Dr. Rob Smith Lands CAREER Grant to Improve Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is a technique used to identify the chemical makeup of a given sample, and University of Montana researcher Robert Smith just earned funding that may improve the process.

Smith, a UM computer science assistant professor, was awarded a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation. He will receive $742,000 during the next five years.

CAREER grants are the most prestigious award for junior faculty, and this is the third one presented to a UM researcher this year.

UM researcher Robert Smith

UM researcher Robert Smith

“I am very excited for this award,” Smith said. “It provides the resources for the next phase of our research, which presents the possibility of dramatically advancing the field of mass spectrometry.”

Mass spectrometry has a broad range of applications of societal interest, including in medicine, forensics and basic biological sciences. Smith said his research develops new analysis techniques that allow mass spectrometry data to be used in ways that are not currently possible. This may lead to advances in fields like medical diagnostics, drug development and better research into poorly understood ailments involving proteins, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

He said mass spectrometry plays a role in many investigations because it can quantify and identify the major components – such as proteins, lipids, metabolites – of almost any cellular system.

His research develops a fundamentally different approach to mass spectrometry output signal analysis by:

  • Creating a different paradigm for mass spectrometry signal processing that segments the entire output file instead of extracting subregions of interest.
  • Showing that current methods are insufficient through a quantitative evaluation.
  • Enabling future research by capturing currently excluded low-abundance molecules.
  • Demonstrating how this new paradigm broadens future experimental possibilities with a novel correspondence approach built on the additional information provided by the proposed segmentation techniques.

Smith said a significant part of his plan involves outreach to Seeley-Swan High School, where researchers and teachers will team up to teach students problem-solving skills using computers in subjects such as chemistry, math and biology.

“With Robert receiving this award, we now have three CAREER grants this year, which matches 2009 – the last time we accomplished this scientific hat trick,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “It’s gratifying that the NSF is recognizing the amazing potential of our young research faculty members.”

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