Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Andrew Steele--AKA Steelie

Maia Schweitzer, Jan Toporski, Steelie, Jake Maule, Marilyn, AMASE 2004
            With Wes Huntress as our new Director in 1999, we began a search to hire a replacement for Ed Hare—someone who would be a full time astrobiologist. Carnegie and the Geophysical Laboratory hire people in very different ways than universities. It is the sole discretion of the Director of the department to chose and negotiate with a new staff member. For the astrobiology position, we advertised widely and received a number of applications from interesting, qualified individuals. A short list was struck and about five people each spent a couple of days visiting the campus, giving a seminar, and trying to impress the scientific staff.
            At the time, I was involved in using a new time-of-flight mass spectrometer to identify unknown compounds in complex mixtures. The instrument, the Protein Chip Reader, could measure the coupling of an antibody with its antigen very precisely. I had heard about a young man at Johnson Space Flight Center who was developing a similar system—except miniaturized—for flying on an upcoming Mars mission. He also heard of what I was doing and wrote me an email asking to visit the Laboratory. I was excited by the prospect, asked for his CV, and invited him to come for a seminar. Meanwhile, his CV was circulated to the astrobiology hiring committee. We considered him a potentially viable candidate.
            Andrew was, by then, working in England, so flew over to the States the weekend before his seminar to get adjusted to the time change. I met him briefly before his Monday seminar, telling him, “Hey! Do you know we have a staff position open for an Astrobiologist?” He did not. The news sent him into a bit of a panic, because Steele is usually informal in his mannerisms, dress, and speaking style. Apparently, he purchased a new outfit, updated his talk, and practiced it again and again before arriving at the Lab for his “visit” early Monday morning, which morphed into an impromptu interview. His combination of microbiology, meteorite geochemistry, technology, and Mars science was a perfect fit for what we were looking for. An offer quickly followed.
Marilyn and Steelie fish seining, Chesapeake Bay, 2002
            Andrew—Steelie—as he is known to almost everyone, looks the part of a 1990s British rocker. In fact, he is an accomplished guitarist and composer of rock music, playing and singing in a Takoma Park band. His light brown hair reaches to the middle of his back, or is frequently up in a man-bun or back in a ragged ponytail. Wearing jeans purchased at a boutique shop in London and a t-shirt with science logos, Steelie can light up a room with his outward enthusiasm. He wears his personality and feelings on his sleeve, however. When he’s in a bad mood, it shows. When he’s deep in thought, he paces, looking at the ground, muttering to himself about thermodynamics and Mars.
            Born in January of 1966, I was barely 13 years old when he was born. When we traveled to conferences, NASA meetings, and fieldwork, we looked like an unusual pair. Once—just once—in an airport rental car lot, a stranger said to him, “Your mother is waving at you over there.” That comment resulted in endless teasing. I was not old enough to be his mother, but earned the nickname of “Ma”. While he liked to say he thought I was “matronly” when he first met me, I enjoyed saying about him, “Yeah, he’s my son, living in the basement, doesn't have a girlfriend or a job, plays on an old Hitari video game all day.” The razzing continues to this day.
            Steelie hit the ground running at the Lab and built a strong team of young postdocs and students who adored him and his unconventional style. People came from around the world to work with him. He set up his first lab in Ed Hare and John Frantz’s old labs, shoehorning in autoclaves, microbial culture apparatus, DNA identification instruments, and sophisticated microscopes. He was known for working odd hours. I’d see him slink by my office around 11 am, backpack slung over his shoulder, often laughing. He worked until late at night, sometimes regaling his colleagues with emails at midnight. Steelie had never been responsible for lab personnel before. Sometimes he loved the job, other times he found it a bother.
            Often he was late for lab, committee, and informal meetings that he himself had set up. Finally one day, fed up with this, his lab group and I “decorated” his office with thousands of Styrofoam peanuts. When he saw the mess we created he was furious and let his lab mates know, in no uncertain terms, he was angry with their childish behavior. I let him know that I was the mastermind of the prank, and that if he wanted grown up behavior, he should be on time like a professional adult. We glowered a bit, then burst out laughing. I can’t say he completely changed his ways, but he grew more “adult like” and commanded the respect of his peers and lab group.
            Steelie’s first field trip was with my lab group who were investigating the effects of chicken waste (i.e., chicken &%*t) on the ecosystem. On his first attempt at fish seining, he lost his sandal in the mud. The remainder of the day he wore one shoe. His next trip was the 2003 expedition on AMASE. In Longyearbyen, he purchased a pair of fancy red hiking boots, which gave him huge blisters when he climbed Sverrefjell volcano for the first time. Never, ever one to give up, Steelie went on to become Chief Scientist and an accomplished Arctic explorer over the years.
         Although we were focused primarily on the ice cave-carbonate at the top of Sverrefjell in 2004, we were also excited to collect mantle xenoliths, rocks produced deep in the Earth’s interior then propelled to the surface during eruption.  Xenoliths are found in great abundance on the surface of Sverrefjell. For a biogeochemist, I was at first unaware of how special it was to find rocks like these. I collected almost 50 xenoliths, each about 8 to 10 cm in diameter. The amount of “organic” carbon in xenoliths was typically 0.01%, even lower than the surface volcanic rocks. Nitrogen was undetectable.  Usually with these low organic carbon concentrations, we would suspect contamination, however, Steele’s further investigations with Raman spectroscopy confirmed the indigeneity of the organic carbon.
         Steele et al. (2007) compared the Bockfjorden Volcanic Complex (BVC) carbonates from Sverrefjell Volcano to similar carbonates in the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite—the very same meteorite that others had mistakenly thought contained signs of life. Optical microscopy confirmed that the carbonate globules were in the form of magnesite between rims of magnetite. Raman spectroscopy revealed some zoning in the carbonates. Both the meteorite and the BVC carbonates contained the iron mineral hematite in close proximity to macromolecular carbon (MMC), measured as ordered and disordered graphite. Others had found MMC in ALH 84001 (Becker et al., 1999; McKay et al., 1996) and had trumpeted their finding as evidence of life. That said, the distribution of graphite in the meteorite and the BVC carbonate are very different from that of biologically-derived organic matter found in ancient rocks. Using the BVC sample, which was generated in mantle rocks deep in the Earth, Steele et al. argued for a similar mechanism of formation for the meteoritic organic carbon through reaction series with iron oxides, graphite, and CO2. Because the carbon phases were imaged and analyzed in situ, this work confirmed the indigeneity of the organic carbon in xenoliths as well as that of the ALH 84001 meteorite.  Whether this MMC was biological in origin was the next question. Arguments supporting or refuting the original McKay et al., (1996) paper have targeted the group’s conclusion that organic matter in the meteorite was of biological origin. Steele et al.’s (2007) paper put a nail in that argument.
         Steele and colleagues (Steele et al., 2018) continue to coauthor papers on martian organic matter from measurements made by the Curiosity rover. He followed up this work--once again taking full advantage of the martian meteorites that we have on hand that can be fully analyzed by sophisticated instrumentation. Using confocal Raman imaging spectroscopy and transmission electron microscopy, he was able to examine the intimate details of organic matter formation. His findings, consistent with Mars Curiosity measurements, show that it is the interaction of brine-fluids with sulfides and spinel minerals by an electrochemical mechanism that results in the deposition of complex organic carbon in the martian samples. They conclude “The hypothesis developed from our observations on martian meteorites has profound implications for our understanding of other martian phenomena, including the presence of methane in the atmosphere and the origin of the refractory organic material in ancient sedimentary rocks found in situ by the SAM instrument.” Steele and his colleagues who participated in AMASE (Eigenbrode, Benning, Fries, Siljesrtom, Conrad, and McCubbin) “cut their teeth” on the samples from Sverrefjell volcano, demonstrating the power of collaborative inspiration often related by field investigations.
Marilyn and Steelie's normal faces
         Steele is one of my Science Brothers. Now that we live and work thousands of miles away from each other, when we call the other answers the phone “As I live and breathe!” I watched over his daughter when his second child was born. He mentored my son Evan when Chris and I moved to California. Steelie was one of the first people I told about my ALS diagnosis. I was one of the first he told about his mother’s passing. I may be more matronly than ever. His hair and beard are tinged with gray, but we’ve got a firm hold on life and science.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written Marilyn, and so interesting to learn more about the history of one of the dearest friendships I have witnessed! I have so many fun memories of you both lighting up the hallways of Carnegie together.


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