Time flies…

I have reached the 6 month mark as an ESR! It really doesn’t feel like that amount of time has passed at all but when I look back over the past few months activities I’m still amazed at just how much has been done. All 11 ESR’s have now started work on the project which means things are really kicking off. For today’s blog  I suppose it’s time I give you a brief description of what my work actually is and how I spend my time as a researcher.

The humble mass spectrometer

Firstly the title of my project is “confirmatory analysis through FoodSmartphone mass-spectrometry coupling” which is a deceivingly simple title for a complex project. So there’s a few things I need to define here in order for you to make sense of what it is I’m doing. Confirmatory analysis, for those of you not up to date on your European law, is defined as: “methods that provide full or complementary information enabling the substance to be unequivocally identified and if necessary quantified at the level of interest”. So lets contrast this with the definition for screening method: “methods that are used to detect the presence of a substance or class of substances at the level of interest”. That’s a lot to take in but I will summarize it as follows.

Confirmatory = I know exactly what compound is causing the test result

Screening = I have a very narrow range of compounds that can cause this test result

Now, there’s a lot more subtlety to this whole thing that I am leaving out but that’s enough information for me to explain what it is I do. This project consists of 11 PhD’s and my project is the only one which is based on confirmation using a bench top lab based technique, Mass-Spectrometry. The others will (mostly) be working on novel screening assays for testing food contaminants and I will be working on novel methods of coupling those assays to the mass spectrometer for “confirmation”! Lost yet? Trying to explain ones  research is an art form in and of itself and it’s something I still haven’t mastered after many years in research. You might be asking the question “why don’t we just go directly to confirmation and skip the middleman?”. That’s a very good question and the answer is pretty simple. Cost, complexity and weight. Cast your eyes to the first photo of this blog and you will see a mass spectrometer. That machine costs many hundreds of thousands of euros and weighs as much as three Vincent’s. That’s a lot of weight. Now I would love to put that sort of power in the palm of your hand and attach it to a smartphone but the technology just is not there yet. Instead we have screening assays such as those in the image below that cost only a few euros and can be coupled to a Smartphone for easy reading. The choice is easy, when creating tests capable of being coupled to Smartphones screening assays are the only way to go.

A lateral flow type screening assay showing a negative and positive result

So in summary, my colleagues create screening assays, fast rapid and cheap ways to test food for the presence of contaminants. The assays are then brought to me and through the use of novel coupling methods (that are still a secret!) and the power of a mass spectrometer I will be able to tell exactly what is causing the assay test results.

So that’s my research out of the way. I might revisit this at some point in a future blog and explain things a bit better as I create diagrams and start publishing my work so that you can get a better idea of what I do but for now you will have to make do with vague details until I have some papers to show for my effort!

Now, despite what the media might have you believe scientists do not spend all day in the lab. In the ideal world I could spend 5 days a week behind my MS and generate more data than I know how to handle. Instead My work time is spread across a variety of activities. My time as a PhD so far has seen me reading hundreds of papers, writing tens of thousand of words, meeting hundreds of fellow researchers and attending a variety of courses and seminars. PhD life is varied and it can be tough to keep up on everything. That’s why I have been attending a variety of courses the past month to help me adapt to this new way of living. I’m lucky that Wageningen University has such a large range of courses available to help me out. Below you can get a glimpse at just some of the courses on offer!

Wageningen graduate schools offerings

For me this is great as I have the opportunity to get access to a wide range of courses on my doorstep so I don’t have to walk very far! 😛 I must admit that these course have been a great help to me so far. I have started project and time management, scientific writing, brain training, dutch language courses and I even managed to fit in a course on mass spectrometry! While this sound like a lot you must remember that FoodSmartphone is also a training network where we have to up skill ourselves. This is perhaps my favorite thing about the network as I get to learn so many skills that will be useful to me throughout my research career. Spending my entire 3 years in the project locked in the lab, while appealing to my inner introvert/scientist, would not help me grow and prepare myself for the research world that awaits. There’s still a lot of areas I need to improve on but that’s why I have another 2 and a half years on the project!

This blog was a bit disjointed this week as the last few weeks have been busy with courses and data collection but next time I plan to walk you through a week in the life of an ESR from a Monday to a Friday. Until then. Tot ziens!



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