Science and scientists on Martha’s Vineyard: Toxicologist Mark Hahn

And the scientists who commute to Woods Hole.

Mark Hahn, Senior WHOI scientist and chair of the department of biology, right, and biologist Dianna Franks. — Photo by Tom Kleindist/Woods Hol

Retired Stanford professor and West Tisbury resident Paul Levine will contribute this regular column devoted to scientific research taking place today, along with profiles of the Island’s scientists and their work, and facts of scientific note on the Island.

Mark Hahn of Vineyard Haven is this month’s scientist. Mark is a toxicologist, a senior scientist, and chair of biology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). His research and that of his colleagues focus on the molecular mechanism of sensitivity, resistance, and genetic adaptation of animals to some of the world’s most toxic substances, all of which pose serious health hazards to humans and other animals.

In the summer of 1989, I was commuting from Vineyard Haven to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. I took a 7 am ferry to Woods Hole and returned to the Vineyard later each day, usually on a freight boat.

It was on one of those morning commutes that I met Mark Hahn. As Mark recalls it, he was sitting outside reading an article in the journal Science when, as he put it, “an older man wearing jeans and a threadbare jean jacket” came to sit next to him. It was me, and I happened to be carrying a copy of Nature, another scientific journal. I introduced myself and inquired about what he was reading. He looked up, smiled, introduced himself, and told me that he was skimming the journal for articles of interest. I told him that I intended to do the same with my latest copy of Nature.

I learned Mark was a postdoctoral fellow in the WHOI laboratory of the toxicologist John Stegeman. It was in the course of our commuting together that I learned about the beginnings of what would become Mark’s highly productive continuing research project on the toxic effects of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in New Bedford Harbor, which had become an EPA Superfund toxic site.

The research set Mark on the course for what is now a pioneering and successful effort to unravel the complex mechanisms by which organisms become sensitive and damaged by toxic industrial chemicals, and how some develop genetic resistance to them.

I learned much more when in the following summer, I joined Mark in John Stegeman’s lab.

In the course of preparing to write this column, I began to wonder about Vineyard scientists who might commute to work at one of the scientific institutions in Woods Hole and nearby. A little research led me to an article about some commuting scientists in an article, “And a Boatload of Brains,” published in the November 2014 issue of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Further research led to the discovery that in the ’50s and ’60s, a number of WHOI scientists commuted aboard the Risk, a 38-foot launch owned by Columbus Iselin, twice director of WHOI. It traveled from Lake Tashmoo to Woods Hole except in inclement weather, when it sailed from Owen Park. The boat was piloted by Stanley Poole and John Schilling Sr., an analytical chemist at the institute.

Woollcott Smith of West Tisbury was a passenger on the Risk in the ’60s when he was a senior fellow in the Marine Policy Center at WHOI, where his research focused on the statistical analysis of problems of environmental policy and the preservation of species. He recalls that it was an inexpensive commute, each passenger paying a few dollars every month for gasoline to run the boat, for which, at income tax time, they received a deduction from the IRS.

Fred Hotchkiss of Vineyard Haven, the paleontologist and founding director of the Vineyard-based Marine and Paleontological Research Institute and organizer of

Vineyard Fossil Day was also a commuter aboard the Risk during the summers of 1962 and 1963 after he graduated from high school. During those months, he worked with the institute’s geologist, John Zeigler, on the Pleistocene geology of the Cape.

I have always been impressed by Mark Hahn’s passion and enthusiasm for research, and last month on one of those oddly warm days, I met with him to talk about what guided him to a career as a toxicologist.

Mark was born in Rochester, N.Y., where his father was employed by Eastman Kodak as a product specialist to develop different types of photographic emulsions, including specialized ones for astronomers to use for capturing images of regions beyond Earth.

What may have started Mark on the road to becoming a scientist were copies of astronomers’ photographs that his father brought back from visits to observatories, photographs obtained on film coated with the emulsions that his father had developed. Another event came during the summer of 1967. He was nine years old when he was taken to the Marine Biological Laboratory by his father, where Kodak assigned him to maintain an exhibit illustrating biological applications of photographic emulsions and films. This gave Mark the opportunity to wander around Woods Hole and spend time at the aquarium. That summer may also have had something to do with his choice to go to the Oceanographic Institute. Meanwhile, his high school biology teacher continued to stimulate Mark’s interest in biological science.

Mark was in college when he read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and about the Love Canal disaster, where children and adults in upstate New York were exposed to a spectrum of toxic chemicals — including dioxin — because their homes were built on top of a hazardous waste site. This was the beginning of his career as a toxicologist.

Mark went to Harpur College of the State University of New York in Binghamton during the late 1970s, intending to major in biology. However, at the outset, circumstances diverted him to music, and to the study of music composition with composer Ezra Laderman, a longtime summer resident of Woods Hole. Today Mark still plays the French horn and guitar. But ultimately he did major in biology, and received a B.S. in biological sciences in 1980 and later a Ph.D. in toxicology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

Throughout his professional career at WHOI, Mark’s research has centered on investigations into the complex chemical, molecular, cellular, and genetic interactions that contribute to both sensitivity and resistance to environmental toxins. With grants from the Superfund Research Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the NIH, much of his research has focused on the developmental and physiological abnormalities in killifish and other marine organisms in PCB-contaminated New Bedford Harbor. In the course of this research, Mark and his colleagues have elucidated the genetic basis for sensitivity and resistance to PCBs and dioxin in the fish. Other projects include the investigation of dioxin sensitivity in birds and the effects of stress on the embryological development of zebra fish.

All told, the basic research of Mark Hahn and his colleagues is of utmost importance, and essential if we are to understand the properties and deleterious effects that industrial chemicals have on all living creatures, in order to remove or contain them, and act to prevent the emergence of new ones, to preserve the health of our planet.