Reflecting on a Forty-Year Career and Looking to the Future of Mass Spectrometry

This is Tim Hawkins. As you may have heard through the grapevine, or read in my earlier post, I’m retiring in a few short weeks. I’ve been reflecting on my 40-year career of representing dedicated lab furniture for mass spectrometry—and I’ve been thinking about the future of the industry—so I decided to scribble down some of my thoughts.

Remembering Epic Mass Spectrometry Milestones

Over my past 40 years in the field, I’ve been fortunate to witness some of the epic milestones in the development of mass spectrometry. Early mass spectrometers were huge, bulky machines that had to live in basements because they were so heavy and so sensitive to the foot traffic that would vibrate lab floors. Connecting mass spectrometry with gas chromatographs and liquid chromatographs popularized mass specs and literally brought them up into the daylight.

I was heavily involved as a product manager at Varian back when ion trap technology was first becoming popular. Initially, ion trap generated spectra, which were “not classical”, in other words a little bit different than they are today. As a result, everybody said the process didn’t really work. Over time, all sorts of new detection techniques were developed, including time of flight, so that now the idea of “classical mass spectrometry” is considered something of a joke.

I connected with Chip Cody, one of the inventors who came up with the sampling technique called DART—Direct Analysis in Real Time. It was one of the first commercially available techniques to actually measure the surface of the product to determine what chemical compounds were on it. For example, if you were doing forensic work at a murder scene and there’s an empty whiskey bottle beside the victim, you can wave the whiskey bottle in front of the DART and it would present whatever chemicals were on the surface. Pretty amazing stuff.

Supporting the Software Side of Mass Spectrometry

In addition to dedicated lab furniture, with the mentorship of David Sparkman, now with The University of the Pacific, I have been involved in the software side of mass spectrometry.  I began selling the NIST Mass Spectral Library in the early 2000s. Obviously, it’s much easier to identify compounds by comparing your spectrum to a database. NIST has been the most preferred database in the industry because every spectrum is reviewed and confirmed by a mass spectrometry professional, with each release. I have watched the popularity of this database and its number of compounds sky rocket over the last 15 years. It’s gone from being only for GCMS, then LCMS and accurate mass spec compounds. It’s kept pace and is holding its position in the industry for compound identification.

Looking Toward the Future of Mass Spectrometry

There’s no question that going smaller, faster, and cheaper is a trend which happens in any industry. The challenge that I’ve seen in most recent papers and presentations is focused on data. Mass specs literally pick up terabytes of data, and the analysis of that data is becoming more and more challenging. I don’t know if it’s going to be with supercomputers or artificial intelligence, but I think that progress in working with data is going to explode. I also see further work with sample preparation, such as the DART technique I mentioned above.

In terms of the future of dedicated lab furniture, one of my goals as a distributor has been to get the word out and increase business to the point that customers can go directly to the source. This means that, with my retirement, you will be able to go directly to the manufacturer to get quality dedicated lab furniture for your newest generations of mass specs.

It’s been a great ride, and I’m looking forward to retirement. My plot of land in the country is calling me.

My parting token of appreciation to the Mass Spec community is to offer a 10% discount and free shipping on any product or software purchased on the following sites between now and August 31, 2019: (Pricing quotes provided until July 31st, 2019) (Pricing quotes provided until July 31st, 2019)