Bringing abstract matter to life

Anne Bruinen inspired by Jan-Willem Schoonen


Analytical chemistry is not for everybody. It is a dry subject, but Anne Bruinen, Ph.D. candidate at the M4I institute, has been inspired for life by a fanatical trainee researcher in Leiden.

Analytical chemists are a strange breed, says Ph.D. candidate Anne Bruinen. She is part of the research group around professor Ron Heeren, who came from the Amsterdam research institute Amolf to Maastricht last year with fifteen employees. “Analytical chemists regard mass spectrometers as toys. They always have to get faster, better and bigger. One mass spectrometer (UNS 50, ground floor), for example, has a very high resolution, while another (fifth floor) is much faster. It is also a breed that is mad about gadgets. I am not really like that myself, but I do ride a motorbike. A 650 cc Suzuki. I am not a mechanic, but I did reconnect the battery recently.”

Bruinen (Pijnacker, 1988) didn’t pass from fifth into sixth class in secondary school. Which subjects did she fail? Mathematics and chemistry, exactly those subjects that she needs most today. A year later, the penny had dropped and she got the highest scores for chemistry in her final exams. She registered for Biopharmaceutical Sciences in Leiden, which is where she met Jan-Willem Schoonen, who would determine her career.

“He was a trainee researcher and taught the analytical chemistry practical. At least 90 per cent of the students thought it was awful. You have to like the subject, most of the time you are analysing compounds and measuring individual substances. Jan-Willem was fanatical, completely into research and contagiously enthusiastic. We immediately had a click. He was a really good supervisor. He could bring dry, abstract matter to life, make it exciting and he got me thinking. I am still in contact with him, he lives in Friesland now and works at an institute for sustainable water technology.”

What is Bruinen actually researching? She suggests that we go to the lab that is on the other side of the corridor, where the high-resolution mass spectrometer is. The “mas spec”, which can identify molecules on the basis of their weight, is a chrome-coloured mess of tubes, cables, reservoirs, flanked by an electronics unit. It is only one of three (of the fifteen in total), together worth a few million euro. “A small motor is broken at the moment. I tinker a little myself sometimes, but we regularly need a professional.”

Bruinen is trying to study individual cells. “That’s not easy, because cells don’t keep their original shape when you put them into the mas spec in a high vacuum. They collapse. We had the idea to freeze cells, but that is easier said than done, because you don’t want crystals or ice forming on the outside. If we succeed, you can study cells in 3D and, for example, can see what medication does at cell level.”

Bringing abstract matter to life
Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
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