Study Chemistry in the UK
Probing molecular structures and environments: magnetic resonance and mass spectrometry
If you have studied chemistry or a related subject at undergraduate level and are now looking to choose a course of study for a higher degree you will find that you have a wealth of choice that the UK offers a wide variety of courses. You will want your course to develop you both academically and personally, enriching your subject specific knowledge and your general (i.e. transferable) skills. As such, your choice of course can be a life-defining decision as it will probably have a direct influence on your future career prospects. For this reason it is wise to choose a course that both appeals strongly to your interests and offers good employment prospects after graduation.
For students who are interested in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and mass spectrometry (MS) there are particularly good employment prospects. In addition to their widespread use in pure research applications, NMR and MS are used extensively in industrial environments including drug discovery and production, polymer synthesis, product verification, detection of adulteration in foods and fine chemicals. The past 20 years have witnessed considerable advances in the technical capabilities of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, increasing the information that can be obtained from these techniques and extending the applications to which they are suited.
Major advances in the field of NMR spectroscopy have come from the development of two-dimensional spectroscopic methods at the same time that improvements in magnet design and manufacture have made higher field instruments available more widely. These developments resulted in dramatic improvements in resolution, detection limits and speed of data acquisition, enabling NMR spectra to be obtained even on highly complex molecules where many of the signals overlap. Consequently, the applications for NMR spectroscopy have expanded dramatically. Whereas the technique used to be employed mainly in the field of structure elucidation, for example in the development of a new drug, it is now also widely used to investigate molecular interactions, conformation in complex molecules and catalysis.
These are just a few of the applications that are now possible to tackle with NMR. Magnetic resonance also has important applications as an imaging tool, being widely used in medical diagnosis and medical research. The imaging techniques provide density maps of particular nuclei, enabling researchers to study processes operating in otherwise inaccessible regions. The techniques can even allow the study of biological/physiological processes in real-time, hence they can be an important tool in assessing drug action within the body.
The range of compounds that can be analysed by mass spectrometry has expanded dramatically as a consequence of the development of various new ionisation methods. Many highly sensitive and complex biological molecules are now amenable to analysis by mass spectrometry. Indeed, many advances in modern molecular biology are a direct consequence of researchers being able to identify proteins by mass spectrometry, enabling them to probe the underlying biochemical processes.
The introduction of ionisation methods that operate at atmospheric pressure has also greatly simplified the coupling to liquid chromatography, extending the analytical capabilities to include complex mixtures of involatile compounds. At the same time, developments in mass analysers have taken the technique from the domain of the specialist mass spectrometrist to one of the fastest growing and most widely used analytical methods available. Modern instruments provide a wide range of distinct configurations, matched to suit the many different requirements in modern analytical laboratories. For example, they can be designed to serve as a simple and robust mass selective detector or to have more sophisticated capabilities such as high mass resolution or tandem mass spectrometry, thereby enabling additional structural information to be recovered.
Mass spectrometry can also provide imaging capabilites. These techniques allow detailed characterisation of surfaces and so, for example, can be used to generate a map of the distribution of components on a modified surface. The imaging techniques have also been of great value in medical research where molecular distributions within thin sections of biological tissues can be profiled.
As a result of the major developments in these two techniques they are now used extensively in pure research applications, in industry and within scientific service organisations. The growth in the applications of NMR and MS has led to a high demand for trained users, meaning that students with suitable qualifications and experience in NMR and MS have excellent employment prospects.
Many students gain the appropriate training and experience through working with one of the techniques during a PhD, or by taking a specialist taught MSc course in one or other of the techniques. A new MSc course, just launched by the University of York, combines teaching in both topic areas. By integrating the two topics students will gain an appreciation of the relative merits of both methods and will be particularly well positioned to make informed choices when considering the development of analytical strategies.