This summer I had the opportunity to work in the applications lab at Bruker Scientific. Bruker is a company that specializes in the manufacturing of mass spectrometers, which are instruments that can identify molecules based on their mass. This allows for chemists to learn the chemical makeup of many different materials, ranging from living tissue to pesticides. The mass spectrometers at Bruker are mostly time-of-flight mass spectrometers, which detect the masses of the molecules by shooting them through a vacuum into a detector that registers the mass of the particles.
Following about four days worth of safety training to make sure I could safely use the chemistry lab, I began working on a project involving LC-MS, or the combination of liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Liquid chromatography is a method of separating compounds based on polarity. By bombarding a substance with different solvents that attract molecules based on their polarity, scientists are able to remove certain compounds while leaving others behind. The liquid in liquid chromatography refers to the fact that all the chemical interactions are in liquid form. By combining liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists are able to send smaller pieces of a complex mixture into the mass spectrometer, which makes it easier to identify the pieces of the mixture rather than just the mixture as a whole. The project that I am working on looks at the effect decreasing the volume of the liquid chromatography has on the readings of the mass spectrometer. As long as the reading of the mass spectrometer are similar to the results from an experiment run with a higher volume system, the decreased volume would allow for a decrease in solvent used, and this lower volume would allow for materials to be saved for future experiments.
Unfortunately, the project has not exactly gone to plan.
Following some strange results from the first run of the LC-MS system, we quickly discovered that some part of the system had been contaminated; however, nobody could pinpoint exactly where the contamination was coming from. The contamination resulted in about two week’s worth of tests on every part of both the mass spectrometer and the liquid chromatography system. But this situation has been pretty awesome for me. For one, having to go through each possible source of contamination has gotten me to be pretty familiar with the inner workings of both the mass spectrometer and the liquid chromatography system. This troubleshooting has also gotten me familiar with a side of professional research that I would not have seen otherwise. Despite it not being ideal, errors do happen in labs, and it has been very interesting to see how many different ways the people at Bruker are able to attack a problem. Also, the issues with the system have allowed me to become very involved in the process to fix it. When faced with each problem the contamination has caused, people allow me to voice my opinion and help in running the different cleanings and tests on the machines. Though we have not figured out the source of contamination yet, I have still managed to learn and do a lot with the different materials at Bruker.
My experience at Bruker has been incredible so far. Under the guidance of my mentor Heino, I have learned how to run the software that controls the mass spectrometers, prepare samples of human plasma for analysis, and prepare different solvents for use in liquid chromatography, none of which I ever would have thought I would be doing as a seventeen-year-old. I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Schlenker and the team at Bruker for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to the rest this internship has to offer.