The LCGC Blog: Analytical Chemistry is Central to All Modern Research

Sep 05, 2018

I just finished a 10-month stint as Interim Associate Dean for Research and Development in the College of Science at The University of Texas Arlington. I was afforded that opportunity when some restructuring in another college left a temporary vacancy, which I was asked to fill. I certainly considered it an honor to be asked to serve in that role, but the temporary nature of that role also piqued my interest. For me, it seemed like a chance to do an internship in administration, to see if I liked it or not. I worked with great people, I did not really like the role. I will not describe here the minutia of what I did not like, but a major factor was that the new role really got in the way of the career path I chose—to do analytical chemistry research.

When someone asks me what we are working on right now, I always have to pause because the answer to that question changes a bit every few months. Although, like most researchers, we sometimes face constraints based on what research we can get supported, the beauty of analytical chemistry is that it can be applied in virtually any area of modern science or engineering research. That’s what I love about analytical chemistry.

By virtue of our collaborations with partners and sponsors like Shimadzu, Restek, and VUV Analytics, we often have our hands on some of the newest and most innovative instruments and products on the market. We may see a clear application where these new products could be useful, but certainly the manufacturers have also done their homework and know where the best market could be. Insight from manufacturers can indeed be a nice guide for selecting timely and impactful research areas. It does not matter to us if we are working in the environmental, pharmaceutical, energy, biological, or materials space. As long as we are adding value and doing something new with the instruments we have, then we are happy.

If you are reading this, you probably share a similar mindset. Chromatography and mass spectrometry are so universally applicable, once you have become experienced with them, you can recognize problems and potential solutions quite readily in many different realms of research. You learn to ask certain questions about the chemicals and samples you are asked to analyze, and then you can formulate a reasonable place to start. Because the applications can vary so widely, I feel like we are constantly on a learning curve as we encounter new challenges; and with every challenge we encounter, our experience grows and we become better at solving the next problem.

On the first day of my undergraduate instrumental analysis course, I always ask the students, “Do you know why analytical chemists are paid the big bucks?” Their first reaction is surprise at the prospect that you could possibly make big bucks being an analytical chemist. Maybe it’s not really the best path to wealth and stardom, but certainly analytical chemists are in high demand, and you can make a good living with such skills in your pocket. I do point that out, but then I also point out that analytical chemists get jobs and are paid well because they know how to identify and troubleshoot problems. Analytical instruments can generate an enormous amount of data in a small time, but of course, it is necessary to ensure that the data are of good quality.

I like to find out what area of science interests my students the most. It is then a pretty easy task to indicate examples of how analytical chemistry is a key component to success in that area. I tell them, “Even if you don’t want to be a hard-core analytical chemist, you need to know how these instruments work, how to approach different problems with different techniques, and how to recognize both good and bad data.” Pretty much all advertisements looking for chemists will request that the applicant have a good working knowledge of chromatography and mass spectrometry.

In the end, I have had more than one email from past students validating my assertion that the instrumental analysis class they took from me was one of the most important and practical courses they ever took in college. To that, I might say that they had to learn quite a bit of important stuff before they got to that point, or I might just sit back, smile, and thank them for making my day.

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the 
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

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