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PNNL's Dick Smith honored for analytical chemistry contributions

Over thirty years ago, Richard D. "Dick" Smith saw that biology research could benefit from what was then largely a limited chemistry tool — mass spectrometry — so he set out to develop the technology for biologists. Now, having succeeded in not only making mass spectrometry a valued tool for biofuels, cancer, infectious diseases, and legacy radioactive waste cleanup research, his efforts have been recognized twice, by his peers via The Analytical Scientist magazine and by the 8500 member American Society for Mass Spectrometry.

Recognized by the ASMS with its highest award, the 2013 Distinguished Contribution Award, Smith, an analytical biochemist and chief scientist and director of proteomics at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said his work came out of an intriguing problem — how to study the large array of components that make up biological systems such as cells or larger organisms.

"We've long needed to better characterize biological systems and learn how they really operate," Smith said. "Mass spectrometry has a tremendous ability to separate and identify proteins and other molecules, and measure small changes. I thought if we could surmount the technological hurdles, we could tackle many scientific questions in areas from cancer to biofuel production."

Earning him the Distinguished Contribution from ASMS was a small attachment that fits on the front of a mass spectrometer called an electrodynamic ion funnel. The ion funnel dramatically improves how well an instrument can detect proteins in a test tube sample, a characteristic called sensitivity. Years in development, the funnel allows researchers to find rare proteins that were virtually undetectable 15 years ago, according to ASMS.

Smith also finds himself ranked in the top 20 on The Power List 2013, a list of the 100 most influential people in the analytical sciences released by The Analytical Scientist magazine in October. Analytical scientists and others could nominate researchers to the Editorial Advisory Board. Five judges then ranked the top 100 nominated scientists, and Smith landed at 14.

Smith has been developing these technologies with a team of researchers at PNNL and EMSL, DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory on PNNL's campus, for over 30 years. Working at EMSL has made the team's advances available to visiting researchers worldwide through EMSL's competitive process that funds researchers to use EMSL instruments and expertise.

In spite of these recent honors, Smith has no plans to rest on his laurels. As he told The Analytical Scientist recently, to address many important problems the technologies based on mass spectrometry need to be "not just ten times faster but a million times faster." He also has plans to combine mass spectrometry with technologies that can provide other important information such as the shape of proteins and molecules -- and with new approaches that allow many other analysis steps now done in the lab to be moved inside of the mass spectrometer, where they can be done a thousand times faster.