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An overview of some of the women working in separation science, particularly in gas chromatography (GC), and the cutting-edge research they are involved with.
Although British scientists A.T. James and A.J.P. Martin are widely credited with the invention of gas chromatography (GC), the first reported use of GC was actually by female scientist Dr Erika Cremer in the 1940s (1). We like to think that we have come a long way since then, but a gender gap has persisted within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In fact, a recent study by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) still shows that only 23% of accepted papers have a corresponding author who is a woman (2).
To coincide with the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Friday 11 February 2022, SepSolve Analytical hosted an e-seminar entitled “Food, Fire and Fuel: Recent Advances in the Application of Gas Chromatography” to celebrate women in science (3). The seminar featured five presentations from female scientists about their use of GC across a diverse range of application areas.
I was delighted to be able to chair this event and engage with the speakers about their exciting research. Here’s my summary of the presentations.
Rachael Szafnauer from Markes International (UK) kicked things off with an overview of flavour profiling of hard seltzers. These drinks have gained huge popularity across Europe and USA, and Rachael demonstrated the use of immersive sorptive extraction and GC–mass spectrometry (MS) to identify the flavour volatiles present. Rachael explained that it is important for manufacturers to be able to gain these insights in order to protect brand reputation and to keep up with fast
Go with the Flow
Giorgia Purcaro from the University of Liège (Belgium) then treated us to an overview of the various applications her research team have been running using flow-modulated comprehensive GC×GC. Her presentation really showed the diversity of this enhanced separation technique, with breath biomarker analysis, fatty acids profiling of food, and even flower scent among the applications discussed.
The Industry Perspective
Importantly, the industry perspective was also covered, with a presentation by Melissa Dunkle from Dow Chemical (Netherlands). Her current research focuses on the analysis of pyrolysis oils—a potential recycling option for mixed plastic waste to help move towards a circular economy. To tackle these challenging samples, Melissa showed a multi-hyphenated approach using GC×GC–flame ionization detection/sulphur chemiluminescent detection/time-of-flight mass spectrometry (FID/SCD/TOF-MS). As Melissa stated “you really need to be a team player” when you are working on a project this complicated because there are many people involved, not only within the core R&D team but also outside business partners too.
Through the Fire and Fames
We then ventured back to academia with a look at Nadin Boegelsack’s PhD research from Mount Royal University (Canada) before she joined the SepSolve team last year. Her project also used GC×GC–TOF-MS to gather data to increase conviction rates in wildfire arson cases. To put it in perspective, over 700 wildfires occurred in Canada in 2020 alone, but unfortunately current methods struggle to resolve ignitable liquid residues from wildfire debris. The goal of Nadin’s work was to develop a more robust approach to help improve conviction rates in arson investigations.
“Sniffing” Out Parkinson’s Disease
In the final talk of the day, we heard from Ilaria Belluomo from Imperial College London (UK) on her latest study on breath volatiles. Non-invasive tests are thought to be the future of diagnostic medicine and Ilaria discussed the possibility of using biomarkers in breath for the diagnosis of neurological diseases. We know that dogs—and even some people—are able to detect an odour related to Parkinson’s disease, so Ilaria’s study aims to identify the compounds responsible.
Of course, the scientific content was to an extremely high standard, but personally, my favourite part of each presentation was hearing about the career paths of each speaker and their journey to get to where they are now.
I think the journeys showed that it is not always easy and it is not always a straight line (in fact, Nadin’s journey spanned several continents!), but if science and technology excites you then explore a career in it! Find out what you like and what you’re good at and you’ll succeed.
The more we celebrate women in science, the more we will inspire future generations to pursue it as a career. There are some excellent initiatives out there already, such as Females in Mass Spectrometry (FeMS), who host a range of networking and mentoring events (4). Perhaps we should consider a similar forum for separation scientists?
As Dr. Katelynn Perrault said recently, “Maybe one day we will all be celebrating together the inaugural awardee for an ‘Erika Cremer Prize in Gas Chromatography’” (5).
Laura McGregor’s background is in analytical forensic science, and her Ph.D. (at the University of Strathclyde, UK) focused on the chemical fingerprinting of environmental contamination using GC×GC−TOF-MS. Following roles in application support and product marketing for Markes International, she joined SepSolve in October 2017, where she oversees marketing activities across the full product range.