Undergrad student works to unlock mysteries of MRI technology

Even in the heavily researched world of chemistry and physics, mysteries remain. In some cases, even the tools we use to crack the codes work in ways that have yet to be explained.

One good example is a type of mass spectrometry known as matrix-assisted laser desorption / ionization – or MALDI, for short. MALDI works by mixing a biomolecule of interest with a matrix and then placing the sample in a mass spectrometer where a laser pulse is fired at the sample. This laser pulse ejects material into the gas-phase and ionizes the sample. This leads to protein ions, which the instrument can then analyze based on molecular weight.

Researchers agree this process works well when characterizing proteins and other biomolecules. They just don’t agree entirely on how it works.

That’s where SIU chemistry senior Madison McMinn comes in.

Working closely with Gary Kinsel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, McMinn’s undergraduate research is aimed at gaining a better understanding of how the protein ions are formed in the MALDI process.

McMinn’s series of experiments is trying to nail down whether protein ionization occurs in the gas-phase, or not.  She uses various MALDI matrices, together with various amino acids having well-characterized properties to do so.

“We think that a deeper understanding of these important chemical reactions will offer clues as to how to improve the MALDI mass spectrometry method,” said McMinn, of Chatham. “These insights, in turn, should lead to better MALDI matrices and more efficient characterization of complex protein mixtures – such as those that might be obtained from biological fluids,” such as blood.

McMinn never thought she’d be actively participating in such high-level research, especially as an undergraduate. But at SIU, undergraduates can get involved with real research right away.

“I was fortunate enough to begin working with Professor Kinsel during the fall of my freshman year, and it has impacted my life and studies in way I never could have anticipated,” she said. “It has given me the opportunity to develop my skills as a scientist by allowing me to conduct experiments that are novel and significant within my field, and it allowed me to realize my passion for conducting research.

That, in turn, has motivated her to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry, McMinn said.

“It has all helped to prepare me for a career as a researcher by helping me understand the process,” she said. “The skills I have learned while working with Professor Kinsel are critical to my success in my future career, and they could never be obtained from a textbook alone. “

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