Department of Chemistry Chair and Professor Robert Kennedy was recently presented the Martin Medal for Achievements in Separation Science at the international symposium on High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The Martin Medal recognizes career achievements, focusing on how the the scientist’s contributions have enhanced the field.

The Kennedy group works on improving the efficiency of separation science applied to biological issues—minimizing the time spent on the analysis of a sample.“We’ve developed several systems where we can do separations in less than a second, and then we have coupled those to biological systems, such as sampling probes that might be able to be put into a brain, or have cells growing on chips,” explains Kennedy. “When you couple these to rapid separation systems, you’re able to tell exactly what is happening in the biological systems.”

The Kennedy Lab uses microfabricated chips to add droplets, 1 to ~25 nanoliters in size, at up to 30 samples per second. These micro-volumes can be used to perform thousands of individual reactions on the nanoliter scale, and can then be analyzed and sorted using mass spectrometry
A chip created by the Kennedy group

Kennedy received the medal at the HPLC conference in Milan last month, but his career aspirations didn’t always include analytical chemistry. “I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was going into college,” he said. “The University of Florida had a vet school, and I figured, ‘I can major in chemistry and get prepared for that.’”

Like many chemistry students, Kennedy became involved in undergraduate research. “When I happened to start doing research, that converted me into becoming a chemist,” he said. “I was doing organic chemistry research at the time, but I really liked doing the analytical part of the project.”

After finishing his undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Kennedy moved to Chapel Hill to work on his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. He worked on making “really tiny chromatography columns for single cell analysis, which was a fantastic learning experience,” he said. “We were working on neurons for our single cell analysis and performing electrochemical measurements within the columns.”

Nearing the end of his PhD work, Kennedy contacted a professor who was focusing on electrochemical sensors to directly measure neurotransmitters. “I thought that was a good extension of my work and would get me experience in another area,” he said.

After postdoctoral work in neurotransmitter sensing, Kennedy moved back to the University of Florida to establish his independent research group. “Other than knowing how the buildings were laid out, I didn’t really get any benefit from having attended undergrad there, because most of the professors I had known had retired or were no longer active there,” he said. “Although once, I was mistaken for a graduate student when I was asking the machine shop to help build a high-pressure cell,” he adds, with a laugh.

Kennedy credits much of his success to his hard-working research group.

Eleven years after starting at the University of Florida, Kennedy moved his research group to the University of Michigan. “It was hard to leave Florida because we had to buy winter coats,” he said with a laugh.

However, the potential to do interdisciplinary work with partners in the U-M Medical School and Chemistry, Engineering, and even Psychology Departments was a strong draw. “At Michigan, all of those departments are so strong and I have found many, many people to collaborate with,” he explained. “At least half of our papers are collaborative with someone outside of our department, which has been good for our research progress and has been good for the students to learn how to work with other people and hold up their end of a project.”

While collaborations have challenges at times, Kennedy explained that they are able to expand their reach and come up with new ideas by working with people who have less experience in their area of expertise. “Sometimes, people we collaborate ask if we have the capabilities to do something, and our initial response is ‘no’. But we think about it, and we are able to include this request in a proposal as we try to solve this challenge based on what they asked us to do.”

“It’s an honor to receive this award,” Kennedy said, but he credits the hard work of his students which has contributed to this recognition. “I’ll tell you, a lot of times I have an idea and have no idea how to get it done. And these students go in and figure out how to get it done. That’s been really awesome, and pretty gratifying as well.”

Kennedy was also awarded the Ralph Adams Award in Bioanalytical Chemistry. Kennedy is the Hobart H Willard Distinguished University.