The LCGC Blog: Chromatographers and Chromatography Users

News
Article
ColumnJune 2024
Volume 20
Issue 6
Pages: 18–20

Are you a chromatographer or a chromatography user?

I recently read a thought-provoking opinion piece from Rick Yost, Professor Emeritus, on the current state of “Mass Spectrometrists Versus Mass Spec Users” (1). Yost concludes that “the demand for analytical scientists with experience and training in advanced MS techniques exceeds the supply of such individuals.” This sounds eerily familiar to a commentary written by the shadowy figure Incognito eight years past in The Column, titled “Are You a Chromatographer or a User of Chromatography” (2). One may start to wonder if other subsets of analytical chemistry are struggling with the same dilemma. Incognito’s differentiation factors could well be broadly applied, in that a chromatographer will have a hunger for the technique that leads to a desire to understand fundamentals, applications, data analysis, and practical know-how. “It’s a thirst for knowledge about the underlying principles and theories and how they can be used in practice to produce better quality results.” Yes, a passion for separation science will motivate someone to pursue the title of true chromatographer, but what exactly is the process or pathways to achieve this? Must we take a slew of method development courses to elevate beyond operator? It can’t hurt. Can years of applied experience substitute for a formal education? Absolutely. Is a true chromatographer one who can recite the resolution equation on demand? That last one is a bit of a trick question (3). Yet, what is the secret ingredient to whip up the next batch of chromatographers?

Which Knowledge is the Best Knowledge?

Incognito dials into a desire to better one’s knowledge of chromatography as a key step to evolution. The problem with a dynamic field such as separation science is that what we know is continuously changing and expanding. The reality is, there is no way any one person can learn everything about everything on even a single subject. Knowledge is infinite. Hence, teachers (inclusive of institutional educators, short-course instructors, on-line content developers, and more) struggle with deciding what the most important thing to teach is in their limited class time availability. The best teachers will continuously evolve as the most relevant current content changes. They will also leverage the latest and greatest means by which they instruct their students. As a digital immigrant, I have experienced teaching styles from chalk board transcription to 35 mm slide shows to immersive virtual experiences. Not everyone learns the same way (oral, visual, hands-on), but exceptional instructors will find ways to offer various and modern options to engage all learning styles.

When I took instrumental analysis, I dutifully learned how to design operational amplifier circuits on paper and how an oscilloscope works (down to the details of the mechanics of the electron gun and phosphor screen, no less). I could even do basic binary math. Do future chromatographers need these same skills? Perhaps some, but not all. I never learned hydraulics to any significant degree and still have cheat sheets for whenever I encounter an HPLC system that requires compressibility settings. Does that relegate me to user status? The service engineer probably knows more about the details of what is physically inside my fancy instrument, while I can explain the benefits of a dual-reciprocating pump on paper. I think what’s key is that the user probably won’t give either the innards or the theory a second thought, while the chromatographer will be curious about one or both. Alas, many things I learned years ago have yet to be of service in my professional life—there are not too many oscilloscopes floating around modern pharmaceutical analytical labs—while others are a daily occurrence (it’s hard to overstate the importance of pKa). Surely, there must be some foundational, common layer of knowledge that everyone should learn to go beyond user. I think that base knowledge is this: You must learn how to learn. Thus, the curious will know how to efficiently find, understand, and apply the answers to their separation questions, regardless of if they are studying at a university, at work, or from home. That is perhaps one express lane to becoming a chromatographer in title.

Easy-Baked Lessons

We live in an amazing time with so much information available at our literal fingertips. The card catalogs of days past have been replaced with internet search engines. The helpful librarian that aided in finding “that book” or “that journal” on the shelf can now be found in an AI algorithm. While DIY learning is very much possible, it’s not always the most efficient approach. Formal education or curated courses, when well-designed, will help accelerate the journey and lay the foundational base layers, allowing for more advanced exploration. If nothing else, they afford structure and accountability to reach a certain level of competency. The best learners will find ways to make learning an engaging experience and maximize the impact of the time spent on each activity. As an example, I was once assigned a light bulb oven project. Building a computer-controlled Easy-Bake Oven from scratch as a course assignment may not initially appear to be a steppingstone to becoming a chromatographer, but it can teach very relevant and translatable foundation skills: experimental design, digital interfacing, programming structure, signal acquisition/processing, the list goes on. It is also a more readily achievable task for students or self-learners than to construct a fully functioning gas chromatograph. The hours spent figuring out how to read and write across the analog and digital domains have wide-ranging utility. Indeed, the sampling theory learned by the Easy Baker may come to their aid later in life when they are troubleshooting a chromatographic run exhibiting poor sensitivity and they recognize that a user set the acquisition rate too high.

Partners in Chromatography

Once one becomes a chromatographer, what’s the best way for them to maximize their impact? I would argue that it is to make the lives of users better. Chromatographers and chromatography users are perfect partners. Users drive the needs, chromatographers find the means. In fact, many chromatographers are born from users looking to solve problems and make their daily lives better. This can be achieved through many different pathways. Discovering fundamentally better separation solutions is one way, but just as important is designing an instrument that can be easily run trouble-free day in and day out by users, or at least allow for simple column installation. Simplified method development software would not exist without the efforts of amazing chromatographers, allowing even basic users to quickly find and optimize separation conditions without any knowledge of what is inside a modeling black box. Of what utility is a generic method if the end user needs it to analyze a 96-well plate in a workday and the method is 15 min long (4)? That’s what we call job security for chromatographers.

Hopefully, I’ve earned the title of chromatographer over the years, but I’m also very grateful to those who came up with automatic compressibility settings— you’ve made this chromatography user’s life much easier. For the interested chromatographer, see U.S. Patent 4,595,495 for one way to automate compressibility compensation that is freely available on the internet (5).

References

(1) Yost, R.; Lespade, M. Mass Spectrometrists Versus Mass Spec Users. The Analytical Scientist. Texere Publishing Limited, 2023. https://theanalyticalscientist.com/techniques-tools/mass-spectrometrists-versus-mass-spec-users (accessed 2024-02-01).

(2) Incognito. Are You a Chromatographer or a User of Chromatography? Column 2016, 12 (21), 11–13.

(3) Shackman, J. G. The LCGC Blog: Resolving Resolution. Column 2023, 19 (9), 25–27.

(4) Taylor, T. The LCGC Blog: Generic Methods – The Potluck Supper of Analytical Chemistry? LCGC. MJH Life Sciences, 2016. https://www.chromatographyonline.com/view/lcgc-blog-generic-methods-potluck-supper-analytical-chemistry (accessed 2021-12-01).

(5) Yotam, R.; Carleton, J. G. Programmable Solvent Delivery System and Process. US4595495, 1986. https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/69/1f/58/acf39095196ed5/US4595495.pdf

About the Author

Jonathan Shackman is Scientific Director in the Chemical Process Development department at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) and is based in New Jersey, USA. He earned his two BS degrees at the University of Arizona and his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Michigan under the direction of Prof. Robert T. Kennedy. Prior to joining BMS, he held a National Research Council position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and was a professor of chemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. To date he has authored more than 40 manuscripts and two book chapters. He has presented more than 40 oral or poster presentations and holds one patent in the field of separation science. Jonathan has proudly served on the executive board of the ACS Subdivision on Chromatography and Separations Chemistry (SCSC) for three terms. Email: jonnie.shackman@bms.com

Jonathan Shackman is Scientific Director in the Chemical Process Development department at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) and is based in New Jersey, USA. He earned his two BS degrees at the University of Arizona and his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Michigan under the direction of Prof. Robert T. Kennedy. Prior to joining BMS, he held a National Research Council position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and was a professor of chemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. To date he has authored more than 40 manuscripts and two book chapters. He has presented more than 40 oral or poster presentations and holds one patent in the field of separation science. Jonathan has proudly served on the executive board of the ACS Subdivision on Chromatography and Separations Chemistry (SCSC) for three terms. Email: jonnie.shackman@bms.com

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