December 9, 2021

Former chair of Biochemistry Michael Waterman has died

Michael Waterman, PhD, former chair of the Department of Biochemistry for 18 years, died Nov. 7


by Lorena Infante Lara

Michael Waterman, PhD

On Nov. 7, 2021, Michael Waterman, PhD, former chair of the Department of Biochemistry, died. Waterman was chair of biochemistry for 18 years and helped develop the department into a place where faculty could thrive.

“Mike believed in empowering faculty,” David Cortez, PhD, current chair of the department, said. “He always pushed to have the concerns and ideas of the faculty be heard.” Cortez, a professor of biochemistry, also holds the Richard N. Armstrong, Ph.D. Chair in Innovation.

Waterman was born in Tacoma, Washington, and obtained his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Oregon Medical School (now the Oregon Health & Science University) in 1969. Following a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, Waterman joined the Department of Biochemistry at the Southwestern Medical School of the University of Texas in Dallas as a professor and interim vice chairman of biochemistry. He was recruited as chair of the Department of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt in 1992.

As chair of the department, Waterman expanded the faculty and was responsible for hiring many current faculty members, each of whom has thrived at Vanderbilt and has established themselves as a powerhouse in their respective field. Examples of faculty members hired by Waterman include Richard Armstrong, PhD, (now deceased), Richard Caprioli, PhD, Walter Chazin, PhD, Scott Hiebert, PhD, Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Bruce Carter, PhD, and Cortez himself.

Waterman had a hands-off approach to new faculty that, according to Cortez, allowed him “to be free to pursue my research passions.” Waterman was also proactive with his support, making faculty feel heard. “I never had to ask Mike for anything, and he freely offered his mentorship and advice as I started my research program,” Cortez said.

While at Vanderbilt, Waterman studied a group of enzymes called cytochromes P450, which, in mammals, oxidize steroids, fatty acids, and xenobiotics (substances not normally found in a given organism) among other functions. Waterman studied the structure, function, and regulation of the cytochrome P450 enzymes required for lipid biosynthesis and metabolism and published over 300 papers on the subject.

Waterman was instrumental in the foundation of the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology, the Mass Spectrometry Research Center, and the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology. In a further exhibition of his entrepreneurial spirit, Waterman founded Oxygene, Inc., in 1989 and consulted with many companies throughout his career. According to a book by Leon Cunningham, PhD, a previous chair of the department, Waterman’s tenure also brought forth a “new burst” of major interdepartmental and interschool projects, such as the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“Mike Waterman was a good friend and a great scientist,” said Larry Marnett, PhD, dean of the School of Medicine Basic Sciences. “He was a tireless advocate for faculty and for Vanderbilt. His focus was departmental but his perspective was institutional which enabled him to partner with other departments and centers to recruit exceptional new faculty. His legacy lives on through their careers and accomplishments.”

In addition to fomenting faculty development, Cunningham noted in his book that Waterman carried on a “vigorous program” of training of pre- and postdoctoral trainees in his laboratory; throughout his career, Waterman mentored 12 graduate students and 40 postdoctoral fellows.

Waterman was succeeded by John York, PhD, who is now at Impossible Foods, in 2010.

“We will miss Mike’s wisdom and counsel and extend our sympathies to his wonderful family,” Marnett said.