Women in Mass Spectrometry: An Interview with Colleen Maxwell of the University of Leicester

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Each quarter, the group Females in Mass Spectrometry (FeMS) presents empowerment awards to members that demonstrate excellence both in their work and their support of women in science. FeMS is a community-led group that has developed a network of support for women working in mass spectrometry. For years, FeMS has supported events all over the world where women in mass spectrometry can gather and discuss their findings and career experiences.

This quarter, FeMS presented Empowerment Awards to five women, including Colleen Maxwell of the University of Leicester. LCGC International recently sat down with Maxwell to discuss her career in mass spectrometry, the Empowerment Award, and her work with FeMS.

Can you tell us a bit about your research and work?

I’m from Belfast in the north of Ireland and moved to England in 2014 to study Chemistry at Imperial College London. In 2017 and 2018, I did a year in industry at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Merseyside, where I was first introduced to analytical chemistry. I discovered a passion for mass spectrometry. which inspired me to specialize further, returning to London to pursue my master’s degree with a project focused on characterizing the metabolome of human interstitial fluid using liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS). Driven by a keen interest in research, I continued my academic career by pursuing a PhD at the University of Leicester. My project focused on using shotgun and targeted liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC–MS) based proteomics to establish multi-marker biomarker panels for cardiovascular disease. Following the completion of my PhD in 2023, I have been continuing this research in my post doc as well as taking on new projects relating to diabetic cardiomyopathy as part of a new role leading proteomics within our cardiac imaging team.

What is the most recent focus of your research?

The broad area of my research is to investigate protein biomarkers in cardiovascular disease using mass spectrometry for diagnosis, prognosis, and to uncover novel mechanisms of action. Most recently, I have been focusing on establishing a novel, multi-marker panel for coronary plaque burden. The aim with this is that patients presenting with chest pain can eventually be excluded from having coronary artery disease (CAD) using a blood test and avoid undergoing further imaging tests, thereby reducing costs, downstream intervention, and burden on the healthcare system.

Could you elaborate a bit more on the techniques you use and the application areas?

My work spans many different LC–MS/MS techniques and proteomics methods. Typically, I would perform an agnostic biomarker discovery phase using shotgun proteomics with data-independent acquisition and novel low abundant protein enrichment steps, such as the isolation of extracellular vesicles. Following the identification of a putative biomarker panel, the next step I take is to develop a multiplexed targeted MRM assay for the panel, which will be used for high-throughput clinical validation of the panel in thousands of samples. Alongside this, I have developed a specialism in liquid handling systems and take a lot of care with ensuring the data is highly reproducible to avoid dreaded batch effects in our large patient cohorts. Dealing with large multivariate datasets with both technical and biological variation has also led me to develop an interest in bioinformatics.

When did you become a member of FeMS? How has the group impacted your career?

I became a member of FeMS following my first attendance at an international conference (the 2022 MSACL conference in Monterey, CA) where FeMS were hosting an evening networking event. It was an excellent opportunity to network with other women in the field and to hear women further on in their careers discuss how valuable the support and mentoring had been for them. The event also had a booth for free headshots to be taken, which I think was a great resource for early career researchers (ECRs) to help with professional development. Since then, I have encouraged my female colleagues in mass spectrometry to join the group, and many of us have benefitted from the Empowerment Awards and resources made available through the society and have reconnected with members of FeMS at IMSC as well. Ultimately, it’s just great to know that like-minded support is out there for us.

Tell us a little bit about the Empowerment Award and what it means to you.

I was thrilled to receive the FeMS Empowerment Award because it represents funding to empower women in mass spectrometry to gain further opportunities and develop professionally. I will be using the award to attend the lipidomics short course at IMSC 2024, which will be beneficial not only for my own career development, but also for my research group and department, since lipidomics is an area which is of great interest in cardiovascular disease. I’m really excited to expand my MS-omics expertise into lipidomics and apply this knowledge to cardiovascular disease areas to (hopefully) ultimately improve patients’ lives. Traveling to conferences offers so many opportunities both in terms of short courses like this and networking, but they are expensive, so small pots of money like this are vital to help with that.

What advice would you give to other women looking to advance their careers in analytical science?

I think finding supportive mentors who are there to help you develop professionally is important. Also finding a good group of peers to speak to helps with the everyday struggles of research and being able to speak to others about shared experiences always helps. I also think not being afraid to speak up for yourself and knowing your worth is important. From my own experiences, I think women can be more critical of ourselves for lots of different reasons (a lot of them societal), and although self-reflection is important, it’s also important to not be afraid of self-promotion to showcase your achievements and skills!

How can the scientific community better support women in science?

I think a lot is changing for the better, but we’re still not seeing all the changes we would hope particularly in more senior roles in academia. I think encouraging a culture of healthier work-life balance and understanding how to be equitable in career advancement is important. It’s also important to understand that supporting women in science is something that looks different for different women in different circumstances–it isn’t necessarily one size fits all. So, active sponsorship of female ECRs by senior scientists is vital. Resource allocation just like this funding from FeMS is also so important, and opportunities to empower women like this within institutions would be great.

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