Saturday, August 3, 2019

Landing the staff position

Geophysical Lab staff 1986. I am second from right, front row.

         After receiving over 20 letters of rejection, I finally had one offer for a second postdoc with a promise of a faculty position in two or three years at a marine science laboratory in South Carolina. At the same time, the Geophysical Lab was searching for a biogeochemist to fill a vacant staff member position. There was no position description and applications were by invitation only. Initially, I was not asked to apply. A couple of men, at my level of experience, interviewed. Things changed for the better when I gave a talk on my hydrogen isotope work at the Geological Society of America meeting in 1979. I was scheduled to speak just prior to an awards session honoring Harmon Craig, the most famous isotope geochemist. The lecture hall was packed with over 400 people in anticipation of hearing the great man speak.  With good fortune, as I gave my talk, I noticed the President of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. Philip Abelson, directly in front of me in the audience. As I made my points, he nodded his head in agreement. I felt as though I was talking directly to him, and perhaps I was. The following week, I was called up to the Geophysical Laboratory Director’s office to meet with Dr. Hatten S. Yoder to “discuss my future plans.”
         Phil Abelson was also editor in chief of the journal Science, in which he wrote a weekly editorial on controversial topics in science at that time. His scientific accomplishments included discovering nuclear fission (one week after the Germans did), figuring out the biosynthetic pathway that is the central cycle of almost all organisms (but it was named after a German scientist Hans Krebs who again was working at the same time), and finding amino acids in ancient fossil shells thereby jump starting the field of organic geochemistry. For a public figure, he was an exceedingly shy man, largely bald with Roosevelt like glasses, and a toothy smile—if you could get him to smile. At Carnegie functions over the years, I was frequently seated next to him, because I could get him to talk, even joke, and we had good conversations about my work. I always marveled that he remembered not only who I was, but details about my research.
         Apparently President Abelson returned from the GSA conference and phoned Yoder directly asking him, “Why haven’t I heard about this postdoc, Marilyn?” I was invited up to talk with the Geophysical Lab’s Director Hatten S. Yoder, who asked me to write a summary of what I might work on if I were to remain at the lab as a new staff scientist. After this conversation I floated out of Dr. Yoder's office elated and headed immediately to Tom Hoering’s office. He knew all about this, of course, and encouraged me to write up my ideas. My proposal had three major projects, but I did not carry out these projects exactly as I’d written, but carved out studies with oxygen isotope fractionation of molecular O2 during biological reactions, work on thermophilic microbes, as well as investigations into bacterial manganese mineral formation (see below).
         Director Hat Yoder wrote to then Carnegie President James Ebert the following:
“The present staff has the expertise to measure the principal stable isotopes and characterize the complex amino acids and mineral structures, but they do not have the knowledge to maintain the primitive living organisms needed in the proposed studies. After a thorough search, the staff organic geochemists and I have concluded that we already have a most talented, highly motivated, and successful potential staff member among our Postdoctoral Fellows.”

Within a week or so, I had an offer for a Temporary Staff Member position starting July 1, 1979. I was off to a solid career in Biogeochemistry.
Marilyn, dressed in suit made by Florence Fogel, to give talk to Carnegie Trustees, 1980

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