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Outside the Lab Professional development

Another Man’s Treasure

A few years ago, a scientist from the University of Bornova in Izmir, Turkey, came to do a sabbatical at UCLA. We had a couple of old GC/MS instruments sitting in the basement – they were both in working condition but we had discarded them for a newer, better system. I casually said he could have them, and in due course the instruments were shipped to Izmir. Months later, I visited the Turkish university, and managed to get one of the instruments working. I was amazed to find that the students in the lab had previously never even seen a mass spectrometer, let alone used one.  I trained a couple of them in how to use it, and though I afterwards lost touch with the professor, I was told that the instrument ran for several years – helping in their research and to introduce their students to mass spectrometry and GC/MS in particular.

It occurred to me then that this could be done on a larger scale. Institutions, universities and pharma companies are constantly replacing their analytical equipment with more sensitive versions – why not make the old instruments available to countries who need them for research and teaching? For the past two years, I have conducted a workshop at ASMS, discussing the lack of instrumentation in many labs around the world. At this year’s workshop, a scientist from Cameroon confirmed that he’d never seen a mass spectrometer as a student, only read about them in books. That lack of contact puts such students at a huge disadvantage; without experience, they struggle to compete for post docs and positions in other countries. The situation hardened my commitment to try and find a way to repurpose discarded instruments from the USA.

It’s worth noting at this point that I am not the only one to have had this idea. Getting something like this off the ground is a real challenge, but Giles Edwards, at the Recycling Organization for Research Opportunities (RORO), has been very successful (particularly in finding homes for Waters equipment throughout West Africa, India and Pakistan), as has Seeding Labs, an organization in the US headed by Nina Dudnik.

I’ve contacted every MS company in the US, but they are loathe to make obsolete equipment available for legal reasons, even though it should be a simple matter of signing the right paperwork. The long and short of it is: finding a home for an instrument is easy; finding the instrument is the problem. Last Christmas, we acquired a mass spectrometer for a three-day course at the Congo Basin Institute, Yaounde, Cameroon, which some students traveled over 600 km to attend; however, to their disappointment – and mine – we couldn’t get it working because it was in poor condition and not repairable. My hope is to find one soon, get it operational, and run another class over the 2018 Christmas break.

I’m focusing on mass spectrometry because that’s my field, but the same argument applies – and the same need exists – for any superseded but working analytical equipment: centrifuges, chromatography systems, NMRs, and so on. So, whichever field you work in, whether you are a CEO or an academic like me, please consider this a call to action: look at what instruments are lurking in basements and storage units, and ask yourself: couldn’t they be put to better use?

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About the Author

Kym Faull

Kym Faull is Director, Pasarow Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

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