Going Deep

On-campus access to cutting-edge scientific instruments is helping Baylor reach its research goals

Going Deep

Getting to the heart of matter and what it is made of is the mission of the Mass Spectrometry Center (MSC) in the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences. Housed in the Baylor Sciences Building, the MSC uses sophisticated instruments to identify the molecular building blocks of substances — which aids in the pursuit of everything from cleaning up freshwater streams to developing life-saving drugs and creating new products.

Mass spectrometry is a process that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of charged particles in a substance to identify the molecular structures of that substance. Used in a “discovery” mode, it can determine what a substance is made of. Used in a “targeted” mode, it can verify the presence of specific components within a substance.

“Mass spectrometry is fundamental to so many questions of understanding what is happening on a molecular level inside of different systems,” said Dr. Christopher Becker, director of both the MSC and the Baylor Sciences Building (BSB). “There are all sorts of questions that can be answered across the realm of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, environmental science and geology.” 

Value in Research

The Mass Spectrometry Center in the College of Arts & Sciences has been fundamental in Baylor’s successful push for national Research 1/Tier 1 recognition.

“Having state-of-the-art core facilities is one of the key components of every R1 university,” Becker said. “You have to have the infrastructure to support research needs, and that’s going to enable investigators to progress their research, as well as to explore new avenues of research outside of what they’re currently doing — that’s where you start to make new discoveries.”

Dr. Christopher Becker (center) is the director of Baylor’s Mass Spectrometry 
Center while Dr. Chinthaka Seneviratne (at left) is an MSC mass spectrometrist.
Dr. Christopher Becker (center) is the director of Baylor’s Mass Spectrometry Center while Dr. Chinthaka Seneviratne (at left) is an MSC mass spectrometrist.

“Baylor’s Mass Spectrometry Center is extremely valuable to my research program,” said Dr. Christie Sayes, associate professor of environmental sciences. “As the leader of an advanced materials and environmental health research laboratory, I’ve found that the MSC offers capabilities that cannot be housed in an individual lab space. The capabilities and service offerings are invaluable to our work.”

Baylor’s MSC grew organically out of a variety of research groups. That included chemists and environmental scientists studying the presence of pharmaceuticals in U.S. waterways, synthetic chemists creating new compounds, and Becker’s own work studying crude oil and alternative energy systems. In conjunction with these projects, researchers were fabricating or acquiring new instruments and making them available to others. All that activity was spread across the BSB until a multi-million dollar project was launched just before the COVID-19 lockdown to redesign Baylor’s core science facilities.

“Baylor put custom facilities in place that were designed for the types of research that are happening there now,” Becker said. “As a result, the MSC is all in one place in the C Wing on the first floor of the Baylor Sciences Building. We’re right down the hall from the Center for Microscopy and Imaging and right below the Center for Molecular Biosciences. We have a nice way to transfer things back and forth, especially where we have some overlap in what we do.”

Valuable Technology

The MSC is home to two types of instruments: large mass spectrometry “work horses,” as Becker calls them, used for analysis, and smaller equipment used for sample preparation. The most expensive instrument in the MSC costs about $1.2 million, with the low end of others around $100,000. Some instruments have been donated by faculty members, some were funded through research grants, and the University has purchased others.

“I think the equipment we currently have available is on par with or beyond what you would find at other core facilities,” Becker said. “The absolute frontiers are always in the private research labs that are actually developing these instruments.”

Becker said there’s not a lot of independent use of the MSC made by outside industries because top priority is given to Baylor research projects. However, there is outside access to the instruments through collaborations, such as one that is ongoing between Baylor and the Center of Excellence for Research at the Doris Miller VA Medical Center in Waco.

“Instead of simply handing off samples from an experiment for someone else to collect data, our students are first trained, and then actively are able to utilize world-class instrumentation in the MSC.”

–Dr. Bryan Brooks

“We’re helping them look for biomarkers to understand the mechanisms behind traumatic brain injuries like post-traumatic stress and concussion,” Becker said.

Baylor students using the MSC are undergraduates in chemistry, biochemistry or biology, as well as graduate students in chemistry, biochemistry and environmental sciences. Dr. Bryan Brooks, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences, said that the MSC provides a valuable platform to provide for the training and mentoring of these students. 

“Instead of simply handing off samples from an experiment for someone else to collect data, our students are first trained, and then actively are able to utilize world class instrumentation in the MSC to interpret results as part of their research and scholarship activities,” Brooks said. “This supports outstanding outcomes after graduation for Baylor students, including careers in business, government and academic positions.”

There also is some use of the MSC by alumni with Baylor geoscience or biology degrees.

Self-trained Technicians

A distinctive feature of Baylor’s MSC compared to facilities elsewhere is that researchers are trained to use the equipment and gather their own data rather than depending on staff technicians.

“Because they’ve been involved in every aspect of collecting, generating and processing data, our researchers have an understanding of the results that they’re getting and they can use that to better inform future experiments and better utilize that data going forward,” Becker said.

MSC training is available not just to lead researchers but to graduate and undergraduate researchers as well.

“We provide ongoing training for every level of the analysis — from the sample preparation to running the instrument to interpreting the data,” Becker said. “We actually have really good success, and in a couple of cases some people have known these instruments so well that they’ve been hired straight into research positions at the companies that make the instruments.” 

This is another in a series of stories examining the purpose and contributions of the academic centers and institutes within the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences.