From his days in graduate school, it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted the path that Don Hunt’s career would take. After majoring in organic chemistry for his undergraduate degree, Hunt headed to Stanford — and flunked out. He wound up in a biochemistry class during a critical time in understanding genetic code, Hunt recalls, and the professors “threw away the textbook.” Instead, “four Nobel laureates just lectured to us,” he says.
So began Hunt’s career. As a member of Klaus Biemann’s lab in the ’60s, Hunt began attempts to sequence nucleotides using a mass spectrometer, but later grew more interested in proteins. Thanks to some fortuitous collaborations, he was among the group that published the first paper to show “that you could work on unknown proteins — big ones — and still come up with useful information,” he says. By the late ’80s, Hunt led a team that was the first to demonstrate peptide sequencing using a mass spec.
Today, Hunt’s lab at the University of Virginia continues to forge ahead, focusing on post-translational modifications, immunology (with an eye toward a vaccine for cancer), and his latest, electron transfer dissocation, which enables scientists to study intact proteins without breaking them up into peptides first.