Interview – Jenny Brodbelt

SP – As someone whose research is dedicated largely to improving mass spectrometry methods and instrumentation, where do you feel the field is as a whole? Is it mature enough to answer the types of biological (and other) questions that need to be answered? Or is there still a long way to go?


Jenny – The field of mass spectrometry has had a fantastic trajectory, and it is better positioned than ever to make high impact contributions to solving biological, environmental, energy-related, and health problems. The fact that mass spectrometry has been adopted by so many scientists and engineers from other fields, including those with no background in mass spectrometry, reflects the versatility and power of mass spectrometry. However, it is also relevant to note that the field of mass spectrometry is also driven by a large core of analytical/physical chemists and engineers who are inspired by developing new technology–faster, more sensitive, greater range, etc. So even if every biological (or other) question of interest could be answered by using current mass spectrometers, instrument development would continue to move forward.


SP – You have researched the entire spectrum (pun intended) of mass spectrometry hardware–ion sources, detectors, fragmentation methods, etc. What areas of mass spectrometry do you think are in need of the most attention by the research community at this point?


Jenny – Maybe this shows my bias or the Achilles heel in my lab, but I think the sample preparation and separation methods need the most attention. Most of the difficulties we face are directly related to “dirty” samples, contaminants, and enrichment/extraction/chromatographic problems. So this is not a part of the mass spectrometry hardware per se, but it is definitely the aspect that causes us the most headaches. With respect to the mass spectrometer hardware itself, I think the mass analyzer/detector aspect probably needs the most attention. I’d like to see mass analyzer/detectors with far greater dynamic range, mass range, and resolution in a format that is robust, fast, and sensitive.


SP – How do you balance fundamental research against projects that are more application focused?


Jenny – Most new graduate students in my group are initially excited by new applications; they want to solve problems that have tangible outcomes. As they progress with their education and mastery of mass spectrometry, their interests frequently shift towards more fundamental science. My group’s research is quite methods/application oriented, but this often inspires side-projects to look more deeply into why things work (or don’t work). And there is no doubt that the more fundamental studies are what lead to the ability to make predictions and rationalize them.


SP – As someone who has a history of modifying instruments, what do you think the role/responsibility is of the instrument vendors to supply open instruments that can been easily modified?


Jenny – It is a tricky balance for instrument vendors. They want to develop super-robust, trouble-free instruments suitable for inexperienced users while also offering great performance, but they don’t have the time or resources to provide a lot of hand-holding and individualized support. At the same time, giving academic research groups some flexibility means that new ideas will be explored, perhaps leading to new capabilities for commercial instruments that can be incorporated into the next generation of instruments by the vendors for future customers. I think some selective flexibility is often a win-win for vendors and end users. Most commercial instrumentation development teams are very lean on personnel, so academic groups can help move new ideas forward beyond the scope of the instrument company’s manpower, while also providing some crucial mechanical/hands-on training for students.


SP – More than most labs, you seem to embrace a very diverse range of mass spectrometry methods (e.g. ETD, IRMPD, UVPD, etc.). Why such broad interests?


Jenny – My group’s current favorite methodology is photodissociation, all types and all applications. Photodissociation is still what I would call a frontier MS/MS method, so there are lots of avenues for exploration in an academic research environment. Part of the development of photodissociation means comparing it and contrasting it to other existing MS/MS methods, while at the same time searching for new avenues to extend the application range of photodissociation. ETD is another favorite because it is not just a fragmentation method; it is also a reaction method that can promote very interesting gas-phase chemistry. Since my roots started with ion-molecule reaction chemistry, I am always on the hunt for new ways to manipulate ions that may lead to compelling applications.


SP – Despite more equal numbers of men and women receiving PhDs, women are still less likely to pursue and stay in academic careers. The field of mass spectrometry seems unbalanced with respect to gender. Is there anything you think could or should be done to encourage women to pursue and stay in academic careers?


Jenny – We should probably better mentor both genders of students for all types of careers, but especially for academic careers we should require them to teach more, learn to write proposals, learn to write fast and better, and learn to manage and motivate people. But ultimately academic jobs at research-tier universities are a whole lot of hard work and stress. Maybe it is the best job in the world for me, but I can see why a lot of students opt out. This is probably a question you should pose to grad students and post-docs.


SP – You have been a member of ASMS for 25 years. What changes have you seen in the annual conference and membership?


Jenny – I joined ASMS as a graduate student while at Purdue in Graham Cook’s group. In those days, ASMS had far less than one thousand members, and the conference was held in the meeting rooms directly in the hotels. Proteomics had not hit the scene because electrospray and MALDI had not been discovered (at least not for almost another decade). This meant that the conference focused much more on small molecule analysis and fundamentals. From my perspective, it has always been a great conference, and even though it is pretty enormous now, it is still the best venue for networking, seeing the latest-and-greatest, catching up with instrument developments, and connecting with old friends and former students.


SP – You served as Secretary of ASMS a decade ago and now are back as VP or Programs and future President. What motivated you to serve again?


Jenny – I have never been affiliated with an organization as dynamic, as efficient, and as well-run as ASMS. A large amount of credit goes to the ASMS core staff in Santa Fe. They are priceless. Another large part of the credit goes to the enthusiastic members and the healthy state of mass spectrometry as a field. All of these things make service to ASMS a high value/high impact endeavor. Time well spent.


SP – Hasn’t the ASMS Conference gotten a little too huge?


Jenny – Sure, it is huge, but you just have to pace yourself at the conference. You really don’t have to view all 650 posters each day. Be selective. And part of the fun is just wandering around to see who you will run into. If you don’t care for all the proteomics work, just skip it and hide in the Fundamentals and Instrumentation sessions (at least two a day, every day of the conference). And definitely spend some time browsing the exhibitor booths and meeting the vendors. Maybe you can expand your own toolkit. And if push-comes-to-shove, attend one of the smaller meetings–the Asilomar Conference, Fall Workshop, and Sanibel Conference are fantastic smaller conferences with tons of time for discussion.


SP – Can you say a few words about JASMS? (Jenny Brodbelt is one of the Associate Editors).


Jenny – JASMS (Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry) is the ASMS journal which was founded in 1990. Mike Gross has been the long-term chief Editor, and he has displayed unrelenting commitment to making JASMS the top mass spectrometry journal. I think the best aspect of JASMS is that ASMS members still receive a hardcopy of the journal each month, making it an easy way to browse the latest mass spectrometry science (without having to squint at your cell phone). If anybody wants to try their hand at reviewing papers, JASMS is always soliciting new reviewers. We rely heavily on ASMS members to send their best work to JASMS and also contribute their time to do an occasional review of a submitted paper. We want to maintain the strong impact of JASMS because it reflects the strength of the ASMS membership and the field of mass spectrometry.

Discuss this interview with other SharedProteomics members here.

Brodbeltphoto2011Jennifer S Brodbelt
Department Chair
William H. Wade Endowed Professor in Chemistry
Graduate Admissions Chair & Chemistry Graduate Advisor
Department of Chemistry
The University of Texas at Austin
Vice President of Programs ASMS

Selected Publications

Han, S-W., Lee, S-W., Bahar, O., Schwessinger, B., Robinson, MR., Shaw, J.B., Madsen, J.A., Brodbelt, J.S., Ronald, P.A., Tyrosine sulfation in gram-negative bacterium , Nature Commun., 2012, 3:1153 doi: 10.1038/ncomms2157.


Vasicek, L., OĂ•Brien, J.P., Browning, K.S., Tao, Z., Liu, H.W., Brodbelt, J.S.,Mapping Protein Surface Accessibility via an Electron Transfer Dissociation Selectively Cleavable Hydrazone Probe, Mol. Cellular Proteomics, 2012, 11(7) 10.1074/mcp.O111.015826.


Madsen, J., Boutz, D., Brodbelt, J.S.,Ultrafast Ultraviolet Photodissociation at 193 nm and its Applicability to Proteomic Workflows, J. Proteome Research, 2010, 9, 4205-4214.

Fun Facts

Hobbies – tennis, golf, running (more like fast trudging at this point)


Favorite type of music/musician –broad spectrum; classic rock, vintage country, folk; but to be honest I like a whole lot of silence too.


Favorite Austin restaurant – The Carillon—eclectic variety of everything; nicely prepared fish