Professional Development Insights for a Flourishing Career in Analytical Chemistry

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In this interview conducted at Pittcon 2024 in San Diego, we spoke to Professor Jonathan Sweedler about moving through his career as an analytical chemistry faculty member.

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Could you please introduce yourself and share a bit about your journey?

I am the James R. Eiszner Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the chemistry department and this year’s acting department head. I also have appointment in the neuroscience program and my graduate students graduated with degrees from chemistry, but also from neuroscience, bioengineering, physiology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. I impact many programs, but I am trained as an analytical chemist.

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of California at Davis. I carried out NMR work with Gerd LaMar and then at the Livermore Lab with Tomas Hirschfeld. I received my Ph.D. at the University of Arizona with Bonner Denton. That is where I attended my first Pittcon. My research involves small-volume analytical chemistry applied to the brain.

Your research in developing new approaches for assaying small-volume samples is incredibly interesting. What initially sparked your interest in metabolomics, peptidomics, and mass spectrometry imaging?

I found Dick Zare at Stanford, who was carrying out exquisite laser-induced fluorescence measurements with capillary electrophoresis. We came up with the idea of working with neuroscientist Richard Scheller to measure the contents of individual cells. I then started my neuroscience training at Stanford, including taking several courses.

When I moved to Illinois, I continued developing approaches to measuring the chemical content of a cell, and our capabilities slowly improved. So, in the beginning, we could measure five or ten compounds in a cell. When does measuring a few metabolites in a cell become metabolomics? Is it 30, 40, or 100 instead of a few molecule characterizations?

In 2023, the editors of Nature picked the seven technologies to watch, and they picked single-cell metabolomics.

In your extensive career, you have characterized small molecules and peptides across various animal models. Could you discuss a particularly challenging project and how you navigated its complexities?

The most challenging projects we tried rarely worked. As a chemist working in the neuroscience area, the question is, how do you make studying the brain simpler? I started looking at sea slugs, which have 10,000 neurons instead of the billions in mammals. Sea slugs still learn what to eat, what not to eat, and how to find a mate. Can we relate the chemistry in specific neurons to their behavior? In other words, we simplify the problem but keep the questions significant.

We have worked on a range of creatures, from corals to Dosidicus gigas. It is a giant squid that can be found several thousand feet deep, so obtaining samples is hard. No matter what animal we work with, from a human sample to a sea slug to a coral, they still use the same neurotransmitters. As we get better at characterizing a simpler system, the approaches can be applied to working with mammals. Therefore, the hardest projects were the ones in the past, and now that things work well, in some ways, a lot of them are easier. Of course, we now ask harder questions.

Could you share more about your approach to mentoring and fostering a productive collaborative environment within your group?

Mentoring takes time, but I eventually realized that even more than my research output, the students and postdocs I work with are my most significant contribution to the field. I never liked having people tell me what to do. So, to the best of my ability, my mentoring style includes giving people the freedom to do what they want as long as they follow safety and existing protocols, such as when working with animals.

Image Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com

I also want to allow people to fail and learn in a supportive environment. For higher productivity, many group members specialize in specific measurements, and I want to ensure they work together without being competitive. You reward teamwork and success.

My group has people who want to go into industry and academics. If they are interested in an academic career, authorship on papers is important and perhaps taking a little longer in the group to get a few more papers published could be useful.  For industry, different criteria can be important. I try to adapt to the individuals.

In the talk that you are giving at Pittcon this year, you mentioned the steady edition of new projects to avoid becoming stale. How do you balance the influx of new ideas with the ongoing projects in your lab?

Ending a project is hard. I think everybody has problems with this. When adding new projects, you have to get rid of others. Perhaps half a dozen times, I have had successful research areas that I have decided to end due to time constraints. Of course, as people graduate and the funding ends, it is the natural time to make such decisions. 

With over one hundred manuscripts published, what do you believe is the key to consistently producing high-quality, impactful research?

Part of my responsibility is to ensure that, whether a project is entirely successful or not, a graduate student can publish it. The key is good project ideas, enough money to get it done, and fantastic graduate students. If you have those, then you get impactful research.

You have mentioned that you have attended many Pittcons over the years. Has attending Pittcon influenced your research directions or collaborations?

Pittcon makes you see things outside of your field.  No other analytical conference that I attend has so many distinct awards presented, and attending these award sessions is wonderful. There are a lot of national and international committees that meet here at Pittcon.  I like this scientific diversity.

Why is a conference like Pittcon important to highlight professional and career development, and what do you hope attendees can learn from your talk and others on this track?

Having a professional and career development track can be very useful. As it is at Pittcon, as opposed to a specialty meeting, the people attending are a bit broader regarding their backgrounds. The session I am involved with in 2024 involved people sharing career wisdom who started companies, have a successful academic career, and are working in industry. The diverse perspectives mean you can pick up some advice that may help a wider range of individuals than a session that is more narrowly focused.

Pittcon Thought Leader: Jonathan Sweedler

What makes Pittcon so unique, and why do you return year-on-year?

I probably have attended Pittcon more than any other conference in my career. It has a diversity of topics, is the center of the field of analytical chemistry, and brings people together across the entire field.  It has been very important for my career.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of Pittcon, could you share your first memory or experience of attending this conference and how it impacted your view of the scientific community?

Pittcon was one of the first places where I gave a talk, and seeing all the luminaries in the field was a fantastic experience.

Getting to go to a few receptions and suddenly being able to talk to people who have written publications I had read was a lot of fun.

I do remember the first Pittcon; there was a reception for the Analytical Chemistry Journal, and I met the current editor. I had no idea I would be the editor 30 years later.

About Jonathan Sweedler 

Jonathan Sweedler has devoted his career to downscaling a range of analytical approaches to measure the contents of individual cells. Sweedler is currently the Eiszner Family Endowed Professor of Chemistry and Acting Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests focus on developing new approaches for assaying small volume samples, including lipidomics, metabolomics and peptidomics.  These measurements use mass spectrometry, miniaturized separations, and a range of sampling approaches. He has used these tools to characterize small molecules and peptides in a range of animal models across metazoan life and in samples as small as individual cells and even cellular domains. Sweedler has published more than 500 manuscripts and presented 600 invited lectures. He has received numerous awards including the Instrumentation Award from the Analytical Division of the ACS, the Pittsburgh Analytical Chemistry Award, and the ACS Award in Analytical Chemistry. He is a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief for Analytical Chemistry

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Pittcon.

For more information on this source, please visit Pittcon.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

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