OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

FROM MEDICINE TO MARINE BIOLOGY - A PASSION PURSUED

04/21/2004

CORVALLIS - According to Dr. John Howieson, retirement is a time of life when a person gets to do whatever they want to do, for as long as they want to do it, just because it's fun. By that definition, he says, he's retired.

By almost anyone else's definition, however, Howieson would be considered a hard-working graduate student at Oregon State University. He's pursuing a master's degree in a complex field, struggling with advanced mathematics and looking forward to a new career.

No golf, no tropical cruises. He's not your typical retiree.

Howieson is a neuroradiologist, and in a four-decade career in medicine has studied or worked everywhere from Kentucky to England, Yale University, Oregon and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He quit full-time work as a physician at Oregon Health & Science University in 1994, and continued to work occasionally, but felt he was "just marking time."

"I enjoyed medicine a great deal, working with the advances in technology over the years, and teaching students in university hospitals," said Howieson, who is now 74. "But I decided I wanted one more big adventure in life."

At OSU, that adventure has taken the form of a master's degree in marine biology, studying with two of the leading researchers in the nation in this field - Jane Lubchenco and Bruce Menge, co-holders of the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair of Marine Biology. Howieson said it's a chance for him to learn more about a field that has fascinated him for decades, and he hopes to soon do independent research in a university setting, or perhaps work for a conservation organization.

"I should be fairly employable," Howieson said. "I already have one doctorate, I'll have a master's degree in zoology and I won't require a salary. That ought to help."

Howieson was born in New York City - the same year the New York Stock Exchange crashed, in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression - and graduated from medical school in Kansas in 1955. He was trained in both radiology and neurology, and used his expertise to help diagnose problems in the brain and central nervous system. Many of the diagnostic tools he started with - angiograms, pneumoencephalography - were made obsolete over the years by such advanced technology as CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs.

Howieson has both followed the advances in his field and helped teach generations of medical students about them.

Now, instead of tracking down brain tumors, Howieson spends most of his time trying to figure out why the California mussel is so common at the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and nearby ocean, but not in Puget Sound - is it differences in salinity, temperature, predation? No one knows yet.

Both medicine and marine research have their unique challenges, he said.

"I was hoping there might be quite a bit of carryover from what I learned in medicine to the study of marine biology, but there actually hasn't been as much as I thought," Howieson said. "This is a whole new field for me, I'm working largely with invertebrate animals, there's a lot to learn. But the information itself is so intrinsically interesting, there's just a degree of wonder to study biology and understand how everything has evolved.

"I suppose the toughest part is the advanced math we use in physical and chemical oceanography," he said. "I never took calculus even when I was getting my undergraduate and medical degree, and that was more than 50 years ago."

The university itself, he said, has been both fun and supportive.

"OSU is a great school, and it's been enormously pleasurable to interact with all these young students," he said. "We work together, go out for a beer, talk politics. I share a house during the week with another grad student. It helps you sometimes to forget how old you are."

There are a few oddities, he said.

"Everyone who doesn't know me personally assumes I'm a professor, not a student. And I got a call from the enrollment office from someone wanting to double-check the date of my birth. It said 1929, and they assumed that had to be an error."

In some other ways, Howieson is not your typical student. For instance, he's made substantial donations to the OSU Foundation to support two undergraduate scholarships in the Department of Zoology where he is studying, himself, as a grad student. He still works one day a week, mostly just to help out, at Oregon Health & Science University, where his wife, Diane, is also a neuropsychologist. And since he failed almost 30 years ago to get his daughter interested in studying marine biology, he's decided to do it himself.

"I'm not sure just what the attraction of this field is, but I talk to a lot of people about it and it's surprising how many of them said they always thought that type of work would be fascinating," Howieson said. "People still ask me why I'm doing this at my age. It's just a great interest of mine, and when the day comes that I don't think it's fun, I won't do it anymore. But I don't anticipate that happening.

"And anyway, I never learned how to play golf."