Helen Cooper, PhD, Birmingham University
Dr. Helen J. Cooper is an expert in peptide and protein gas-phase ion chemistry. A world leader in the field of electron capture dissociation (ECD) mass spectrometry, she is responsible for establishing the University of Birmingham as a center of excellence in mass spectrometry research. I reached her for this interview as she was attending the biennial North American FT-MS conference in Florida.
As a nine-year-old, Helen remembers learning about Sir Isaac Newton and his description of a force called “gravity.” From that day on, she was hooked on science. “Science seemed to make sense to me. Things either were, or they were not. There was an inherent logic that really attracted me to learn more,” she said.
Chemistry — physical chemistry, in particular — was a natural path and she obtained her PhD from the University of Warwick in this field. At the time, her supervisor was working with a first-generation, high-resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometer (MS). The team could see that FT-MS held great potential for investigating biological molecules. She went to work with Alan Marshall, the inventor of the FT-ICR MS, and used her expertise in gas-phase ion chemistry to help develop new applications for the technique.
At the University of Birmingham for over 10 years now, her lab has been investigating a diversity of different proteomic challenges using refined MS techniques. The lab was involved in the investigation of inherited disorders of hemoglobin variants. One of the most widely known hemoglobin variants is the sickle variant, which produces sickle cell anemia. Newborns in countries where sickle cell is prevalent are screened at birth. Using MS to measure hemoglobin mass, the team was able to show that MS can accurately identify the sickle cell variant; diagnosticians can obtain an answer in minutes — not in hours, as is the case today.
This is just one example among many of new uses for MS that Helen has spearheaded. She is an expert in electron collision dissociation and electron transfer dissociation. Throughout her career she has pushed the boundaries of high resolution and mass accuracy by contributing to our understanding of how different forms of charging and fragmentation affect MS performance.
“I love the dual challenge of understanding the physical chemistry of ions — fundamental to the operation of mass spectrometers — and pushing that envelope by conceiving new ways to use mass spectrometry to answer biological questions,” said Cooper.
The University of Birmingham and Thermo Scientific have recently entered into a Technology Alliance Partnership — a broad collaboration that includes research, sample and data sharing, development of new techniques, the exchange of ideas for improving instrument and software performance, ongoing conversations about current technology issues, the training of graduate students, and the publishing of new methodology and scientific advances.
“We’ve been working with Thermo Scientific mass spectrometers for about 10 years, so the alliance formalizes our working relationship, allowing us to work more closely and to extend our ability to offer grad students a chance to learn how to work with state-of-the-art equipment. It really is a demonstration of our faith in each other to further the science of mass spectrometry,” explains Cooper.
If past performance predicts future achievement, this combination should produce interesting results.