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Nobel Winner Adjusts to Celebrity

Professor and researcher John B. Fenn, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry last week, says he thinks simply — and seems to live that way, too.

"To be in the same building — ooh! You get goose pimples on the neck."

Nothing about Fenn, a thin, agile man with brilliant blue eyes, cries out "world famous." Yet now, unexpectedly, he is — and handling it with aplomb, his colleagues say.

Pamela Lepley, director of university news services, watches Fenn with weary amazement. "He didn't write one thing down yesterday, and he got it all done," she says. "He's 85 years old, and I am exhausted after spending two-and-a-half days with him."

Fenn hasn't been fazed by the media storm. He hears the same questions over and over, he says; mainly, "How is this going to help cancer?" and "What are you going to do with the money?"

The short answer to the first is that Fenn's technique for determining the mass of protein molecules has become an essential tool used in pharmaceutical laboratories. And the $250,000 prize? No idea, Fenn says.

By all accounts, he lives simply. He takes the bus from his home on Cary Street Road to work every day. To relax, he watches public television, deciphers New York Times crossword puzzles (though they get too tough after Thursday of each week, he says) and listens to classical music.

M. Samy El-Shall, a physical-chemistry professor at VCU, says Fenn is unique because "he can find the simplest solution to the most complicated problems."

Fenn brushes aside the praise. "That's because I can't understand complicated things," he says. No one standing in the hall seems to buy this. He modifies his words: "It's because I've got fundamentally a simple mind."

He does have a gift for explaining intricate concepts of chemistry in simple terms. To help people understand the problem of vaporizing large protein molecules, he uses the metaphor "making elephants fly." In fact, Fenn says he plans to use the Disney film "Dumbo" when he's called to speak to children.

Lepley says she doesn't think the "enormity of what's happening" has sunk into his head quite yet.

"This'll all die down in a few days," Fenn remarks.

"I don't think so," El-Shall says, laughing.

Fenn looks, suddenly, a bit forlorn. "I hope so," he says.

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

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