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Mass Spec Maverick

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Somehow, between serving as an executive committee member of the Human Proteome Organization, winning a number of mass spec and chemistry awards, and writing more than 300 articles and book chapters, Catherine Fenselau has found the time to mentor more than 150 students and postdocs.

Fenselau, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, was one of the first trained mass spectroscopists to become a full-time faculty member at a US-based medical school. This year, she won the Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry. Beyond these accomplishments, Fenselau is known for getting the job done when it comes to tough experiments with difficult samples that others in mass spec would shy away from. This includes successfully identifying the active metabolite of the widely used oncostatic cyclophosphamide, demonstrating that an allosteric hexamer of insulin held together by two zinc ions also complexes six water molecules, and discovering that the false anticancer agent laetrile is actually a glucuronide conjugate.

Currently, she is focused on any number of applications for mass spectrometry technology, including mass spec-based proteomics for studying drug resistance, development of new methods for proteomics, and rapid detection of airborne microorganisms. Fenselau published one of the first papers on rapid detection of these kinds of organisms using mass spectrometry back in 1975.

Driven to succeed

In Fensaleu's lab, long hours are the name of the game — so when it comes to bringing on new lab members, a well developed passion for hanging out at the bench is a must. "We like someone who's really interested in laboratory work and scientific inquiry," she says. "They need to have a high interest because it can involve long hours. We like someone who is willing to work independently, and at the same time work well in teams. That's the way modern science is carried out."

Like any teacher, Fenselau says a very real challenge is getting her students inspired and keeping them invested in their work, even at the graduate level. "I think catching their interest to take ownership of the project and drive themselves is sometimes the hardest part," she says. "I'm always telling my students that you're working for yourself, not me — so the harder you work, the sooner you'll be finished, the sooner you'll have access to a proper salary, and the sooner you'll be able to direct your own research."

As a mentor with the responsibility of helping prepare young investigators to venture out into the world, Fenselau says there is a huge emphasis in her lab on developing effective communication skills. To this end, postdocs are required to write the first drafts of a paper so they can jump in feet first and learn from their mistakes. "It's really important to teach our students to communicate, both in written form and orally, because [an experiment] almost didn't happen unless you tell someone about it," she says. "We usually circulate our manuscripts reiteratively back and forth several times. It's not the efficient way, but it is the pedagogic way, to have them involved throughout."

And even though Fenselau has been running her own lab for more than 30 years, she says she still takes her cue from her former advisor, Carl Djerassi, who has been a professor of chemistry at Stanford University since 1959 and is well known for being both a science fiction author and the developer of what would become the first oral contraceptive. "I think we all tend to mimic our own thesis advisors. … Carl had group meetings every week, and I have group meetings every week. [He] ran a fairly large international group, and I welcome international students to my group," she says. "Carl also always has the latest tools available and he wrote his papers very quickly, so those are all things I try and do in my own work and mentoring."

Champion for women

According to former lab member Barbara Larsen, a senior scientist at DuPont, Fenselau should be given kudos not only for her research but also for being a mentor and champion of women in science, even after they leave her lab. (In Larsen's case, that's 24 years later.) "I think that she is a wonderful scientist and she's been very supportive of women in science. … That's one thing that I don't think that other people recognize," Larsen says. "You could disappear into the woodwork, but she still keeps tabs on those people, she still tries to find out how they're doing — particularly the women. She's fostering women's careers."

Larsen recounts an instance when she was unable to attend an American Society of Mass Spectrometry meeting because she had just given birth. At the time, Fenselau heard a mistaken rumor that Larsen had dropped out of science completely. "She called me at home to find out where I was and what I was doing," Larsen says. "So she really does take a personal interest in people's careers. And when I reach challenges in my career, I find that I can always either e-mail her or chat with her, and she's always willing to help you sort through things."

Larsen says that even though Fenselau's lab was filled with other grad students and postdocs pursuing their own research, there was still an exceptional amount of teamwork. "I really had a sense that she encouraged that teamwork," she says. "We would all have lunch together in the conference room ... fostering discussions around papers and presentations. That was not something I saw in graduate school," she says.

"As I look around me today, that ability to work on teams — to bring your skills to work collegially with people rather than in a competitive fashion — is a real skill set she taught me," Larsen adds.

Naming Names

Here are just a handful of the more than 150 former lab members who have honed their mass spec skills under Fenselau's tutelage.

Yetrib Hathout

Hathout picked up a few mass spec tips during his postdoctoral work with Fenselau. After completing his medical degree, which he also earned at the University of Maryland, he settled down into an assistant professorship in biochemistry and molecular biology at Children's National Medical Center and George Washington University.

Tao He

After leaving Fenselau's lab in 1997, He quickly put his proteomic skill set to work as a senior scientist at Novartis, and later as a director at Celera. He is currently the director of proteomics at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

Igor Kaltashov

This former Fenselau lab member is now an associate professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he still utilizes mass spec technology. Currently, he is developing experimental tools to study biopolymer behavior in a variety of systems ranging from metal delivery to tissues to modulation of protein function.

Xudong Yao

After completing his postdoc at Maryland in 2002, Yao took up a position as a senior scientist at GeneProt and later at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. He is now an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut.

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