The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Joe Beckman Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

September 15, 2015


“A Leader in the Study of Neurodegenerative Disease”  September 15, 2015  Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In the interview, Beckman describes his upbringing in Pittsburgh and his family background, with particular emphasis on his parents' and siblings' experiences in the military. He also discusses his early interests in science and the outdoors, two passions that led him to enroll at the University of Colorado following his completion of high school.

As he recounts his bachelor's and master's studies at Colorado, Beckman focuses primarily on his academic progression, his research experiences, and the enriching scholarly milieu that existed at the university during that time. In particular, he notes his earliest exposure to the study of peroxidases and the ways in which this chance scientific encounter helped to shape the rest of his career.

Beckman next describes the means by which he came to serve for two years in the United States Army, and details both his work as an administrative officer in an Army hospital in Seoul, and his nine months as an executive officer at the Fort Sam Houston medical training center. From there, Beckman recounts his years of doctoral study at Duke University, noting in particular his shift in focus from plant pathology to biochemistry, and the beginnings of his interest in superoxide dismutase, stroke, and nerve degeneration.

An analysis of the sixteen years that Beckman spent at the University of Alabama-Birmingham comprises the next segment of the interview. In reflecting on that time, he recalls the differences in environment that one encounters when working at a medical school, his shift in focus to studying ALS, an important paper that he published on peroxynitrite, and two guest professorships that he held in Europe.

A major focus of the session is Beckman's tenure and activities at Oregon State University, with Beckman sharing his memories of his decision to leave UAB for OSU, providing his sense of the Linus Pauling Institute at the time of his arrival, and detailing the mission of the Environmental Health Sciences Center, which he has led since 2002.

Of particular interest is Beckman's description of the path that his research on ALS has taken since joining the OSU faculty. In outlining the evolution of this work, Beckman reveals that he and his collaborators have uncovered processes related to the interaction between superoxide dismutase and the human spinal cord that portend an exciting new understanding of ALS. This breakthrough is such that it may result in an effective treatment for what is now universally regarded to be a terminal disease.

As the interview nears its conclusion, Beckman shares his perspective on the ice bucket challenge, advancement and change at the Linus Pauling Institute, the legacy of Linus Pauling, and the impact of the Linus Pauling Science Center. The session ends with Beckman's thoughts on the current and future direction of OSU.