LSU alumna, Dr. Kristie Adams, overcame death to pursue her passion for chemistry

Dr. Kristie Adams

Dr. Kristie Adams

Imagine being 13 years old. Life is colorful and bold, and the possibilities are endless. You're just coming into your own and pondering who (and what) you want to be in the world. 

Now imagine being told that you should have been dead already, and it was a miracle to even make it to 13. 

Dr. Kristie Adams faced this trial.

"When I was 13, I got really, really ill, and no one could understand what was wrong with me," Adams said. "I was having really bad headaches and orientation problems. My equilibrium was off, I would walk straight into walls, and I felt like someone stuck an ax through the back of my head. It was debilitating."

When the headaches became unbearable, Adams and her family sought further advice from a neurosurgical specialist in Casper, Wyoming. The specialist immediately ordered an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of her brain and neck.

MRI scanners are large devices that use superconducting magnets, in conjunction with radio waves and computers, to generate detailed images. The scan can be scary, as the patient is placed inside the device for the duration of the scan. However, undergoing such a test was essential to obtaining some answers about Adams’ condition. 

"When I was in the MRI, I remember thinking this thing is really cool, this is so neat," Adams said. "I wasn't scared. I just wanted to know how it worked."

The MRI results showed a rare congenital deformity called Type I Arnold-Chiari malformation. The doctor revealed Adams’ condition was severe through the MRI findings and that immediate action was necessary. 

"Right when the doctor got back with my images from the MRI, he knew that I needed surgery, right away, or I was going to die," Adams said.

Arnold-Chiari malformation is a disorder that affects the brain. Type I Chiari malformation results when the skull is too small for the brain, and the cerebellum (the bottom part of the brain) squeezes out of the foramen magnum. This disrupts the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and causes significant complications. 

Little did Adams know at the time, but her challenging experiences as a teenager would propel her to a life of discovery and greatness. 

Adams took an unconventional route to the chemistry department. Most scientists know outright that they want to study the sciences. However, Adams started her academic career in the college of business. 

There are various classes that students had to take with any freshmen year, and for Adams, one of those classes was a chemistry class. The one general chemistry class stood out from the rest and ultimately changed her academic path, and she changed her major to chemistry. 

"I'm naturally curious, and I always want to know how things work or what they're made of," Adams said. "The education in chemistry really gave me the ability to understand all of the different parts of the equation," Adams said. 

Adams began her academic career at a small school in Montana, but aspiring to greater things, she sought a larger program with increased opportunities.  Adams finally landed in Louisiana and graduated with a bachelor's and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from LSU. It was at LSU that Adams fell in love with NMR spectroscopy, as Adams was reminded of the MRI scan that saved her life. NMR spectrometers and MRI instruments are based on the same scientific principles.

"I didn’t choose NMR spectroscopy," Adams says, "It chose me."

Adams credits her mentors at LSU, Dr. Luigi Marzilli and the late Dr. W. Dale Treleaven, for setting her on the path that would define her professional career. Adams' curiosity drove her to an endless road of discovery which led to her dream job.

Adams is now the President and CEO of Steelyard Analytics, the US daughter company of Spectral Service AG, based in Köln, Germany. Spectral Service has been in business for over 30 years, providing contract NMR spectroscopy services to customers around the globe. Adams met the CEO of Spectral Service, Dr. Bernd Diehl, while she was working for the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). In 2017, when Dr. Diehl decided to expand his business and establish a laboratory in the US, he knew the perfect person for the job. He reached out to Adams via LinkedIn and made Adams an offer she could not refuse.

Since early 2017, Adams has been the company's heart and soul and has built the company from the ground up. Adams had to start with scouting for locations to build a laboratory that could accommodate a 600 MHz NMR spectrometer with a helium-cooled cryoprobe, supervise construction and build-out, and order equipment and supplies. "The magnet was brought to field in early 2019, and business has been booming ever since," she says. Adams is also the primary point of contact for all customers, both present and future.

At Steelyard Analytics, Adams and her team use the NMR spectrometer as their primary tool for addressing a wide range of both qualitative and quantitative analytical questions. They perform studies for customers large and small, from routine Phospholipid Analyses to the use of two-dimensional NMR fingerprinting to establish and confirm HOS (higher order structure) of complex biologic drugs. They serve as investigators of all things, including dietary supplements, foods, infant nutrition, and drugs. A primary analytical method, NMR spectroscopy allows both identification and quantification with a single measurement. As such, one of their primary services is determining the accuracy of label claims. 

Analyzing a sample using NMR spectroscopy allows Adams and her team to identify and quantify the specific contents of the sample. A so-called non-targeted method, NMR spectroscopy also reveals the presence of contaminants, which are often "silent" and not detectable if alternative analytical methods are used.

"To this day, I still get the biggest thrill out of putting a sample in the magnet and finding out it's not what it's supposed to be," Adams said. "It's like being a detective, putting together pieces of the puzzle and always solving. That's what I truly love. The NMR spectrometer doesn’t lie.”
It was through rare challenges that Adams gathered the passion and work ethic she has today. Every day is a gift, and Adams is continuously reminded of that by regular doctor visits. 

"I made it to 13, and then I made it through grad school and a few more major surgeries," Adams said. "So, there's obviously something I'm supposed to do here [in this life], and I've always been in search of the thing that I'm meant to do."

Adams’ story demonstrates resilience, passion and determination. Adams’ never gave up on her dream and continues to change the world, one NMR sample at a time. 


Elizabeth Cui | June 17, 2021