Mariachiara Conti, PhD student

8th October 2019

I am currently a fist year PhD student at The University of Edinburgh, under the supervision of Dr. Simone Dimartino and in collaboration with Fuji Film Diosynth Biotechnology. My research focuses on the development of bespoke chromatography designs and materials to address current bioseparations challenges.

I would relish the opportunity to receive the support of The Chromatography Society bursary for having attended the 4th educational event of Grass Roots from the 4th of October to 7th October 2019. Attending the event with a mixture of about 20 other chromatographers surrounded by the beautiful Shropshire Hills has been an invaluable opportunity. The training sessions, led by high qualified bioseparation leaders, covered both practical and theoretical aspects of LC for the characterisation of biopharmaceuticals (RPLC, IEX, SEC, HIC and HILIC, Protein A).

Particularly remarkable was the opening lesson led by Dr. Anthony Edge on the fundamental concepts related to chromatography. This gave me a better understanding of the different variables that influence the separation performance refreshing the meaning of basic physico-chemical paramenters (pH, electronegativity, polarity, hydrophobicity) and how those affect the chromatographic retention of analytes. Although this is the well known core of basic science knowledge, remembering and understanding the concepts upon which LC is based allowed everyone to feel on the same page and, as it was an interactive lesson, allowed also to break the ice with the other chromatography fellows attending the course.

As my work is to fabricate new chromatography columns, some of the topics covered during the course might seem to be beyond the aim of my research. Nevertheless, I have found that this event helped me focusing on the current trends of bioseparation at the industrial level, approaching the challenges of my studies with more awareness and the right mind set. More specifically, my attention has been caught by the sessions covered by Dr. Ken Cook. He is a bio-separation manager with a longlasting experience on resolving chromatographic issues. During his talks, he efficiently explained all the most common wrong practices regarding HPLC systems showing plenty of practical examples from real situations. For example, starting with basic concepts, he has shown how a chromatogram should look like before starting injecting the analytes, the relation between flowrate and internal diameter of the column and general guidelines for the column selection. I also learned which HPLC techniques are more appropriate for intact protein analysis. Then, he went further to discuss more complex operations such as peptide digestion optimisation methods and glycans analysis. Although I am not using those last two techniques at the moment, having an understanding of these technique will surely help me in further steps of my doctoral studies.

Additionally, the talks brought me up to date with the recent developments in all the LC techniques. I’ve found the lesson on IEX particularly relevant to my work. This training covered the basics of IEX, comparison on salt and pH gradients for proteins characterizations and the effects of non-specific binding. As for all the presentations, all explanations were followed by a plethora of practical useful examples. I am now eager to apply his suggestions and tips to my work. Also, I am incredibly grateful for the amount of material supplied, it is a small encyclopedia of LC.

Similarly, this training me was a great opportunity to come in contact with fresh point of views on the research particularly due to the broad range of experience of both speakers and attendees. For example, the focus on regulatory aspects, led by Dr. Paul Ferguson, pointed out the necessity of considering regulation requirements from the initial stage of the research. This can be time saving when developing a new method and often in academia we forget about it.

One of my favourite aspects of the event was the relaxed but at the same time professional atmosphere that there was. Both speakers and attendees were more than happy to share experimental practices and problems with others. Although my practice in the field at the moment is little, I got the chance to talk to people with years of experience. This allowed me to have a better understanding on different approaches on research from the industrial point of view. I’ve felt part of a group composed of a mixture of chromatographers providing me with a greater knowledge on practical aspects that the manufacturing process requires. I particularly enjoyed talking with my fellows PhD students, Faraz and Dylan, with which I shared thoughts and perspectives on our doctoral studies. Likewise, I also got the chance to enjoy discussions with much more experienced scientists and I hope to see them again in the next ChromSoc training events.

Finally, through Grass Roots I also enjoyed the beauty of the Shropshire Hills. Church Stretton is a small gem with a variety of shops and attractions. Thanks to its strategical position, we had the chance to explore the surrounding area by foot. I enjoyed the time spent on the walks during which we had the possibility to socialise and to admire beautiful landscapes (Fig. 1). Additionally, thanks to the presence of small scale farms in the area we experienced great food supplied by local producers.

I have to thank my dear colleague PhD student Ursula Simon who suggested me to keep an eye on the ChromSoc event and now I became I would recommend both young and more experienced chromatographers to join such an event. Indeed, this intensive training allows to learn more about LC and its practical aspects, and for more experienced fellows it allows to improve important troubleshooting skills thank to the all the practical examples and know-hows supplied by bioseparation experts. Grass Roots was an exciting opportunity. It made me feel keen to apply all the knowledge I gained during the course in my research and willing to know more about this field, hoping one day to reach the level of expertise of the people that I met at the event.

I return from this training course with an improved knowledge of chromatography trends and aspects, with an expanded network with scientists both from companies and universities and a desire to improve my skills and experience. I would recommend everyone to attend this training organised by ChromSoc. You will get the chance to know a beautiful and remote place in England and meet some splendid fellows that will refresh your approach to bioseparation.