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The “What” About Bob

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The “What” About Bob

Bob Cotter with parents, Robert and Rita Cotter, 1946

The “What” About Bob

By Catherine Kolf

February 2013—The following story is a biographical sketch of Bob Cotter, a professor of pharmacology who died suddenly last November of heart failure. He was a much-loved member of the Hopkins family for more than four decades.

Most people, both inside and outside his lab, knew Dr. Robert James Cotter as “Bob”–and nothing else. When his graduate students and postdoctoral fellows introduced themselves at scientific conferences, the phrase “I work for Bob” would elicit palpable respect without need for further identifiers. But if you had the opportunity to speak with one of Bob’s siblings, as I did, you’d learn that he was initially called Jim, to differentiate him from his father, who was also named Robert. It wasn’t until high school that “Jim” chose to go by Bob. And he enforced the use of that name from then on. So, out of deference to him, we will respect his wishes here, too.

Becoming a Scientist

Born in 1943, Bob was the oldest of seven children: six boys and one girl. The son of an Army lawyer, he was born at Walter Reed General Hospital though he grew up in Abington, Massachusetts. His mom was an art teacher and his sister Julia thinks that Bob pursued science, in part, because he wanted something of his own. "No one else understood what he was doing," she laughed. “But we all thought he was a genius.”

Though they may not have understood the particulars, his parents strongly encouraged his pursuits, giving him free reign of the basement for his tinkering. Bob’s dominion over the basement continued even after a mishap that might have caused other parents to pull the plug. He was conducting some home-grown, probably misguided chemistry experiment when his concoction exploded into flames, sending glass shards everywhere. A scar on his neck left a reminder of his visit to the emergency room that day, but his injury didn't deter him from further pursuits.

His first major scientific expedition, sponsored by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, took place one summer in the early ‘60s. He spent most of the summer on the USS Chain, mapping the ocean floor near Puerto Rico. It may have been that intense experience—when he was surrounded only by high-tech instruments and amazing mentors—that initially inspired his passion for scientific machinery.

He continued to pursue chemistry, graduating in 1965 from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. It was there that his aptitude for science was recognized, and his professors directed him to Johns Hopkins for graduate studies. He earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the Homewood Campus, studying under Dr. Walter Koski, who had worked on the Manhattan Project. The Koski lab’s focus allowed Bob to continue working with complex instruments. Eventually, his work became a constant back-and-forth between instrumentation and biochemistry. In an effort to learn more about a molecule, he would tinker with an instrument to get it to do something new. Once he learned more about the molecule, he was led to another experimental question, which would require more tinkering and more instrument development.

Unquestionably, Bob’s forte was building mass spectrometers. Mass specs, as they are nicknamed, use lasers or other high-energy sources to break molecules into tiny pieces, each piece carrying an electrical charge. The mass specs then use these electrical charges to move the particles through a tube to a mass detector to learn about the original, “parent” molecules. The data the mass specs spit out can tell us about the relative abundance of different proteins in a sample, the types of bonds and chemical groups that make up a molecule, and the identity of unknown molecules.

Bob, the Professor

With good recommendations and a Ph.D. in hand, Bob left Hopkins to teach and do research at Gettysburg College, in Maryland. After three years there, his contract was not renewed because the college believed that his focus on instrumentation would fit a research university better.

Meanwhile, in Hopkins’ Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (later renamed Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences), Dr. Catherine Fenselau was an assistant professor applying for a large grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to set up a regional mass spectrometry center. Since NSF required more than one expert to run the lab, a hiring search was initiated, and that's how Bob made his way back to Hopkins. He helped Catherine write the grant and he became a faculty member in the department as soon as the grant was awarded. Soon after, Catherine became the first female full professor in a nonclinical department at Hopkins. Together they created the Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, which served the mass spec needs of research institutions throughout the area.

Working side by side, Catherine and Bob formed a deep friendship that led to their marriage in 1984. As Catherine puts it, their family was a “blended” one since they both had sons from previous marriages. Bob was a devoted father and deeply proud of his son Bruce and his service in the Coast Guard. Father and son loved bicycling together, a love Bob also shared with his wife. For their 10th wedding anniversary, Bob gave Catherine a bike and since then they could often be seen taking long rides on the C&O Canal together.

Catherine says that working with Bob was a lot of fun, both before and after marriage. Bob highlighted their working relationship in the dedication of a book he authored, Time of Flight Mass Spectrometry, which, since its publication in 1997, has become an indispensable reference manual for the mass spectrometry field. He wrote, “This book is dedicated to my wife, Catherine Fenselau, an outstanding scientist … [whose] achievements in developing biological mass spectrometry complement my own interests in instrument development, and have encouraged and facilitated the bridge between instrumentation and biology. In addition to all else, she has been my most important collaborator.”

Husband and wife continued to work together at Hopkins for four years after their marriage, until Catherine was asked to chair the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. By that time, Bob had developed a deep loyalty to Hopkins and was "unwavering about staying when I moved to Maryland," Catherine says. But they didn't stop collaborating, of course. They would often bring their labs together for social events like lunches featuring food from the cultures of their foreign postdocs and an annual Fourth of July picnic.

A collaborative colleague inside and outside of Hopkins, Bob had at least a dozen collaborations with medical biologists when he died, working on many mass spectrometry projects with clinical applications. Most recently, he and his lab were working to identify a series of bacterial spores; developing methods to screen human blood, urine and spinal fluid for signs of disease; cataloguing alterations to proteins; and investigating certain protein changes in HIV patients that might correlate with dementia. Bob's ability to "push the envelope" in every direction has already "led to major discoveries in cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and metabolic syndromes," says Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences at the school of medicine since 1999 and one of Bob’s collaborators. "He will be missed as a wonderful human being and a brilliant researcher."

From Microbes to Mars

Perhaps Bob’s most challenging project was a collaboration he had with NASA to build a small mass spec capable of surviving a launch to Mars, a landing on the Red Planet, and the inhospitable environment at the planet’s surface as it scans for elements or compounds that might indicate signs of life.

“We all remember Bob as a dynamic colleague, who thought about putting just about everything into a mass spectrometer, from microbes to Mars,” says Jef Boeke, former director of the High Throughput Biology Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “He was also one of the nicest guys I ever worked with.”

Undoubtedly, Bob's greatest scientific contribution was designing a new type of mass spec with more accurate particle analysis. He was able to adapt these so-called time-of-flight (TOF) mass specs to the changing needs of the scientific community. The first mass specs, built in the 1920s, were so large they could fill entire rooms. Cotter worked to miniaturize them to increase their portability. He even built several "Tiny TOFs" for the Department of Defense, instruments so small they allow the military to collect and identify potential biological and chemical weapons before sending soldiers into a battlefield.

Cole describes Bob as a multifaceted leader. Scientifically, he achieved excellence both in developing instruments and in applying them in new ways, broadening the scope of his whole field. "That's what made Bob unique, not just at Johns Hopkins but internationally," Cole says. "Nearly everyone that worked with him over the years has unreserved admiration for him,” Cole says. “He could excite students and help them become successful, whether they had a natural talent for science or whether it was more challenging for them."

Bob became a full professor in 1992, 14 years after returning to Hopkins. He loved to tell the story about how he was the last to find out about his promotion. Apparently, the Christmas party was approaching and all of the faculty members were asked to contribute some money toward it, depending on their seniority. The administrative assistant ran into him in the hallway and asked for his $50 contribution. He retorted that he had only owed $35 the year before. And that's how he found out that he’d been promoted.

It was probably the perfect time to tell him, in reality. Bob was crazy about Christmas and "demanded" to organize the departmental Christmas party each year. Cole remembers that he was good at bringing people together in ways that "brought out the best elements in us." He would volunteer to run the departmental retreat every year, and frequently suggested that the departmental faculty get together for more dinners. And he would always make these events a lot of fun, organizing skits and playing the piano every chance he got, Cole says.

Life in the Lab

His lab was run with the same zest and enthusiasm. One of his postdocs, Adriana Bora, remembers Bob as a very warm person who made lab members feel like family. "We celebrated comings and goings and birthdays, always involving something chocolate. And he would plan midweek excursions to movies and museums," she says. Because of his reputation, many of his new employees or students would initially treat him with a certain formality and feared saying something too trivial, but, says Adriana, "he wasn't like that. He was really humble."

Christine Jelinek, another recent postdoc in Bob’s lab, started in his lab in 2004 as a summer student to explore a move to the sciences, just before graduating from a liberal arts college with a degree in economics. She enjoyed her experience so much that she later came back as a lab technician, and then applied to the Hopkins Ph.D. program a year later to pursue graduate studies in Bob's lab. When he died, Christine was finishing her postdoctoral work there. "Bob instilled so much faith in me that I began to think of things as possible that I once thought were impossible," she says. "There was no one else like him and no other lab like his."

The first rule in the lab was to love what you do, but that was easy because Bob's love for science was contagious. Rule two: lunch at 12:15 in the laboratory’s conference room. Lunch was not a time to talk about research; shoptalk was practically banned from the room for the duration of the hour. Rule three: no experiment is so important as to excuse an absence from coffee. Promptly at 3 p.m., the Cotter Lab would traipse over to the Daily Grind a few buildings away and take a coffee break. Unusual rules certainly, but then again, Bob was fairly unique as a scientist. The Cotter Lab rules reflected his understanding that integrating scientific disciplines can’t occur in isolation. He saw universities as marketplaces of ideas and said you never knew who you'd run into on your way to coffee or what you would have missed by staying in the basement. Indeed, some of Bob’s most long-standing collaborations resulted from chance encounters standing in the coffee line.

Bob was a great teacher. He taught biophysics, pharmacology and analytical methods to graduate and medical students, and trained dozens of grad students and postdocs in his lab, many of whom are now experts in their fields. Adriana remembers that "when you talked to Bob, he wouldn't just give you the piece of information you asked for but the whole history behind it. He'd give you the physical theories, the how and the why." He supported lab members who were learning to teach, giving them real classroom experience but not leaving them to fly solo on their first attempt. Adriana was going to be a guest lecturer in his mass spectrometry class and asked Bob if he was going to be attending her lecture. His response, with a smile, was a rhetorical question, "Did you want your father beside you in the car as you learned to drive?" Of course he was going to be there for her!

A Joyful, Generous Heart

A recurrent theme in all of my interviews for this article was Bob’s joy and enthusiasm for life. He understood that life consists of more than lab work. He was a citizen of the world, actively engaged in politics and issues of social justice. He was a talented jazz pianist who brought his keyboard to all of the Cotter family get-togethers; he brought it into the lab and played Christmas carols in the conference room from Thanksgiving to Christmas; and he even brought it with him to scientific conferences—that is, until his reputation grew to the point that a piano was made ready for him at every conference.

It became the tradition that, at the end of a full day of presentations, Bob and Catherine and the members of their labs would gather around the piano to sing for everyone. Often this was done karaoke style, with words to the songs posted on a PowerPoint slide. Their favorite song? The “Time of Flight Song,” set to the tune of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy, with lyrics written by Bob praising the accomplishments and promise of mass spectrometry. The song was “debuted” at a conference in Nashville (appropriately enough) in 1991 and has been in high demand at mass spec conferences ever since.

What now? The Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry Facility is still open for business. Other Hopkins faculty have opened their doors to Bob's remaining grad students and postdocs to let them finish their work here before moving on to their next positions. It's just one more part of his legacy. Those relationships he fostered with his colleagues have paved the way for a smooth transition for his trainees. As Christine says, "Things can never be the same, but we were inspired in a way that equips us to continue."