September 18, 2006
Mass Spectrometry Facility boosts research efforts
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale is now home to an array of scientific instruments that will help researchers and students across campus — and the entire SIU system —pursue their work and the grant money to fund it.
The Mass Spectrometry Facility is a collection of high-tech devices based in the James W. Neckers Building. The various instruments — sizes range from that of a small refrigerator to a small automobile —use different methods to reveal the identities of compounds based on the molecules that form them.
For researchers, it's an extremely valuable facility, providing them a practically endless variety of applications for science experiments and private business such as agriculture or environmental industries.
University officials say the facility also represents a big step toward attaining a key goal outlined in the University's strategic planSouthern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment – becoming a top 75 publicly supported research institution by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.
"This is another indication that our campus has facilities on the cutting edge, " said John A. Koropchak, vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate School at SIUC. "We want to be a top 75 publicly supported research institution and this is the kind of thing those places do and the kind of facilities they have."
Mass spectrometry, in general, refers to measuring the molecular mass of compounds in order to identify them. To do mass spectrometry, two things must happen. First, the substance under analysis must be in gas form and second, the molecules must possess an electronic charge.
The instruments, which assist chemists, biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and others, can do everything from measuring the amount of transfatty acids in a cow's milk to detecting dioxins in fish to analyzing what molecules make for the most pleasant taste and bouquet in wine.
Koropchak said mass spectrometry is in the public eye more than one might think.
"If you watch the ‘CSI' shows, probably half the things they're doing when they're investigating crimes involve mass spectrometry," he said, referring to the popular television crime drama series. "It's probably one of the most powerful scientific instruments today."
Koropchak formerly taught a graduate course on the subject at SIUC and worked with such instruments as far back as 1990, when the Coal Research Center got one for its facility in Carterville. Officials later moved it to Neckers, and eventually the University acquired a handful of related instruments. Some of those instruments became obsolete over the years as replacement parts became unavailable and technology improved.
This latest incarnation of mass spectrometry at SIUC, however, centralizes the operations, involves new instruments obtained through almost $1 million in federal grants and comes with two new faculty members — a married couple —each of whom bring extensive experience in facilitating this type of research.
Mary Kinsel, director of the facility, has 10 years of experience in the development of commercial instrumentation for clinical and drug discovery applications. She earned her doctorate in analytical chemistry and her background centers on the operation and maintenance of the highly specialized and technical instruments.
Her husband, Gary Kinsel, is a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department in the College of Science at SIUC. He has more than 20 years of experience in analytical chemistry and basic research using mass spectrometry.
"Gary brings the hardcore knowledge on mass spectrometry with all his research," Koropchak said. "He provides a great depth of expertise in terms of designing experiments and so forth.
"Mary's experience is in maintaining these instruments and their day-to-day operation, which is always a challenge," Koropchak said. "These are powerful instruments but if they're not kept operating they're no better than a couple of boat anchors. So getting both of these people was quite opportunistic for us. Having them both here makes the facility that much more valuable to the faculty."
The Mass Spectrometry Facility includes several main, modern instruments, two of which deal with biological substances, such as proteins, and are useful in areas such as biomedical research.
The so-called MALDI, which stands for matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization, is one of these. To use it, researchers mix the substance with a neutral substance known as a matrix and then place it in the chamber's vacuum chamber where they fire a laser at it, sending a gaseous, electrically charged plume airborne where the instrument can analyze it.
The second such instrument is a liquid chromatograph, which uses a technique called "electro spray ionization." This involves applying an electrical charge to a fine spray that contains the substance of interest, which is then analyzed.
The facility also features a mass spectrometer connected to a gas chromatograph instrument, which looks at volatile substances – substances that are airborne – by bombarding them with a beam of electrons and watching how the molecules react to the ensuing collisions. It is used for studying items such as pesticides and doing drug analysis.
"A modern mass spectrometry facility has broad application in basic science," said Mary Kinsel. "It can be used in plant science, zoology, chemistry and many other ways. It's a critical need for researchers."
The facility, which has been quietly operating for several months, will improve the speed and accuracy of SIUC researchers' work, and will make them more attractive to granting organizations, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, when applying for funding.
"Any kind of grant reviewer is going to look at all the resources available to the researcher," Koropchak said. "If they have to go to say, Seattle, a couple times a year to do this work, that's not going to be as productive as going to the building next door. So that's in our favor now."
Officials plan a facility opening from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at Neckers 103. A new informational Web site that researchers also can use to schedule time at the facility recently became available at www.mass-spec.siu.edu.
Though the University has done little so far to announce its availability, SIUC researchers already are lining up to use the instruments. The facility will run experiments or train researchers and graduate students to use the instruments themselves. Officials expect demand for the facility to grow.
"There are collaborations developing already across campus, and even across the SIU system," Koropchak said. He credited faculty members with writing a string of successful grant proposals to obtain millions of federal dollars to purchase equipment for the acility and others on campus.
"It's a credit to the faculty and quality we've been hiring and their competitiveness," he said.
Gary Kinsel said having the facility well equipped and fully staffed is critical to the University's aspirations to be a leader in research.
"You're not going to do that without having this equipment on campus," he said.