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12/17/03

Mark Shwartz, News Service: (650) 723-9296, mshwartz@stanford.edu

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Dennis Powers, former director of Hopkins Marine Station, dies at 65

Dennis A. Powers, former director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station and the Harold A. Miller Professor of Biological Sciences, died at the home of his daughter, Kathi Santos, in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., on Dec. 8 following a long illness. He was 65. A memorial service is being planned for early 2004.

Powers enjoyed a distinguished career as a research scientist and administrator, and was one of the primary forces in the development of integrative biology -- the discipline in which scientists study a phenomenon at multiple levels of biological organization, ranging from the ecosystem to the molecule, to determine how species adapt to their environment through long-term evolutionary processes and short-term acclimations to environmental change.

"Dennis Powers was a creative force who was instrumental in catalyzing the development of the fields of integrative biology and adaptational biochemistry," said Stanford biological sciences Professor George N. Somero, director of Hopkins Marine Station since 2000. "His studies provide a remarkable window into the process of evolution and show us how seemingly subtle variations at the molecular level 'fit' organisms for success in their habitats."

 

Enormous impact

Born in Dearborn, Mich., on May 4, 1938, Powers served in the United States Marine Corps' First Force Reconnaissance Company from 1957 to 1959 and in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1960 to 1963. He earned his bachelor's degree from Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kans., in 1963 the same year he was married and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas in 1970. He conducted postdoctoral research at the State University of New York-Stony Brook and at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., from 1970 to 1972.

Powers was a member of the Johns Hopkins University faculty from 1972 to 1988, where he served as chair of the Department of Biology, director of the McCollum-Pratt Institute for Biochemistry and acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Institute. He became director of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif., in 1988 a position he held until 2000.

"During his tenure as director, Hopkins became one of the world's leading centers for the study of molecular marine biology," Somero said, noting that Powers established a vigorous program in molecular marine biology and attracted to the campus new faculty members who shared his vision. Powers also played a key role in raising funds to establish four new endowed chairs at Hopkins and to support construction of a major new research and teaching facility, the DeNault Family Research Building. Working with colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, he helped launch the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC) the only facility in North America where tuna can be studied in captivity.

"Dennis Powers' impact on Hopkins Marine Station has been enormous," said TRCC director Barbara A. Block, a professor of biological sciences at Hopkins. "His contagious enthusiasm for the place and its potential attracted new faculty and funding from donors for a decade. His ability to recruit and to stimulate interest in conducting marine biology with new technology has strongly influenced the future directions of the Station."

 

Groundbreaking research

Powers and his large group of colleagues studied a diverse assemblage of marine organisms, particularly fish, to delineate how changes in genetic information and protein function help to foster survival under different and often highly stressful environmental conditions, such as low oxygen levels and temperature extremes. His studies were groundbreaking because of their success in explaining in fundamental molecular terms how organisms adapt to the environment. The integration of data on diverse types of phenomena including respiration, swimming behavior, growth rates, blood oxygen transport, metabolic function, and gene sequence led to an unprecedented level of synthesis in the study of adaptation.

"Powers possessed a vigorous, hard-charging intellect that never hesitated to bring new experimental or theoretical approaches into our field," Somero recalled. "He challenged us to be daring and creative in what we did in our science."

The hundreds of papers that Powers published represent only one measure of the contributions he made to biology, Somero added: "He also was a remarkably effective catalyst in bringing to marine biology and environmental science the new molecular techniques developed in biomedical research. He possessed a sense of where the future of his field would be, and attracted to his group a cadre of diverse investigators who helped him realize his vision. His laboratory became an epicenter of discovery and training, a site where marine scientists wishing to learn new molecular techniques could come to obtain state-of-the-art training. His discoveries in basic molecular physiology also led to efforts in bioengineering, such as developing strains of marine organisms with enhanced capacities for growth."

Powers also served on the editorial boards of Physiological and Biochemical Zoology and Biological Oceanography, and as founding editor of the journal Marine Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. He was a frequent member of governmental panels and was active in several scientific societies, including the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, the Genetics Society of America and the American Society of Biological Chemists.

 

Mentor and teacher

During his career, Powers mentored dozens of research students, many of whom attained faculty positions at leading universities, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Chicago, the University of Maine, the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to his teaching activities at his home universities, Powers was a frequent contributor to summer courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

"Dennis Powers was one my 'unforgettable characters' in the generation of scientists I consider as mentors," said Patrick Walsh, director of the Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Center at the University of Miami. "He energized a cohort of young scientists, not only with his intellectual stimulation but with his 'just do it' attitude." Walsh noted that Powers' work was "a classic example of how natural selection works at the molecular level. It will be cited in textbooks for a long time to come."

Powers is survived by three daughters Kathi Santos of New Smyrna Beach, Fla.; Julie Powers of St. Cloud, Fla.; and Wendy McNall of Oregon, Wisc. and four grandchildren. His former wife, Dianne Powers-Kattawar, resides in Gainesville, Fla.

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