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


Joseph Stephen Beckman was born in 1953 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was a naval aviator during World War II who returned to school following the war and went on to become a city planner. Beckman's mother was among the first females to attain an officer's rank in the United States Navy, and his two sisters also pursued careers in the Navy. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Joe was five, and that is where he remained through his graduation from high school.

Science and the outdoors were two consuming passions for Beckman from an early age. After completing high school, he pursued both interests by enrolling at the University of Colorado, where he majored in molecular biology and provided research support for a project involving the study of proteins through the use of 2D gels. Beckman stayed at Colorado to conduct master's research on free radicals and peroxidases in plants. He completed his master's degree in population biology in 1977.

Beckman had been a member of the Army ROTC during his undergraduate years, and following the conclusion of his master's studies, he began a two-year active service commitment in the United States Army. His first appointment was as an administrative officer with the 665th medical detachment, during which time he was stationed in Seoul, South Korea and played a major role in running a hospital facility. He spent an additional nine months as a company commander in Texas at Fort Sam Houston, where he oversaw medical training for large groups of soldiers.

During his time in Texas, Beckman stayed current with the literature on peroxidases and in 1979 he began doctoral studies in the Botany department at Duke University. Initially interested in the physiology and biochemistry of plants, Beckman shifted gears while at Duke, deciding to apply his knowledge of an enzyme, superoxide dismutase, to the possible prevention of stroke. This switch marked the beginning of Beckman's focus on nerve degeneration.

In 1985, after completing his Ph.D. in Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, Beckman accepted an instructor position in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He remained in Birmingham for sixteen years, eventually attaining the rank of full professor. While at UAB, Beckman continued a series of fruitful investigations on superoxide dismutase and stroke that ultimately led him to a new focus on the role that the enzyme might play in the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease). While this interest in ALS remained Beckman's primary focus at UAB (and, later, at OSU) he is also well-known for having published a heavily cited paper on peroxynitrite as widely applicable marker for disease processes.

Beckman left UAB in 2001 for a position as Principal Investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute, housed at Oregon State University, where he continues to conduct increasingly promising research on the role of superoxide dismutase in ALS. Since 2002, Beckman has also led OSU's Environmental Health Sciences Center, an organization that works to foster and promote research on the impact of the environment on human health.