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Students Get Hands-on with Mass Spectrometry

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They say that practice makes perfect, but for many students leaving university, the sad reality is that very few will have had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of many of the techniques they learnt about, especially if it involves expensive equipment. Moving into the employment sector this can prove a difficult barrier to break for both the new graduate and an employer alike. Businesses understandably want staff who can hit the ground running, so more practical training for students would be a big step in the right direction.

In response to this, Waters in collaboration with Swansea University have formed a practical educational package that introduces undergraduates to the fundamentals of mass spectrometry with hands-on experience at its core.

We spoke to Dr Jonathan Jones (JJ), Principal Product Manager, MS Systems at Waters Corporation, to learn more about the new initiative and how it is being received by students, tutors and business.

KS: Could you tell us a bit about the practical mass spectrometry education package that Waters have been developing with Swansea University?

JJ: The Practical Education Package was really born out of a recognition of a trend among analytical laboratories to employ or re-deploy personnel to operate complex analytical instrumentation who might have had limited direct exposure to mass spectrometry.  These could be cell biologists for example, who are unlikely to have had hands-on experience with every available tool for biological characterization and that includes mass spectrometry.

To give you another scenario, laboratories may have variable sample throughput needs throughout the year and it makes more sense for them to manage a temporary increase in work load by re-deploying staff or, perhaps, by contracting with lab technicians-for-hire to follow a written standard operating procedure for routine analyses.

By and large, at many universities, mass spectrometry had been regarded as a ‘mythical’ technique. Students hear a lot about it and may be taught the theoretical aspects of it to a degree, but very few are fortunate enough to run an experiment on a mass spectrometer and produce mass spectra in real time. It generally was the case that the instrumentation was very expensive and therefore treated as a special tool by the PI or the Professor leading a specialist area of analytical science. And that creates a gap.

The problem with that is graduates now heading straight into, let’s say, a quality control (QC) or discovery laboratory of a pharmaceutical company, may never have seen a mass spectrometer, much less run one.

Therefore, what we wanted to try and accomplish with Swansea was to develop an accessible tool that had a structured learning package built around it such that almost anybody getting a classical undergraduate degree/college degree could get the hands-on experience that will give them an advantage as they start their careers.

Swansea and Waters got to this point collaboratively. Swansea University, specifically Swansea’s National Mass Spectrometry Centre, offers coaching and outreach educational programmes while it also provides analytical services for UK analytical labs and academic labs that need access to mass spectrometry. They are in the unique position of having a broad overview of the needs of students in terms of operating a mass spectrometer and interpreting spectra.

At Waters, our customers were asking us for instrumentation that was easier to use, because their workforce isn’t as specialized or experienced in mass spectrometry as they were maybe 20, 25 years ago. Back then, pretty much anybody expected to operate a mass spectrometer in any setting would have had a PhD in analytical chemistry or mass spectrometry.

So we, and Swansea, decided that we could work together to combine our ACQUITY QDa Mass Detector with their educational expertise and so we built this package. We provided them with the technology, they developed the course materials and together we worked to create seven structured experiments that each incrementally provide learning of the mass spectrometry workflow.

Each experiment exposes the student to the foundational aspects of mass spectrometry and is intended to equip them with the skills they’ll need to hit the ground running in terms of obtaining mass measurements in a modern-day analytical laboratory.

KS: Are there any features of the mass spectrometer being used in the educational package that make it particularly suitable for teaching?

JJ: The QDa for us was the absolute ideal platform for this. It’s very small, it’s portable, and is relatively inexpensive, so it’s more accessible for university departments on a budget. Because it was designed as a mass spectrometry detector for chromatographers originally, it is, by default, easy to use, straightforward and not intimidating, as the instruments of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s have been. When launched in 2013, it was an immediate hit with chromatographers who may never have had access to mass spectrometry data before and needed the confirmatory data for quantifying and identifying analytes. Therefore, it was a no-brainer to go with the QDa.

Besides the instrument and the experiments, teachers also get the standards and chemicals necessary to run the experiments with the ability to obtain more when they run out.

KS: How much of an issue is the lack of hands-on experience of mass spectrometry, and other analytical chemistry techniques, in graduates?

JJ: I would say it’s a growing concern. I don't know if I can quantify that, but certainly it’s definitely a trend that the large employers are much more motivated by now. The speed by which you can obtain results and thereby get a product to market is a critical element for getting ahead in business, and science. Being the first person to publish a paper, for example, that’s equally of value.

It’s always a challenge for laboratories to recruit talented people to an organisation. Given the choice, employers prefer hiring graduates with hands-on experience in mass spectrometry.

KS: Obviously hands-on time with a mass spectrometer is going to be great experience for the students. How has it been received by the students themselves, staff and, more widely, by employers?

JJ: It’s early days, but from an academic perspective very well. From the people we’ve had feedback from, we’ve had a lot of support for this product. The University is excited to be implementing this content in support of their degree schemes in the forthcoming academic year. For those students, hands-on time in front of an instrument will be very valuable. It will give the students a greater springboard on which to learn, they feel a little bit more invested in that topic because the technology is tangible to them, and the academics see that as a very valuable asset. Book-learning is one thing, but if you can put into practice what you’ve learned, that’s a much more powerful way to retain what you’ve learned.

KS: This package was developed in partnership with Swansea University, but how many Universities or Institutes has it reached now and how many are you hoping to reach in the future?

JJ: It’s still early but we expect the product to be very well received. We’re still very much partnering with Swansea in terms of the development of the package. That will continue, and we will refine it as we go forward. Since our launch at ASMS, which is really where we started talking about this, we’ve had enquiries from a number of academic institutions and we’re looking forward to working with them. Just this week, a post on the Waters Facebook page drew very positive comments from a number of Swedish academics discussing the virtues of this initiative.

KS: As projects progress you find new directions you want to explore. Are there any aspects of the initiative that you’re looking to expand on in the future?

JJ: I’d say we also see a lot of additional interest coming from the private sector. For example, many labs run targeted mass spectrometry-based assays on finished products where the goal of the assay is to confirm levels of one or two analytes and monitor for impurities, so you could almost imagine the technicians of those as “student learners”, especially if they have recently moved into the discipline.

The framework of professional development in large companies also puts a lot of value on having external based learning, so I would like to see us develop this as a package we offer not simply to academic institutes but, perhaps, to our commercial customers. 

Dr Jonathan Jones was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.