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Addressing Real-world Challenges With Technology: An Interview With Christie Hunter Ph.D.

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Credit: SCIEX.
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Christie Hunter is the Director of Applications at SCIEX where her and her team are tasked with developing new applications for SCIEX products. They are also responsible for the technical content that demonstrates how their capillary electrophoresis and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry solutions can be used to solve real-world challenges. Applications can range from screening for pesticides in our food supply through to molding the way biomarkers are found for the early detection of cancer – solutions that are vital for our future health and wellbeing.

We spoke to Christie about her career, achievements and challenges for the future.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be working in this field? What or who have been the major influences in your career choice and direction?

Through school I was always very interested in proteins and protein biochemistry. During my Ph.D., I used site directed mutagenesis to perform structure-function studies on metalloproteins, in order to understand the impacts of key bonding interactions on protein properties. During my two final years of grad school I was exposed to mass spectrometry (MS) for the first time. I had the opportunity to study my suite of protein mutants by MS in the lab of Dr. Don Douglas, who had just moved to the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada).

For my post-doc I continued my pursuit of protein biochemistry and worked at a small start-up company in South San Francisco, CA, where we chemically synthesized proteins with various alterations, again to study the impact on function. Here, after synthesizing the peptide components, I would use mass spectrometry for quality control and this was where I met the MS team at SCIEX (Applied Biosystems at the time). I got the opportunity to move to Applied Biosystems after 2 years to join the application support team. I was starting to understand how exciting and powerful the MS technique was, and I really wanted to learn more. This was an amazing opportunity, to learn mass spectrometry direct from the technology inventors. At SCIEX I have continued working in various roles, chiefly because there is always something new that I’m learning or doing.

One of the most rewarding things in my career are the many collaborations that I have had over the course of the years, with amazing scientists all around the world. I am proud of the contributions that I have made to the field of protein mass spectrometry, either through my work directly or the support I have provided to research labs around the world. 

Q: In terms of your work, what do you feel has been your greatest achievement to date?

I guess there are two large projects that I have done in collaboration that have had good impact on the field.

Early in my career I had the amazing opportunity to work with Dr. Leigh Anderson, to explore developing larger scale Multiple Reaction Monitoring (MRM) assays for quantifying protein panels in plasma. We demonstrated the reproducibility of peptide MRM measurements, dynamic range, higher multiplexing and other assay attributes. This paper has since been cited over 1300 times, which is very exciting. In 2013, I got recognition from my peers for this contribution to our field when I received the HUPO Science and Technology award, which obviously was a huge honor.

More recently, I helped coordinate a large study in collaboration with Dr. Ruedi Aebersold’s team at ETH Zurich along with eleven SWATH acquisition labs all over the world, where we investigated the fundamental reproducibility of this MS technique. Excitingly, we found that the protein quantitation results within and between labs was very reproducible, demonstrating this technique could be deployed for large-scale biomarker research. It was a fun project with amazing results - and working with my SWATH colleagues all over the world was very rewarding. This work was published in Nature Communications in 2017. Since then, we have adapted the workflow to microflow rates, increasing the throughput and robustness of this quantitative proteomics technique, making it even more powerful for large scale research. All in all, these are very exciting times in the field of protein biomarker research!

Q: What do you see are the major challenges that remain to be overcome in proteomics? How do you see the field developing in the future?

The subsection of protein research that I have always been most passionate about is the biomarker field. While there are still big hurdles, I believe that proteomics will deliver. For Omics research in the biomarker space and in support of precision medicine, we have to go big. We need to industrialize our thinking, so we can run more samples with more reliable quantitation. I really feel like we are in a good place to do this with our current toolkit. By running bigger cohorts and performing advanced informatics, researchers will increase the cadence of delivering solid biomarker panels that ultimately can be used in the clinic to impact how we think about health, wellness and disease treatment.

Q: Knowing what you know now, if you could impart three pieces of advice to your younger self what would they be?

1. Throughout grad school, I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted my career to go. This can be a little stressful at times when big decisions need to be made. The choices I made along the way were always based on genuine interest, choosing opportunities where I was excited about what I would learn or the work that I could do. For me this worked out really well as I landed in a career that I absolutely love, doing work that I am very passionate about. So even if you aren’t sure exactly what you want, if you follow your passion, it will work out in the end.
2. Build your own network of friends and colleagues - this will be the most rewarding part of your career. The collaborators and friends that you make throughout your career will enrich your work life.

3. Oh yeah and always double check that you have hooked up the column outlet to the MS source!

Dr Christie Hunter was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.