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Techniques & Tools Mass Spectrometry, Technology

Sidestepping Obsolescence

Over a century ago, Lord Kelvin proclaimed: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Indeed, the ability to make accurate measurements is critical to progress, so one might expect analytical scientists to be highly revered – their counsel sought out as a prerequisite to embarking on any technical project. Yet, more frequently, analytical scientists are relatively silent players on the project team.

Why does this apparent paradox exist? Partly, it’s a logical consequence of advances in instrumentation. Once the exclusive province of basement-dwelling gurus, nuclear magnetic resonance systems sit on the bench top adjacent to fume hoods, and mass spectrometry systems compete with ultraviolet detectors for popularity, all thanks to dramatic improvements in reliability, cost, and size. Similarly, high-performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography autosamplers produce unprecedented levels of precision, and basic laboratory automation can perform most elements of sample preparation. The next step will be for advances in microfluidics to shrink the chromatography lab itself down to the size of a microscope slide! To make matters worse, routine analytical testing has become an outsourced commodity. Given all these changes, how can today’s analytical scientist stay inspired or attain more recognition? I believe the key lies in providing true value to one’s organization, which all begins with understanding the company, its products, and its core technologies.

We must have a broad understanding of the business and function as an ambassador of analytical science.

The workplace has changed dramatically since I started three decades ago. The rigid silo-oriented organization has been replaced with a more collaborative model, creating opportunities that were not apparent in the past. But to collaborate effectively, we must have a broad understanding of the business and function as an ambassador of analytical science to others, particularly non-analytical staff. Whether in research and development or quality assurance/control, problems happen and they need to be solved – quickly. We must remember that we are scientists first and that our instruments are simply the tools of the trade; just as we expect our auto mechanic to diagnose a mechanical problem without bogging us down in a detailed treatise on the merits of a ratchet wrench, we should understand when our colleagues need detail or an overview. Debating over theoretical plates and producing data without recognition of its use or consequence do us no favors.

Often, experiments are designed without consideration of measurement uncertainty. As a result, all subsequent mathematical analysis of the data may be utterly meaningless. Sometimes the wrong parameter is measured, leading to a similarly useless outcome. Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”.  Who better to contribute to the design of experiments or mentor the project team on data interpretation than the analytical scientist who understands the method intimately?

Beyond the more obvious contributions above, many other paths can help us add value. Technical support, process development, and regulatory affairs may at first glance seem like a departure from analytical science, and I would agree they are a step away from the traditional scientific career path; however, they offer noteworthy contributions to the company and provide a different perspective of the business. Experience and training as an analytical scientist are invaluable. For me, a two-year development assignment in regulatory affairs was an absolute eye-opener. It gave me a much greater appreciation of the challenges faced by regulatory affairs personnel and their response to seemingly simple questions from regulatory agencies. Similarly, stepping out of my insular analytical laboratory into a cross-company technical support department has allowed me to gain experience in a much broader variety of products and technologies, and exposed me to many more analytical technologies than if I had focused solely on chromatography. Knowledge gained in one project has been subsequently useful in other projects, underscoring the need to continue to grow intellectually. I urge analytical scientists to embrace the learning of new skills and take advantage of in-house training opportunities. For example, becoming Six Sigma and LEAN certified has enabled me to communicate more effectively with my engineering counterparts – though I already knew much of the material, scientists and engineers often speak different languages.

Who better to contribute to the design of experiments or mentor the project team on data interpretation than the analytical scientist who understands the method intimately?

Stepping outside the bounds of analytical science is not for everybody, and I’m not suggesting that we must leave the field to advance our careers, but we must recognize and acknowledge that the practice of analytical science is changing. The first step on the path to extinction is choosing not to evolve. There is no job security in performing a routine, easily outsourced task. By using our analytical science background in its broadest sense, we can enhance our value to our organizations, lose our cloaks of invisibility, and even enjoy a greater sense of career satisfaction as a result.

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About the Author
Frank Neely

After choosing chemistry as a major largely on the premise that “if it looks hard, it must pay well”, Frank Neely ultimately received a PhD in analytical chemistry from Georgia Tech. Since then, he has been employed by Eli Lilly Company and several Johnson & Johnson medical device companies. “It may sound corny”, Frank says, “but I feel an amazing sense of accomplishment when I see a product for which I had some involvement sitting in someone’s medicine cabinet or hear patients describe how something improved their life”. He also advises people to exercise discretion about what they keep in their medicine cabinets.

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