When, at the age of 50, John Fenn joined the faculty at Yale, he was old by academic standards. But then again, he was an inveterate late starter. He published his first research paper at 32, a decade after leaving graduate school. He was 35 when he got his first academic appointment, at Princeton, where he started working with atomic and molecular beams, research that he continued to pursue at Yale. Though Fenn was hard-working and diligent, he was largely a low-impact scientist. His department chair must have felt some relief when Fenn turned 70 and they could force him to take mandatory retirement.
Yet Fenn had no interest in stopping. Three years earlier, at the age of 67, he was already semi-retired at Yale, stripped of lab space and technicians, when he published a paper on a new technique he called “electrospray ionization.” He turned droplets into a high-speed beam, allowing him to measure the masses of large molecules and proteins quickly and accurately. He saw it as a breakthrough and he was right — his technique quickly turned into a must-have tool in labs.
So, after idling at Yale, he relocated to Virginia Commonwealth University. He opened a new lab and what he did in these later years was revolutionary. Improving upon his initial idea, he offered scientists a robust way to measure ribosomes and viruses with previously unbelievable accuracy, transforming our understanding of how cells work. In 2002, by then in his mid-eighties, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
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