Herald-Whig

LIFE STORIES: Quincy native a scientist trying to answer life's biggest questions

John Stegeman, a Quincy native, is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and director of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health. “Science doesn’t come to an end. There’s always something more to discover,” Stegeman says.| H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 16, 2017 8:40 am

QUINCY -- A conversation with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist John Stegeman walks the line between teaching and storytelling.

When given the opportunity to share even the smallest piece of his knowledge, the Quincy native's already upbeat demeanor intensifies and his focus narrows to little beyond the topic at hand. Using simplistic drawings to break down into layman's terms the mechanics of enzymes and their interactions with cancer cells, Stegeman takes time to consider his words. He recognizes the importance of diction and has no problem hitting the pause button until he can find the perfect phrase to explain a situation or to bring a story to life with vivid detail.

It is this deliberate approach that has sustained him over the more than 45 years he has spent trying to answer life's biggest questions.

"Science doesn't come to an end," he said. "There's always something more to discover."

Building a foundation

Stegeman traces his roots back to 1830s Quincy -- Anton Delabar, patriarch of the first German family to settle in Quincy is his great-great-great-grandfather -- making him part of one of the city's oldest families. His father had a knack for connecting with people. Even when he had resigned to a nursing home and was unable to speak or move, he could draw people in with just the gleam of his eyes.

"He taught by both example and direction," Stegeman said of his father. "He exuded friendliness and consideration."

School was easy for Stegeman, even though he didn't get the best grades. He had skipped fourth grade but wasn't challenged through his high school career at Christian Brothers High School, the predecessor to Quincy Notre Dame High School. He left high school with an affinity for the arts -- having participated in the glee club, various choral groups and the theater department's production of "Stalag 17" -- and an intense interest in biochemistry, particularly enzymes.

He received his bachelor's degree in 1966 from St. Mary's College and his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1972 from Northwestern University, where he met his wife, Betsy. After stumbling upon a research fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and subsequently becoming a faculty member there, the couple moved to Woods Hole, Mass., a village in the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod that Stegeman refers to as "a Mecca for certain kinds of scientists."

The research conducted at Woods Hole is cutting edge. The Oceanographic Institution shares a doctorate degree program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Running into Nobel Laureates at dinner parties has become the norm for Stegeman. He is currently studying the actions of a particular enzyme on the brain and in viruses and studying deep sea fish.

While recounting his first time at sea for a research cruise, he emphasized that it is a cruise only in name. On that expedition, the 25 scientists aboard were studying fish from the mid-water depth level. It was Stegeman's first time at sea. He was 26.

"I felt like the Ancient Mariner going to sea," he said.

Betsy was diagnosed with leukemia when the couple's three children were still very young -- one was still in diapers. Managing a large laboratory at the time, Stegeman spent his mornings at work, took the bus to visit Betsy at noon and then returned home in the evening to put the children to bed. He did that for a full summer. The juggling act gave him a better appreciation of his wife's sacrifices in caring for their children.

"If you want to have a successful career in science or medicine and a family," he said, "someone has to contribute more (to the family)."

Betsy beat the leukemia, and the couple's children have each gone on to successful careers of their own. Stegeman said he is particularly excited to see what his grandson does with his life.

Excelling in the field

Stegeman had the opportunity to serve four years as chairman of the National Academy of Medicine Committee that investigated the health effects of agent orange on people -- particularly on Vietnam veterans -- and how the chemical agent contributes to the development of lingering diseases. A student during the Vietnam War, Stegeman never served in the armed forces, but he saw his work on the project as a way to do his part for his country.

Research opportunities have taken him around the globe. He was at the Kremlin in 1991 and watched as Mikhail Gorbachev left the building for the final time as leader of the Soviet Union. He dined with a Thai princess in Bangkok. He's been to England at least 25 times, France and Italy at least a dozen or so each and so on.

A Swedish university awarded him an honorary doctorate, and he received similar honors last spring when he spoke at the commencement ceremony at St. Mary's. During that address, he wore a pair of his father's socks, a symbolic gesture that helped him channel his father's confidence and honor the man simultaneously.

Now 72, what keeps him going is "the driving curiosity to solve a fascinatingly complex biochemical puzzle."

Stegeman lost count of how many times he has been published -- his biography estimates over 300, with more than 20,000 citations. He is the director of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health. He has trained over 30 doctoral and postdoctoral students among countless other accomplishments.

"I don't think I ever set out specifically to make a difference," he said. "It was the curiosity that drove me."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.