Mass Spec Superstar
Date: June 7, 2013
Whenever any of Robert J. “Bob” Cotter’s graduate students or postdocs introduced themselves at scientific conferences, all they had to say was, “I work for Bob”—last name unnecessary—and they earned instant respect.
Cotter, whose pioneering work in mass spectrometry led to its development as one of science’s most potent laboratory tools for analyzing both chemical and biological entities—and even for deciphering the contents of dirt samples on Mars—died on November 12, 2012, of an apparent heart attack at his Baltimore home. He was 69.
“Bob has been an institutional resource for Hopkins and beyond for dozens of collaborators in mass spectrometry,” said Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. Breakthroughs Cotter achieved “have led to major discoveries in cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases, and metabolic syndromes.” Along with colleagues at Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, Cotter received a $750,000 grant from NASA in 2007 to devise a mini, shoebox-sized mass spectrometer that could fit on a Mars Rover and search for signs of previous life there by probing core samples of the soil for evidence of proteins or genetic information–carrying nucleic acids.
Cotter earned his PhD in chemistry from Hopkins in 1972, joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1977, and became a full professor in 1992. He loved to recount how he was the last to learn of his promotion. He only found out about it when he was asked for his contribution, based on seniority, to the department’s annual Christmas party and was told he owed $50, not the $35 he had given the previous year.
He was director of the School of Medicine’s Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, which he co-founded with his wife, Catherine Fenselau (faculty, Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, 1967-87), and also “trained a legion of outstanding students and postdocs that now occupy leading positions throughout the world,” Cole said.
Cotter was an eager scientific collaborator with colleagues at Hopkins and elsewhere. He was working with at least a dozen medical biologists at the time of his death, seeking to identify a series of bacterial spores, develop methods to screen human blood, urine, and spinal fluid for signs of disease, and investigate protein changes in HIV patients that might correlate with dementia.
Cotter’s achievements earned him some of the highest honors in his field. In August 2009 he received the American Chemical Society (ACS) Analytical Chemistry Award in Chemical Instrumentation, and in September 2010 he received the ACS’ Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for outstanding achievement in mass spectrometry, considered the top accolade in the science. Neil A. Grauer