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WHOI Waypoints: The Call of the Ocean

Alumnus Returns as Director of Development

Dan Stuermer’s career changed course a few times since he earned his Ph.D. degree from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in 1975. A successful research scientist, winery owner, and corporate president, he was looking for a new challenge last year—one that included his lifelong passion for the ocean.

“I was planning a two-year sailing adventure that would bring my wife Betty and me back to California from the East Coast via the Caribbean and Hawaii,” he said. “I’d already bought all the cruise guides and charts, and, in fact, I was reading the guide describing the transit through the Panama Canal when (WHOI Director) Bob Gagosian called and asked me to come back to WHOI.”

Changing course again, Stuermer became WHOI’s new Director of Development. In Stuermer, Gagosian saw someone whose multi-faceted experience in science, marketing, and management made him well suited for the job. In addition, Stuermer was personally acquainted with WHOI’s significant impact on oceanography and oceanography’s significant impact on society.

Growing up in southern California, Stuermer started surfing and sailing at age 12. He received his B.A. degree in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1970 and came to WHOI, where he did his dissertation research on gelbstuf, the dissolved organic matter in seawater—the oceanic equivalent of humus in soil. Gagosian was on his thesis committee, and Stuermer shared an office with a new postdoctoral student at the time named John Farrington, now WHOI’s Dean of Graduate Studies.
“The office was so cramped, I’d have to tell John when I was going to stand up so he could scoot in to make room,” Stuermer recalled.

His wife Betty, a graphic artist, worked in WHOI’s engineering department. There she created art for publications and drew illustrations, for example, of the submersible Alvin’s appendages for Scientist Emeritus Bob Ballard and Barrie Walden, now WHOI’s Manager of Operational Science Services.
“We loved all our associations with people at WHOI and always had fond memories of the place,” Stuermer said.

After graduating with a degree in chemical oceanography, Stuermer had a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA. He was a scientist from 1977 to 1983 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he did research on coastal pollution and on groundwater pollution threats posed by the extraction of oil shales, a potential alternative fuel source.

In 1977, Stuermer and his family pursued a dream and built a winery in northern California.
“I learned that producing good wine was only the first step,” he said. “Selling wine depended as much on personal relationships with merchants and restaurateurs as on the wine quality.”

The family sold the winery after a successful decade-long run, and Stuermer joined Thermo Electronic Corporation to run one of its analytical chemistry laboratories in northern California. By 1994, he was president of the company’s subsidiary, Thermo Analytical, Inc., in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with responsibilities for all aspects of laboratory operations, financial performance, marketing and sales efforts, and strategic planning.

When he began, the company’s primary clients were federal agencies. But that market collapsed, and Stuermer spearheaded a major reorganization, transforming the company to seek and serve private-sector clients. Today Thermo Analytical is the leading commercial chemical and microbiological firm for the environmental and pharmaceutical industries. It has annual revenues of some $40 million and employs 650 scientists and support personnel.

His mission accomplished, Stuermer began to hear the call of the ocean again.

“The only waves in Lancaster were amber waves of grain,” he quipped. That’s when he began planning his sailing adventure and when Gagosian called. The two were well acquainted because Stuermer had become a WHOI Corporation member in 1993 and a Trustee in 1997.

“I was always inspired when I visited WHOI by seeing the excellent quality of the scientific work going on and its importance to the future of society,” Stuermer said. He decided to settle for a shorter five-month adventure, sailing his 37-foot yawl from Annapolis to Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and Maine (including legs with his adventurous father and mother, both near 80 years old) before steering into Quissett Harbor last fall.

As Director of Development, Stuermer will be responsible for the Institution’s fund-raising efforts, including planning and managing a multi-year, multi-million-dollar capital campaign.
“I wanted to make a difference by using my experience to advance WHOI’s mission,” he said.

Originally published: March 1, 2000