A Virtual Summer Studentship with Lipidomics

The Babraham Institute's Lipidomics Facility team in full PPE

A remote studentship is a daunting task. As many of you can attest, working from home can be a challenging prospect; technical problems impact your productivity. The number of distractions is greater and it can be hard to communicate effectively online. These issues are compounded further by the stress of starting something new. However, I was willing to meet all of these challenges head on in order to learn about an exciting application of analytical chemistry.

As a recent graduate from Imperial College London I was looking for an opportunity, like this one, to explore different fields of chemistry that I was not exposed to as part of my degree. My final year was spent in an air-sensitive, inorganics synthesis group and as such I felt that I had a lot to gain by learning about a more biological application of chemistry. Like many people I also wanted my work to have meaning and this studentship fulfilled both of these criteria perfectly and would help determine which direction I would like my career to take.

Through funding from the British Mass Spectrometry Society (BMSS) and the Chromatography Society (ChromSoc), I was granted the privilege of joining the Babraham Institute for a remote studentship in the Lipidomics research facility. Lipidomics is a challenging field which employs analytical chemistry tools, and in particular mass spectrometry, to study the structure and function of lipids. The implications of understanding lipids are far reaching, from identifying biomarkers of diseases to exploring how our diets/ageing are affecting us, and it was this that both motivated my application and sustained my interest throughout my six weeks at the Institute. The remote nature of the work meant I could not experience the practical side of lipidomics so instead I was tasked with the other side of lipidomics: mass spectra analysis, data processing, and biological interpretation to determine how knocked out genes impact the lipidome.

As part of the studentship, I learned a lot very quickly.  Before beginning the analysis, it was important that I understood how mass spectrometry worked. I spent a very interesting week discussing with Dr Lopez-Clavijo the practicalities of mass spectrometry, something that prior to this studentship I had very little experience of.  We discussed everything from the guts of the machine to the reasoning behind why the Orbitrap mass analyser is more appropriate for some applications than the more sensitive SCIEX tandem mass spectrometer.  I also learnt how to analyse the data manually and using a range of different software: Xcalibur, Multiquant, Lipid Data Analyser to automate peak picking, R-studio, MATLAB, and GraphPad. Additionally, usage of fold-changes, to represent the proportional relationship between each control and mutant, and BioPAN (LIPID MAPS® Lipidomics Gateway) to find activated/supressed genes was explored. I was also exposed to some of the thrilling work done at the Institute via the online seminars, which were absolutely fascinating to someone from a chemistry background!

It would be a lie to say that the studentship was always easy, but the excellent team of people I worked with made the experience very enjoyable. I would like to thank the following people from the science facility: Diane Taylor for keeping me company, motivating me and making sure that my analysis was going well; Dr. da Costa Sousa for her help in understanding the biological underpinnings of the work; and finally Dr. Lopez-Clavijo for her endless patience, excellent explanations, and for giving me a chance to work on such an exciting project.  Last but not least, to the memory of Michael J. O. Wakelam who believed in transferring his love for lipids and mass spectrometry to the next generation.