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John Eppig, Ph.D.

The waters of life

by Joyce Peterson / Photography by Françoise Gervais and Classic Boat Shop

John Eppig, Ph.D., is somewhat obsessed with water.

It dates back to childhood, when his first scientific samples came from local ponds. "I've always been a scientist," he says. "By the sixth grade I was always looking into a microscope. My mother used to worry about all the murky-looking jars in my room, filled with stuff I had collected."

Now the renowned Jackson Laboratory reproductive biologist insists upon a very specific source of Mount Desert Island spring water for use in his lab. And his favorite place to unwind is on Blue Hill Bay at the tiller of his sailboat, Keepah. Eppig, recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, grew up sailing on the North Shore of Long Island, N.Y., and rediscovered his boyhood passion a few years ago, when injuries sidelined his wicked tennis game.

Initially fascinated with the metamorphosis that transforms tadpoles into frogs, Eppig was inspired to study developmental biology at Villanova University. He continued his graduate studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., followed by a series of graduate positions at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

He thinks out of the box. You never know where his ideas are coming from, and they're always illuminating.

"I never did study metamorphosis," he laughs. "All my work involved frog eggs."

His first teaching post was at Brooklyn College. While there he met Professor Ed Leiter, who was to become a distinguished diabetes researcher at The Jackson Laboratory. At the time, Leiter was doing summer work in Bar Harbor, and he encouraged Eppig to visit as well. Soon thereafter Leiter moved full-time to Maine, and a year or so later, in 1975, Eppig followed suit, joining the Laboratory staff and shifting his focus from amphibians to mammals.

Hundreds of research publications have followed, as have dozens of awards including the Gregor J. Mendel Honorary Medal for Merit in the Biological Sciences, bestowed in 2002 by the Academy of Science of the Czech Republic; the 2007 Pioneer in Reproduction Research Lectureship Award from the Frontiers in Reproduction Research Program; and The Jackson Laboratory Award for Scientific Achievement.

The research conducted in Eppig's lab for the past 30 years had a common theme: to develop culture systems that support the in vitro development of egg precursor cells, known as oocytes. His research successes include achieving the first complete in vitro development of mammalian oocytes into a complete organism, the famous mouse known as "Eggbert."

Water underlies his most celebrated scientific achievements. Cell culture depends on controlling environmental factors to an almost fanatical extent, and for decades Eppig has used only water from an undisclosed local spring. His longtime research assistants Marilyn O'Brien and Karen Wigglesworth collect the precious water every few weeks, in every season of the year, and distill it for the experiments. Wigglesworth jokes, "John has always been afraid Marilyn would leave here and get a tanker truck full of this water, and drive it around to labs around the country."

Wigglesworth and O'Brien describe the Eppig lab as a fun and challenging place to work. "However, you have to like puns," Wigglesworth says. "The other day John came into the lab while I was preparing oocyte culture medium and asked what I was doing. I said, 'I'm making medium,' and he said, 'Yes, but will it be a happy medium?'"

Marilyn O'Brien at the source of the Eppig lab's precious water.

Jackson Laboratory Senior Research Scientist Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D., is a longtime friend and colleague of Eppig's—the two of them were postdocs together at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and they recently shared duties as coeditors of Biology of Reproduction, the journal of the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR). Handel describes Eppig as a "brilliant, original thinker and experimentalist. But I bet he'll say the thing he's most proud of are his students. He's a great teacher."

Barbara Vanderhyden, Ph.D., Corinne Boyer Chair in ovarian cancer research at the University of Ottawa, was one of three postdoctoral associates in Eppig's lab in the late 1990s. "John's lab was a really fun and stimulating environment. He was always challenging us to try new ideas."

At last year's annual meeting of the SSR, when Vanderhyden was elected president, Eppig received the organization's most prestigious honor—the Carl G. Hartman award. Vanderhyden says the thing she admires most about Eppig as a scientist is that "he never steps away from a challenge. And the biological system he has chosen to study is certainly among the most challenging."

He's also "simply brilliant," she adds. "He thinks out of the box. You never know where his ideas are coming from, and they're always illuminating."

With characteristic self-deprecation, Eppig declines the "brilliant" label his colleagues insist on using, but does acknowledge that he's "…very imaginative. If you had to be a very bright person to be a successful scientist, I would never have been a successful scientist."

He says his best skill is figuring out, "if I were in Mother Nature's shoes, how would I do this?"

Last year Eppig published a paper in Science about the molecular and cellular players in ovaries that control the timing of egg development in mammals, including humans. What Eppig and his research team found was an intricate interrelationship of signaling between the oocytes themselves and the surrounding cumulus and follicular granulosa cells.

"Far from being a passive passenger on the Good Ship Follicle," Eppig says, "it looks like the oocyte is the captain of the ship." However, Eppig adds, "I do wonder whether the follicle cells are also affecting how the 'captain of the ship' is making decisions. That's the question I would most like to resolve."

John Eppig (stern) and friend enjoy a brisk fall day aboard Keepah.

For several years Eppig has worked at home on Tuesdays. "He always says he gets more work done," O'Brien says, "and so do we!" Wigglesworth explains, "He'll come in and say, 'I've thought of a better idea for that experiment' after we've already set it up, and then we have to start over."

In 2003 Vanderhyden and almost all of Eppig's other past graduate students and staff surprised him with a symposium and party in honor of his 60th birthday. "People came from all over the world—China, Japan, Czech Republic, Scotland, Canada," says Wigglesworth. "It was a real testimony to John as a scientist and mentor."

Fine days often find Eppig aboard Keepah, pushing off from the dock at the shore of his home. There's a charming story behind the name of the sloop.

"Janan, my wife, handed me a brown paper bag on our 25th wedding anniversary. Inside was a toy sailboat with a check taped to it and a note that read 'Go buy a sailboat.' When I told our local boatbuilder that this would be a gift from my wife, he paused a moment and said, 'She's really a keepah'—which is Downeast Maine for 'keeper'."

It's with a certain pride that Eppig notes that Keepah doesn't have a motor. Instead he has only his skill as a sailor to navigate the craft. "I've only needed a tow once," he says, "when the wind totally died on us."

And so it's fitting that his work has led him here, at home on the open waters of Blue Hill Bay.