Faculty Spotlight: Alan Marshall

| Thu, 12/07/23
Alan Marshall, a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Alan Marshall, a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Courtesy photo.

Alan Marshall is a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the Florida State University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. As the chief scientist of FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory Ion Cyclotron Resonance Program, Marshall uses field magnets to help identify compounds and holds eight patents for his inventions. While teaching at the University of British Columbia, Marshall co-invented Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry, or FT-ICR MS, a technique used to measure the frequency at which a charged particle rotates when inserted in a strong magnetic field — later prompting Marshall’s induction into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, an organization that rewards inventors with an association to Florida, in 2016.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I was born in Ohio then lived in San Diego, California, from age seven through high school. I began my undergraduate studies at Northwestern University in Illinois in their medical program, leaving soon after to complete my bachelor’s degree in chemistry and my doctorate in physical chemistry from Stanford University. Afterward, I joined the chemistry faculty at the University of British Columbia for 11 years, followed by 13 years of teaching at Ohio State University. Finally, after reading that the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory moved to FSU in 1990, I moved to FSU in 1993.

What are the most important aspects for the public to know about your research?

During my first four years as an independent investigator, I studied nuclear magnetic resonance theory and experiments, shifting primarily to FT-ICR MS thereafter. FT-ICR MS is a technique that identifies chemical compounds through the rotational motion of the compound’s ions that occurs during excitation against a magnetic field. FT-ICR provides the highest and most specific mass resolution and mass accuracy of any mass analyzer. This allows molecular formulas to be determined directly from precise measurement of gas-phase ion masses. Many of our applications focus on determining the chemical composition of complex mixtures, ranging from petroleum to blood.

Tell us about co-inventing FT-ICR. How has this invention been applied within the field of petroleomics since it was created?

By 1973, I had learned about Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance and suspected these techniques could be applied to ICR, meaning we would be able to measure the mass-charge ratio and abundance of all ions at once. I approached [Canadian physicist] Melvin Comisarow and convinced him to convert his conventional ICR instrument to FT-ICR. The FT technique enabled the acquisition of the full-range ICR spectrum in approximately one second, much faster than prior scanning techniques.

In petroleomics, a term we coined for the characterization of petroleum at the molecular level, our first achievement was identifying which compounds clog pipes carrying oil from the ground. This enables companies to remove those species before any deposits form. We can identify the source of an oil spill from its chemical composition and identify species formed by electromagnetic radiation or biological degradation from spilled oil.

What does the continuous improvement and changes to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s field magnets demonstrate over time?

In 1993, I wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a 9.4 tesla magnet, the highest field in the world at that time. At FSU, we now have a 21-tesla magnet, currently the highest field magnet in the world. These improvements provided faster scanning techniques and introduced these instruments to a commercial audience.

Tell us about being the director of FSU’s Ion Cyclotron Resonance Program at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Serving as director enhanced my professional profile and range of projects. My annual citations increased from around 700 to 3,000. The $20 million in outside funding brought to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory allowed me to hire talented doctoral research faculty and other staff for continuous maintenance of our instruments.

Tell us about being elected a fellow for both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society.

External recognition is personally gratifying, but it’s also important for elevating the credibility of the research program. I am grateful to have been one of two current FSU faculty members to be elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as it helps trigger further funding and collaborations.

How did it feel to receive the Pittsburgh Analytical Chemistry award from the Society for Analytic Chemists of Pittsburgh and the William H. Nicholas Medal from The New York section of the American Chemical society?

These awards show the true reach of my team’s work. These awards showed that our research could have an impact beyond the field of mass spectrometry, being applied across multiple fields of chemistry.

What does being inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame mean to you? As someone who has eight patents, what makes FT-ICR MS particularly special to you?

Being inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame emphasizes the importance of my invention and new inventions overall. Inventions stimulate commercialization of a technique. Without the patent provided for my invention, FT-ICR MS would have only been available to a handful of investigators with sufficient resources for their own instruments. Instead, approximately 900 instruments have been installed worldwide, enabling researchers to detect low ion concentrations drastically quicker than before.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

We are currently writing a FT-ICR MS analysis of the organic compounds from meteorites and the lunar surface. Recently we resolved and identified the molecular formulas of tens of thousands of compounds from each source.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

First, maintain broad scientific interests. Some of the best ideas come from taking a well-known technique and adapting it to your own research efforts. Second, seek collaborations with other investigators. I have co-authored papers with more than 200 other principal investigators including my most-cited paper, “Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Spectroscopy”— proving the power of collaboration.