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Techniques & Tools Spectroscopy, Technology, Polymers

The Raman Wizard

What was your route into spectroscopy?

I got my PhD and Bachelor’s degree at the University of Bradford in the UK, where I worked with polymer scientist Tony Johnson, and Howell Edwards – a Raman spectroscopist. My PhD was initially focused on polymers and their characterization, but I ended up concentrating more on spectroscopy. I then did my postdoc at the University of Idaho with Peter Griffiths, an infrared/vibrational spectroscopist. He was mostly known for his work on FTIR, but was also doing work on Raman.

Any especially enjoyable projects?

During my PhD, I used a very expensive Raman FTIR system to look at the degradation of antique children’s vinyl acetate dolls. It was probably one of the most famous pieces of work I ever did – the story got picked up by The Times (UK), The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, and was on British TV at one point. I remember them including pictures of beheaded dolls stuck in spectrometers!

What were you looking for?

A lock doll collector asked us to help determine what was happening to a set of dolls – she said they were getting “sick” and didn’t look the same. The same phenomenon was seen in dolls of the same era around the world. Using spectroscopy, we worked out that they were made of polyvinyl acetate, and were undergoing the same degradation you’d expect with old movie films. The dolls had iron hooks embedded in each of the main components, with elastic bands between the hooks. We believed that the iron was helping catalyze the degradation of these bands and the acetic acid was making the dolls smell and corrode, leaking brown fluid from eyes and joints. It was like an infectious disease for old plastic dolls…

Ultimately, you choose to go into industry rather than continue in academia – why?

Peter Griffiths and some other academics had a successful grant application from the Federal Aviation Administration for detecting explosives in airports. I was working in a couple of different Raman companies to support that. At the end of the first year, our grant was stopped. The letter said something along the lines of: “There is no such threat to the US aviation system.” (It’s ironic – now you walk into airports worldwide and you see scanners being used with spectroscopy, quite often Raman). My wife was expecting a baby, so we decided that we needed a better way to support a small family and I made a swap to industry.

People have identified that Raman can characterize materials they are interested in, but not at the concentration levels or optical volume they need

I was hired by Kaiser as a Laser Spectroscopy Specialist, then I became Research Products Manager, then Marketing Manager, and now I’m Director of Marketing. The current role covers marketing communications as well as product management.

Where is Raman at right now?

People are spending a lot of time and research money looking into even smaller areas, like tip-enhanced spectroscopy or at ways of boosting the signal level with surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy – because they have identified that Raman can characterize materials they are interested in but not at the concentration levels or optical volume they need. At the same time, you see Raman moving beyond the lab into airports and clinics, with handheld devices being given to first responders to look at threats in the field. They help ensure that the materials are the quality you want at the end of the process.

How did you become involved with Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies (FACSS)?

Back when I was in Idaho, I went to one FACSS meeting and suggested ideas for Raman sessions. From then on, I organized sessions fairly regularly until I ended up arranging the whole Raman program. I was asked to serve on the Coblentz Society board, then to be the Program Chair for the FACSS conference in Memphis (2007). From there, I served additional roles within FACSS, including as their Governing Board Chair in 2012, and I was involved with changing the name to SciX.

Why is FACSS important?

It looks to bring the society together from all over the world. Some groups are large and capable of producing their own national meetings, but they might only cover a subset of the analytical sciences and spectroscopy community. We have worked very hard to build an environment that combines networking, good technical talks and a well-attended exhibition. We are also trying to make it more student friendly; any student who works at the registration desk gets in for free – and many have taken this as an opportunity to get to know people. It’s community building.

What’s the secret to a successful conference?

Keeping up to date. If you don’t have topical conversation points and new input, you’re stagnating – and people won’t come because there is no value. It’s also important to make sure there is a variety of speakers and perspectives – a good research group will continue to produce high quality research for a number of years, so you’ve got to make sure students get an opportunity to speak.

And finally… The beard.

It’s a bit “Lord of the Rings” at the moment. The first time I had a long beard, it was an incentive for my wife to finish her PhD; she doesn’t particularly like it and so I agreed it would be all gone when she finished. She completed it in 2003 and I made good on that commitment. But I never said I wouldn’t grow it back…

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About the Author
Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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