Managing the Joint Mass Spectrometry Facility brings lots of opportunities

Publication date
Thursday, 6 Dec 2018

“I majored in biochemistry and chemistry in undergrad. Ever since then I've tried to do research which benefits from that combination of biology, biochemistry and chemistry because they are very complimentary.”

Dr Adam Carroll is the manager of the Joint Mass Spectrometry Facility, a flagship research facility established and supported by the Research School of Chemistry and the Research School of Biology. Adam, came to the role as the manager following a PhD at UWA and eight years of post-doctoral research at the ANU, all in plant biochemistry.

“During my PhD I focused on the development of methods using mass spectrometry and custom-made data analysis software to study biological systems. My focus was try to answer biological questions about the structures and functions of plant ribosomes and biochemical networks that we couldn't answer without integrating those analytical chemistry and novel software components.”

“After my PhD, I got a post-doc here in the Research School of Biology in 2009. I think what attracted them to me was my ability to do that mass spectrometry metabolomics work that was quite an emerging area. There weren't that many people with skills in that area. Having the combination of computer programming skills, mass spectrometry, chemistry, plant physiology and biochemistry allowed me to do some research that no one else was able to do at that point at the ANU.”

It is these skills that Adam has brought to his role as the Manager of the Joint Mass Spectrometry Facility at the ANU.  

“The Joint Mass Spectrometry Facility is a joint venture between Research School of Biology and Research School of Chemistry,” Adam explains. “A few years ago, chemistry and biology, who maintained their own facilities decided to merge them together, co-locating them here in the RSC. I started managing the facility in May 2017.”

Adam explains that the facility is open to any ANU researcher who needs analysis using mass spectrometry.

“The facility is there to serve the needs of all ANU researchers. We tackle an extremely diverse range of research problems and develop new methods for interesting new projects all the time. For example, we analyse many kinds of synthetic molecules from organic and organometallic small molecules to weird synthetic proteins with non-standard amino acids and unknown covalent modifications. We also do all kinds of metabolomics and proteomics - quantitative, qualitative, targeted, untargeted, isotope-labelled and unlabelled, top-down and bottom-up. We can even analyse DNA and RNA. We provide researchers with either training and access to instruments for hourly access rates so they can do the analyses, or full services where we do everything from sample prep to data analysis and charge for our time. To make all this happen, I often have to write custom software and now we’re actively developing the capacity to design and build mechatronic hardware components to accelerate and enable new techniques.”

This often means working with researchers from the start of a project to help them shape their research questions and methodology, ensuring the mass spectrometry facility can be used in the best way possible.

“Usually what happens is people will come in, we get to know them and get to know their research and try to find out what their needs are. We try to find out what their experimental questions are and try to figure out how we can best serve them to get the answers that they want. That training is all free. We try to encourage the students to learn how to do things themselves rather than just kind of treat it like a black box where we give them the answer. It's good for their careers to actually come in and get some new skills that they can take with them.”

Adam speaks about one project, where researchers are looking at enzymes that can digest plastic, as a particularly interesting example of the type of research that comes through the facility.

“These researchers, Vanessa Vongsouthi, Matthew Spence and Jake Saunders from the Jackson lab are studying these new plastic eating enzymes. They want to improve the enzymes so they can be used to break down plastics that aren't readily biodegradable.”

“We are helping them develop high-throughput automated methods to confidently, sensitively and rapidly detect and quantify the products of the plastic-eating enzyme reaction to provide the high throughput activity assays required for directed evolution of more effective enzymes that might one day help to clean up plastic pollution in the environment.”

It is the opportunity to use his unique skill set and work with other passionate people to help make the world a better place that drives Adam every day in this role.

“Originally when I saw this job advertised I was almost like, ‘Well no, I'm not even going to apply for that job, because you know, I'm a researcher, a scholar’. When I thought about it more though, I realised, ‘Developing technology, software and techniques and helping other people do research is still being a researcher and I’ll still be able to think strategically, experiment with things, write grant applications, give lectures, publish papers, go to conferences and give seminars like a regular academic.’

“I still identify as a researcher and a scientist. It is just that my role is more focused on the technical aspect and I really love how I get to go deeper into that. Although I was a little bit apprehensive about it at first, I quickly realised how much fun it would be, to be at the front line of all those different research projects where I get to do the most interesting part which is acquire new skills, develop new techniques and discover new things.”

“I’ve found it to be great. I get to be there when people find out the answer and there is no shortage of challenges. I've learned so much just from having to solve a wide variety of different problems that I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to.”