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A celebration of instrumentation
October 2013
by Peter T. Kissinger  |  Email the author
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We Hoosiers excel at analytical chemistry. We have a reputation in this field comparable to our status in motor racing, basketball and orthopedics. Information is the driver in today's knowledge economy, and analytical chemistry leads the sciences in providing data. Science is about evidence; some collected by observation, but most collected using instruments. Nature is built of complex mixtures of things, whether they are natural or commercial. Most are changing as a function of time, from less than a billionth of a second to more than a billion years. Analytical chemistry is called on to sort all this out, but there are only a few such measurements visible to the public. 
 
The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation sponsors The Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences. The purpose of the foundation is to "to advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances." This year, the $250,000 Dreyfus prize was, for the first time, focused on chemical instrumentation.
 
The competition was no doubt very intense, but the foundation selected my colleague at Purdue University, Prof. R. Graham Cooks, for his contributions to advancing mass spectrometry over four decades. Cooks is no doubt recognized as much of a virtuoso on the mass spectrometer as a few others are on the violin or cello. He has handcrafted his own instruments of the finest materials. His team advanced the art singularly with regard to mixture analysis, ambient ionization and the use of ion traps in portable units. Cooks understands the value of translational research and has crossed the bridge from theory to applications as diverse as explosives detection, molecular signatures for cancer phenotyping, pesticides on fresh vegetables and therapeutic drug monitoring. He fully credits the award to his many students and collaborators and, of course, J.J. Thomson, who got the whole thing started. Serendipity played a role as well, but only because a prepared mind was ready for it.
 
This year marks a century for Thomson's demonstration of stable isotopes for a non-radioactive element. I'd love to get his reaction to the mass resolution achieved today and to using the mass spectrometer for explicating the mysteries of biology. The year 1897 was coincidently the year Thomson established cathode rays as electrons and the chemists at Bayer began exploring acetylated salicylic acid as an improved treatment for pain. It took a while for the drug industry to learn to love mass spectrometry after the petroleum industry showed us the way in the 1950s.  
 
Indiana is blessed with three of the leading academic research centers for analytical chemistry at Indiana University, Notre Dame University and Purdue University. These three centers supply a significant percentage of the analytical scientists in the country. Purdue has done so for over a century. In fact, our very first chemistry professor, Harvey Wiley, worked with Teddy Roosevelt to establish the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is charged with keeping our food, drugs, medical devices and diagnostics trustworthy—no small task.
 
Our Indiana research universities excel at developing novel instrumentation in chromatography, laser spectroscopies, electrochemical sensors, immunoassays, electrophoresis, microfluidics, ultrasound imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance. These instruments enable the data that leads to an understanding of how things work. Medicine, astronomy, agriculture and food, biology, energy and the forensic and environmental sciences all advance as instrumentation becomes better, faster and more economic. During my engagement with this field, we have reduced both the size of what we can examine and the concentrations of substances therein, each by a millionfold.
 
The Dreyfus Foundation provided an excuse to celebrate one of the most important tools of physics, chemistry and biology. Mass spectrometry is little more than a century old. It has accelerated as a tool to study complex mixtures over the last 20 years, advancing thanks in no small measure to the contributions of Cooks, his students and his academic colleagues here in Indiana. Purdue University, Notre Dame University and Indiana University have multiple research groups further advancing mass spectrometry fundamentals, instrumentation and accessories.
 
While we celebrated September as Mass Spectrometry Month in Indiana, our state has long contributed very broadly to the analytical chemistry tools that virtually every reader of DDNews depends on for evidence based translational science. I'll drink to that. Red—no bubbles, please. Cheers!
 
Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.  
 


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