Measure for Measure:
Center Provides Well-Balanced Space for Mass Analysis

By Jennifer O'Sullivan and Jason Socrates Bardi

The dozen individuals who help run the TSRI Center for Mass Spectrometry recently packed up 13 mass spectrometers and all their related equipment, myriad desks and computers, chemicals, books, and supplies to move to the facility's new location in the Stein Clinical Research Center, room SR15. The move, which provided the opportunity to consolidate the center, involved clearing lab space on both the P1 level of the Molecular Biology Building and the first floor of The Beckman Center for Chemical Sciences.

Months before this "mass exodus" occurred, several of the center's staff, including Director Gary Siuzdak, went to check out the new space. Something was wrong, observed surface scientist Zhouxin Shen.

"He said the design had bad feng shui," Siuzdak recalls with a smile. "So, we fixed that."

Seeing no reason why good science and feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, could not coexist, lab members submitted a plan to the architects hired to design the space, namely Ken Ederington of JKE Design & Associates. The architects were slightly taken aback at the suggestion to erect a curved wall in the middle of the large room. Once given the creative green light, however, Ederington produced a sleek and functional solution for a space described by Senior Research Technician Ken Harris as having been "in danger of feeling like one giant factory, or else a maze" of smaller compartments. The curve, says Harris, is just enough to give the area a relaxed feel.

Scientific considerations were of course given top priority in the design of the new Center for Mass Spectrometry. Harris, who in 1996 supervised the move of virtually half the facility from MBB to The Beckman Center, again played an important role. "We now have a separate room for all the gas tanks, with connections at each instrument," Harris reports. He also specified that a small portion of the ceiling be raised above the large Fourier transform mass spectrometry (FTMS) machine to facilitate the transfer of liquid helium, and that a two-foot strip of acoustic material be installed on all the lab's walls to absorb instrument noise. Additionally, electrical engineers specified overhead lights designed to send light upward and bounce off the ceiling, thus minimizing the glare of fluorescent bulbs, and critical instrument power was routed through the lab in Isoduct—a double-channeled flat conduit—to provide flexibility and reduce the proliferation of power cords.

"The best part about the move was that everyone worked together," says Harris. "And everyone did quality work—from [Procurement Buyer] Dave Beauchamp, the architects and DPR Construction, to [Facilities Director] Julie Milgrim, [Facilities Coordinator] Morgan Hoffman, and [Maintenance Mechanic] Leonard Jones—we all came together to make it a success."

The Center for Mass Spectrometry provides a service to TSRI scientists who want information on biological samples—anything from small organic molecules to proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and whole virus particles.

As a tool, mass spec—which produces, differentiates, and detects ions in the gas phase—is a useful way to determine whether a researcher has synthesized the expected product, because it is fast and requires a bare minimum of sample. Several picomoles (10-12 moles) or less may be all that is routinely necessary in most instances, and the facility has even pushed the limit of detection of steroids from blood samples to attomole sensitivity (10-18 moles).

Mass spectrometry can be used for advanced studies as well—to rapidly identify viral mutations or to study protein–protein interactions, for example, and can also answer simple structural questions such as, "which residues contact each other?" The technique is increasingly used in the field of proteomics to identify particular proteins, as well as to elucidate post-translational modifications. In fact, the lab has a significant proteomics division, which routinely performs these analyses.

Before moving to the Stein building, the center had implemented a paperless analysis request system, developed by Research Technician Martin Sonderegger. To submit a sample, scientists can now log on to the center's site either from their own computers or the mass spec "drive thru" window located at the front of the new lab space. Scientists complete a request form online—including instructions, say, to do an exact mass measurement—and then drop off samples at the facility. Analysis requests are logged into the center's computers, allowing scientists to follow their progress electronically and download the data from an FTP site when it is ready. (Complete instructions for analysis submission and retrieval can be found on the FAQ sheet at

Routine analyses are largely accomplished through the relentless efforts of the center's staff, which includes Ken Harris, Bill Webb, Winnie Popovich, Cindy Wranik, Eden Go, Andrew Meyers, Sunia Trauger, and Kristin Staniszewski. "If the analysis doesn't work one way, then we send it to another instrument [using a different technique] and try again," says Siuzdak. "Finally, once all the analyses are completed it goes to quality control for a final check."

For those scientists who prefer to do the analysis themselves, the center maintains an open-access facility. Steve Bark, who manages the open-access facility, and Research Technician Bill Webb teach researchers to use the instruments directly, providing invaluable training for those wishing to learn and experience mass spectrometry. Both electrospray ionization (ESI) and matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization (MALDI) instruments are available.





Form and function—Senior Research Technician Ken Harris stands in the new Center for Mass Spectrometry in the Stein Clinical Research Center. Photo by Gary Siuzdak.













The Center for Mass Spectrometry provides a service to TSRI scientists who want information on biological samples—anything from small organic molecules to proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and whole virus particles. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.






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