. There are also ways to improve sustainability with regard to our own practices within the mass spec community. 

So, if I had to sum up in three buzzwords, I’d say: early-career innovation, diversity, and sustainability.

What are some big trends in mass spec today? 
 

In addition to the role of mass spec in addressing climate change, there’s also a clear role for mass spec at the cutting edge of environmental monitoring. Take PFAS for example; these are a huge problem because there are just so many of them, they’re poorly characterized, and we don’t yet know their full impact on the environment and our health – and mass spec is already having a significant impact on the field. 

Another big trend is driven by the fact that mass spec vendors keep coming up with technologies that continue to push the boundaries of sensitivity. This has enabled a whole revolution in single cell analysis and single cell omics, that is helping us understand how heterogeneity at the cellular level relates to biological function and disease. In addition to these new biological insights and the development of new diagnostic biomarkers, we’re also seeing an impact on clinical decision making, and even starting to see mass spec tools being used during surgery. 

Mass spec is incredibly versatile and it’s an exciting time for all of us in the field.  

Are you structuring the conference around some of these mass spec trends? 
 

Yes – we’ve split the conference up into three main groups or thematic areas. The first covers life sciences – pharma, health and disease. The second we’re calling environmental science, which will cover climate science, environmental monitoring, and the Earth sciences – the latter being an interesting area that is often overlooked in many international meetings. Australia has a rich history of mining and exploiting minerals – and mass spectrometry has always played a key role in their discovery and characterization, for example in offshore oil fields or minerals processing. Mass spec is also having an impact in “beyond Earth sciences” –to understand questions about the origin of life.  

The third key area spans fundamental instrumentation and methods. I don’t think you can have a mass spectrometry conference where you’re not looking at developments here; this is an area close to my own heart due to my lab’s focus over many years to study the fundamentals of the ion chemistry that occurs inside a mass spectrometer. There are also some really interesting developments in combining mass spec with spectroscopy. Other groups like Carol Robinson’s – who will be giving a plenary lecture – have shown that macromolecular protein complexes maintain their interactions and biological structures in the gas phase. This has led to some interesting couplings with other techniques, such as cryo EM, where the mass spectrometer is used a tool for purifying those complexes for applications in structural biology. 

There are some other areas that we’ll also be covering, including cultural heritage. Australia is home to 60,000 years of continuous indigenous culture, which we are increasingly recognizing and very proud of. Many of the cultural artifacts, such as rock paintings and traditional medicines, are really only just being explored – and mass spec is playing a critical part of those cultural heritage studies. 

You have to take a broad view of the field when putting together a conference like IMSC. How do you keep up to date? 
 

Well, that’s one of the best parts of my job – flicking through a journal (or rather, scrolling through a PDF) to seeing what’s ‘fresh out of the oven’. I’ve always done that – and not just within my particular area of research. You have to read broadly because if you don’t understand what someone else is doing, you might miss a potential application or solution in your own field. 

Fortunately, we’ve also got a great local organizing committee who represent the diverse areas I mentioned earlier. In addition, the conference is being hosted by the Australian and New Zealand Society for Mass Spectrometry on behalf of the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation. The Foundation’s executive board members have also offered their input based on their expertise and experience in organizing past conferences. All of these things ensure that we will showcase the best cutting edge mass spec research from around the world.

Are there any speakers you’d like to highlight in particular? 
 

Can I just say all of them? I’m really excited by the program we’ve put together across those different areas. In terms of some of the more internationally well known keynote speakers, I’ve already mentioned Carol Robinson – it’s always great to hear not only about her research, but she has also had a very inspiring career path for others to see. I’m also excited that we’ve been able to secure the attendance of Chemistry Nobel laureate Koichi Tanaka, who will give a distinguished keynote lecture.

I hesitate to mention any additional names because I don’t want to miss anyone out – so I’ll just say that I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the student talks and posters selected from abstracts. Whenever I attend a talk or a poster session and chat with those just starting out in their careers, it’s hard not to get excited by their work and their passion for research. I always find that more enriching than sitting in a lecture theater!

Let’s talk about Melbourne… Why should we all consider making the long trip? 
 

Let’s start with the venue. As I’ve mentioned, the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre opened its doors in 2009, marking a significant milestone as the world’s first convention center to achieve a six-star green environmental rating. It stands as an exemplary venue for conferences with a sustainability theme or focus. Moreover, the convention center underwent a substantial expansion approximately four or five years ago, of over $200 million. It’s certainly spacious, but it also feels quite intimate with a short walk from the plenary theater across the atrium into the exhibition space, or up a flight of stairs into the breakout rooms. The convention center is also located alongside the Yarra river, which runs through the city. So it’s also a fantastic setting.

Delegates can leave the convention center (preferably not during the sessions!) and walk up into the Southbank precinct – an entertainment and dining hub – within five minutes. Or you could walk across the bridge into the city itself. Melbourne is often dubbed the most European of Australian cities, but it’s also got a kind of New York vibe to it. There’s a strong ‘cafe culture’ built around our laneways. I may be biased, but I think we’ve got the best coffee in the world here – and it’s always nice to sit at one of the streetside tables. We also have wineries within about an hour’s drive of the city – the wine here is also excellent. Melbourne is also a great sporting city; many will be familiar with the Melbourne Cricket Ground from watching Test cricket matches. With the conference being held at the end of August, there’s a lot of winter sports going on, such as Australian rules football and rugby league. 

There’s a lot more I could say – the public transport, museums, the culture, the wildlife, the Aussies themselves, and, of course, the strong mass spec community! Overall, it’s an undeniably fantastic location for a conference. Many people have said it’s a dream destination because they might never have had the opportunity to come to Australia if it weren’t for the conference. So, I’d just encourage people to embrace whatever excuse works for them, and enjoy what we are sure will be a brilliant conference.

How would you characterize the current state of mass spec in the Asia and Oceania regions? 
 

I’m blown away by the level of the mass spectrometry research being conducted when I travel to China, Korea, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia. Part of that is the investment in mass spec, which is astounding. I honestly dream of having the resources those researchers enjoy. This is also reflected by the publications from researchers in these regions appearing in the top journals. 

But I’d also argue that those of us in Australia and New Zealand punch well above our weight. We’re not a huge community, but we have some world class researchers. In the 1970s, the first triple quadrupole mass spectrometer was built here in Melbourne by Jim Morrison at La Trobe University. Similarly, Prof. Michael Guilhaus developed one of the first prototype orthogonal-acceleration time of flight mass spectrometers in the late 1980s at the University of New South Wales. Two or three generations later, we have people like Shane Ellis from the University of Wollongong developing some absolutely exquisite methods in imaging mass spectrometry and then using those methods to solve interesting biological questions. We also have Michelle Colgrave, who is a real pioneer in developing proteomics methods in food science – she leads one of the ‘future protein’ international efforts at CSIRO, our national science research organization. We’ve also got more senior people like Steve Blanksby from the Queensland University of Technology, who has pioneered some really beautiful methods for lipid structural characterization. And the list goes on! 

I would also like to highlight that Australia and New Zealand have a number of homegrown companies in the mass spec space that are doing great work. For example, Syft Technologies is a New Zealand based company that has developed selected-ion flow-tube mass spectrometry for real-time trace gas analysis in a range of application settings. Trajan Scientific and Medical is a Melbourne based company that develops, amongst other things, micro sampling devices that can be coupled with mass spec, that are making inroads into clinical monitoring and understanding the impact of PFAS exposure on health. Finally, IonOpticks, another Melbourne based company, develops columns and other front end technologies for proteomics research. In short, we have a great ecosystem of researchers, technology developers and vendors who work together to solve problems. 

And how are you catering to the instrument and technology manufacturer sector at IMSC? 
 

We’ve thought hard about how to integrate the exhibition space into the program. A couple of years ago in Maastricht there was an “innovation stage” – a kind of catwalk where, during tea, coffee and lunch breaks, sponsors and exhibitors could give a 15-minute presentation to delegates. They’re quite intimate – a bit like a poster presentation but with a focus on industry. At IMSC 2024, the stage is going to be smack in the middle of the exhibition hall, making it more integral to the conference – which is quite unique to IMSC. We’re also offering a series of industry sponsored lunch time seminars during the week, as well as evening workshops, many of which will have an industry focus.

Are there any particular challenges researchers in the Oceania region face? 
 

It can be harder to get your work recognized. Travel to international conferences in the US and Europe can be more difficult, which makes networking more of a challenge, particularly for our students and other early career researchers. Often, PhD graduates go off to do postdocs overseas, but it’s a long way to go and for many that isn’t an option due to family commitments. So, the opportunity to host the IMSC conference is a big deal for the budding mass spectrometrists in our region. But we also recognize that students and early career researchers from other regions will now face those same difficulties to come to Australia. That’s why we’re offering 200-or-so complementary student registrations and other early career travel support for them to attend from overseas. 

Any final thoughts? 
 

I lived and worked overseas for many years, which was fantastic and allowed me to establish my career. Then, 10 years ago, I moved back to Australia and, to be honest, it was the best thing I’ve ever done! I love it here and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to showcase everything this part of the world has to offer to the mass spec community. 

For more information, check out our website: imsc2024melbourne.com. The conference takes place August 17–23, 2024. Early bird registration closes May 17. We are looking forward to seeing you here in Melbourne! 

Gavin Reid is the Professor of Bioanalytical Chemistry in the School of Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne, Australia

Credit: Supplied by Interviewee

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