Richland scientist recognized for work on biological systems

By The Tri-City HeraldOctober 30, 2013 

A Richland scientist has been recognized for developing new ways to study biological systems.

Richard "Dick" Smith is ranked No. 14 on a list of the most influential people in the analytical sciences, as compiled by The Analytical Scientist magazine in The Power List 2013.

He also has been given the highest honor by the 8,500-member American Society for Mass Spectrometry, the 2013 Distinguished Contribution Award.

Smith, an analytical biochemist and chief scientist and director of proteomics at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, saw 30 years ago that biology research could benefit from what was then a limited chemistry tool, mass spectrometry.

Since then he has made mass spectrometry a valued tool for biofuels, cancer, infectious diseases and radioactive waste cleanup research, according to PNNL.

His work grew out of an interest in finding a way to study the large array of components that make up biological systems such as cells or larger organisms.

"We've long needed to better characterize biological systems and learn how they really operate," he said in a statement.

Mass spectrometry has the ability to separate and identify proteins and other molecules and measure small changes, he said.

"I thought if we could surmount the technological hurdles, we could tackle many scientific questions in areas from cancer to biofuel production," he said.

His honor from the American Society for Mass Spectrometry was based on a small attachment that fits on the front of a mass spectrometer called an electrodynamic ion funnel. The funnel improves sensitivity, or how well an instrument can detect proteins in a test tube sample.

That has allowed researchers to find rare proteins that were virtually undetectable 15 years ago, according to the society.

Work remains to be done to make technologies based on mass spectrometry "not just 10 times faster, but a million times faster," Smith told The Analytical Scientist.

He plans to combine mass spectrometry with technologies that can provide other important information such as the shape of proteins and molecule, as well as continue work to make research with mass spectrometers faster.

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