Sunday, January 17, 2021

Learning the Art of Instrument Troubleshooting

This repair required 5 boards, a secret trip by Roger, and a team of colleagues to fix, 2012

 The lab has a bright red hat from the University of Arkansas--affectionately called The Pig Hat, which I wear when solving a difficult mass spectrometer problem. Call it a totem, sometimes it seems it might actually help me to think a problem through. I started out simply.

“Show it who’s boss,” Tom Hoering would say, after walking into the lab and seeing my worried face staring at a mass spectrometer that wasn’t working as it should. He shouldered the burden of troubleshooting during my early career and he enjoyed that role. As new techniques came into the lab,  however, I upped my troubleshooting game. It’s vital to having a productive career.

 

“Isolate the variables,” Thermo engineer Frank Trensch would say when you called him frantic to learn what was troubling your mass spec. Thermo-Finnigan’s isotope engineering team has included many helpful, but sometimes over worked technical support folks. Roger Husted was my favorite—often diffident but humble and always knowledgeable. Bill Holmes, current gas chromatography ISOLINK guru is a sunny fellow—always upbeat, polite—and organized, helpful. I worked with this group over decades to keep the lab going strong.

 

Learning to troubleshoot an isotope system—the mass spectrometer, automated analyzers, or preparation systems—is an art learned over many years. Read the email traffic on the isotope geochemistry listserve “Isogeochem” and you’ll learn about the nuts and bolts of keeping a sophisticated isotope lab running in tip-top shape. Caltech professor John Eiler once commented at AGU that essentially, if you don’t understand how your instruments work, you’ll never get too far. With a grain of salt, he’s right.

 

Here’s some of advice to those of you just starting out and figuring out how to know what to do when your system goes down—which it will—eventually.

 

#1 Learn how things work when they are working as they should.

 

This might sound obvious, but it’s important. When your new instruments are installed in your lab by an engineer, spend as much time as you can learning the ropes. When the engineer leaves (and you may feel a bit of angst), jump right in now. Don't wait. Figure out how the software works, read through the manuals (maybe even print them), analyze standards, make new methods, and establish a baseline of knowledge.

 

Get familiar with the vacuum system, the ion source, the electrical flow, your power source, and the physics of mass spectrometry. Have a look at Nier’s original papers, read the early works by Craig and others from the 1950s and ‘60s. In other words, do your homework. Please—don’t complain about having to weigh plant samples into tin boats.

 

#2 Get proficient with Swagelock fittings and glass capillary fittings.

 

My first time using Swagelock metal fittings was a disaster, as I had them all put together backwards! A poorly made connection will leak and cause problems quickly. For capillary tubing, learn how to cut it, how to assemble those seemingly backwards fittings now—before you need to do them on your system.

 

Swagelock fittings. Doug Rumble and my lab, 2009

 

#3 Buy a good, complete set of tools.

 

For me, shopping for clothes and shoes is something I avoided unless absolutely necessary. But, I loved strolling into Sears or a hardware store and picking out shiny new tools—wrenches, screwdrivers, nut drivers, socket wrench, hammer, and drills. Go online and purchase specialty tools for your systems—tubing cutters, diamond scribes, files, tiny drills, etc.

 

#4 Purchase a leak detector and a flow meter.

 

Don’t go cheap here and don’t wait until you need to use one to buy one. Buy these now and learn how to use them. Even if you are not using continuous flow techniques, they come in handy.

 

#5 Purchase and learn how to use a digital multimeter to measure current, voltage etc.

 

I’m guilty of not following this one as much as I should have. These meters can save you a lot of time when you are tracking down electrical problems. Don’t just buy one and stick it in a drawer; actually figure out how to use it.

 

#6 Figure out how the software works and backup the hard drive—now!

 

As a Mac user, I am nearly helpless with the PC software and computers. That said, spend a couple months figuring out a crashed hard drive once and you’ll be glad you at least learned the basics.

 

#7 Keep a good supply of spare parts—ferrules, nuts, fittings, etc.

 

Waiting for spares costs time—and time is “money” even in labs where analyses go on without funds exchanging hands. My lab has always served as the “stock room” for others, who are hesitant to make investments in spare parts. I encourage you to follow my lead—better to have than to have not.

 

#8 When the first sign of an analytical problem surfaces, don’t ignore it.

 

This also might sound obvious but there is the inclination to think a problem might go away on it’s own or after running 10-20 more standards. My favorite is getting notified that the filament light is “out”, but it just might be a burned out LED bulb rather than a filament that needs repairing. I have never had the light bulb burn out, just open filaments. Get ready to isolate the variables and show it who’s boss.

Noreen and Marilyn with the wrenches.

 

 

#9 Remember—it’s only a machine. You can fix it.

 

And if you really can’t fix it, you can start to figure what is wrong. 

 

 

·      When did the problem first show up?

·      What was being analyzed at the time?

·      Who was the analyst?

·      What are the symptoms?

·      Have they been seen before?

·      Is it a steady problem or an intermittent one?

·      Have you run diagnostic tests?

·      Has it been described in the manual or on Isogeochem?

 

Before replacing things that might be broken, consider all the options. Pick the likeliest one, essentially isolating the variable. Don’t start making many changes now, because you may never learn which one was actually the problem.

 

If you have another person you can discuss things with, now is the time. Doug Rumble and I discussed all of our major repairs after Tom Hoering died. It was helpful to put things into words and get a 2nd opinion. This is a good time to contact your mass spec’s service engineers and see what they think. In my experience, these folks have seen almost anything. Armed with data and not just “it isn’t working”, you often will get confirmation or other great advice.

 

Roxane fixing an ion source.

There may be some aspects of fixing a system that are not your strong suit. I confess I never independently cleaned an ion source. At this time, well, I couldn’t even begin, but even when my hands were working normally, I didn’t have the skill to do that job right. I partnered with those who could or trained others who had the skills that small, finicky work demands. Some people actually enjoy cleaning the source!

 

#10 Don’t give up. Be patient.

 

Get the schematics of the system. I can sort of read electrical schematics, if I spend enough time staring at them. My degrees in biology and botany did not require me to learn engineering diagrams. Fortunately for me, they are abstract and with a little knowledge you can learn a lot. Eventually, you will get there. Recently, we had a hard drive fail on a triple quad mass spectrometer that was not backed up! (My bad.) It wasn’t a simple fix, especially for those of us who aren’t familiar with PCs. Postdoc Jon Nye finally figured out with Thermo service techs about IP addresses and pinging. The attention is in the details.

 

Repairing a combustion reactor,

Those with gas chromatographic systems will find that their wrenches are never long off the bench before being brought back out. I have found that having a system work >90% of the time is possible, but you can’t be lax.

 

#11 When you’ve fixed the problem, write down your journey so the next time you’ll be prepared.

 

Each time you successfully troubleshoot your instruments it’s a great achievement. Every time you figure out the problem, take the steps to fix it, is a learning experience. Isogeochem’s emails are the perfect testimony highlighting scientists’ dedication to troubleshooting, understanding, and going onwards. It might not get you tenure, but an isotope system that doesn’t produce data, won’t either.  Time to celebrate!

 

24v/5V power supply failed and fixed. All green lights on--our electronic tech fixed it!

 

 

 

 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Inaugurations, Protests, and Rallies--Living in DC

 

Marilyn, Franny Kasen, David Kasen, Obama's First, 2009

When I was growing up in Moorestown New Jersey, Republicans were bankers and businessmen. They lived in the fancy old colonial houses with sweeping driveways of Moorestown or purchased in swanky new developments with custom homes. Their wives voted Republican as well, because women didn’t want to “cancel” their husband’s vote.

 

I, however, was raised in the home of a Democrat, my father who was a first generation college graduate and professional. His parents had not made it through high school, but knew enough to make sure three of their four children received an education. My mother, as was in vogue at the time, voted along with my father.

 

My first interest in politics was the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential election in 1960. My neighborhood friends, the Greenvale Raiders, held their own election. Five out of six of us were Kennedy fans, and only one held out for Nixon. He posted a Nixon sign in his bedroom window, and surely we harassed him as 8-10 year old kids can do. It is possible he remained a Republican going forward.

 

 
High School literary magazine cover by Perry Barton, 1969

 

Fast-forward until the years of the Vietnam War—started in the early ‘60s, but intensified under Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon. I became political at that time, being against the war, the draft, and how it was affecting my generation. In my homeroom class, there were young men who intentionally flunked their classes in order to stay in high school for a few years to avoid the draft. They showed no interest in school, and often were stoned into oblivion. I remained a Democrat, but at that point in time neither party was particularly attractive.

 

In1971, eighteen year olds gained the right to vote just as I turned 19! I registered to vote in New Jersey and went with my mother to vote for city council members and US representatives. It was a big deal to do so. In 1972, I cast my vote for Senator George McGovern, who lost by a landslide to Richard Nixon. Nixon’s victory was nearly a complete sweep. At the time, people knew little about Nixon’s dark side. He’d brought pandas to the National Zoo, started peace talks with Vietnam, and passed environmental laws that stand today. When people learned about Watergate, the tide turned with Nixon resigning in 1974.

 

I was a graduate student in Texas at that time. Republicans in Texas were, then, the liberal party! Democrats wore 10-gallon hats and were the Good Ol’ Boys. I voted Republican for local elections, but cast my second Presidential vote for Jimmy Carter. Carter remains my most favorite President even though he didn’t have a particularly successful 4 year term. In the late 1970s, the Shah of Iran was a close ally of the US. I was in school with many rich Iranian students, who smoked and drank alcohol with abandon. In 1979, the Shah was ousted from his stronghold. Living now in the Washington DC area, I was surprised along with the whole town by the Shah’s sudden departure.

 

In 1980, gunmen took over the US embassy in Tehran Iran, holding all the embassy staff hostage. Jimmy Carter tried and failed to gain their release. And that ruined his chances for a second term. Reagan sailed to victory and within days the hostages were released. For me, Reagan was a disaster—bumbling, hard line on welfare and immigration, Iran-Contra deals, and not the academic of Carter’s ilk. That said, it was an awful afternoon when Reagan and staff were shot coming out of a local DC hotel, not far from the Geophysical Lab where I was washing glassware. It was another living in DC moment when something of major importance happened right near you.

 

Bush flying out of town, 2009



The first inauguration I attended was for George H. W. Bush in 1988. I was pregnant with my daughter Dana, but joined thousands of people standing on Pennsylvania Ave. watching the parade on a cold winter’s day. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, we took the whole family down for evening fireworks and the parade. It was a good celebration. Nothing compared to the events surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Friends came in from all over the country and filled our house in Silver Spring. The day of the inauguration was one of the coldest of the year. We bundled up in blankets and hats and rode the bus downtown to get a good “spot” to watch—we were almost at the farthest end of the National Mall. What a time!

 

Obama's first--completely packed

For George W. Bush’s inauguration, the city was filled with Texans wearing 10-gallon white hats and women wearing mink coats. Our family headed to the Supreme Court where we listened to the Reverend Al Sharpton speak about the faulty election—an election decided by the Supreme Court. In hindsight, Bush Junior wasn’t an evil man—a bit dim for a President, but not a liar. History has treated him more kindly given the current President.

 

Watching government play out made me a patriotic person. I have always been proud to be an American. I am very cognizant of the freedoms I have. Over the years, I attended many demonstrations and protests on these famous DC streets. We protested at the White House during the Clinton years shouting “Don’t bomb Iraq!” There were rallies—the Hundred Mom March (2000) and the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (2010)—that I joined with great gusto. When the Million Moms marched past Bush’s White House, soldiers with loaded assault rifles lined the streets to keep us Moms in our place.  But, living in DC was not always positive or easy. We endured street closures, bikers in Rolling Thunder Parades, and pro-life protesters.

 

Mom Flo Fogel and me, Rally for Sanity and/or Fear, 2010

 

 

Washington DC was a tense place to live after 9/11 in 2001. I was cooking lasagna for the Carnegie Lunch Club that day, listening to the news then watching in horror as military fighter jets took over the DC skies. I had to rush to pick up my kids at school and shelter in place. Traffic was a mess, phones were overloaded. It was chaos. Then came the Snipers in 2002 and the Anthrax attacks (2001), which made day-to-day living even more stressful.

 

All of this notwithstanding, DC was an exciting place to live. Our friends and neighbors worked at the State Department, CIA, NSA, NSF, Dept. of Energy, the Congressional Budget Office, NIH, the Army, Navy---you name it. They were smart, engaged professionals. When incoming politicians talked down about bloated government, I found them insulting. As Chris and I left for California, I was sad to leave rousing political scene in the DC area.

 

I remain today a staunch Democrat and a patriot. I don't know anymore what being a Republican stands for, but some folks are a far cry from the dignified men and their compliant wives from the 1960s. Seeing the storming of the Capitol this week brought back the flood of memories about times when politics was complicated or unpleasant, but never like this. Inauguration 2021 will be a shadow of the former pomp and circumstance. I hope it will be peaceful but I’m thinking it might not be.

 

DC people have the stamina to get through this, and those people who devote their lives to serving the government—and all of us—deserve our respect. Looking forward to getting through this.

 

 

 


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Published!!


This week I opened up Kindle Create software, plopped one version of the memoir into it and pushed the “Publish” button (Kindle Memoir). Feels good to me and about time. This version of my memoir is part of the story of my career as a scientist woven along with my life as woman (1970 to 2020).  Its path has influenced many of my direct associates as well as those related to them. My academic family tree, thanks to a lifetime of mentorship from people who cared and were smart, is healthy, active, and strong. These relationships buoy me daily.

 

Science today is as important for advancing civilization as it was 50 years ago, but how it’s carried out and by who is shifting. China has surpassed Japan as the Asian science powerhouse. The European Union is investing large sums of its resources in bigger projects with which the U.S. is not competing. Consequently, how science is done in America and whether or not as a country we will be able to maintain a healthy scientific agenda remains, in my opinion, to be seen. How are young people being introduced to a scientific career? Will they have the freedom that I enjoyed to pursue the science I felt was important? Students I talk to at the University of California are curious about how a career gets started and how it evolves. In particular, early career women want to know how to manifest the right amount of competitive spirit without appearing “bitchy” and unbecomingly ambitious. I hope that the stories of my journey as a scientist, person, wife, and mother show that women can be “female” and “normal,” all the while being a good scientist. How I handled obstacles provide good examples for early career academics figuring out how to navigate their lives.

        

Looking in the rearview mirror at the 50 years of my journey in science, I see a life rich in scientific discovery as well as scientific colleagues, who have without a doubt enriched my life. No one can predict what path his or her career will follow. 

        

In 2016, I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Motor Neuron Disease in Europe), which abruptly changed the way that I had planned to end my career. No longer able to travel at the drop of a hat to far-flung field areas, no longer able to wield the wrenches in the lab, and finding it difficult to travel to conferences, I have had to consider what is most important in this phase of my life and why it might be so. Accordingly, it was finally the right time to write a memoir of the experiences I’ve had as a scientist that I hope will serve as inspiration for young and old readers alike on the joys and challenges of a full intellectual and personal life.        

        

My academic career began in 1970 at Penn State University as biology major, where I became intrigued by recent findings of ancient life on Earth. The Viking space probes had landed on Mars, and impacted my curiosity about life on other planets, a theme that remained dormant for many years. I knew at an early age (19 years old) that I wanted to use my interest in chemistry to investigate biological phenomena that happened during the span of Earth’s history. My career has encompassed three different fields. One is biogeochemistry, which is the study of how living things chemically interact with the environment. Paleo-biogeochemistry is the second, which is the study of fossil and historic ecosystems.  Finally there is Astrobiology, or the study of potential life and the chemistry that might make it possible, elsewhere in the Solar System and beyond. I have learned from the combination of these fields how organisms interact with their environment, which is essentially the study of ecology. Also, learning about what stable isotope patterns might be associated with those relationships has been critical for interpreting ancient rocks and fossils, as well as signatures of potential life from outer space.

        

My Ph.D. work in 1974 was funded by a NASA Exobiology grant. “Exobiology” was an early term for the field that has evolved into Astrobiology, so I had an early start in this young field. Later in my career, it came as no surprise that I would be fascinated by the search for life in the universe. My work came full circle 30 years later with the study of astrobiology in the Arctic, India, as well as extreme environments.

    

Quote in the front of the book

    

The majority of my professional career took place at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington DC. I was fortunate to land there at a time when biogeochemistry was in its infancy. Without fully being aware of where I was headed, I jumped with both feet into multi-disciplinary work, not being afraid to collaborate with smart people in many different fields along the way. Carnegie encouraged its staff scientists to think broadly, try new things, and be creative. In the early days from Carnegie Institution’s inception until about 1980, we did our research without significant government funding. My early work was supported in part by grants from private foundations, money that I may have never seen explicitly, but nonetheless provided support for my postdocs, lab supplies, fieldwork, and attending an occasional conference.

        

As I grew more experienced, I transformed from a shy, quiet, perpetually youthful looking woman into a more outgoing leader. Always serious, it took a while for me to realize that being quiet did not help my career. I attribute the transformation to a supportive husband, to the challenges of motherhood, and to great colleagues. My husband, Christopher Swarth, while patient and pleasant about it, forced me to stand up for myself and speak out when I had an opinion. As a mother of two young children, I learned more about how to work effectively as a scientist, while taking care of others.

 

Mentoring young scientists along the way became one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Carnegie supported a vigorous postdoctoral program, and typically I worked with one to three postdocs at any one time. Although the Carnegie Institution did not grant academic degrees, I served on the committees of many graduate students and was an active participant in their research. Bright undergrads and high school students somehow magically appeared each summer and enriched my career with their innate fascination for science. I learned much from these folks.

 

In 2013, I took a big step leaving the Geophysical Laboratory and taking a position as a Professor of Ecology at the fledgling University of California Merced. I learned there how people fare in more impersonal, big college campuses having to parse out research time from time spent developing courses, sitting on committees, and working to teach inexperienced students. The work fascinated me and lifted me up from the somewhat cloistered life at Carnegie into a much larger, multifaceted world. There, I was forced to rely on what I’d picked up over the years—independence, risk taking, listening, creativity, and insight. Not everything I did there panned out, but what did work was satisfying.

 

It was a gamble in some ways to move in 2016 to University of California’s Riverside campus. Now, as a disabled person dealing with a slow physical decline, I had to forge new connections, think about new projects, and balance creating an Institute with winding down my career. On the whole, it was a pleasant change of pace for me. UC Riverside has a similar student population to UC Merced, but its faculty and staff are more experienced, calm, and forward-thinking. In retirement, my continued connection with the campus has proven to be critical in day-to-day life isolated in rural Mariposa California owing to the pandemic.

 

I hope folks will enjoy seeing this memoir in one place, as opposed to my weekly blog posts. ENJOY.

 

 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Happy Zooming Holidays

 

Son Evan and Dog Stella in Riverside--the red sky tells it all

The corona virus has kicked us in the butt this year. Usually this week, we’re attending Christmas parties, after spending the week at the 20,000-person American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. At home, we’d be planning the guest list for Christmas Day—usually neighbors Dan, Mark, and Angus, and Chris’s cousin, Eric. In the lab, we’d be putting instruments on “soft” standby ready to jump back in the first week of January. The holiday break would come just in time for everyone, because we’d have been working hard and getting a lot done.

 

‘Rona has changed all that. I am so thankful that husband Chris and I held a wedding renewal for friends and family last year and that I spent a week at AGU in 2019.  AGU was virtual this year—I didn’t bother to attend. Our isotope instruments have been running almost every day with Academic coordinator Ying Lin, but she’s been working alone pretty much every day, also managing the home schooling for her three children. Bobby “Mr. POM” is working remotely—but needs to return to finish up his PhD. Meanwhile the virus is raging in Riverside California, so maybe this isn’t such a good idea right now.

 

AGU session I helped plan, 2019

 

Zoom, the Chat, and Share your screen, are the words of the day. Even as a retired professor, I spend time working with colleagues on Zoom. We started the year with Zoom cocktail parties—now I zoom in at noon everyday to monitor my 93-year old mother’s COVID-19 progress. [She’s made it through the worst of it and officially “OK”.]

 

I think even the Isotope Gremlins are social distancing.  It is my hope that as the vaccine rolls out, we’ll be able to enjoy people in real life once again.

 

So, below are links to all of the different people I’ve written about in this blog. People I’ve known in the flesh, so to speak, and care about. Some of them departed.

 

Meeting with students at AGU

 

Let’s all hope that all of us keep healthy this holiday season and will return soon to the joy of seeing actual human faces—without masks!

 

Merry Isotope Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

 

Highlights of Women:

 

Fran Kasen—brash, standup comedian, lawyer and childhood friend for life (Franny)

 

Franny and Matt McCarthy, 2019

 

 

Noreen Tuross—distinguished, big ideas (Isotope Contessa)

 

Katherine Freeman—from youth to National Academy (Kate)

 

Sue Ziegler—loves her estuaries and biogeochemistry (Sue Ziegler)

 

Carmen Aguilar—to the ship, a field scientist (Carmen Aguilar)

 

Valery Terwilliger—deep thinker and different (Valery)

 

Liane Benning—big plans and on top of things-- and Pamela Conrad—biogeophysics and Mars (Babes of Science)

 

Anat Shahar—non-traditional isotopes and mom (Lucky Seven)

 

 

Highlights of Guys I’ve worked with:

 

Brian Fry—famous for ecology and old clothes (Isotope Prince of Ecology)

 

Doug Rumble—wine, good food, and isotopes (Doug)

 

Ron Benner—perfectionist and critical (Ron)

 

Steve Macko—many ideas and lots of energy-- and Michael Engel—behind the scenes isotopes (Macko and Engel)

 

Paul Koch—from postdoc to Dean, Zach Sharp—from postdoc to Isotope Guru (GL Postdocs)

 

Richard Tax—rainmaker and artist (Richard Tax)

 

Matthew Wooller—concrete spatial and builder (Mat Wooller 1) and (Wooller 2)

 

Andrew Steele—astrobiologist and musician (Steelie)

 

Seth Newsome—making isotopes look good (Seth)

 

Bobby Nakamoto—great hopes for an isotope future (Mr. POM)

 

 

 

Departed Friends and Colleagues:

 

Thomas Hoering—endless stories of mentoring and glassblowing (Tom Hoering)

 

Ed Hare—amino acids were his thing (Ed Hare)

 

Margie Imlay—she could predict the future (Margie)

 

Patrick Parker—wandered through lots of isotope studies (The Chief)

 

James Scott—wicked smart but bad luck (GL Postdocs)

 

Barbara Fogel Lis—unselfish but troubled (Sister)

 

David Freeman—Kate’s dad and serious thinker (Dave Freeman)

 

Chuck Douthitt—every body knew him, a great promoter of isotopes (Jolly Chuck)

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Brian Fry--Isotope Prince of Ecology!

 

Isotope Prince of Ecology or Distinguished Commoner?

“You are what you eat” is a phrase that almost anyone can understand. In the realm of stable isotope ecology the phrase has a lot deeper meaning. Although it makes sense that you are what you eat, a living organism completely modifies its diet such that only very few compounds in food actually end up in tissue. That said, although the molecular structures of food are mostly scrambled, the stable isotopes in the scrambled mixture are almost identical to those in an animal’s food with only very small changes. Ignoring those small differences stable isotopes are enormously powerful tracers of who is eating whom and figuring out complex food webs.

 

Brian Fry was at the heart of this research and his work has influenced the field of stable isotope ecology since the late 1970s. When I named myself Isotope Queen a while ago, there were very few senior women in the stable isotope field—and none of them objected to crowning myself Queen. Brian certainly counts as Isotope Royalty. For three years, we were both students at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in remote Port Aransas. The day I defended my dissertation for a PhD, Brian defended his Master’s thesis.

 

So, if I am a Queen, that makes Brian a Prince. But not just any Prince! He is literally the son of Arthur Fry, Univ. of Arkansas, who was one of the original isotope scientists who rose up in chemistry departments after World War II. Brian is the academic son of Pat Parker (Parker's blog), who was also one of my academic fathers. Therefore, Brian is my Isotope Younger Brother. We are alike in curiosity, creativity, and non-conformity. 

 

Brian and Marilyn, Germany, 2014

 

 

Isotope Prince of Ecology Brian Fry seems appropriate.

 

Neither of us originates obviously from the Univ. of Chicago lineage of isotope scientists, but in fact we are! Martin Kamen (https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.1583542) co-discovered the synthesis of radiocarbon at UC Berkeley in 1940. Kamen earned his PhD at the Univ. of Chicago in 1936 before his stint at Berkeley. After his work in California, he joined Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as Tom Hoering’s major professor. Tom trained Pat Parker—and consequently Brian and I come from a different Chicago isotope line from Urey and others.

 

Brian’s 2nd paper published in 1978  (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1936580?seq=1) is a blockbuster but has only been cited 204 times! In this paper, Brian lays out the fundamental basis for “you are what you eat” using stable isotopes as tracers. When I teach stable isotope ecology, we begin with Brian’s paper. Grasshoppers from a south Texas ecosystem were captured, identified, and their stomach contents identified and quantified. Brian then collected specimens of all of the plants found in grasshopper guts—and measured stable carbon isotopes in all grasshoppers, stomach contents, and plants. I don’t know of another paper that tackles the subject with such detail. He introduces the isotope mixing model—a simple concept—that new students to the field find tractable in reading this paper.

Pat Parker's students at Parker's memorial, 2011

 

As a grad student, Brian had shaggy, long brown hair, never combed, wore ragged T-shirts, cut off shorts, and usually sported bare feet. I dressed the same as Brian, then, but had a pair of $1.99 flip flops that I wore into the lab. While I lived in a little travel trailer as a student, Brian lived in what we called The Shack, a two-bedroom cottage next to the Ship Channel. He shared the Shack with Parker’s other student Woei Lih Jeng from Taiwan. Woei Lih wasn’t used to the loose mannerisms of Americans, and in particular Brian. Their living arrangement was a real cultural exchange. Between the Shack and the ship channel, there was a short pier that led out to a hut that held a shrimp net to be used for sampling the invertebrates coming in and out of the channel—for research purposes. Brian did his PhD on shrimp, but prior to that research, he often sampled the shrimp from the channel net to supplement his diet.

 

Brian was known for his unorthodox lab practices. At the time, it wasn’t well known which animal tissue should be sampled for isotope analysis. Brian handled this by placing whole animals in a Waring blender and rendering them to a slurry. A “blended” lab mouse turns into a light brown chocolate mousse with a silky sheen. Sometimes Brian neglected to wash out the blender leaving the dirty glassware in the lab’s sink. Our lab technician Rita O’Donnell griped that Brian had left mouse fur in the sink one day, shaking her head at the idea of blending up mice.

 

From Brian: "Even as a grad student I was famous. I ground up some fish in that old Waring blender (to check isotopes in whole animals vs muscle) and put the fish paste in an oven to dry late one evening, but not in a hood. The smell was all over the lab the next day, and my fame began."


After his PhD, Brian moved up to Indiana where he postdoced with John Hayes. There he did some cool work with sulfur isotopes and microbes (https://aem.asm.org/content/54/1/250.short) that was completely different from his earlier work with animals. John Hayes, as many of you would know, was a very neat, buttoned person, but the two got along and appreciated each other’s strength and vision.

 

From Indiana he took his first permanent position at the Ecosystems Center, where we planned and carried out our first Isocamp (Isocamp blog) for training students in stable isotope ecology. I spent many weeks up in Woods Hole getting ready for the workshop and interacting with Brian. In my opinion, he injected a new sense of energy to the Center with his casual ways, can do attitude, and the new instrumentation. After a short period of time, he had projects going with just about everyone on the staff. It was a period of significant scientific growth for him. 

Brian and Bob Michener, Ecosystems Center, 1985

 

His lab manager Bob Michener writes about his time working with Brian around 1985 or so.

“That was a long time ago and his first position as a professor. I was his first research assistant, so we had a lot of learning to do! He basically set me on my career path with stable isotopes. I learned a lot from him and spent a LOT of time using the vacuum line!  As you know, Brian loves wearing his flip flops. He would go up to Toolik Lake every summer to the field station in the Arctic and wear those flip flops. The people up there started calling them his “tundra walkers”. 

 

There was the time Brian was trying to combust dried water samples for dissolved organic carbon (DOC) analysis. The combustion tubes were about a foot long and 3 inches in diameter. We had a large furnace to combust the tubes. Brian took one of them out and set it on the bench. An RA and I were across the lab when that sucker exploded…glass all over the lab! Fortunately, Marty and I weren’t hurt. Good times!”

 

But Woods Hole labs are soft money institutions requiring constant, permanent grant writing. It’s also cold there during the long winters. Brian, hoping for stability and warmth, took a position on the faculty at Florida International University in 1995 (or thereabouts). That turned out to be a difficult position—and he resigned in the late 1990s. The normally loquacious and happy go lucky Brian disappeared from regular contact. 

 

I was heartened to learn he’d be attending the 1st Isoecol meeting in Saskatoon, Canada, in 1998. Mark Teece, then a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab, and Matt Fantle, a postbac lab intern, had heard all about Brian Fry from my stories—his brilliance, his work with grasshoppers, his iconoclastic personality. They had read his work and were excited to meet him. The first night of the conference I found him at the welcome cocktail party and said, “Join us for dinner!” 

 

As the meal progressed, he told his story about the move to Florida and how his time there unfolded. I need not go into any of the details, and at a distance of 20+ years they dim. What I recall clearly was seeing my friend and colleague extremely sad with tears in his eyes. Mark and Matt were initially talkative, but were subsequently quieted as they listened. How could the Isotope Prince of Ecology be treated this way?

 

Now unemployed, Brian eventually decamped to Menlo Park, where he moved into Carol Kendall’s lab, pioneering some new methods. Thermo Engineer Frank Trensch described a flight he took from the States to Bremen. His assigned seat was next to a shaggy guy with an old plaid shirt---who turned out to be Brian! [The world is small.] Brian had contributed in a major way in the development of the instrumentation that most of the world now uses to analyze stable isotopes. Brian’s engaged tinkering made the company some real money.

Old plaid shirt, baseball cap, 2018

 

Brian then ended up in Hawaii in the late 1990s where he developed a relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service there. Importantly for a new graduate student, Brittany Graham, he ran into her at the University of Hawaii and helped out with her isotope studies of tuna fish in the Pacific Ocean.

“In the midst of my graduate experience at MSU, where I studied the impacts of marine-derived nutrients delivered to SE Alaskan streams, my M.S. advisor, Peggy Ostrom, gave me the great news we would be going to the National Benthological Society Meeting (NABS). I was so excited that I might meet Brian Fry at NABS. I had read so many of his papers and was so impressed; his work clicked with me… We were about to sit down for a talk in a large room and Peggy spotted Brian and rushed in for us to sit next to him. I was shocked. Brian was wearing a worn-out, dirty baseball cap and was in baggy jeans with holes in them. I loved it. To my worry, he spoke to me the whole time (i.e., I was worried it was rude and distracting to the speaker and audience).   

After that conference and our chats, I was determined to try to work with Brian and attain my PhD under his watch. I contacted him, after spending many days constructing an email. He replied quickly and mentioned a potential fisheries project examining tuna and looking at variations in the nitrogen and carbon stable isotope values in the tropical Pacific and how it might relate to top predators. At that time, he was working with a great group of people at the Hawaiian Forest Service. I continued on that opportunity and was lucky enough to begin my PhD research at the University of Hawaii working with Brian Popp, an amazing isotope scientist who taught me so much. Brian Fry was a big part of my PhD research really the one leading me and our team into new directions. However, it was Popp who pushed us to new levels with compound specific amino acid research. Fry and I were still sure the bulk isotope analyses would lead us to some insightful answers. Thankfully the combination was the key and to the success of the work. Brian would still visit from LSU, staying on my couch and enjoyed the island life.”

 

According to Britt, Brian was a colorful visitor—think John Candy in the movie Trains, Planes, and Automobiles [my interpretation].

 

“During my PhD research, Brian was by my side the whole time. We would have lengthy discussions about more of his creative ideas, which there were so many! I was always listening carefully, while many others dismissed them for being unusual or not cutting-edge…Brian was full of ideas, ones that showed his absolute brilliance and were pushing-boundaries, others were not going to be fruitful for the field. I listened and absorbed them all.  

 

A time our team went out to dinner in Noumea, New Caledonia, we ate at an upscale French restaurant. Brian was in one of his goofy moods and decided to ask for ketchup--knowing full well this was uncouth for French cuisine. The others, all senior, well-respected scientists, were horrified by this, and then Brian proceeded to sloppily eat his meal drenched in ketchup. It was Brian Fry in his essence. By the way, Brian prefers to eat foods that are mainly orange.”

 

Eventually, Louisiana State University had the good sense to hire him and provide support for his lab. Brian spent many productive years there developing his skills in using all of the “traditional” stable isotopes to solve problems in estuarine ecology and ocean sciences. Maybe it was wanderlust that made him uproot ten years later and move to Australia. His most recent work on intra-molecular isotope patterns in amino acids showcases—yet again—his agility in putting together new methods to solve old problems (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0224297).

 

Today Brian keeps as busy and engaged as he always has, even though like me, he is “retired.” He remains the Isotope Prince of Ecology.

“Brian has shaped many of the moments of my life; both scientifically and personally. Yes, he is quirky and unusual. I enjoy that. To end, his impact has gone as far as I named my dog after him. Fry is a great dog and full of quirks and excitement too.” Brittany Graham

 

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