Hello, loyal readers and purchasers of IonBench products. This is Tim Hawkins. After 40 years representing some of the finest products in the laboratory equipment industry, I will be retiring on August 31, 2019. In this post, I will share how I got into the dedicated lab furniture business, and how mass spectrometry has evolved over the past 40 years.
How I Got My Start in Mass Spectrometry
One long-ago summer, I was cutting grass for a gentleman who was looking to hire a salesperson for his business in Western Canada. He said, “You have a degree, right?” and I responded, “Yes, sir—in Biology.” He said, “That’s close enough to chemistry. Do you know anything about chromatography and spectroscopy?”
I had been out west and really enjoyed my time there, so I went home and opened the Encyclopedia Americana (yes, in book form!). I looked up spectroscopy and chromatography and briefly educated myself as best I could. I went for my interview and the people I spoke with told me, “Okay. You can speak well and you look good enough. We’re having a trade show in Toronto. Why don’t you come down and check it out?”
That was the beginning of a long and storied career.
I’ve Seen a Lot of Change in 40 Years
Mass spectrometry has changed tremendously in 40 years. Back in the late ‘70s, everything was analog. There were no computers, no digital electronics. With the digital revolution came the automation revolution. Seeing a chemist (usually a man; there were very few women then), standing at an instrument with all sorts of switches and dials and gauges—that was the reality in my early days.
Mass spectrometry labs were dark chambers, usually in the basement because instruments were extremely heavy and because the vibrations from people walking by on any upper floor would negatively impact the operation of the mass spec.
Mass Spectrometry: A Technique Finding Applications
In the beginning, mass spec was a technique looking for an application. Forty years ago, nobody thought of using mass spectrometry for environmental analysis or forensic analysis. It was basically a tool for confirming structures, and for trying to figure out the composition of a chemical compound. Over time, computers and the Internet have significantly contributed to the performance of mass specs. They became smaller, faster, and cheaper—they’ve even been launched into space.
There have been other interesting applications. If you’ve flown recently, you know that sometimes you go through screening at the airport, and there’s an ion mobility spectrometer. The job of that mass spec is to make sure you haven’t recently handled explosives. The operator will wipe down your bag, put the swab in the slot, and it generates a spectrum, thus comparing the sample to the database of spectra of known explosives. The operator may not be a chemist, but he or she can quickly determine whether you’ve been in contact with something nefarious.
Supporting Lab Safety for 40 Years
Over my career, I’ve supported a lot of different types of labs. In my first job in Western Canada, the big market was the biochemical and petrochemical industries. So, I was calling on universities, natural gas plants, and oil refineries. I remember one lab that was working to figure out a way to safely and totally destroy nerve gases so they wouldn’t leak into the environment. That was scary.
I worked with biotech labs. There were these huge stainless-steel fermentation tanks full of fluid, generating drugs for breast-cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and epilepsy. It looked like a brewery to me, but they were doing important work.
I was blown away working with environmental labs. For example, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had to measure thousands of chemicals and compounds that wind up in sewage, waste water, storm water, and ground water. They were very aggressively trying to measure as much as they could to make sure the environment was clean.
All in all, I’ve had a great career. I’m thrilled to have served so many labs in various ways. As a “thank you” to the mass spec community, I’m offering a 10% discount and free shipping on any product or software purchased on the following sites between now and August 31, 2019:
www.quietbench.com (Pricing quotes provided until July 31st, 2019)
www.quietvacuumpump.com (Pricing quotes provided until July 31st, 2019)