Mass Spec Handyman


Yes, Next Wavers, there are plenty of scientists out there enjoying alternatives to a career in research. Jim Burdett of Thermo Finnigan Corp. is a case in point. Thermo Finnigan, which is based in California, is a division of Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Electron Corp., which manufactures and sells a wide range of scientific instruments. Thermo Finnigan's, and Burdett's, expertise is with gas-source isotope ratio mass spectrometers and the peripherals that are attached to them. Burdett installs these instruments in labs across the United States. When I met him he was installing one in the laboratory of Beverly Johnson, a geologist at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

Gas-source isotope ratio mass spectrometers are a special breed of a class of instruments--mass spectrometers--that are used in many different areas of science, from physics to biomedical science, for the separation of atoms and molecules of different charges and molecular weights. The gas-source isotope ratio variety is especially widely used by geologists. These spectrometers analyze a narrow range of molecular weights with great precision and allow scientists to determine precisely the ratio of the isotopic constituents of matter.

Despite the instrument's specialization, it is a powerful tool for investigating a wide range of phenomena. For example, it can be used to discern climate data from the isotopic composition of fossil foraminifera in (well-preserved) ocean drill cores. It can be used to trace the source of well-water contamination. It can be used by forensics laboratories to determine the source of a particular drug sample. It can be used to search for nasty bacterial strains in the breath of children with lung ailments. It can even be used to distinguish natural honey from humanmade substitutes. This variety of applications means that Burdett's job installing these instruments is never boring, because every laboratory--and so every installation--has somewhat different needs.

Burdett's educational background is similarly eclectic. His first bachelor's degree (that's right, he has two) was from Amherst College. He'd entered Amherst College with interest in science, but was alienated early on by an unforgiving introductory chemistry course that was aimed at weeding out wannabes from the throngs of potential premed students. Burdett ended up majoring in economics, but during his final year at Amherst he took a course in geology, and loved it. It was too late for him to change his major, but that little taste was enough for him to realize that he had met his true scientific love.

So he followed that love to Montana, where he took a second bachelor's degree at the University of Montana. This degree was followed by a master's in geology from the University of South Carolina, and a 7-year stint doing oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Although he worked on a variety of scientific problems, a common theme of his graduate work was the use of gas-source isotope ratio mass spectrometers.

Burdett had almost finished his Ph.D. and already accepted a postdoc at the University of Michigan, when fate--in the forms of an overpressurized cylinder of liquid nitrogen and an old surplus dewar--interceded in his career plans. An explosion removed his right hand.

Burdett never finished his Ph.D., but he enjoyed working in the laboratory so he wanted to stay at the bench. So instead of the postdoc, he took a lab manager position in the same University of Michigan laboratory. Burdett was content as a lab manager, but lab managers have to go where the money is, and the money moves around. Burdett and his burgeoning family left the Michigan gig for similar jobs at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Denver and at Cornell University. In all of these positions he utilized, maintained, and repaired mass spectrometers.

By the time the funding for the Cornell project dried up, Burdett had three children, the oldest of which was entering high school, and he wasn't interested in following the money any more. "I'd had enough with moving," he says. In some ways, a California company seems an odd choice for an upstate New York scientist who was determined to put down roots, but with a 90% market share of gas-source isotope ratio mass spectrometers, applying to Thermo Finnigan was pretty much a no-brainer for someone with Burdett's experience, and it worked out. "Given my practical and applied experience in the stable isotope world, I decided to apply to work with Thermo, and was accepted with the [understanding] that the job wouldn't require me to move, but did require a heavy travel schedule."

No job is perfect, and this travel schedule is, in Burdett's view, his job's primary imperfection. Burdett, who travels all over the U.S., is on the road 4 out of every 5 weeks, although he always makes it home on weekends. "The time on the road is definitely the down side, but on the plus side, compared to academics there is not a big push for funding."

Burdett has been with Thermo for 3 years now, and things continue to go well. The money is good--"better than a starting professor, but not as good as a heavy-weight scientist in the field"--and, even more important, the work is satisfying: "I enjoy the short-term challenges we face when I am assembling the new instruments, as there are often new and different applications by many of the customers. I enjoy the work because I feel I'm bringing something special to these labs--not just the instrument but also my experiences in the lab--so that I can relate with the customer."

Burdett's obligatory left-handedness does, of course, complicate the work of installing large scientific instruments, but he is resourceful and philosophical about his loss. "Like all of life for me," he notes, "working with one hand demands patience. But like all humans, we adapt. I feel I have very few limitations because of the loss of my dominant hand, and I try to approach every aspect [of the job] as a challenge to prove that I am not limited."

Burdett's latest prosthesis--a muscle-contraction-activated " greifer," which provides excellent gripping strength and precision--is a great help. "The prosthesis ... allows me to hold things and overcome small challenges that would otherwise be very hard with just one hand. [It is] dexterous enough to pick up potato chips, strong enough to lift, say, a pump, and simple enough to slip off and on without much effort."

Are there ways in which the prosthesis makes things easier than having two regular hands? "I try to think of tasks which the hand allows me to be at an advantage," Burdett wrote via e-mail, "but all I can come up with are testing spaghetti right out of the boiling water, or pulling things out of liquid nitrogen."

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