Carnegie Mellon University
May 15, 2023

ACS Awards Liam Dugan Summer Graduate Fellowship

By Heidi Opdyke

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Marketing and Communication, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Liam Dugan is expanding the future of science in the field of mass spectrometry.

An analytical technique used to separate and measure ionized particles — like atoms and molecules — mass spectrometry uses the differences in the ratios of their charges to their respective masses to determine the molecular weight of particles.

"Mass spec is the behind-the-scenes workhorse. It's behind everything everywhere," Dugan said. "Instrumentation drives innovation in the field. We can't do certain things if we don't have a way to measure them."

Mass spectrometry has applications to everything from drug testing, discovery and clinical research to testing drinking water and protein identification.

Dugan began at Allegheny College with an interest in earning a bachelor's degree in physics and pursuing a master's degree in electrical engineering, in part because he was interested in building things. A conversation with his adviser Professor Doros Petasis changed that. Petasis, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon's Department of Physics in 1995, suggested that Dugan join Carnegie Mellon Chemistry Professor Mark Bier's group for a summer undergraduate research experience.

"I jumped at the opportunity," Dugan said. "I had this great summer experience with Mark."

He ended up spending two summers in Bier's lab. When it was time for Dugan to consider graduate schools, Bier, the director of the Center for Molecular Analysis in the Department of Chemistry and a fellow Allegheny College graduate, pitched the idea of Dugan becoming an inventor.

"Mass spec is the behind-the-scenes workhorse. It's behind everything everywhere," — Liam Dugan

Bier holds more than a dozen patents related to mass spectrometry. A patent filed in 2010 and granted in 2013 described instrumentation and method concepts that focused on an improved mass spectrometer that used light. The invention could potentially make more accurate and precise m/z measurements for select molecules including in the area of heavy ion mass spectrometry. While there has been experimental work using photon emission to make ion measurements inside an ion trap, no known commercial instrument uses optical detection of ions inside the mass analyzer to determine the mass to charge ratio. The approach would allow for long-term studies where samples could be studied not just for fractions of a second or minutes, such as in current mass spec instrumentation, but for days.

He wanted Dugan to build it.

"He still loves physics and has a passion for mass spectrometry, like myself," Bier said. "When he realized what the patent concept was all about he got excited and said to me that that was in his wheelhouse, and what he wanted to do for his Ph.D. project. That enthusiasm was great."

Dugan remembers the conversation well, and rather than getting that engineering master's degree, he joined the Bier lab as a graduate student in 2019.

"He started talking to me about how in his lab I could be an inventor, which is what I wanted to do in the first place, but didn't know the avenue to get there," he said. "I thought that sounded very fun."

Once the instrumentation is functional, Dugan said one goal is to improve the analysis of macromolecular complexes such as viral particles. This will help researchers identify new uses for the biomolecules and aid in understanding their viability as therapeutic devices.

"We want to investigate the durability, strength and cargo-loading availability and viability of drug carriers," Dugan said.

But first, he has a long way to go in building the instrumentation before someone will be able to apply it.

"Once you have something that is working, that's when the floodgates open and when applications can build a whole new subfield," he said. "I love that somebody can use this later to push the limits of research and being a part of that."

For his efforts Dugan was awarded the American Chemical Society's Pittsburgh Section/ACS Analytical Summer Graduate Fellowship. The award provides $8,300 for three months.

The Division of Analytical Chemistry Graduate Fellowship Program is designed to encourage basic research in the field of analytical chemistry, to promote the growth of analytical chemistry in academic institutions and industry, and to provide recognition of future leaders in the field of analytical chemistry. Applicants must be full-time students working toward a Ph.D. and must have completed the second year of graduate study by the time the fellowship period begins.

— Related Content —