Monday, September 28, 2020

25th Anniversary of Isogeochem--a worldwide communication network


Hoeringfest 1995: Many isotope geochemists honoring Tom Hoering

Gremlins have been mentioned 37 times in 25 years. “Isogeochem,” the name of the 25-year-old listserve focusing on stable isotope geochemistry, biology, and ecology, has served as a hotbed of activity, controversy, and regular old nuts and bolts scientific advice for a community that started in 1995 with 100 scientists and has grown to be more than 3600!

Scientists, in particular those with high-end technical expertise, rely on sharing tips and tricks to keep their instruments running and producing good data. Stable isotope ratio mass spectrometers, the machines I’ve used in my career, have transitioned from being homemade to one of a kind that take up half a lab to Xerox machine size to multi-million dollar instruments. Because the technology has advanced and diversified so much in 25 years, those who use these instruments are anxious to get all the help they can to keep their lab in good shape. Isogeochem’s listserve is active almost every weekday, often with 4 or 5 email exchanges within that day. [See Andrea Lini’s opening Isogeochem 1995 email below.]


The first few months of Isogeochem had maybe one posting per day. My first post was in November 1995. I joined a group of isotope chemists who wrote about the precision and accuracy of their measurements, standards, and new methods., a popular topic that still pops up regularly throughout the listserve’s time span. Why is this important? The measurements that we isotope geochemists make on a routine, daily basis are all linked to measurements made by chemists years ago, who were sequestered in government labs like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). In same cases, those scientists spent years measuring the exact amount of each stable isotope  (e.g. carbon-13 and carbon-12) in a carbonate sample that would provide a worldwide basis for all scientists to compare to. These materials are exceedingly precious and not every one has access to them. In fact, one of the main standards for carbon isotope measurements, is not longer available at all.


One of Isogeochem’s regulars, Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, has written voluminously about the importance of proper use of standards. When members of my lab group see a posting from him, they know they’ll be reading Wolfram’s “hardline” on isotope practices. I always read what he writes, but have a slightly different approach to running my lab. Over the years, I’ve accumulated about 100 isotope standards ranging from original, rare materials over 50 years old to interlab standards to home-grown standards we’ve developed.


Paul Koch, Page Chamberlain, Kevin Mandernack, Dave Bell, 1995

The listserve community often exchanges views on how good their instruments actually are and how finicky their instruments turn out to be. [See below for Simon Prosser’s email on this topic.] Some companies (e.g. Thermo-Fisher-Finnigan-MAT) are known for fine German engineering and original designs that often turn out to be more complicated than we customers were led to expect. Engineers from all the various companies don’t often post on Isogeochem but I’ve learned they “lurk” on the listserve seeing the general drift in the community. In fact, most of the Isogeochem list members never post an original query or submit a comment, but through the writing and posting of this blog I’ve learned how many will read a post.


Inevitably, on any listserve, people hit the Reply All button when they meant to just reply personally to the sender. This was one of my favorites involving some senior isotope people.



Re: Lunch


Marilyn Fogel <[log in to unmask]>


Stable Isotope Geochemistry <[log in to unmask]>


Thu, 28 Aug 2014 19:18:29 +0000


Hi Gene, 

Before booking the flights to and from Chicago for the luncheon, could you let us know what sorts of decent restaurants you have in area? Could they seat 50 isotope geochemists and serve them a decent meal? As a Californian, I need to know if they serve gluten-free, vegan, nut-free food other than sawdust.


Marilyn Fogel


From: Eugene Perry

Reply-To: Stable Isotope Geochemistry
Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2014
Subject: Re: Lunch


Hi Bob,

(And ALL OF ISOGEOCHEM), Justin Dodd is the resident very stable isotope geochemist at NIU.  Instead of making an abject apology to all list members, I propose that Bob Clayton set a date and time. He and any other isotope geochemists are invited to join Justin and I in DeKalb, IL for lunch on that day.



>>> Robert Clayton <[log in to unmask]> 08/28/14 9:40 AM >>>

On Aug 28, 2014, at 8:18 AM, Eugene Perry wrote:

Justin, Do we still have a lunch date? If so, When? Where?


Gene:    It's good to get your message. Who is Justin?

I am now retired and living in Michigan City, Indiana. I get in to my office at the University of Chicago about once a month.


Bob [Clayton—famous Isotope geochemist]”


Isogeochem also serves as a mechanism for hiring people to work in your lab. I advertised many times for lab managers and postdocs. I found and hired four lab managers and numerous postdocs using Isogeochem—Roxane Bowden, Ying Lin, Christina Bradley, Liz Williams, Dave Baker, Matt Wooller, and Seth Newsome. In fact, when I advertised for a Lab Manager in 2009, Roxane Bowden replied within minutes—and I found a most outstanding lab manager immediately. I’ve also recommended folks to others based on an Isogeochem posting.


Setting my lab at UC Merced

My favorite Isogeochem postings, however, are the funny ones. I tend to write these around the December holidays as the yearly pace of science slows for a couple of weeks while people celebrate. I’ve written words to Christmas carols and told stores—one featuring Gremlins. Over the years, while I’ve published many serious scientific papers on esoteric topics of stable isotopes, it is probably my Isogeochem Christmas stories than have propelled me to Isotope Queen status. [See below for an example.]


On reflection, Isogeochem has proven to be instrumental in building and maintaining an international network of interdisciplinary scientists—all for free and with the goodwill and participation from its members. I foresee another 20 years of activity for the list even though some of its earliest members have joined the Cosmic Group of Isotope Geochemists in the Universe.


Join me in congratulating Andrea Lini on a wildly successful venture 25 years ago! His direct email is


Message 1





[log in to unmask] (Andrea Lini)


Thu, 6 Apr 1995 16:32:35 -0500




“Well...Let me welcome you to the Stable Isotope Geochemistry discussion list!!  The list is now almost 3 days 'old' and I've been quite surprised by the response to the list announcement. Over 70 people subscribed within the first 24 hours and the list is still growing (we are more then 100 now).


I am a geologist who just moved to the US from Switzerland 2 months ago. I've spent the last 5 years in the Stable Isotope Laboratory of the Geological Institute at the ETH-Zurich (Judy McKenzie and Stefano Bernasconi) where I've been working predominantly with C & O isotopes in Mesozoic pelagic carbonates. More recently, I started working with C and H isotopes in organic materials and O & H in surface waters. Here at UVM I'm in charge of the Environmental Stable Isotope Laboratory at the Department of Geology. The lab is currently equipped with a VG SIRA II mass-spec.


---- A few words about mail-list dynamics (or.. how I would like this list to work)


----Imagine the mail-list as a big lazy animal which needs to be continuously fed to keep it active. The food are your postings: questions, comments, calls for help and so on. It is the responsibility of the list-owner to keep the list alive but not to keep it lively (wouldn't have enough time...).


There's nothing more frustrating for a list-owner than have to entertain a couple of hundred (well,that's not us yet) passive subscribers. The only way you, as a user, can profit from the mail list is by USING it, which doesn't mean waiting for ideas and revelations to come automatically from it. So, lets keep this list busy! Submit ideas, comments, concerns, whatever you want. You will not always get a response of course.......but the chances for feedback will increase with increasing size of the list. 


Best regards to all of you,  Andrea Lini”


Message 2



Accuracy, precision and poppycock


Simon Prosser <[log in to unmask]>


25 Jul 95 06:58:12 EDT


“As a representative of a mass spectrometer company I'd hate to think I was responsible for misleading people into believing that their data was more precise/accurate than it really is. External precision can mean a great many things.        


When we quote it for a dual-inlet Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer (IRMS), we mean the precision (1 standard deviation) that can be obtained from flooding the manifold with gas and measuring each port. I quite agree with James O'Neil that it has no bearing on the precision to which a real sample can be extracted and prepared and even less on the accuracy to which this can be done. It is quoted as a statement that once you get your sample gas into the instrument, the instrument itself should not add to the errors by more than this amount.       


When we quote external precision, for example, for a continuous-flow combustion IRMS, then it means something quite different. It is the precision to which an ideal, well homogonised, easily combustible sample can be combusted and measured - maybe one step closer to reality but still no guarantee of precision for other types of sample. We quote these figures to show how well the instruments work under ideal conditions and because they are figures of merit that the isotope community demand and use to compare instruments when  making a purchasing decision.


I had hoped that we been clear about what we meant in each instant - perhaps we should be a bit more explicit in the future, it. 


Precision is one problem, accuracy is another. In addition to the question of standardisation procedure there is a muddle one stage further back - the process of converting delta 45s and 46s to delta 13Cs and 18Os. There are a number of different methods currently being used - I know of at least three; the original method proposed by Craig, an updated Craig method with the correction constants changed to reflect newer absolute PDB ratios, and a quadratic equation method (I am unsure of the origin of this method - I first came across it in 1983 through Ian Wright at the Open University though I have also heard John Hayes' name used in conjunction with it).  These different methods all give a different final answer even if the same standards are used. I prefer the quadratic method because it makes less approximations than the Craig method and is fundamentally more accurate.        


Simon Prosser Europa Scientific”



Luis Cifuentes, me, David Hollander, Hoeringfest 1995

Message 3


Some Holiday Cheer


Marilyn Fogel


Stable Isotope Geochemistry


Thu, 18 Dec 2008 14:47:47 -0500


Dear Isogeochemists, 


Maybe its the weighing or the snapping off two Gas Bench needles in   one day or over tightening a fitting or running DIC samples. Or maybe   its that I stayed home rather than go to AGU and party. Or maybe I'm   just ready for the holidays!  Even though the traffic is sometimes too   much to handle, this is a great group of helpful people. Hope you all   have a good holiday. 


**Apologies to GV, Eurovector, Nu, etc. for the inclusion of a   Finnigan product in the song. It came to me, then I couldn't get it   out of my head.**  Marilyn Fogel 


The 12 Days of Isotope Christmas 

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Two Nitrile Gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the fourth day of Chrismas my true love gave to me 

Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three  


 On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the 8th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

8 sales reps bilking  Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Nine peaks advancing  8 sales reps bilking  Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three  


 On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Ten pumps a’seeping  Nine peaks advancing  8 sales reps bilking  Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me 

Eleven “Isogeochems” a’griping  Ten pumps a’seeping  Nine peaks advancing  8 sales reps bilking  Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three   


On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me

  Twelve Turbos a’humming  Eleven “Isogeochems” a’griping  Ten pumps a’seeping  Nine peaks advancing  8 sales reps bilking  Seven source lights dimming  Six techs a’weighing  FIVE CENTERING RINGS!  Four IT nerds  Three focusing lens  Two Nitrile gloves  And A ThermoFisher Two-Five-Three  




Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Junior Prom at the Latin Casino


Marilyn and Scott Ellis, Prom night 1969

I was an Ugly Ducking in 7th grade, the first year of junior high school in the town of Moorestown, New Jersey, where I grew up. Quickly, cliques established themselves—the popular kids, the semi-popular group, several flavors of nerds, jocks, and fun-lovers. I was put into a specialized group on the Nerd Scale—the Goodie Goodies, a bunch of kids in the band or orchestra, who took New Math (a+b=b+a), learned how to use a slide ruler, and memorized Shakespeare lines. Because I’d made other buddies in 6th grade, I could slot in with the fun lovers, kids with a sense of making the best of things and enjoying life.


We ate lunch in our groups, socialized similarly out of school. When we reached high school in 10th grade, we broadened out. Popular girls were snapped up by older guys. Social boundaries loosened and relaxed sufficiently by 11th grade, so that we could behave civilly with almost everyone. Personally, I cultivated an Iconoclast attitude—outspoken, risk taking in small ways, funny, while keeping up the grades and eyes on my college future. [As a senior I was voted “Most Unforgettable.” I am not sure why.]


In the junior high band, 1965

Weekend social gatherings included dances on Saturday night at a local theater turned into a teen center. It was the ‘60s, and even in little Moorestown we were treated to live rock bands not half bad. The fun lovers gathered at the local athletic fields at a place called The Spot in 12th grade. Purloined beers and joints were part of a “pre-game” practice before heading out to the larger scene.


In 11th grade things were a little different, because many of us had not reached the magic age of 17, when we could get our driver’s licenses. To attend our Junior Prom then, boys, who traditionally asked girls, needed to figure out how to get to the prom somehow if they weren’t old enough to drive. 1969 was way before the era of hiring a limo.

I had only one date as a high school kid and it was to go to the Junior Prom!


I was studying one night when the phone rang.


My mother answered, called, “Mar!” and then whispered to me as she handed me the phone, “It’s a boy.”


“Hi, it’s Scott.,” he said.

“Who?” not figuring out what Scott could be calling me.

“Scott Ellis,” he replied.

"Oh, hi Scott.”

A burly kid, with a fun streak, we’d known each other since kindergarten, having grown up in the same neighborhood. We rode school buses together, played in the snow with a gang of kids, and were in each other’s classes. We were never “love interests” in any way. He was one of the class fun lovers.


“Do you want to go to the Prom?” he asked.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I answered lamely. I had of course dreamed of having some dashing fellow ask me, but that was a pure pipe dream.

“I’ll let you know,” I said somewhat rudely, then hung up.


What made him call me and ask? To this day, 51 years later, I don’t know. On reflection, he was awfully brave to cold call me and ask. In hindsight he was a hero.


My mother wheedled the information out of me. My parents insisted that I call him back within a day to give him an answer. I decided to accept the invitation and go. Buying a prom dress in those days wasn’t the same as it is now. My mother and I went to a dress factory in Camden, owned by our neighbors. They had about 5 styles to choose from. I picked a plain white one—no frills or flounces. I was well on the way to becoming a decent looking girl by this time.


Sister Barbie and me, 1969

The night of the prom my 4-year old sister Barbie stood on the couch in the living room looking out for Scott’s arrival.


“He’s here!” she shouted.  “He’s big!” she added.


Parked in our driveway was Scott’s dad’s convertible, top down. Scott jumped out from behind the wheel---no one said, “He doesn’t have a license.” A couple of awkward photos were taken; he presented a corsage, then off we went—him driving—back to his house. There, his parents had prepared a pre-prom party with appetizers and (I recall) a cocktail for us and two other couples. Nothing like sloppy drinking in the park, this was elegant and sophisticated. When it was time to go, Scott’s dad put on a sport coat with an ascot tie and chauffeured us in style to the prom.


The Latin Casino ( was the site of our prom that year. This was a high-class nightclub frequented by the rich and famous of South Jersey and also local mobsters. Tony Bennett was singing that night. That’s right—“I left my heart in San Francisco” Tony Bennett, who at that time was 43 years old. We thought he was ancient!


At dinner, Scott provided more surprises. He pulled out and lit up a cigar, then ordered a gin and tonic from the waitress. I was at first embarrassed, but then he was served, and I thought, “All right, Scotty!”


When the prom ended, we had no planned way to get home. Our “friends” didn’t want to cram us into their cars. So we stood out front of the Latin Casino and stuck out our thumbs. A sleek, almost low-rider car pulled up, a cloud of marijuana smoke billowed out, and we were offered a ride with a couple of seniors who were known Stoners. A joint was passed to us in the back seat, and we rode home in style—a fitting end to an unusual Junior Prom.


That next morning I was up at 4:30 am to catch a 5:00 am ride to the Jersey shore from the two couples that Scott entertained the night before. My dad got up with me in the dark, made breakfast, and sat with me at the door awaiting the ride. I had on my bathing suit along with a towel and some cash to buy lunch. I was excited--it was going to be a fun day.


At 5:30 am, I was still standing by the door. The phone rang—it was Scott.

“They’re late,” he said, still optimistic. By 6:00 am in early morning sunlight, he called again.


“I think we’ve been stood up.” I had to agree.


Hurt and angry, we said we’d think about what to do and call back. My father was incensed and said, “I’ll drive you guys down to the shore!” Apparently Scott’s dad said the same. By 6:15 am, we called it quits and stayed home.


I learned a valuable lesson or two.  I learned how much my father cared for me. I learned the value of having a friend who was a guy, but not a boyfriend. I learned that supposed “friends” who behave that way only diminish themselves, not me. In all likelihood, I learned more from this than I would have enjoyed a day at the beach.


I was no longer an Ugly Duckling by 1970 when I graduated and left for college at Penn State. Many people reminisce about their high school days. I was fortunate to have really good friends—not just fair weather ones—who make me smile even today.


High School graduation, 1970


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Advice to twentysomethings


My dad, Art Fogel (center with tie) and RCA people he supervised

My father rose every morning at 6 am, showered, and donned a suit and tie. In high school he woke me up at 6:30, made my breakfast, then jumped in a car pool with three other men who were also engineers at RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in Camden, New Jersey. For 30 years, I recall him taking only 2 or 3 sick days. He was never late. My mother did not work outside the home, had dinner and cocktails ready by 5 pm when my dad returned, and kept the house clean and us kids looked after. Not until I was much older did I learn this was not the way everyone else lived.


From my father, I learned early on how to be a good employee. Show up for work on time, even a bit early, and don’t fool around while you’re there. If you haven’t figured this out before your twenties, master it now. Someday, maybe you’ll be a supervisor like my dad was and I am. Having basic work skills is an important task to conquer.


I grew up in the time of campus protests, the Vietnam War, and the summer of love. When I left NJ for grad school in Texas, I was leaving behind my middle class roots and the orderly life of my parents. The cool thing to do in those days was to live with your boy or girl friend without getting married. As an iconoclast I went one step further and eloped, getting married on a Texas fishing boat without telling my parents. It was a dumb ass thing to have done, and I paid for it 10 years down the line.


Fishing boat where I eloped

Your goal in your twenties is to cut out revolting from your parents and stop depending on them for everything, but learn a new way of interacting with them as a young adult. Standing on your own two feet takes even more work these days, but it’s time you listen to parental advice, but make up your own mind. My mistake was bypassing my parents’ advice before taking such a big step. Fortunately, I grew up quickly and we re-established good relations.


At the same time, try to establish healthy relationships with other mentors who are thoughtful people. Accepting the advice of others who are not your parents—but are smart people—is something you’ll do all your life. I had a professor at Penn State [Peter Given, organic geochemist] who was a mentor for me for at least a decade longer. Tom Hoering, my postdoc advisor, became mentor then colleague then friend. Relationships built at this time can literally last a lifetime.


Cultivate curiosity and creativity. College can beat down even the most free-thinking people, especially with a demanding degree in science. Fortunately for me, I kept up my interest in art turning out simple paintings and keeping a jewelry business going for many years. Starting when I was 19, I helped friends in Santa Barbara with their craft of turning used eyeglass lenses into works of art worn as pins and pendants. I continued to make this jewelry through grad school earning a few hundred dollars every few months. [My salary in those days was about $300/month.]


My mom (Florence-R) and friend's mom selling jewelry for us


Released from being a student for the first time, it could be easy to follow the status quo—video games or social media these days. This is not the time to let your wildest dreams dry up. I had my nose to the grindstone then, but fortunately, I was given a job that allowed maximum flexibility and unbridled freedom. I allowed my curiosity in science to bud, writing notes to myself on what I thought were good ideas. Learning to stand up for your ideas—not those of your mentors, bosses, or parents—is important. Not all ideas will be good ones, but testing them out allows you to figure out more rapidly and more smoothly what crazy idea could be a winner.


Experiencing hardship or financial insecurity is something that should be tackled in your twenties. Growing up as I did, I had little to worry about. Those with less family support have a leg up on how to roll with Life’s punches that everyone will inevitably face. In science, it's a good time to get a paper rejected or have an experiment fail. My primary PhD manuscript was rejected first time out. It was like climbing back on the proverbial horse, to revise and resubmit. Financially, I was at or below the poverty line eating a lot of beans and rice, drinking cheap beer, and thinking $10 in the bank was good. This is the time to figure this stuff out. When the stakes are bigger, you’ll be glad you worked problems out on your own.


Realize you are going to change big time during your twenties. The shy, awkward person I was at twenty morphed into a competent scientist during this decade. My taste in men switched as well. I’d had enough of the Bad Boy I’d married and looked towards finding a person who kept up intellectually and was good looking. [I found him years later in my husband Chris Swarth.] What you did on a weekend to relax didn’t necessarily include beer. I had the time to read good books, go for hikes, and learn to be a better cook. Most importantly, I was learning to be comfortable about who I was.


29 years old in Yellowstone NP

For scientists, this is the time to start and maybe finish your advanced degree. Working for a couple of years after undergraduate college is good, but putting off further training should be carefully considered. A typical PhD takes about 5 years in the US, and often requires 2-3 more years of postdoctoral training. Starting at the age of 25 will put you on the permanent job market at 33. This is the perfect time to let your personal self grow along with your professional self.  


I wish I had cultivated more peers at this stage of life. I didn’t realize then how important frolleagues [friendly colleagues] would become. I’d have networked more and done less solitary work. Looking back, this is all about cultivating balance—figuring out how much to grow in one direction and how much to flow in other directions. It should be stressed to chose and maintain friendships with honest people, who don’t “play games.” Let the troublemakers and jerks go their own way,


For most of us, we enter our thirties wiser and wittier. The twenties can be tough, but as the phrase goes “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

25th Anniversary of Isogeochem--a worldwide communication network

  Hoeringfest 1995: Many isotope geochemists honoring Tom Hoering Gremlins have been mentioned 37 times in 25 years. “ ...