July 3, 2008

Head of Marine Lab Pushed Change


By Bryan Marquard

The Boston Globe

On the cusp of becoming director of the Marine Biological Laboratory during its centennial year, Harlyn Halvorson made it clear the Woods Hole, Mass., facility would have to evolve along with the research conducted on sea creatures and cells.

"If the science that we do here is going to be relevant, we have to build up the year-round programs and supply the facilities for genetic engineering," he told Smithsonian magazine in 1988, speaking of a laboratory known to many as the seasonal nesting place for the scientists who flocked there each summer. "We've got to be able to synthesize proteins, isolate genes, clone genes, and apply the techniques of modern molecular biology. If we can't do that, we're finished."

Five years later, he stepped down as director, not long after opening the Marine Resources Center, a building that cost $11 million and stands as one of Halvorson's lasting legacies, said Gary Borisy, current director of the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Halvorson, who formerly directed the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center at Brandeis University, died June 17 in his Woods Hole home of complications from respiratory ailments. He was 83.

"He was a powerful advocate for young scientists," said Borisy, who got his first teaching job in the late 1960s through Halvorson, who at the time chaired a department at the University of Wisconsin.

"My father was a very complex man," said Halvorson's son Phil . "But what people cherished was that even though he was intelligent and complex, he also understood what people were interested in and got them excited. From a bartender in a bar to a scientist in a genetics lab, he just got people interested in things immediately."

A tinkerer since childhood, Halvorson grew up in Minneapolis, where he and his younger brother, Loren, once slapped together a small vessel and hauled it to a nearby pond. It promptly sank in 2 feet of water.

"Harlyn and I never built another boat," Loren Halvorson, a retired Lutheran minister in Minneapolis, wrote in a biographical sketch about his brother.

They both joined the Navy in World War II, Loren wrote, " and perhaps that was to fulfill some deep ambition thwarted in childhood to be on something that actually floated!"

The brothers also progressed as boys from making model airplanes to building a full-size version that sat outside in their yard, drawing attention from passing aircraft.

Harlyn Halvorson got a taste of the real thing after high school. Stationed by the Navy aboard the Randolph, he learned to land jets on the aircraft carrier and continued to fly after the war, switching to gliders.

"There was the sense he would always try something once, he would always try something new," Lisa Halvorson of Dallas said of her father.

Settling on science as his life's work, he received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and chemistry engineering in 1948 and a master's in biochemistry in 1950, both from the University of Minnesota. Two years later he graduated from the University of Illinois with a doctorate in bacteriology, then conducted research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Halvorson married Jean Ericksen 53 years ago and began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1956, leaving in 1971 to direct the Rosenstiel center at Brandeis during a time when science funding was becoming scarce.

"There is a dangerous trend in that direction," he told The Globe in 1973. "You can pick up any paper today and read about these cutbacks in basic scientific research ... dramatic cutbacks."

Halvorson, who the Smithsonian magazine noted had "proven abilities as a fund-raiser," began working as an instructor at the Marine Biological Laboratory in 1962 and directed the microbial ecology course from 1979 to 1984.

After stepping down as director, Halvorson spent his time in academia and working with local communities, chairing the economic development board of Falmouth, Mass. And he helped create the Policy Center for Marine Biosciences and Technology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where he was a professor emeritus, along with being director emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Having begun life landlocked, a half-mile from the pond where he and his brother made their ill-fated foray into boating, Halvorson found sustenance in the saltwater breeze that floated to his Woods Hole house. Awakening a few hours after going to bed June 16, he opened the door and settled into a favorite chair to savor the evening air.

"They're just down the street from Vineyard Sound," Phil Halvorson said of his parents' house. "You can hear the buoys from where my father was sitting when he died."

In addition to his wife, son, daughter and brother, Halvorson leaves two sisters and two grandsons.

Originally published by BY BRYAN MARQUARD.

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