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ArrowAlan Marshall: A Scientist and a Gentleman

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By Kristen Eliza Coyne

Alan Marshall, Kasha Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University and Chief Scientist for Ion Cyclotron Resonance at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, is ensconced in his favorite armchair. He’s dressed for comfort in khaki shorts and a button-down jean shirt, his sneakered feet propped on an ottoman. Smiling, he absent-mindedly twirls a white tuft of sideburn with one hand and cradles a yellow coozy in the other, appearing as chilled-out as the drink inside.

Alan Marshall
Alan Marshall.

Meet one of the greatest innovators in the history of mass spectrometry, hard at work.

Marshall, though in his gracious North Tallahassee home, the pool and a well-stocked cooler just outside the door, truly is hard at work, surrounded by a score of scientists, postdocs and students from his lab. Actually, deleting “hard” from that sentence would make it ring more true – but not because the much-honored chemist is slacking off. Rather, the words “work” and “hard” are never, in the syntax of Marshall’s career, juxtaposed. Adjectives such as “enjoyable” or “engrossing” partner much better with “work,” as he sees it. For Marshall is someone who draws no boundary between work and the rest of his life, a scientist whose lab spills over into his white brick house a dozen miles away, a renaissance man of many interests, but none of which compete with his life’s greatest passion: Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR).

“He works seven days a week because it’s the most fun thing he can think to do,” says Chris Hendrickson, director of instrumentation for the lab’s ICR program.

Alan Marshall and Chris Hendrickson with the 14.5 Tesla ICR Instrument
Alan Marshall, left, and research scientist Chris Hendrickson with the 14.5 tesla ICR magnet.

His passion is a key ingredient in his success, which began early in his career when he co-invented FT-ICR, a type of mass spectrometry that relies on powerful magnets. It has proven an extremely productive tool for scientists trying to figure out the composition of complex molecules such as proteins and petrochemicals. The technique has been a boon to oil companies, the pharmaceutical industry, counterterrorism efforts, medical research and biotechnology, among other areas, and scientists are constantly finding new applications. It’s the type of high-impact achievement for which Nobel Prizes are handed out.

At the forefront of the innovation is Marshall's program at Magnet Lab headquarters in Tallahassee, Florida. The lab boasts some of the most powerful ICR equipment available; the gem of this collection is a spectrometer featuring a superconducting ICR magnet with a field of 14.5 tesla – the highest field in the world for such an instrument. (Tesla is the unit of measure of magnetic field strength). Scientists come from all over the world to use these machines and benefit from the unparalleled expertise found in Marshall’s team.

Today, three decades after the invention, researchers at universities and companies across the globe are making important discoveries with more than 700 FT-ICR mass spectrometers.

These visitors know Marshall from his reputation before they actually meet him: The insight that fueled an invention, the dedication that has produced more than 450 refereed journal articles, the passion that brings him into the office every single day, except Christmas and business trips. But many are surprised to discover that kindness is part of the package. In connection with this top scientist, one hears a word not often invoked these days, in the sciences or any other field, a way of being that has fallen out of fashion: Gentleman.

“It's rare to have somebody be that brilliant and that nice,” said Hendrickson, who has worked with Marshall for the past dozen years. “It’s really rare.”

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