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R. Graham Cooks

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

Hand-held tool could quickly ID food-borne pathogens

Graham Cooks envisions a day when everyone will carry their own handheld sensing system, not unlike “Star Trek's” tricorder device, to instantly test foods for the presence of bacteria or pesticides.

Now he is turning his attention to developing a technology with the potential to more quickly identify food-borne pathogens. The technology's application could aid U.S. homeland security officials and other personnel in responding to a bioterrorist attack or other emergencies.

In fact, researchers in his Purdue lab have been making strides in developing just such a technology. They’ve created a portable, ultra-fast chemical-analysis tool that has numerous promising uses for detecting everything from cancer in the liver to explosives residues on luggage and "biomarkers" in urine that provide an early warning for diseases.

The instrument is a miniature mass spectrometer combined with a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI.

The technology is being used by industry for applications such as pharmaceutical research and drug manufacturing. However, Cooks, the Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, won’t be satisfied until it’s in widespread use by the general public. This day may be drawing near, he says, because a new DESI-like technique allows instantaneous analysis of fruits and veggies.

A moist towelette is swiped over a piece of produce and then analyzed by the portable mass spectrometer, immediately indicating the presence and identity of pesticides.

Late in the day: This researcher does his best thinking late in the day, after working 12 hours or more; the later in the day, the better. “That’s when you start to fire on more neurons,” he says. “And the more neurons you fire up the better you think and the faster you think.”

For the common good: Cooks’ work is inspired by the drive to make a contribution. “I think most people want to improve the common good, no matter what their form of expression,” he says. “Chemistry is perfectly analogous to poetry or sculpting, and research is just another way of getting stuff done.”

Putting research to work: “Having been involved with technologies that have practical application, I would like to see them go all the way; to utilization on a daily basis in society,” Cooks says. That would include the likes of cancer diagnostics through DESI; and contributions to food safety, to public safety and to clinical analysis through related rapid detection technologies. “I would like everybody to have a little miniature mass spectrometer for themselves,” he says.

It’s the journey that counts: Cooks relates to “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus. It’s the tale of Sisyphus, who rolls a rock to the top of the mountain, stops and has one moment to look around and reflect. And then he lets the rock go. It rolls down the mountain. He trudges after it and proceeds to push it up the mountain again, and again, interminably. “It’s that little pause at the top,” Cooks says. “That’s when I see my successes: during the journey.”

By Emil Venere
Photos by: Andrew Hancock