Remembering Professor and Department Chair Joe Siebenaller

March 20, 2022

Joe SiebenallerDr. Joe Siebenaller grew up in Wisconsin, the oldest of four siblings, and attended the University of Wisconsin where he was a member of the track team. He graduated with distinction with a B.S. in Zoology in 1972 before pursuing a PhD as a research assistant at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, receiving his PhD in Oceanography in 1978. Awarded an NIH National Service Award, he moved to the Department of Ecology and Evolution at State University of New York, Stony Brook as a researcher.

In 1980, Joe returned to the University of California San Diego to the Department of Chemistry as a research chemist before accepting the position of assistant professor of Biological Oceanography in 1982 at Oregon State University. 

In 1985, Joe was recruited to LSU as an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology & Physiology where he organized his laboratory to study the effects of hydrostatic pressure on the function of enzymes in deep sea organisms. Joe was successful in obtaining funding for his research from national sources that included NSF, NIH & ONR. In 1988, he was promoted to associate professor in the Department of Zoology & Physiology and to full professor in 1994 in the recently formed Department of Biological Sciences. Here Joe served as associate chair for 1.5 years and as chair of the department for the next 6 years before a health crisis forced him into retirement.

While his academic background and research achievements are impressive, Joe’s biggest contribution to the future of science came in the classroom where he inspired thousands of students. 

Joe was committed to student success and had a long track record of contributing to programs designed to help students achieve this goal. He taught a number of classes in the Department of Biological Sciences, but was known for teaching the Biology for Science Majors I (BIOL 1201) class every spring. This course is taught in Campbell Auditorium, which has a capacity of 1000 students, and he had enrollments greater than 800 students in some semesters. Joe’s philosophy for teaching this course was to both cover the typical course content and expose first-year students to scientific research. He was noted for discussing and showing pictures and videos of his ocean research cruises and the model organism he studied, the rattail fish. Joe continued to teach this class even though he assumed the responsibility of Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. Outside of his teaching responsibilities, Joe was an enthusiastic participant in several programs to bolster student success. He was a faculty instructor for the Biology Intensive Orientation for Students (BIOS) program from 2007 until 2018 and the BioSpring program from 2010 to 2018. Joe was an outstanding mentor for students both in the classroom and out of the classroom. 

Joe’s interest in student success showed in his desire to improve his teaching by learning about evidence-based teaching methods and his willingness to disseminate these practices to other faculty. Joe was a participant in the 2005 National Academies Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching in Biology held in Madison, Wisconsin. His attendance at the Summer Institute served as a spring board for several programs he helped to coordinate. Joe was a co-organizer for an NSF funded professional development workshop entitled Scientific Teaching, Assessment, and Resources that was held from 2007 through 2012. From 2012 to 2018 he helped organize the Gulf Coast Summer Institute, which has been funded through HHMI and the Helmsley Charitable Trust. Both of these programs have focused on helping university and college science faculty implement evidence-based teaching methods in their classes. Joe did not limit himself to professional development for college faculty, but also headed up programs to help secondary education science (grade 6-12) teachers. Joe taught classes for and mentored Master of Natural Science students in the Central Louisiana Academic Residency for Teachers (CART) and Louisiana Math and Science Institute (LA MSTI). Only a handful of faculty at LSU can claim to have as impressive a record as Joe when it comes to supporting professional development programs related to teaching.

Written by Joe Caprio and Christopher Gregg

Memories from Colleagues and Friends:

I had the great privilege of serving as co-chairperson (with the late Robert Hessler) of Joe's Ph.D. thesis at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. What an enjoyable and exciting time that was! Joe was the first marine biologist to inquire about adaptation to hydrostatic pressure in proteins of animals that occur at different depths. He did a masterful thesis in all respects. He chose his study species wisely and focused on species of a common genus that occur at different regions in the water column. This allowed Joe to clearly delineate differences due to adaptation to pressure instead of other factors. His first paper was published in Science and, after some tense negotiation with their editorial staff, we succeeded in getting a photo of one of the study fishes on the cover of the journal. This particular bug-eyed fish had a brown tubular structure about the size of a short pencil protruding out of its mouth. We were accused by some colleagues of having put a "joint" into the fish's mouth, whereas it was really just the leg of an invertebrate that the fish had previously consumed (and regurgitated up on deck). This episode kind of characterizes what is was like to work with Joe. There was a lot of excellent science going on, and it frequently was done with a wonderful mixture of humor. Joe was definitely one of the more up-beat and even-keeled people I've worked with. He was invariably kind, generous of time and energy, and unflappable under trying circumstances. These traits served him very well in working at sea, where meteorological and psychological conditions often were a test of one's character. And, unlike yours truly, Joe seemed immune to seasickness, which allowed him to put in prodigious efforts under all sea states.

I am reminded daily of what a wonderful person Joe was. As I type this, Joe is smiling down at me from the picture mounted above my desk, which was taken at Scripps at his Ph.D. defense. I'm pouring him a glass of champagne and we're all feeling appropriately happy and showing this in our broad smiles. I'll try to keep that picture in mind when I think about Joe, who was one of the finest people I've known in my long career in science.

- George Somero

I met Dr. Joe Siebenaller in 1987, my senior year at LSU, while taking his Genetics course.

Joe was quick, energetic and connected well with his students. A casual dresser, his uniform was a pair of Nikes, Levi 501s and a t-shirt, usually with an oceanographic or sports theme. He was professional without being stuffy. I wish I could say that I mastered genetics, but the lac operon remained elusive and I made a C in the class; one half a point from a B. I was worried this grade would derail my chances of in getting into dental school, and I’m sure I begged for mercy, but the C on my transcript remained and the begging most certainly caused an eye roll and a comment such as “There are a lot of sad stories in the big city and I have to hear all of them.”

I had a gap year between graduation and my application to dental school, and was mulling my options in the student union when I saw Joe. He recognized me from his class, and asked what I had been doing. I explained the gap year and told him I was thinking of substitute teaching for fifty dollars a day in East Baton Rouge Parish schools. He asked me, “Can you pipette?” I said, “No, but I'm sure I could learn.” So I was hired on the spot as a Research Associate I, my first job with insurance and a 401K plan.

And so the year began. A colleague from his grad school days at Scripps, Dr. Jeanne Davis, shared space in his lab. They both had perfect scores on their GRE exam, so I was very much the dimmest bulb in the room with my C (plus) in Genetics.

I was a sheltered, immature 21-year-old. Joe was amused by my sorority girl background and Ronald Reagan politics. He and Jeanne both came of age during the late 60s and I was under the impression, never confirmed by him, that he had been a little radical in college. He once told me he liked going to protest rallies “because that is where all the chicks were.” I would dig mightily for more information, but would be met with the reply, “that’s kind of personal” with a big grin. He kept his private life very, very private which made me even more curious. 

One of my duties was to make solutions for the assays, which involved calculating, like, real chemical equations. Terrified that I would screw something up, I made a notebook with recipes so I didn’t have to do the calculations every time. My first batch of a 1M solution of hydrochloric acid (“add acid to water, do what you oughter”) was mixing on the magnetic stirring plate when I accidentally knocked over something from the shelf above into it, ruining the solution. He didn’t get angry; he rolled his eyes and I made another batch.

The days took on a predictable routine. He would cycle into the lab at the crack of 9, his hair, parted in the middle, still wet from shower. Lunch was at 11, for two reasons: First, to beat the crowd, second, because he didn’t eat breakfast. In his later years, he only ate one meal a day. Joe didn’t have to watch his weight, but he was devoted to fitness. He cycled instead of drove, he ran and lifted weights. I think he weighed 145 the entire thirty-five years that I knew him. The mileage on his vehicle was ridiculous; only a few thousand miles on a twenty-year-old car.

After lunch he and Jeanne would grind coffee beans in the mini grinder at the coffee station in his office, and walk back to the lab with a mug. He would put on a mix tape of Joe Cocker (Unchain my Heart!) Heart (What About Love!) or the Talking Heads (I wanna make him stay up all night!) and he would comment, “this is some good music to pipette to” which was my cue that it was time to work.

I started an ongoing list of Joe-isms and hung it on the lab bulletin board; frequent phrases that populated his speech: “Students, you gotta love them” “Thank you for sharing that with me,” “Measure twice, cut once” or “It doesn’t get any better than this!” We worked with radioisotopes and he would often remark, “It’s important to remember whether you’re on the right side of the shielding!”

Every now and then the veneer would crack and he would give me a glimpse below the surface. He loaned me his collection of Tom Robbins books. His favorite movie was A Clockwork Orange. He had written a blistering essay about his Catholic school education which he kept locked in a file drawer in his office. Shockingly, he let me read it. But if I asked for more information, there was a grin and the Joe-ism, “that’s sorta personal.”

I invited him to Thanksgiving with my large family so he wouldn't be alone on a holiday, and was met with a look of horror and the reply “Uh, no!” So, I drove to his apartment on Gourrier with a plate of food covered with tinfoil and knocked, but if he was home, he didn’t answer. I set it on the doormat outside of his apartment and neither of us mentioned it. To this day I don’t know whether he got it.

Christmas rolled around and he gave me a gift: A small timer to wear on my lab coat so I wouldn't get distracted and ruin an experiment. I still have it.

His birthday was in March, which he quipped was between the Catholic feast days of St.Patrick (March 17th) and his namesake, St.Joseph (March 19th). On his 39th birthday I hand painted matching t-shirts for everyone in the lab, with a Joe avatar wearing jeans, Nikes, sunglasses, holding an LSU mug of coffee. Jeanne and I hired a singing Playboy bunny, to surprise him during the 11 am lunch in the Student Union. Our joke fell flat when an older man shut it down and made her leave.

The highlight of my year with Joe was an oceanographic research cruise on the RV Wecoma. He and I flew to Oregon and stayed with his good friend Dr.Tom Murray. Tom and his wife were very cordial and made a bedroom for me in their office, where I stayed up late and read their Abby Hoffman books. I enjoyed meeting Joe’s friends in Oregon and pretended to be more worldly than I was. One colleague in Tom’s lab was a lady who had been at Kent State during the shooting of the students. One random memory is that on this trip Joe and I watched the funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini on CNN.

Joe was supportive of my chosen profession, although he was very vocal that dentistry wasn’t “real” science. For motivation, he pasted this ad with my photo superimposed on a lab bulletin board.

He told me that he wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation, but said with a grin that he also said negative things in the letter, so the admissions committee wouldn't mistakenly think I was his girlfriend. I would have loved to read that rec.

I was accepted to dental school at LSU and was planning to room with a student worker in the lab, Annette Marie Cacciopo, who was attending LSU medical school. She and I had the same initials, AMC, so to differentiate us he referred to us as AMCI and AMCII. Joe is responsible for the subsequent trajectory of my life. He said it would be a mistake to attend undergrad and grad school in the same state, and encouraged me to reach out to Baylor. With nothing to lose, I told Baylor I wanted a scholarship. Shockingly, they offered one. And so because of Joe, I went to school in Dallas instead of New Orleans.

I would call him every now and then just to chat. Once I was out of the lab, he opened up a little bit more about himself. He was great at remembering birthdays, and he would sign all cards P Delta V Love (pressure change in volume) the Greek letter poking fun at how my sorority signed correspondence, Theta Love. I visited him when I went to Baton Rouge, and enjoyed seeing the same equipment from the lab.

He loved giving tours of LSU. On the circuit was the large auditorium where he taught general biology, (“I’m like a rock star”), the remodeled Union, Mike the Tiger and the fitness center. He gave my daughter, a molecular biology major, a tour in 2017. I noticed that he had the same Garmin fitness watch that I did, and asked if I could “friend” him on the Garmin app? “That’s sorta personal.”

That was the last time I saw him healthy. I text messaged him a few times over the next year and didn’t hear back, which was very unusual. I wished him happy birthday on March 18th, and his niece messaged from his phone, and sent a photo of Joe in a nursing home, holding the framed shirt I painted all those years before. She said he had a stroke, but his mind was as sharp as ever. I was horrified to see him as such, because he had always been so active. How unfair it was for a stroke to take his body and leave him, an extroverted introvert, dependent on the care of others.

Jeanne framed the t-shirt and surprised him for his birthday. I saw him one time during the pandemic, after we were both vaccinated. He wanted some assistance with something, and asked me to reach out to some of his friends I had never met, and I did. I felt like I owed it to him after all he did for me. I was supposed to see him in December but I was quarantined. The very last text I got from Joe was twenty days ago. On my birthday. He never forgot.

Yesterday I got the news that he had died. I’ve re-lived a lot of memories in the past 24 hours. I never
told him how much that gap year shaped and matured me, and how grateful I was for the opportunity. I think he knew. I hope he knew. To tell him directly would be, you know, kinda personal. The Joe-isms live on. I tell my employees to measure twice and cut once. His extraordinary mind is now released from the body that he took such good care of, a body that in the end failed him. He is free. I hope the afterlife is filled with baseball games, track and field, A Clockwork Orange, scoffing at stupidity, classic rock music and endless mugs of coffee. I am going to miss you.

- P delta V Love, Anne Mary Couvillon Orr, aka AMC II

A Sienbenaller cruise was always a unique affair. Joe' research required the collection of fish that are adapted and live in the deep sea, 3000 meters or more. These cruises were conducted off the Oregon Coast. Partly because the continental shelf on the west coast is narrow so it is a much shorter transit for the ship to reach deep waters than in the Gulf of Mexico with it's wide continental margin. Also, I think partly because Joe was familiar with the ship and crew from his time at the Hatfield Marine Science Station. And, because he left the three large nets that he used there and did not have to ship them. As an added bonus, he could staff these cruises with free undergraduate students by calling upon his graduate school friend, Paul Yancey, who was faculty at Whitman college in Walla Walla and could load up a van of eager students and drive out to Newport.  All plusses for Joe.

That is how I first met Joe, as an undergraduate eager for oceanographic experience. Now, with more than 20 years of sea going experience behind me, much of it as chief scientist, I look back at the uniqueness of a Siebenaller cruise and wonder how in the world things always seemed to work out for him?

It would come as a surprise to anyone who looked around the lab that these cruises were not corporately sponsored by Nike, Peet's coffee, and Neil Youngs record label. Joe was extremely proud of his Nike 'sandals' that had closed toes (a ship requirement) and was fond of showing them off throughout the cruise. And, of course, Joe brought his own coffee. No messing around. And, with a net full of fish (and mud) coming up about every 6 hours with hours of work to do after that, coffee was key to getting through those 10 days. All to a constant (and yes, I mean CONSTANT unless he was asleep) soundtrack of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Joe knew what he liked and why change it?  

It was clear from the beginning that the ship's crew and marine technicians loved Joe. Now Joe's cruises were relatively easy from their perspective. Nothing electronic to fix or worry about. Just put the net in, drag it for a while, bring it up, put it back in, repeat for 10 days. Still, it was clear that everyone liked Joe himself. Many of them had known him for a long time, when they were still a mate and not the captain for example, and they told stories of how he treated them well even when they were at the bottom of the pole.  

A Siebenaller cruise was also REALLY a Siebenaller cruise. They were everywhere. Brothers Dennis (manager at Briggs and Stratton, at sea master of setting up the net for redeployment), David (IT work, master of hosing down people and the back deck after a muddy, messy net haul), and niece Lori (high school student, master of keeping all logs and cruise records) were there along with a bunch of inexperienced undergrads. Following Joe's 'let's just go for it' attitude, we somehow got it done. In fact, I recently impressed my teens sons by demonstrating how quickly and expertly I could extract the brain of a speckled trout we bought from Tony's seafood for dinner. A skill I owe to my Siebenaller cruise experience.  

Joe clearly loved his time at sea. Thanks to brother David, his office was decorated with large prints of pictures from his latest cruises, a big advertisement to all who visited. He once asked me to assist him in his intro biology class by advancing slides for a lecture about the deep sea (yes, I am dating both of us with that technology). He had carefully selected three slides for the end of the presentation that switched from pictures of baited camera traps on the sea floor and strange looking fish and invertebrates, to Joe and his colleagues wearing the state of the art safety gear of oceanographic cruises of the 1970s, boots, and cutoff shorts. Oh, and John Lennon style glasses. The room erupted in laughter and he clearly ate it up. Sharing those experiences with his students and being willing to poke fun at himself was a highlight for Joe.

I met one of my best friends on a Siebenaller cruise and we have found ourselves talking about him in recent weeks in much the same way we did over the years. Joe was a mentor who didn't just give you an at sea experience. He kept track of you and helped you out in the particular way that you needed, and it was different for everyone. Joe was not someone with a particular mentoring skill set, he just really loved helping people and always talked with huge pride about former students and technicians who had gone on to a wide variety of careers, virtually none in the marine sciences, but pursuing their dream and Joe was always bursting with pride about their accomplishments. He was as proud of that, if not more, than all of his scientific accomplishments using samples collected on those cruises. 

- Malinda Sutor

Joe Siebenaller was the Chair of Biological Sciences when I arrived at LSU. He even had to deal with me before I arrived because he worked closely with facilities and paved the way for me and my graduate student to relocate to LSU and get a lab off the ground. Very much appreciated! Joe accomplished a great deal at LSU and kept others motivated with a twinkle in his eye, a wry smile and a dry wit. It is still hard for me to believe that he is gone. I fondly recall his energy for teaching freshman biology, BIOS and the Gulf Coast Summer Institute. Joe was a great advocate for the department, and I learned a great deal from him. I am thankful for the opportunity I had to work with him.

- Dean Cynthia Peterson