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John Stegeman s

Photo of John StegemanJohn Stegeman came to science by way of English at St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minnesota. At the start of his sophomore year, his interest in biology resurfaced. And later, the idea of gaining a Ph.D. and becoming a professor led him to apply to several graduate schools. All offered; Northwestern won.

Enzymes piqued his curiosity right off, and they still do.

Stegeman is a biochemist and senior scientist in the biology department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), where he has been since accepting a post-doctoral fellowship in 1971. His specialty is cytochrome P450, a family of enzymes that play a role in the metabolism of chemicals, including toxic contaminants. The ability of cytochrome P450s to metabolize such compounds is an adaptive process, allowing an organism (plant, fish, or mammal) to protect itself against biologically active chemicals. However, in some cases, the metabolic process can activate several compounds to reactive and toxic products.

With long-time Sea Grant support, Stegeman has studied biochemical systems in fish and marine mammals that are key to understanding the susceptibility or resistance of species to the toxic activity of various chemicals. His laboratory also studies these biochemical systems in other animals, including marine mammals; these systems may mediate involvement of chemicals in suspected hormone-disrupting effects.

Author or co-author of over 200 scientific papers, Stegeman says it has taken him anywhere between eight weeks and 20 years to write and publish a paper. "Sometimes," he says, "it takes a while for you to believe what you’ve found-and you would like to be able to explain it before you publish."

Many of his papers have involved collaboration with students and young scientists to whom he has served as mentor. Over the years, Stegeman has had 17 Ph.D. students under his supervision-eight at once was the record-and several more early-career scientists. "I wouldn’t be here without them," he says. "If there were no students here, I never would have considered staying. It would not be fun, nor as productive. The students are inspiring, challenging."

His family provides another source of inspiration for Stegeman. For the past three years, he has "poked away at" A Family Record, which includes an autobiography of sorts that reads like a good novel. He will tell you that recording the family lore is mostly for his kids-two sons and a daughter he has raised with his wife Betsy, whom he met at Northwestern. But the memories are chronicled by a gifted storyteller, proving you can’t take the English major out of this scientist.

-Tracey Crago, WHOI Sea GrantJohn Stegeman

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