Skip to main content

Izatt-Christensen Lecture: The Greater Good of Mass Spectrometry

Photo by Cassandra Prettyman

Dr. R. Graham Cooks presented the ninth annual Reed M. Izatt and James J. Christensen Lecture at BYU with two presentations on mass spectrometry.

One of the world’s foremost experts on mass spectrometry and a distinguished professor at Purdue University, Cooks has authored over 1,100 publications and served as a thesis advisor to thirty PhD students. He graduated with a PhD from the University of Natal in South Africa in 1965 and earned another PhD at Cambridge University in 1967. His studies have covered all aspects of mass spectrometry: research, instrumentation, and analytical applications.

The two presentations were held on March 20 and 21 in the Ezra Taft Benson Building.

Cooks’s first presentation, “Mass Spectrometry (MS): Synthesis and Analysis for the Greater Good,” summarized what mass spectrometry is—the science of analyzing ions to identify and quantify molecules in a mixture—and how the science has changed over time. He then gave examples of mass spectrometry’s applications in food safety, forensics, drug screening, and brain cancer diagnostics.

Cooks’s laboratory group at Purdue developed an ambient ionization method called desorption electrospray ionization (DESI), which scientists can use to discover what chemicals are on a given surface.

For example, a scientist can spray DESI on fruits and vegetables, causing ions to form above the produce’s surface. A mass spectrometer then sucks the ions into a vacuum and analyzes the ions. The analysis shows how many pesticides and other chemicals are on the produce.

The same ion science can improve neuroscience surgery. Cooks’s group is experimenting with how mass spectrometry could provide neurosurgeons additional information as they treat brain cancer patients.

“The surgery is done with preoperative MRI, so there is MRI imaging, but there are no measurement signs during surgery,” Cooks said. “There may be a pathology sample taken, and it will take twenty minutes to get an answer to that, and that’s minimal sort of info you can get.”

But mass spectrometry could change this. Cooks said his group is working to improve intraoperative diagnostics in neurosurgery by measuring bits of tissue and showing the results on a digital image.

DESI imaging can also be used for fingerprinting, not only giving the fingerprint but also revealing what is on the finger.

“The only difference between a DESI print and an ink print is the ink prints says the person had ink on their hands,” Cooks said. “The DESI print says that it has all that we just looked at. So if the print shows cocaine, you know they were touching cocaine.”

His second presentation, “Mass Spectrometry (MS): Instrumentation and Chemistry,” delved deeper into how mass spectrometry can be thought of as a method of synthesis—the formation of a chemical compound made from two simpler compounds or elements. Cooks emphasized the hope that chemists will someday be able to use mass spectrometry without a vacuum.