Mass spectrometer offers students space-age experience

Mass spectrometer offers students space-age experience

By University Communications
January 2, 2013

Photo: UW-Stout Spotlight Photo

Students at University of Wisconsin-Stout may have a new appreciation for a nondescript piece of equipment that sits on a laboratory countertop in Jarvis Hall Science Wing.

If they have been paying attention to news about space exploration, they would know that the upright machine — about the size of a three-drawer filing cabinet — is so high-tech that a similar one is sitting on the surface of Mars.

When the NASA rover Curiosity landed Aug. 6 on Mars, it carried three spectrometers, including a mass spectrometer, as part of its scientific payload. About a year ago UW-Stout students began using the school’s first mass spectrometer.

UW-Stout’s spectrometer is a MALDI, which stands for matrix assisted laser desorption ionization. It is one of several types of mass spectrometers for various uses. Although mass spectrometry dates to the mid-1980s and spectrometry in general to 1912, the technology in recent years has become increasingly sophisticated.

The MALDI in Jarvis Hall is just as high-tech, if not more, than the spectrometers on Curiosity but in essence accomplishes the same thing: It helps determine the mass of particles by analyzing the weight of their molecules. This aids in studying the biological, chemical and physical properties of compounds.

The spectrometers on Curiosity are helping NASA engineers examine rocks and soil as part of its mission to determine if microbial life ever existed on the Red Planet. In mid-December, Curiosity moved into an area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay to study the rocks.

UW-Stout students aren’t researching issues quite that big, but the machine could have a major impact on several academic programs and improve job prospects for students who use it, according to Jennifer Grant, assistant professor of biology and UW-Stout’s spectrometry expert.

Jordan Fouks, of Deer Park, a senior majoring in applied science, is thankful he’s had the chance to use the MALDI. “There aren’t that many of these machines. UW-Stout is lucky to have one. Experience with this in the job market will jump off the resumé,” Fouks said.

Grant said the MALDI is “a very important chemical analysis tool and is used in medical schools, government labs, drug company labs. If you’re analyzing molecules, you need to know how mass spectrometry works.”

The MALDI can be used in applied science, packaging, food systems and technology and other UW-Stout programs and not just for research but in general education courses, such as biology and chemistry.

“I think this is the best type of spectrometer for undergraduate students. It’s very easy to use and explain to them,” Grant said, adding that she hopes students will be able to use the machine in multiple courses “so they can understand it well.”

Recently, Kim Kadlec, a sophomore applied science major from Menomonie, was in the lab using the MALDI as a primary research tool for her project “Microsystem Analysis in the Red Cedar Watershed.”

The MALDI can analyze bacteria, for example, in several hours, whereas it might take several days to accomplish the task without a MALDI. Once samples are prepared, the MALDI can run up to 50 samples an hour, Grant said.

It works like this: A sample of matrix molecules is put into the MALDI and a laser light is shined on the molecules. They become ionized, or charged, and rise off the plate into a vacuum chamber. This is called desorption. The smaller, or lighter, molecules are the first to reach a detector, thereby providing a means of analysis. “If we know the speed, we can calculate the mass,” Grant said.

MALDI mass spectrometers are rare at primarily undergraduate universities around the country, partly because it’s an emerging tool in science, but more common at large research universities. They also are common in corporate laboratories, all the more reason students should learn how to use them, Grant said.

“Student experience with the MALDI is relevant. There’s a disconnect between industry and academia. Very few people understand that we need to teach people about MALDI early,” Grant said.

Grant, the 2012 Outstanding Resecher of the Year at UW-Stout, is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. She has published peer-reviewed papers and presented research on mass spectrometry. She has done postdoctoral work at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Grant has a doctorate in molecular and cellular pharmacology from the University of Wisconsin Medical School.