Q&A with Bill Christie

By Catherine Watkins

In This Section

February 2010

Catherine Watkins, associate editor of inform, recently posed a series of questions to the creator of The Lipid Library, William W. Christie, following his donation of the resource to AOCS. For an earlier discussion of the site, see Christie's article from 2006 (inform 17:781-782).  

What advice would you give someone who is new to the site?
I would advise anyone visiting the site for the first time simply to spend 20 minutes browsing through it to see what is there that might interest him or her. Leaving aside the news/calendar/blog section of the site, there are three main content areas: About Lipids, Analysis, and Oils and Fats (we hope to add a fourth on Biochemistry/Nutrition soon). In the About Lipids section, I have introductory articles dealing with what lipids are and what they do, then each web page is centered around a specific lipid or group of lipids, where structure, occurrence, biology, and function are described. For convenience, there are separate menus dealing with fatty acids and eicosanoids, simple lipids (plus others that do not fit conveniently elsewhere), complex glycerolipids, and sphingolipids. This is the place to come to if you want to find out about a specific fatty acid or lipid.

The Analysis section is split into six areas. Two of these-on mass spectrometry of fatty acids and NMR spectroscopy-are fairly specialized and contain a wealth of information for analysts. However, my book Gas Chromatography and Lipids, which is available on the site by kind permission of The Oily Press (and P.J. Barnes & Associates), is an excellent source of information for both beginners and more experienced analysts, even though it is a little old as textbooks go. The section on selected topics in analysis contains a number of readable accounts on analytical topics. Finally, there is a comprehensive literature survey section with 10,000 references, including a current awareness service, which reports monthly and lists all significant new papers dealing with lipid analysis.

The Oils and Fats area of the site is relatively new and is still developing, and includes a section by Frank Gunstone on oils and fats in the marketplace, where data on the production and usage of commodity oils are listed. There is a substantial and growing section dealing with frying oils, their chemistry, analysis, and nutritional properties. Finally, the first example of the new AOCS collaboration is a new section on the history of lipid science.

Are there any collaborators you particularly want to thank?
My colleague and mentor Frank Gunstone has encouraged me from the beginning, first in producing a number of web pages on NMR spectroscopy for the site and then in producing a second series of articles on oils and fats in the marketplace. Gerhard Knothe took up further development of the NMR pages and will be updating those produced by Frank. Three former research collaborators, M. Carmen Dobarganes, Gloria Márquez-Ruiz, and Jean-Louis Sébédio, have assisted me in producing a series of web pages on frying oils. Boryana Nikolova-Damyanova has agreed to provide a section on silver-ion chromatography. I am grateful to all who have given so generously of their time. I am also grateful to my former employer-the Scottish Crop Research Institute-and its commercial arm-Mylne­field Lipid Analysis-who still employ me as a part-time consultant, for giving me continuing access to library facilities including online journals. Without this access, development of the website would not have been possible.
Would you please talk a bit about the editorial advisory board for the AOCS Lipid Library?
The editorial advisory board is new and has still to find its feet, but I have great expectations. We have invited acknowledged experts in different areas of lipid science (especially those where I have no expertise myself) to write and commission web pages in their own disciplines. Thus, Tom Sanders will contribute articles on lipids in nutrition-always a contentious area and best left to the experts. Gary List will work on historical aspects of lipid science and scientists, and Craig Byrdwell will deal with lipidomics, an aspect of lipid analysis that is developing especially rapidly. In addition to his work on NMR spectroscopy, Gerhard Knothe will commission articles dealing with fatty acid chemistry, while Albert Dijkstra will cover industrial processing and technology. Bob Moreau is looking into information management and analytical topics, while Randy Weselake will tackle plant lipid biochemistry. We are looking for established scientists with interests in animal biochemistry and physical chemistry of lipids to round off the team for the moment.
Where would you like The Lipid Library to be in five years?
I hope that The Lipid Library will be recognized internationally as a fully comprehensive educational/informational resource dealing with all aspects of lipid science and, most importantly, freely accessible to all. It should be the first port of call for anyone wishing to understand what lipids are, how they function in animal and plant tissues, and how they are used in food and industry. I expect each of the areas outlined in my answer to the previous question to have a substantial content of relevant information.
Is there anything else you would like to talk about regarding The Lipid Library?
One difficulty with any website is aiming the pages at the correct level. In much of what I have done in the About Lipids section of the site, for example, I have been aiming at graduate or near-graduate level. However, when I write about biochemical aspects I am not writing primarily for biochemists but for chemists, nutritionists, food scientists, physicists, and so forth, who need some biochemical information. On the other hand, I try to include enough references to current review articles to enable specialist biochemists to find the information they may require. There are other topics where we need to write for a more specialist audience, and others that should be written with nonscientists in mind. Finding the correct balance is not always easy, and I am always grateful for feedback from users of the site.
I hope the editorial advisory board will also be useful here. I hope I do not appear patronizing, but web users are notoriously impatient when they visit a site. They want to find information quickly and in a way that is readily digested, and they perhaps subconsciously want to find the experience satisfying from an aesthetic standpoint. One advantage of the web over the printed word is that there is unlimited space for pictures, whether these are photographs, reaction schemes, diagrams, graphs, or simply decoration; and these can all be in color. In a major published review article on mass spectrometry of fatty acids, for example, I might be allowed about a dozen figures. This section of my website has 500 (not to mention a further 1,300 in an archive). The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words still holds true.
I believe it is also helpful to add photographs of the authors of contributions to the site, together with brief biographies, as this shows that these are written by real people and not a computer.
AOCS' web administrator, Mark Atkinson, calls The Lipid Library "a gorgeous textbook website from a coding standpoint." How did you learn to code?
I am flattered, but I am also aware of deficiencies in the site, as I am entirely self-taught from books in the mechanics of webproduction. However, it has been a satisfying intellectual exercise and a challenge, which I have enjoyed, to understand HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) coding and to provide the most elegant solutions to problems. I am looking forward to having Mark improve the menu structure and perhaps set up a search facility on the site, and I am sure he will find other items that could be better.

Christie donates Lipid Library to AOCS

In December 2009, The Lipid Library website developed by AOCS member William W. Christie officially became the AOCS Lipid Library at http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/ . Along with this generous donation of thousands of pages of information about lipids came thousands of daily site visitors.

"The regular statistics showed over 2,000 visitors each working day visiting about 12,000 pages in total daily, with spikes of up to 4,000 visitors," Christie says. "During university vacations, the numbers tend to drop off by about a third."

Christie-who was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in the Queen's New Year's Honours List in 2000-is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1995, he received the Herbert J. Dutton Award from the Analytical Division of AOCS in recognition of his contribution to analytical methodology in relation to oils, fats, and lipids. He also received the Alton E. Bailey Award from the North Central Chapter of AOCS' USA Section in 2004 for exceptional service in the field of lipids and associated products. In addition to his role with The Lipid Library, he is currently a member of the editorial advisory boards of Lipids, Lipid Technology, European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology, and Grasas y Aceitas. He is the founder of the Oily Press Ltd.

Noting his long-lived forebears, Christie intends to remain active in further developing the site. He will serve as editor-in-chief of the Library for at least two years, plans to continue writing his blog (http://lipidlibrary.aocs.org/news/blog.htm ), and will coordinate the site's editorial advisory board. That board will function under the umbrella of the AOCS Publications Steering Committee, which is chaired by Robert A. Moreau of the Eastern Regional Research Center (Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania) of the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"For the first half of my research career," Moreau notes, "whenever I had a question about lipid extraction, separation, or analysis, I ‘religiously' consulted Bill Christie's books, Lipid Analysis (1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions) and Advances in Lipid Methodology (volumes 1-4)."

Moreau's inquiries, however, have shifted in recent years from the books to Christie's online Lipid Library. "It is a wonderful state-of-the-art resource for any researcher who works with lipids," Moreau says. "In addition to being the premier source of information about lipid methodology, the site also includes valuable insights about many other aspects of lipid research.

"I am very honored and excited that Dr. Christie has donated The Lipid Library to AOCS with the only stipulation being that AOCS will help to ensure that it continues to be relevant and freely accessible to anyone who needs it," Moreau concluded.