5 Ways To Make MALDI A More Approachable Topic to Students

Akanksha Saxena

Introduction: MALDI

Scientists in the 1980s worked really hard to make monumental discoveries. Some of them served a single purpose while some others found abundant widespread usage. MALDI is one such discovery that was intended for just protein and peptide analyses but has found a sea full of applications. From its use in clinical labs for identifications of pathogens, bacteria, mycobacteria, etc to its use in academic labs for DNA and RNA analyses, MALDI has proven its extraordinary potential over the past decades.

In a mass spectrometer, there are a variety of ionization options; two of the most important ones being ESI and MALDI. When students are introduced to the idea of molecular mass measurement of a sample, they tend to get intimidated due to the involvement of several physics, chemistry, and biology concepts that tend to work together for the method.

How a technique that works majorly at the interface of physics and chemistry concepts can decipher the molecular mass of a biological macromolecule is both enthralling and overwhelming for young learners. With a variety of core concepts and novel ideas, summarizing the crux of this MALDI technique can be a task for many educators and teachers.

maldi virtual lab 3

Figure: A snippet from the MALDI simulation by Labster where students can engage in a virtual experiment on athletes. It is available for University/College classes.

We, at Labster, understand the complexities faced by students and teachers alike. To solve these issues, we have compiled some resources here. This article can provide some help as it attempts to identify the major issues encountered by students while studying this topic. It also lists practical solutions that teachers and educators can incorporate while teaching the same in their next class. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

Why can MALDI be tricky to teach or learn?

There are 3 reasons why students dread and confuse the topic of MALDI. Acknowledging these issues is the first step towards making the topic more approachable. 

1. Core concepts are weak

Most of the time, teaching and learning about such techniques is a task because the basic underlying principles of the technique aren’t clear and crisp. Not being able to follow the premise of molecular mass and ways to determine the same can be very demotivating for students. Understanding the rationale behind the utilization of mechanisms of ionization, excitation of molecules, fragmentation, desorption, etc also poses challenges to most students. Not knowing the basic structures of molecules of interest whether they are proteins, peptides, DNA, RNA, bacteria or others can also lead to difficulty in comprehending how MALDI works for all these different types of molecules.

2. Unawareness about its practical utility  

Most students are unaware of the technique’s utilization when they are taught both theory and lab handling. The same applies to MALDI. Students find this activity of learning the MALDI’s underlying principles a futile exercise since they are not usually acquainted with the art to use those techniques in their experiments and research work. Furthermore, most educators miss out on instilling a habit of scientifically designing experiments and postulating testable and logical hypotheses. Not knowing how to propose null and alternative hypotheses and then testing them lands most students in a situation where they have data from MALDI-MS experiments but don’t know how to analyze and prove them as “scientifically legit”.

3. Lack of interactive tools and visual options

There is a serious dearth of visually interactive teaching tools. Instrumentation and equipment for MALDI and mass spectrometry aren’t always available in all high school and university/college setups. In such situations, educators usually try to look out for video or visual demonstrations to bridge these gaps. Not many interactive options are available in the public domain to demonstrate the MALDI and related techniques. This makes the steps of MALDI difficult to follow and comprehend for students. It sometimes also makes teaching sessions monotonous.

5 ways to make MALDI a more approachable topic to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching about MALDI, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Work on basic topics first!

Before explaining the different steps of MALDI, we recommend educators explain the basic science topics to students. This can help build a strong foundation over which the entire technique can be built and discussed. We list a few topics you can begin with in your next class.

2. Rationally explain the steps and their importance 

We think that students shouldn’t be forced to learn the steps of MALDI or any technique per se without knowing “why that step is important”. We recommend educators engage their students in more open-ended discussions when doing wet lab work and analyzing data. We list a few topics that you can explain in depth to deliver the essence of each step of the MALDI technique. 

  • Different types of ionization methods (& how ESI is different from MALDI)

  • Importance of UV laser

  • Importance of matrix

  • Importance of dissolving the sample molecule in matrix

  • Nature of matrix (solvent)

  • Importance of selecting the appropriate wavelength of laser

  • Importance of drying the mixture before analysis

  • Importance of sterile conditions (dust-free environment, filtered water, etc)

maldi virtual lab 2

Figure: A snippet from the MALDI simulation by Labster where students can learn about the importance of matrix solutions. It is available for University/College classes.

3. Use more interactive teaching tools

Most often equipment and instrumentation for performing a MALDI-MS experiment are not available in high schools and universities/colleges. In such a case, we recommend educators use meaningful flowcharts and infographics that can precisely deliver the crux of the topic to the students. Educators can use audio cum video demonstrations to bridge the gap. When students see how UV lasers ionize the solid matrix and molecule of interest transforms into ionized molecules, they can better understand what goes on at the molecular level.

You can use diagrams, flowcharts, illustrations, infographics, and GIFs to deliver the essence of the technique.

maldi virtual lab

Figure: A snippet from the MALDI simulation by Labster where students can learn how an MS works. It is available for University/College classes.

4. Educate them about its practical world utility 

MALDI is widely used across different fields. It has genuinely served a wider audience than it was intended to when developed in the first place. Educators can inform their students about its utilization across academic research labs and clinical applications. WE list a few of them, to begin with.

  • Use for studying DNA, RNA, and nucleic acids

  • Used for studying proteins and peptides 

  • Used for studying and rapid and accurate identification of fungal, bacterial, and mycobacterial pathogens in the clinical microbiology laboratory

  • Used for protein identification and characterization

  • Used for viral identification

  • Used for mutation analysis

  • Used for genotyping

  • Used for antiviral resistance studies

  • Used for early identification of pathogenic species in blood cultures, stool samples, urinary tract infections (UTIs), respiratory tract infections, cerebrospinal fluids

  • Used for specific identification of Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since the topic of MALDI is a practical technique that is best learned with maximum practical lab handling, most educators are disappointed when instrumentation isn’t available at their disposal. This is why we recommend modern-day educators make the maximum use of the MALDI simulation from Labster.

With our visually engaging simulation, your students can virtually learn about the different aspects of this technique. They can collaborate with an anti-doping agent at a bicycle race and investigate if any athlete has used doping substances to boost their endurance and performance. They can virtually apply their knowledge about MALDI and operate a mass spectrometer (MALDI-MS). As they collect and prepare urine samples from different participants, they can learn how samples are processed for the MALDI analysis. They can learn why matrices are so important in MALDI via the short quiz questions and interactive activities. As they move forward, they can learn how mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS) histograms are interpreted and peaks are compared to tell if athletes abused the doping substance or not. 

Teachers and educators can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better Pictionary options where they can follow the different concepts in a free-flowing manner. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

You can learn more about MALDI simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.


Figure: A snippet from the MALDI simulation by Labster where students can engage in a virtual experiment on athletes. It is available for University/College classes.

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