During my second year at TTU I started taking chemistry courses as my free electives so I could have something interesting for my spare classes. After a couple of years I was interested enough in chemistry to look at attending an REU program for a summer. I ended up with an REU position doing inorganic chemistry at Virginia Tech for a summer. During my final year at TTU I took a dual path considering graduate school positions in both chemistry and physics programs. In the end the chemistry graduate programs looked more interesting to pursue after I finished with my physics degree from TTU.
I ended up choosing a program at Indiana University doing physical chemistry. The area I went into was focused on building new analytical instrumentation, mass spectrometers in particular. In graduate school I spent most of my time working toward improving an area of mass spectrometers known as charge detection mass spectrometers and established a new way of operating the detectors that substantially lowered the detection limits over previous efforts. In practice, after the initial ideas, I put a lot of time into building and developing electronic circuits, designing detectors and vacuum systems, writing computer code, and working on signal processing algorithms. I had other side projects come up during that time as well. These included developing a Monte Carlo simulation program for studying charge migration in liquid water and a (cheap) sub-microsecond high-speed photography system for analyzing electrospray sources used in mass spectrometers. I’m very happy to have had a physics background as preparation for all of the research I did.
I’m now employed at Thermo Fisher Scientific in the R&D section developing a new mass spectrometer detector. On a day to day basis I’m on a small team that has a couple of scientists along with several engineers and technicians working together to finish a project. As a scientist on the project I have to be the person that understands every element of the project and make sure that in the end we can do science with the new detector. This roughly breaks down into a couple parts. The first is to figure out a new or better way to detect ions, at a high level, figuring out some properties that would benefit the science that can be done with the instrument. This has led me to have the chance to meet and work with world experts in signal processing, help develop computer simulation tools, figure out complicated ion movement in dynamic electric fields, and generally lots of reading to know what’s been done and get new ideas. The next step is to figure out how to implement an idea, which involves working with engineers and technicians to get designs completed and built as well as writing a lot of computer code. But I’ve also had the chance to pioneer a bit into 3D printing parts and delve into high-performance computing on multiple platforms including GPUs.
Johnathan Smith graduated from TTU in 2006. He earned his PhD in Chemistry from Indiana University in 2011.