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Prof Peter B O'Connor

Prof Peter B O'Connor

Contact Details

Professor Peter B O'Connor

Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick

Research Groups

Peter O'Connor Group

Research Interests

I am currently interested in improving the performance and applications of Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FTICR) mass spectrometers; fundamental studies of the mechanism of electron capture dissociation; FTICR instrument design; post-translational modification analysis of proteins and peptides; and deamidation and isomerization of aspartic acid residues in peptides and proteins.

Scientific Inspiration

A fascinating question! But not a short one to answer. I’ll try to be brief.

A. Professor Fred W. Mclafferty, Cornell University. Fred was my PhD supervisor and became my mentor and essentially my academic father. He was an impressively intelligent and charming man, but he relished the academic argument process whereby science reveals truth. Sceptical (scientifically) to a fault, but perpetually human, approachable, and helpful. We lost him recently, and I miss him. He was the consummate mass spectrometrist, with an organic chemistry synthesis background (he has a very famous organic rearrangement named after him) and the undisputed master of fragmentation mechanisms. His contributions to the field include GC/MS, high resolution MS, protein MS, top-down protein sequencing, and several of the key fragmentation methods.

B. Professor Catherine Costello. Boston University School of Medicine. Cathy was my mentor in the Assistant/Associate professor phases of my career, and I still have complete trust in her and in her keen perception of people. She is always helpful and supportive, and just a wonderful person. She is most known for her understanding and advocacy of mass spectrometry of glycans, oligosaccharides, and lipids, and she taught me how to collaborate with biochemists, molecular biologists, medical and clinical scientists, and every other colleague at a medical school who needed good analytical research.

C. Professor Alan Marshall. Florida State University. I never worked with Alan, but I’ve known him all my career as his development of FTICR mass spectrometry was the key underlying development that I had to master in my PhD studies with Fred. His work was revolutionary and keenly insightful, and I’ve always read his papers with great interest.

D. A few other key people who have impressed me over the years are Professor Franz Hillenkamp, Muenster (who should have won the Nobel prize for MALDI instead of Tanaka – happy to show you the papers) and Professor Ron Heeren, Maastricht University, a long-time friend and co-worker from when I was a postdoc in Amsterdam. Ron now runs the EU’s biggest and best imaging mass spectrometry laboratory.

Supervision Style

Another interesting question. I’m primarily focused on the student’s outcomes, long term. This means teaching critical thinking (most of the literature is flawed, or just wrong, so it’s important to be sceptical), and working on improving the quality of their work to get publications onto their CV’s. Leaving your PhD with multiple first-author publications gives you a huge advantage over others in selection of job opportunities going forward, and the work needs to be written up for the thesis anyway, so why not? Additionally, I try to take all of my PhD students to conferences. We all attend the British Mass Spectrometry Society meeting annually, and I aim to send each student to an international conference at least once. Conferences are crucial for developing of the student’s network and giving them opportunities to speak and present their research publicly; which is how you get known and get the best job offers going forward.

The lab has weekly group meetings over the academic year, with the students presenting their work on a rota as a scientific seminar, interspersed with ‘journal club’ group meetings if the rota is rotating too quickly. In the summer, after the annual American Society for Mass Spectrometry meeting, we switch to daily lunch meetings where we watch two ASMS talks online and critically evaluate them. Fantastically useful in terms of understanding the field and also in terms of learning critical thinking. Sadly, when you critically evaluate what is being said, the biggest names usually give the worst talks!

In terms of EDI, my group is usually >50% female. I think the collaborative, personal nature of mass spectrometry is generally attractive to many students, but especially women, and Mark Barrow and I try very hard to make sure that the group is cooperating and getting along well, which also helps. (Mark Barrow is my colleague in the Milburn house Ion Cyclotron Resonance laboratory and with the Advanced Mass Spectrometry Research Technology Platform (AMS-RTP)). We have a vast array of projects, so it’s uncommon that students research areas impinge much, which avoids intra-group competition. In terms of LGBTQ, I honestly have no idea; It’s none of my business, and it has nothing to do with science, so while I am supportive, it’s also irrelevant professionally.

Provision of Training

The hands-on instrument training will be predominantly by my experienced postdocs and PhD students; they would be horrified to see me trying to run the instrument anyway. I have far more of the theory and history of the field, and I can train in critical thinking, scientific writing, and presentations more than they can. I also have a wealth of experience with different types of molecular systems and instruments and methods which I am always happy to share.

With postdocs, I always have a meeting every other week to discuss progress. With PhD students, I usually have a weekly block-booked meeting set up, but it is not usually mandatory to attend. Most students meet with me a lot in the first year, discussing and planning projects, troubleshooting methods and instruments, and then as they get more confident, they become more independent and meet with me less often. It’s their choice.

I also teach mass spectrometry annually in Chemistry and will expect first year PhD students to join that module, or at least to sit in. We also do some laboratory demonstrating in mass spectrometry that is also very fun. You always learn more when you have to teach others.

Progression Monitoring and Management

Generally, we have our weekly meetings and I will expect you to maintain a ‘thesis plan’ which will usually morph into the outline or table-of-contents of your thesis. It’s not set in stone, but it’s always good to have a plan. If you need more planning, that’s what our weekly meetings are for, but my door is always open, so feel free to pop in for a chat.

I don’t care about the tic-box exercises on moodle or whatever is the current flavour of monitoring that the department chooses to use. I expect the student to do that and I will support whatever is needed. If it’s important, tell me.

Our main progress monitoring is the group meetings, publications, posters, and conference presentations. If you are doing that, the rest is just documenting it.


I prefer face-to-face communication, so please pop into my office. If needed, online meetings are also possible.

I send emails at all hours, but email is asynchronous for a reason. If the email needs a response, next business day is soon enough.

I usually have a mobile number for the students and postdocs, but it’s only used for lab emergencies or to coordinate when we’re traveling at a conference.

PhD Students can expect scheduled meetings with me:

In a group meeting

At least once per week

In year 1 of PhD study

At least once per week

In year 2 of PhD study

At least once per fortnight, but it’s timetabled weekly if they need it.

In year 3 of PhD study

At least once per fortnight, but it’s timetabled weekly if they need it.

These meetings will usually be face to face. I am usually contactable for an instant response on every working day.

Working Patterns

The timing of work in my lab is completely flexible, and (other than attending pre-arranged meetings), I expect students to manage their own time.

Notice Period for Feedback

I need at least 1 week’s notice to provide feedback on written work of up to 5000 words, but it is highly variable depending in my other work load at that time. When teaching or grant writing, it can be longer.