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JASMS Spotlights Emerging Investigators

Since January 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the landscape in which we conduct our day-to-day lives, both personally and professionally. For many researchers, laboratories were completely shut down or had very limited access for months and, for some, have still not fully reopened or returned to normal. Disproportionately affected by these hardships have been academic researchers just starting their independent careers, whose momentum was stalled during the critical period of time as they were establishing and ramping up the trajectories of their research programs.

Despite these challenges, however, we are pleased to highlight in this issue of the Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry the work of 11 early career researchers, whose articles comprise the 2021 ASMS “Emerging Investigators” Focus section.

First published in 2015, the goal of the Emerging Investigators Focus is to showcase some of the exciting independent work that is being performed by early career researchers who have already demonstrated their potential to make important contributions to their respective areas of research and have the potential to become future leaders within the field.

I spoke with several Emerging Investigators featured in the Focus to learn more about their work.

Stacy Malaker

Tell us about yourself.

I am currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Yale University. By way of background, I am a first-generation college student from metro Detroit, and I attended the University of Michigan for undergrad. During that time, I worked in a peptide synthesis core facility; this is where I first became captivated by mass spectrometry. I solidified this commitment when I headed to graduate school at the University of Virginia to join Don Hunt’s laboratory. My thesis work focused on identifying MHC-associated glycopeptides, which gave me my first taste of the complex world of glycobiology. This led me to Carolyn Bertozzi’s laboratory at Stanford University, where I got introduced to densely O-glycosylated proteins called mucins. The rest is history!

Outside of science, I enjoy sports, traveling, spending time with loved ones, and watching the Bachelor.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

Broadly, my areas of research encompass mass spectrometry, glycoproteomics, glycobiology, chemical biology, and biochemistry. More specifically, mucin-domain glycoproteins comprise a class of proteins whose densely O-glycosylated mucin domains contribute to unique secondary structures, biochemical processes, and roles in human health. Despite this, very little is known about the site-specific molecular structures and biological activities of mucins, in part because they are extremely challenging to study. Thus, my laboratory is focused on establishing methods and technology to study mucins by mass spec. Additionally, we study the biological context of mucins, since these proteins play integral roles in numerous diseases, but their functions are poorly understood.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

Learn how to sequence peptides! (As a Don Hunt/Jeff Shabanowitz trainee, I must preach their gospel.) The first thing I learned in graduate school was peptide sequencing by CAD and ETD. Search algorithms can only tell you so much information, so being able to dig into your data is incredibly useful. Personally, this has helped me discover novel post-translational modifications, contaminating proteins in my samples, and unwanted metal adducts.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

Accepting the Nobel Prize in Stockholm! Jokes aside, it is hard to predict where the science will lead us 10 years from now. I just hope to be enjoying science as much as I do today. I am continually inspired by research and, especially, by my trainees. The icing on the cake would be discovering useful insight into mucin-driven diseases, ideally to help in developing diagnostic and therapeutic interventions.

Tao Huan

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Tao Huan. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. I was born in Jiashan, China. After completing my B.S. at Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, China) (2010), I pursued my Ph.D. training at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) (2010-2015) and post-doc training at the Scripps Research Institute (San Diego, California) (2015-2018). My current research lab at UBC has 5 Ph.D. students, one technician and several undergraduate students, and we have just celebrated our third-year anniversary. In my spare time, I am a motorcyclist and a volleyball player (setter).

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

My current area of research is to synergistically develop analytical chemistry and bioinformatics for mass spectrometry-based metabolomics. Unlike traditional analytical method development that focuses mainly on analytical chemistry, the uniqueness of the synergistic development of analytical and bioinformatic methods allows for emphasis of the power of bioinformatics, which is the key to making omics data valuable. The synergistic development also allows to fill the knowledge gaps between analytical chemists and bioinformaticians. Furthermore, through collaborating with biological researchers, we bring metabolomics into the postgenomic era of biology and next-generation healthcare.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

Unlike other traditional analytical technologies, mastering metabolomics requires knowledge of not only analytical chemistry, but also bioinformatics and a clear understanding of the biological question. Furthermore, metabolomics is an evolving research area in which new tools and strategies are developed every year. For people who are new to metabolomics, it is highly recommended to have an open mind, and keep learning and trying new analytical and bioinformatic techniques.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

In 10 years from now, my lab will have developed a suite of analytical and bioinformatic tools that ensure the high sensitivity, accuracy, and precision of mass spectrometry-based metabolomics. Together with other metabolomics researchers around the world, we will turn metabolomics into a practical and easy-to-use research tool that is indispensable in a biologist’s toolkit, like western blot and PCR in current biological research. By then, as an analytical chemist, the research focus in my lab will be shifted to push the limit of mass spectrometry for high throughput metabolomics that is affordable by the general public.

Xinxing Zhang

Tell us about yourself.

I’m currently a Professor of Chemistry in the College of Chemistry at Nankai University of China. I earned my B.S. in chemistry at Fudan University of Shanghai in 2009 and completed my Ph.D. in physical chemistry studying cluster mass spectrometry and laser spectroscopy in the Department of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University under the guidance of Professor Kit Bowen in 2015. From 2016 to 2018, I performed post-doctoral research under the direction of Professor J. L. Beauchamp in the Beckman Institute of Caltech, mainly studying the oxidation and antioxidation chemistry of lipids at the air-water interface. Since 2018, I started my independent career at Nankai University through China’s 1000 Talent Program.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

The current area of research of my group uses home-built apparatus to study the reaction dynamics of amphiphilic molecules at the air-water interface, as well as the laser spectroscopy and reactivity of clusters in the gas phase.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

My one piece of advice would be “always think at the (sub)molecular level as if you are one of the molecules.”

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

I wish I could achieve more insights of the chemical dynamics at the air-water interfaces that play critical roles on both biophysical and environmental fronts by using or developing new mass spectrometric techniques.

Ian Webb

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Richmond, VA, attended undergraduate school at the College of William and Mary, graduate school at Purdue, and did a post-doc at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Currently, my wife and I live in the Indianapolis area with our son (6) and daughter (just over a year). I like sports and music and will play guitar (hasn’t happened much lately with the arrival of our daughter).

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

I am interested in applying ion mobility/mass spectrometry to answering questions in protein structure and reactivity.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

Find mentors, especially mentors that will read your proposals and give you helpful feedback.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

I hope that the methods we are developing in our laboratory become adopted more broadly by the community. I would still like to be leading a dynamic and growing research group.

Ling Hao

Tell us about yourself.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017, mentored by Prof. Lingjun Li. Then post-doctoral training at the National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, co-mentored by Dr. Richard Youle and Dr. Michael Ward. I joined George Washington University at Washington, D.C. in 2019 as an assistant professor of chemistry. I’m a curiosity-driven person. Discovering the unknown is intrinsically what excites me.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

Developing proteomics, metabolomics, and proximity labeling techniques to understand the molecular mechanisms of neurological disorders and discover molecular biomarkers for brain diseases.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

Embrace failures in research and develop trouble-shooting skills. Share your failure stories and negative feelings with mentors, friends, or family.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

Have an established and well-funded mid-size research group working on cutting-edge and multi-disciplinary research topics on analytical chemistry and neuroscience. My students would enjoy doing research and our already established techniques can be helpful to the scientific communities.

Kelly Hines

Tell us about yourself.

I’m an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia. I started this position in Fall 2019 after completing a post-doc in Libin Xu’s group at the University of Washington in Seattle.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

We’re using liquid chromatography, ion mobility and mass spectrometry to explore the relationship between antibiotic resistance and membrane lipid composition in pathogenic bacteria. Staphylococcus aureus can make lipids using the host’s fatty acids, which are structurally different from Staph fatty acids. This makes the lipid composition in vivo much more complicated than in vitro experiments suggest. By combining multi-dimensional separations with mass spectrometry and isotope labeling, we can distinguish the lipids made entirely by the bacteria from those that were derived in part from the host. The goal is to determine how the use of exogenous fatty acids influences the susceptibility of Staph to antibiotics.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

It’s become so easy to generate a TON of data with mass spectrometry and there are all sorts of software and tools out there to process it. Never discount the benefits of looking at your data with your own eyes though. You will learn so much from it.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

The flexibility to pursue different interests and curiosities is one of best parts of academic research. It’s exciting to have so many possibilities. I never would have guessed ten years ago that I’d be growing bacteria and studying antibiotic resistance. I’m really curious to see what my lab will be using mass spectrometry for 10 years from now, but I hope it still involves lipids and ion mobility.

Jace W. Jones

Tell us about yourself.

I am an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Mass Spectrometry Center in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. I received my B.S. degree (biology major, chemistry minor) from Whitworth University (Spokane, WA). I obtained my Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington under the mentorship of Dr. František Tureček. My graduate research focused on the use of gas-phase ion chemistry to investigate electron-based ion fragmentation and to structurally characterize glycolipids. After my Ph.D., I completed a post-doc position in the laboratory of Dr. David R. Goodlett (University of Washington School of Pharmacy) which further involved using gas-phase ion dissociation techniques to investigate glycolipid structure. I then spent several years in industry investigating the role of environmental contaminants on land resources and human health. After several years, I returned to academics to pursue a basic research career. During this time, I progressed from research scientist to research faculty under the mentorship of Dr. Maureen A. Kane (University of Maryland School of Pharmacy). In the Kane Lab, I focused on developing targeted quantitation assays for metabolomic applications and method development for discovery lipidomics. In the Fall of 2018, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to start my own lab as a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

My lab is focused on developing mass spectrometry-based analytical platforms to probe the structure/function dynamics of lipids. The knowledge gained by comprehensively characterizing lipid structure and anchoring structure to quantitative abundance provides a unique opportunity to investigate how disruption in lipid metabolism impacts human health. We use a combination of chromatography, ion mobility, and mass spectrometry to characterize structure, and then anchor structure to quantitative abundance. By defining molecular structure and anchoring structure to quantitative abundance, we seek to gain insight into distressed biological pathways that form the basis of disease. Our method development which includes the use of discovery (untargeted) and quantitative workflows is paired with relevant biomedical applications. Our current applications include defining sphingolipid metabolism in hepatotoxicity, investigating how ether phospholipids contribute to brain injury and aging, and the role membrane lipids play in viral pathogenesis.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

Mass spectrometry has become a ubiquitous analytical tool for investigating a wide range of scientific questions. That said, it is still a very exciting time to be involved in mass spectrometry both in terms of method development and applications. I would advise those entering the field to identify an application area that inspires them. If you are excited about the fundamental science question you are investigating it is going to be much easier to weather and push past the inevitable challenges research presents. Further, I would encourage those to not detach their fundamental knowledge of mass spectrometry from their chosen application. I do not believe mass spectrometry should be viewed as a black box; rather, the pairing of mass spec knowledge with a unique application allows you to inquisitively question how improvement in the mass spec process could more adequately address unanswered questions. Finally, a bit of advice from a mentor who inspired me to stay the course and pursue my desire for an academic research position even after I did not think it would happen (it took me 9 years from my Ph.D. to land a PI position): “keep chopping that wood, a tree doesn’t fall on one hit; rather, it is the persistent and consistent effort that will prove vital.”

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

I hope to see myself progressing through the tenure process by consistently contributing to the scientific community via quality publications, inspiring the next generation of scientists via thoughtful mentorship, educating pharmaceutical scientists in the fundamentals of analytical chemistry (especially mass spectrometry), and contributing to a more equitable society where science education is universally accessible. It is my hope that our scientific contributions can benefit human health and we (as a lab) constantly strive to connect our research to advancing science in an empathetic manner.

Qian Zhao

Tell us about yourself.

My training on mass spectrometry started in 2011 when I was a visiting Ph.D. student in Prof. Albert Heck’s group at the Utrecht University. At that time, my project was to identify binding targets of natural products. In Albert’s group, native mass spectrometry helped me reveal the binding stoichiometry of natural product-target complexes, while tandem mass spectrometry helped uncover the compound binding sites. I inevitably fell in love with these powerful technologies. As a result, I was determined to continue the journey in mass spectrometry and joined Prof. Alma Burlingame’s and Prof. Jack Taunton’s teams in University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) as a post-doctoral researcher. It was another eye-opening experience to me working in Al’s group. I got to see how advanced mass spectrometry technology greatly facilitate biology understandings. In 2017, I started my own research group in Hong Kong focusing on developing proteomics approaches and applying them to solve fundamental biology questions. I have also served as an editorial board member for Molecular & Cellular Proteomics, hoping to give back to the community that I love.

What is your current area of research (or areas of interest)?

My research group has two research orientations. We investigate protein-small molecule interactions with synthetic probes and proteomics. Meanwhile, we are interested in non-canonical translation events, including microproteins encoded by non-canonical open reading frames and non-canonical immunopeptides.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone just entering the field?

It would be beneficial to interact with scientists in the field of mass spectrometry. Our community is full of talented scientists who are willing to nurture younger generations. When I was trying to tackle difficult questions, I got helpful technical support and a lot of encouragement.

Where do you hope to see your career 10 years from now?

Hopefully I will have made some solid contributions to my research areas by then. By that time, some of our research findings will be put into translation in industry and clinic practice.

Explore the Full Focus Section.

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