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Ion Trap Mass Spectrometers and the Art of Winning

Chemistry Ph.D. student Radhya Gamage swept both the college- and university-level Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitions with a presentation about her research developing a new ion trap mass spectrometer. The 3MT competition gave Gamage the opportunity to hone her communication skills to present in-depth scientific topics in layman’s terms in only three minutes. “I started with something compelling that I knew the audience could relate to,” she said, “then I moved into explaining what my research was doing.”

Gamage’s 3MT presentation explained the essential blend of theory and experimentation that she did to develop a new, miniaturized ion trap mass spectrometer. She described how scientists use oscillating electric fields to trap their samples and how the mass spectrometer breaks the sample down into components to analyze the physical system. Ion trap mass spectrometer systems are used for a variety of physical applications, such as medical diagnoses, illegal drug identification, and volcano emission analysis. But volcanoes don’t happen in a laboratory, which impedes the use of traditional spectrometers. Gamage’s research fills this gap as she works to provide portable spectrometers. By eliminating the dependence on a laboratory, “these systems allow us to go wherever the science takes us,” Gamage noted. Once the heart of the mass spectrometer, the ion trap, is completed, the physical set-up of the trap-spectrometer system can be modified to fit whichever physical environment is required.

Feedback from fellow presenters and deans at the college competition helped Gamage determine that choosing a storytelling approach hit a responsive chord at the university competitions. “I could see reactions on people’s faces that they were impressed with my work, but the real validation came from the discussion with other presenters,” Gamage commented. The encouraging feedback she received was a beautiful cycle of renewal for her. Not only was Gamage impressed by the research they were doing, their positive energy combined with an unexpected satisfaction she felt from explaining her research to others. It helped Gamage renew the passion she has for her work. “It was just incredible to see the range of research that’s happening on our campus,” she said.

Gamage credits the success of her lab research to her mentor, chemistry professor Dr. Daniel Austin, and to her friend and colleague Elaura Gustafson, who encouraged her to participate in the 3MT competition. Thanks to both of them, Gamage learned that trying something new will often lead to increased opportunities— so why not test your presentation skills and plan now to participate in next year’s 3MT competition? For more information on how to embark on your own 3MT journey toward new horizons and to cheer on this year's competitors, visit here.