September 30, 2020

Spectrum talked with a leading AOAC member and AOAC’s Science Team senior managers to learn how this Annual Meeting advanced analytical science.

Melissa Phillips is a Research Chemist at National Institute of Standards and Technology and is heavily involved in AOAC, including being on the Technical Programming Council, the Analytical Solutions Forum Steering Committee, the Official Methods Board, and other activities. Palmer Orlandi is AOAC’s Chief Science Officer and leads the Analytical Solutions Forum at AOAC. Deborah McKenzie is Senior Director of Standards at AOAC. Arlene Fox is Senior Director of Proficiency Testing at AOAC.

What were the key takeaways from this Annual Meeting?

Palmer Orlandi: I’d like to start with the Analytical Solutions Forum. It continues to be a very valuable component to our meetings. The Forum highlights areas where AOAC INTERNATIONAL can work with our stakeholders to develop new approaches to ongoing problems and incorporate new technologies to address emerging complex needs, such as in silico analysis, artificial intelligence, and PFAS. Our collaborators recognize that AOAC is well positioned to lead in these areas. We are looking to the future and striving to be proactive. The Forum lays the ground work and helps us to chart the path forward.

Arlene Fox: What was exciting were the new solutions to ongoing analytical science problems. This came up over and over again; for example, in detecting food adulteration – areas where there has been a real roadblock, and now there are truly new opportunities for solving these problems.

Deborah McKenzie: There was a lot of synergy between the topics of work in AOAC science programs, including the AOAC Analytical Solutions Forum addressing PFAS, food authentication, chemometrics, molecular applications and methodology, vaping, colors and cannabis – all these were considered not just throughout the scientific sessions but also the posters. It really attested to the fact that we are on the right track, moving forward with the emerging and current issues that are important to our community. Although there is communication with the Technical Programming Council, this level of continuity between the sessions and AOAC’s programs was not pre-planned. The closeout session on COVID-19, even the Eurofins Foundation “Testing for Life” Student Award Symposium and the Spotlight Talks – all reflected the areas we are working on now or hoping to in the near future.

Melissa Phillips: My biggest takeaway was the resiliency and forward thinking of AOAC. The organization pulled off an amazing and scientifically rigorous annual meeting using a brand new virtual platform during a global pandemic.

How did this meeting plant seeds for AOAC’s work in the coming year?

Deborah McKenzie: This meeting confirmed some of the needs that have been identified. In the coming year, we’ll be moving on to developing solutions to address those needs. For example, the Research Institute has implemented its Emergency Response Validation program incorporating in silico analysis.  AOAC used this meeting to launch its working groups on glyphosates, chlorates/perchlorates, spices and botanicals authenticity using nontargeted testing and targeted testing methods including molecular methods. These topics were highlighted along with PFAS and cannabis, and we will be working to address those needs also. 

The theme of this meeting was “Building the future of analytical science.” How did the meeting do that?

Palmer Orlandi: This meeting highlighted how important it is to engage younger scientists, because they bring along new technology that we may not have been focusing on, such as bioinformatics. We understand it, but they are doing it. Our investment in them comes back to us with the new directions or alternative ways to think. This is an invaluable asset for us. They are really a pipeline for us, to keep us current.

The inspired thinking of our younger scientists – not just graduate students and post docs, but also those entering the workforce – helps us see, through their eyes, novel and excitingly different scientific approaches…approaches that will be needed to maintain the success and renown of the association well into the future.

Arlene Fox: Young people are more likely to be using things like AI and chemometrics than people who have been in science for a long time. As an older chemist, at first you sort of feel like chemometrics is dry labbing; but when you take a step back, you see it is a valid approach.

Deborah McKenzie: There was a clear distinction that showed up in presentations, even in some of the posters. The traditional scientists asking, “Why do we need this? How do the newer technologies or approaches measure up to more traditional technologies?” You could see the impact of newer scientists and new ideas coming through.

Arlene Fox: It is opening up whole new approaches in science, and this Annual Meeting even more than most offered that opportunity. That was a recurring theme; for example, there was a lot of discussion of whole genome sequencing.

Was that related to this being a virtual meeting?

Deborah McKenzie: Yes, a lot of it was due to the virtual nature of this meeting. You could really focus on the presentations, the working sessions and the posters – it seemed easier to pay closer attention and pull those new technologies out. There were so many questions on things like bioinformatics and chemometrics from our traditional members.

Arlene Fox: Chat seemed to work better for these questions than in in-person sessions. There was a real opportunity for discussion. It was less intimidating than posing a question in a room of 150 to 200 people.

Deborah McKenzie: I think the platform worked for newer scientists and students. It helped them get engaged and introduced them to the existing AOAC community.  

At the end of the day, what “moved the needle” in this meeting?

Deborah McKenzie: The Analytical Solutions Forum. It was so dynamic and so full of news. It was interesting how the ASF already encompassed much of what was in the scientific portion of the meeting: Scanning the future with PFAS, in silico analysis, use of biometrics & chemometrics, molecular method applications, glyphosates – all of those emerging topics were spot on, as we saw in the scientific sessions. It reinforced to me that AOAC’s core programs are hitting the mark.

Melissa Phillips: The importance of the mission and strength of the community was obvious through the engagement of attendees via chat and Q&A.  Although times are strange, the science and standards development needs are ever present, and AOAC is the organization trusted to lead this effort.