Women in Mass Spectrometry: Susana Palma of CIAD

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Each quarter, Females in Mass Spectrometry (FeMS) presents empowerment awards to members of the group 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 Susana Alejandra Palma of Centro de Investigación Alimentación y Desarrollo (CIAD) in Mexico. LCGC International recently sat down with Palma to discuss her career in mass spectrometry, the Empowerment Award, and her work with FeMS.

Tell us a little bit more about your career.

I am an associate professor at the Research Center in Food and Development (CIAD, Mexico), where I focus on the metabolic changes associated with environmental and dietary factors, and the relationship of those changes with chronic diseases. Prior to this, I investigated biomarkers of sugar intake at Arizona State University and examined metabolic phenotypes associated with obesity at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London. I also worked at the Francis Crick Institute applying metabolomics and lipidomics approaches for the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of various diseases. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Clinical Biochemistry from the University of Sonora in Mexico, a Master of Science in Food Science from CIAD in Mexico, and a PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Glasgow in the UK.

What is the most recent focus of your research?

I recently joined CIAD as an associate professor, as part of the Pesticide Toxicology Lab with Ana Isabel Valenzuela Quintanar. Here, my recent focus has been on metabolic changes associated with environmental and dietary factors in the development of chronic diseases. Mexico is characterized by its high use of agrotoxics to maintain agricultural production levels. The historical and current heavy use of these agrotoxics has resulted in environmental and health issues. Agricultural workers, as well as children and adolescents residing in agricultural areas, are at higher risk of genotoxic damage and cognitive decline. Additionally, this population lives in a context of social precariousness, putting them at greater health risk. Therefore, we use metabolomics approaches to determine environmental exposure by measuring a range of pesticides and contaminants in food, biological, and environmental samples, all while evaluating metabolic profiles associated with the exposure to agrotoxics. In collaboration with other research groups, we examine how metabolic profile, genetic variations, and sociocultural conditions could be associated with metabolic syndrome, cancer susceptibility, and neurological development.

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

I use mostly mass spectrometry (MS)-base metabolomics and lipidomics approaches for metabolic profiling and biomonitoring of environmental and dietary components. We are now implementing hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography (HILIC) and reverse-phase (RP) techniques with an ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization-quadrupole time-of-flight (UHPLC-ESI-QToF) for metabolite and lipids separation, and GC-QToF for semivolatile compounds separation. We will use these techniques in different research projects related to nutrition, food safety, biomonitoring and biomarkers of disease progression.

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

I joined FeMS in 2021 while working at Imperial College London as a Research Associate. I liked the initiative of a network to support women in the MS field, the events, awards and resources they offer to the community. In 2022, I joined a Mentors Pod where I met women at different career stages and backgrounds but with the same goal of supporting each other to advance in our MS careers. It was great to see how open the mentors were about their challenges and what worked best for them. I really enjoyed listening to their experiences inside and outside the lab, and their engagement with the community. I felt confident to share some of my worries and difficulties, and with their comments and support, I was motivated to focus on my next step in my career.

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

The Empowerment Award has been a great support to initiate my research projects at CIAD and to continue my efforts to implement LC & GC–MS methods. With FeMS and my collaborators' support, I will introduce metabolomics and lipidomics workflows at CIAD that will benefit different research projects to come. I am pleased to be able to show to my undergraduate students ways to accomplish your goals and at the same time, to share with them my analytical knowledge by establishing metabolomics workflows as part of their thesis projects.

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

My advice is to actively participate in your career progression, set some short- and long-term goals and share them with your mentor, advisor and peers to make sure these are achievable and importantly, to identify a way to accomplish them. Do not feel bad for those goals you did not achieve, celebrate what you have done and how far you have come in your career. Share your analytical knowledge and be open to keep learning, as this is a rapidly growing field.

How can the scientific community better support women in science?

We can all support women in science. We can start with small actions by sharing our passion for science to the future generations. It was great to see the FeMS community sharing pictures and videos to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. CIAD also had different activities with girls to celebrate the day; I was happy to organize our “Separating the Colors” experiment where we taught girls how to do paper chromatography. We can keep working on actions to empower women in science by supporting training, mentorship and leadership programs. Other actions the community can take to close the gap in STEM are increasing grants and awards for women in research.

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