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Innovations In

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For this years' Pittcon award winners, focusing on solving problems is the key to encouraging innovation in their labs.
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Innovations in Analytical Chemistry

A few of the 2022 Pittcon award winners describe the advancements their teams are making in analytical chemistry

Rachel Muenz

Community drives innovation in science. When scientists come together to share knowledge and ideas, they are able to do some of their best work. For the analytical chemistry community, the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon) is one critical way to connect with top scientists from all over the world. Though initially planned to be a live event in March, organizers recently announced Pittcon has been canceled due to  pandemic safety concerns. However, the team was working out alternative means to connect at press time. 

“Pittcon is where we share all of our scientific information and collaborate with all of the top scientists in the world in analytical chemistry,” says Rose Clark, program chair of the 2022 conference. “That allows us to grow and expand.”

The 13 awards that were presented at Pittcon, like the overall event itself, provide a showcase of some of the most exciting work happening in analytical chemistry, Clark adds.

Innovating in many areas of analytical chemistry

This year’s winners and their teams have impacted a variety of fields, including environmental science, personalized medicine, forensics, biopharmaceuticals, and many more. Lab Manager recently had a chance to speak with four of the award winners about their work. 

Kimberly Prather of the University of California, San Diego, winner of the 2022 Pittsburgh Analytical Chemistry Award for her work in atmospheric aerosols, first got into analytical chemistry through developing a type of on-line single-particle mass spectrometry called aerosol time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Over the years, she and her team have expanded and improved the system, allowing the instrument to be used in field and lab studies to gain more insight into how aerosols affect humans and the environment in real time—for example, the impact of aerosols on cloud formation and climate.

“We've now made these instruments small enough so we can fly them through clouds and actually directly determine which aerosol sources, such as dust, wildfires, sea spray, or pollution, seed those clouds and whether different aerosol compositions change the location and intensity of rain and snow,” Prather says.

More recently, she’s become interested in airborne microbes that get their start in the ocean, and the gases they emit.

“We're really trying to understand how human-microbe interactions are changing and how that's ultimately changing the composition of our atmosphere, climate, and human health,” Prather says.

While the Prather team’s work is helping us understand how aerosols affect the environment and humans, the contributions of other award winners and their teams to analytical chemistry target human health care.

Wei Gao, winner of the 2022 Pittsburgh Conference Achievement Award for his work in wearable electrochemical biosensors for personalized medicine, and Steven A. Soper, winner of the 2022 Ralph N. Adams Award in Bioanalytical Chemistry for his team’s work in microfluidics and nanofluidics for diagnostics, are both looking to solve health care issues exacerbated by the current pandemic, as well as other diseases. Gao’s team aims to develop technology to solve key challenges in personalized health care “through chemistry, materials, and device innovations,” he says. Soper’s group focuses on using microfluidics and nanofluidics for the management of a variety of diseases to enable precision medicine. 

In the early days of his career, Soper helped foster single-molecule detection and grow microfluidics from its infancy. He is now helping to grow the area of nanofluidics for some unique applications, including the molecular analysis of liquid biopsy markers. 

“What's really unique [with] our work is using plastic as the material of choice to build the microfluidics and even nanofluidics,” Soper explains. “And now that's becoming extremely important, because people are transitioning these devices into diagnostic applications.”

“I'm passionate about what we're working on and, as a result, I hope that builds off into my students.”

He adds that they are working on developing disposable devices that companies can mass produce at a low cost, facilitating their transition into the diagnostic or clinical market. Two key projects involve developing an at-home test for infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and a single-molecule DNA/RNA sequencing platform. For the COVID-19 test, people spit into an iPhone-sized instrument that quickly generates a result of whether they are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and whether they are infectious or not. 

The fully automated sequencing platform Soper’s team is working on, which is based on a chip containing sub-10 nm structures and made in a plastic via injection molding, also has applications for COVID-19, as it can be used at the point of care to quickly and accurately determine which SARS-CoV-2 variants someone may be infected with, such as Delta, or the more recent Omicron variant.

“[We’re] basically taking the sequencing out of the central laboratory and putting it into remote sites at the point of care,” Soper says, adding the device will help boost overall sequencing capacity in the US and can be used for a variety of other applications.

Meanwhile, James P. Grinias is taking home both the ACS Analytical Division Satinder Ahuja Award for Young Investigators in Separation Science and the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography Award for his team’s work in chemical separations. The team is using a portable liquid chromatography system for forensics and biopharma analyses and are also working on a two-dimensional separation technique that uses supercritical fluid chromatography for metabolomics applications. Another project they’re working on that has applications in biopharmaceutical analysis is a new two-dimensional liquid chromatography (2D-LC) technique.

“We're trying to scale things down from bigger instrumentation and separation columns down to capillary scale, so lower flow rates and less waste generation,” says Grinias of the 2D-LC technique.

Individual awards, team success

While honored to be chosen for the 2022 group, Pittcon award winners were quick to give credit to their students, colleagues, mentors, and collaborators for their successes.

“I feel like I just receive [the award], but it's on behalf of my whole group,” says Prather, who’s also director of the National Science Foundation Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment. “Without everybody else, I would never have gotten this award.”

Grinias also stresses that his wins are a product of everyone he’s worked with over the years.

“I really want to give as much credit as possible to my students,” says Grinias, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at Rowan University. “I’m also thankful to lots of mentors that I've had over the years who have really helped guide me and teach me, both in terms of technical skills but lots of other things as well—general management styles and techniques on how to move a project forward.”

For Soper, past mentors have a strong connection to his award. His PhD advisor was professor Ted Kuwana, the first graduate student of professor Ralph Adams, who the Bioanalytical Chemistry award is named after. Soper adds he also knew Adams well, having taken one of his classes as a grad student at the University of Kansas.

He says one key piece of advice he took from Adams that he passes on to his own students and still follows to this day is, "Work hard, and love what you do, and the rewards will come."

“This is what I've done throughout my career, where I just—I love what we're doing,” says Soper, who is now also a Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas. “I'm passionate about what we're working on and, as a result, I hope that builds off into my students.”

Gao, an assistant professor of Medical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, also highlights his team when describing how he feels about winning the award.

“I am extremely excited to receive this prestigious honor,” he says. “This is a great recognition to our efforts in the field of wearable biosensors.”

Encouraging innovation

As for how they encourage innovation in their labs, awardees say that focusing on solving problems is important.

“I try to train students to be fearless, to just be interested in solving a problem. We really work hard on training the students to think about what's the science question, and then, what's the tool you can use to answer it, and if you don't have the tool, then go build the tool,” Prather says.

Thinking of problems in an interdisciplinary way and bringing in other perspectives is crucial, she adds.

“You really try to train students to think about the whole package of how to solve a problem, rather than just bury down in one little niche,” Prather says. “It's been really rewarding for me to train students and the number one word that is used to explain my students is fearless. Most of them don't start there, but my goal is to get them there—you know, just be a problem solver. You can solve any problem and…that pushes you toward being more innovative.”

Grinias and his team are focused on bringing in the rest of the scientific community to enable innovation by making the methods and hardware they develop as accessible, low-cost, and open-source as possible.

“We want to try and share as much of the hardware construction and software interfaces we have developed with as many people as possible,” he says. “We try to use open-source electronics, 3D printing, and similar tools so that it's easier for other people to pick up and run with any sort of methodology that we come up with.”