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A Fond Farewell to Ben Van Houten

By Eddy Ball
September 2008

Ben’s Party
As well wishers arrived, they joined Lang, center left in blue, Darius Emrani, in yellow, and Annette Kirschner, center in orange print, and others at the well-appointed buffet. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

Ben’s Party
Except for that almost imperceptible twinkle in his eye as he took the podium, there’s little in this photo of Phelps to indicate the extent of the mischief that would follow as he looked for Ben — and found him — in all the wrong places. (Photo courtesy of John Maruca)

Ben’s Party
It didn’t take long for Phelps to captivate the audience. Sitting behind Mike Humble, foreground left, are Rose Anne McGee, Martha Barnes, Nishant Shah and Annette Kirschner. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
The jokes came rapid fire, one after another, and the guest of honor, like the rest of the audience, couldn’t keep a straight face as he was roasted to the point of well done. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
The speakers who followed Phelps, such as Mike Resnick, above, got a few laughs at Van Houten’s expense, but overall their comments focused on their colleague’s many contributions to research at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
Wilson, center, joined Van Houten and Leping Li, right. In his comments, Wilson told Van Houten, “I can’t say enough in expressing our gratitude for all that you’ve done.” ((Photo courtesy of John Maruca))

When his friends and colleagues decided to mark the departure of Ben Van Houten to his new position at the University of Pittsburgh, they decided to go all out. The more than 200 people who gathered in the NIEHS Cafeteria on July 30 found a wide range of refreshments lining the central buffet bar, decorations and a carefully planned program of reflection and tribute— along with the kind of roast that has come to characterize farewell parties sponsored by the NIEHS Division of Extramural Affairs (DERT).

Opening speaker Pat Mastin set the tone for the roasting portion of the event, “Where’s Ben,” with a Vaudeville play on several mispronunciations of Van Houten’s name — pretending that because he’d seen Van Houten so infrequently around DERT, he couldn’t quite remember the name. When he passed the baton to sidekick Jerry Phelps, Phelps showed a series of doctored images and captioned photos. In the course his routine, Phelps delivered a salvo of one-liners at the expense of Van Houten and the many DERT colleagues caught in his wide-cast net of good-natured ribbing.

The event took on a more serious tone as colleagues looked back on their work with Van Houten over his nine-year career at NIEHS. Former DERT Director Anne Sassaman, reflected on how seamlessly Van Houten had settled into his dual roles at NIEHS to develop a system for evaluating research publications that is now enterprise-wide at NIH. She was followed by Jan Drake, Tom Kunkel, Dennis Lang, Mike Resnick, Rick Paules and Astrid Haugen, a former lab manager in Van Houten’s group and later a fellow analyst in DERT.

Each of the speakers praised Van Houten as a polymath who is accomplished in scientific fields ranging from bibliometric analysis, C.elegans, mitochondrial disease and DNA repair to the technical intricacies of omics methodologies and microarray analysis. Several described him as a “star” and a “heavy hitter” in the field of environmental health sciences.

Like the speakers who preceded him, NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson praised Van Houten’s work, calling him an “extremely broad individual, but at the same time able to go into depth in his analysis of science in all of his areas of interest.” Wilson also paid tribute to his personal friendship with Van Houten and pledged to nurture it despite the physical distance that will separate them.

Van Houten was visibly moved as he referred to his “mixed emotions” about leaving his NIEHS family of friends and colleagues for a “dream come true” at a major medical center. He said he will always be grateful for “how very good NIEHS has been to me and how very much I’ve learned here.” On a lighter note, Van Houten added, “As families go, OK, maybe NIEHS is a little dysfunctional, but a great warm family all the same.”

Ben’s Party
Van Houten was also honored by his trainees and junior associates, such as, left to right, Senyene Hunter, Vijji Panduri and Astrid Haugen. In her tribute, Haugen told her colleague, “Your light is going to shine so brightly it’ll blind everybody.” (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
Visiting Fellow Hong Wang, above, plans to use her K99/R00 grant to follow Van Houten to Pittsburgh. ” (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
As they enjoyed refreshments, Van Houten posed with colleagues from the Laboratory of Structural Biology. Shown left to right are Gerri Wolfle, Bill Beard, Van Houten, Julie Horton and Rajendra Prasad. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

Ben’s Party
Naturally, the party also featured a very special cake. (Photo courtesy of Robert Fedic)

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