Dr. Bob Cotter, professor of Pharmacology and Biophysics, passed away suddenly on the evening of November 12. Faculty and students from the Pharmacology and Biophysics departments gathered the following day to remember his career and his larger-than-life presence in the department, and on the nineteenth, a meeting of the Washington/Baltimore Mass Spectrometry Discussion Group, which Dr. Cotter was to have hosted, was held instead as a memorial symposium in his honor.
Dr. Cotter spent the bulk of his academic life at Hopkins. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross, he completed his doctoral research in the Chemistry department at Homewood. Following a brief stint as a faculty member at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, he returned to Hopkins as a research associate and advanced over the years to full professorship. Research over the course of his career substantially advanced the field of time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and garnered him honors from the American Society for Mass Spectrometry and the American Chemical Society. In December of 2008, on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry dedicated an issue to him.
Recently Dr. Cotter had been working with his students and postdocs at the Middle Atlantic Mass Spectrometry lab (MAMS) on projects ranging from analysis of the histone code in yeast aging to the search for disease biomarkers in patient samples. He was also working on a collaboration with a team of researchers from several institutions on the design of a miniaturized ion-trap mass spectrometer that could be transported to Mars to assay the atmosphere for organic molecules. Describing that work in an interview in 2007. Dr. Cotter said of himself, “I’m an instrument builder.” Although designing and perfecting a broad range of tools was much of his life’s work, this assessment does not give him credit for his broader role as a community builder.
According to Dr. Sanford Markey of the NIH, Dr. Cotter “saw himself as a scientific citizen,” serving in many scientific organizations, including as president of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. His skills as a mentor and manager were exceptional, and his lab famously collegial. In 2011, they released a satirical music video which embodied the fun-loving atmosphere and community spirit of their group. Many of the colleagues and students who spoke at the memorial symposium, even those who had left his lab years before, still considered it an academic second home.
A former student (now postdoctoral fellow) in Dr. Cotter’s lab, Christine Jelinek, reflected, “when someone never uses the word, ‘no,’ you believe that anything is possible.” The Hopkins community has lost a wonderful mentor, scientific mind, and community leader. He will be sorely missed.