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Improving Lives Through Mass Spectrometry

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Chemistry Professor Frank Turecek has seen major advances in the field of mass spectrometry since entering the field four decades ago—quite a few as a result of his own research. In September, Turecek was honored for his accomplishments, receiving a Thomson Medal Award from the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation.

“The award is given only every third year, and has only been given about half a dozen times, so there is no shortage of folks to honor,” says Paul Hopkins, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “The prior recipients are luminaries in their field. In short, this is a great honor.”

Frank Turecek

Frank Turecek (left) accepts his Thomson Medal Award.

Turecek explains that mass spectrometry is a physical method for determining the mass of an atom or molecule, including very large ones like DNA, proteins, and even viruses. Using mass spectrometry, scientists are able to determine the amino acid sequence in proteins, which is key to protein identification and characterization. Turecek’s team has been developing new methods to read the entire protein sequence, which is often necessary to find modified or damaged sites that may affect function and cause disease. He also has used mass spectrometry to study the highly reactive molecules that are relevant for combustion, atmospheric chemistry, and radiation damage of DNA.

“I am a physical organic chemist by training,” says Turecek. “The challenges posed by mass spectrometry pushed me to learn more chemical physics and theory on the one hand and biology on the other. Somewhere in the middle were natural products like steroids, alkaloids, and sugars that I helped to structurally characterize. I am trying to teach this broad approach to my graduate students and expose them to many different areas that mass spectrometry can tackle.”