Pittcon Reflects

Among conferences and trade shows, growth and quality are not always compatible

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Even a venerable old meeting like the Pittsburgh Conference needs to look in the mirror occasionally and consider if its true to its roots while being poised for the future.

That kind of soul-searching occurred at the 54th rendition of the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, which along with the companion Exhibit of Modern Laboratory Equipment was held in Orlando, Fla., in mid-March. Attendance was down (under 25,000), as is common among trade shows lately. Nevertheless, Pittcon remains the predominant worldwide exposition of chemical analysis and related technologies.

At a mid-week luncheon, several dozen long-time attendees were invited to express their opinions on Pittcons current configuration and how it can be improved. As you would expect, recommendations were varied but, from the standpoint of this attendee, a couple had real merit.

One suggested locating an area for the "poster presentations" in the center of the exhibit. Poster presentations are the stepchildren of this, as well as other, technical conferences and are inevitably located at the fringe of the visible universe, so to speak. Although this means giving up high-priced exhibit space, it does re-emphasize the technical roots of this event. Without the technical conference, of which the poster presentations are a part, there would be no Pittcon as we know it.

Another suggested change was to allow for breaks in the technical program so that conferees could visit the exhibit unconflicted by the need to skip important papers. This highlights a crucial choice confronting the Pittcon organizers: Growth and quality are not always compatible.

At present, attending significant conference sessions, visiting poster presentations of interest, and still spending quality time at the exhibit is next to impossible. New, highly topical symposia inevitably emerge to compete with traditional stalwarts. This year, half-day symposia on the detection of biological and chemical warfare agents as well as a third on explosives detection could easily deduct a day and a half out of an already crowded schedule.

A continuing function of Pittcon is to honor individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the field of analytical chemistry. This years Pittcon Heritage Award, co-sponsored by the Chemical Heritage Foundation [CONTROL,Apr. 98, p118], went to Kathryn Hach-Darrow for her role as co-founder and CEO of Hach Chemical, her involvement in ensuring safe, clean drinking water, and her commitment to quality science education. Ms. Hach also was feted at Centcoms annual industry breakfast. Host Jim Byrne described how her lifelong fascination with aviation was a key business asset enabling Iowa-based Hach to effectively service a nationwide customer base in the days before commercial air transportation became commonplace.

John Fenn, 2002 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, presented a special lecture on "Electrospray Wings for Molecular Elephants." Fenns electrospray method permits very large protein molecules to be ionized, allowing them to be analyzed in a mass spectrometer. The emerging field of proteomics is largely based on this development. Since 1994, Fenn has held a faculty appointment at Virginia Commonwealth University. From 1967-94, he held appointments to several Yale University faculties including chemical engineering (this writers alma mater).

Fenn received a B.A. in chemistry at Berea College in 1937 and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1940. He worked for about 12 years in chemical process development at Monsanto and Sharples Chemical before a seven-year stint with Experiment Inc., a Richmond, Va., firm specializing in combustion engines. In 1959, he was named director of Project Squid, a U.S. Navy program of basic and applied research in jet propulsion administered by Princeton University, where Fenn became professor of aerospace and mechanical sciences. During his tenure at Experiment Inc., Fenn is credited with solving the problem of maintaining missile propulsion after reaching supersonic velocities.

Two technical sessions (15 individual papers) focused exclusively on on-stream process analysis. These papers covered applications of NIR, FTIR, ion chromatography, and other on-line analytical techniques. A new instrument for moisture in liquids involves headspace sampling with a phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5) detector. This instrument is designed for continuous on-stream use.

The resolving power of FT mass spectrometry was demonstrated in a fermentation application. Carbon monoxide"nitrogen (CO-N2) and methanol"oxygen (CH3OH-O2) are mass-doublets as they have the same nominal molecular weights. The on-stream FTMS was able to resolve 10 mass doublets and a mass triplet in the fermenter head-space gas.

A final question at the mid-week lunch concerned conference siting. While individual preferences are scattered widely, historical attendance figures strongly argue for a northern urban site. The 41st Pittcon in New Yorks Javits Center (1990) attracted 34,000 attendees, a figure surpassed only once since. As I have stated before, "Youre really not in the big leagues unless you bring the team to Gotham from time to time."

Terrence K. McMahon

McMahon Technology Associates

135 Fort Lee Road

Leonia, NJ 07605

Tel: 201-585-2050

Fax: 201-585-1968

Mcmahontec135@aol.com

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