John Fenn GRD ’40 has always been fascinated by “big leaks and vacuum systems.”
Fenn, who won a Nobel Prize for chemistry two weeks ago, returned to his New Haven roots on Friday to discuss his fascination at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea. The Nobel Prize Committee honored Fenn for his revolutionary work on mass spectrometry, a highly sensitive technique used to identify molecules based on their weights.
From his humble beginnings at Berea College in Kentucky to his ground-breaking discoveries at Princeton University laboratories, Fenn recounted his schooling and the progression of his research, often adding personal anecdotes. He especially entertained the audience with his remarkable memory, reciting William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, a speech he had memorized in grade school.
Fenn first received a grant for his research of mass spectrometry in 1957 from Princeton. In 1967, Fenn arrived at Yale and co-authored many papers with Jonathan Edwards Master Gary Haller.
“The last year I wrote a paper with John was the year he began to publish his ideas about electrospray ionization for mass spectrometry,” Haller said.
Fenn’s research has had wide reverberations in the field of science, launching the entire field of proteomics. Last year alone, over 1,700 papers were published on the subject.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fenn said. “Some people consider me the founder of the electrospray revolution.”
Currently a research professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Fenn said he enjoys his work, even at 85 years old.
“Every day, I am in the lab,” Fenn said. “I like to mingle and exchange with the young people. It gets me out from underfoot at home.”
Although Fenn devoted only a few minutes of the tea to his recent Nobel Prize, he said he was shocked by the announcement.
“I want to pinch myself. I’m in awe,” Fenn said. “Hundreds and thousands of people are nominated. It’s like winning the lottery. You need to have luck.”
Fenn also pointed to luck for some of the greatest scientific advancements in history.
“Many great scientific discoveries were lucky,” Fenn said. “But you have to have the prepared mind to understand what has happened.”
Though Fenn may have been surprised, Michael Labowsky, one of Fenn’s former research assistants, said Fenn’s Nobel Prize is not the product of luck.
“It’s wonderful. John is just a wonderful person,” Labowsky said. “He looked after and cared for his students. If you had any problem, you could always go and talk with him. It’s great to see a man like that win such an award.”
Lindsay Bliss ’06 said she enjoyed Fenn’s speech for its sincerity and its ancedotes.
“It was amazing,” Bliss said. “I liked listening about his background, though I thought he’d talk more about his studies. It was a pleasant surprise.”