Friday, August 30, 2019

"Slatering" or How to confuse pesky colleagues

Page Chamberlain (green shirt, center) and Marilyn (to his right with shorts and skinny), Geophysical Lab on Upton St., circa 1988

            In 1996, I spent a short sabbatical at Dartmouth College interacting with Page Chamberlain and his lab group. I taught a 1-month long course on Organic Geochemistry to a full class of bright undergrad and grad students. Page had been a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab in the late 1980s. A recent Harvard grad, Chamberlain had a wife and small baby and was desperate to move out of their small apartment in DC to more comfortable surroundings. Page taught me how to use the very dangerous, potentially explosive, bromine pentafluoride vacuum line for analyzing oxygen isotope in rock samples. He was a thorough teacher, but had a nervous tic in his right eye that wouldn’t go away. At that time, given the stresses in his life, he was largely humorless. He landed a plum job at Dartmouth and was substantially relieved.
            Years later, at a Geological Society of America meeting, I saw Page at the annual Harvard-MIT cocktail party. He’d had a drink or three and blurted out that I was one person he was “afraid of”. Page has a commanding presence, is well over 6 feet tall, bald, and not a shrinking violet. We decided then and there that we needed to fix the fear feeling and get to know each other better. Hence, we planned the sabbatical. My children, Dana and Evan, and I moved into one of his son's bedrooms in the Chamberlains’ large, white colonial house, three blocks from campus. The house was filled with numerous pets: two unruly Labrador retrievers, a large iguana named Mikey, a rouge cat, numerous fish, and some sort of slimy shrimp growing in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Page’s wife Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain ran the household. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Page had loosened up completely and was now known, not only for his brilliance in geochemistry, but for knowing how to not take himself too seriously. He can be enormously funny.
            Often after my lectures, we’d sit and talk about things. As an inexperienced lecturer, Page offered advice on how to deal with questions that you didn’t know the answer to. “I Slater them,” he explained to me.
            “If a student asks a question and you don’t feel like answering, look at them seriously over your glasses and say ‘ I believe Slater wrote the definitive paper on that in the 1960s. You should know about that.’ They then go away and spend a few days trying to find the seminal article by Slater.”
Derek Smith and Andrew Steele, UC Merced 2015

            “What happens then?” I asked.
            “When they return, if they do, ask if they looked for the correct Slater paper. Was it John F. Slater or his brother Frank Slater from Yale? Were they sure they searched the literature thoroughly? Send ‘em off again,” he answered.
            “And the third time?” I inquired.
            “Mention that Slater won a serious prize, not the Nobel—too easy to check—but another prize less well known. You can add that Slater had cancer in the late 1980s and ask the student if he was still alive. They’ll go away at this point and not come back, thinking they’re idiots.”
            We professors at public universities couldn’t easily get away with this. But I could see some value in teaching a student to think critically and read the literature. I’ve “Slatered” a few people in my career, most notably a young whipper-snapper from Paul Koch’s lab. Seth Newsome, Paul’s student at UC Santa Cruz, was giving a talk at the Isotope Ecology meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2004. I was chairing the session. Seth ended his talk by saying that he interpreted his data in a non-scientific way sometimes. Not knowing what that meant I asked. In front of the entire conference, this upstart “kid” answered, “I’ll tell you all about it, when I come over to your house tonight.” The audience laughed. I turned bright red.
            He was referring to a house party the Carnegie/Smithsonian people were holding that evening, not—as others assumed—a private, candlelight meeting. People asked, “Who was that guy?” When he came to the party later that evening, we were ready. I started, “Seth, I assume you’ve looked at Slater’s work on seals and isotopes. He published early in the 1960s. I think he found similar trends to yours.” My colleague Noreen Tuross followed. “Yeah, that was an OK paper, but Slater’s best work was in the ‘70s with his son Slater Jr. Have you seen that one?” The other Carnegie postdocs nodded sagely. Some said, “That was a special paper Slater and Slater, 1978.”
            Seth shook his head. We saw him mentally jot down the name of Slater. Throughout the evening, we kept it up. Finally, by midnight, he was let in gently that he’d been “Slatered”.
 Marilyn and Seth Newsome, wombat hunting, South Australia, 2008

            In 2005, when I had a postdoc position to work on wombats in Australia, he was my first choice. We’ve been working together ever since—a great scientist and a perfect colleague and friend. More stories on Seth will follow.

1 comment:

  1. Ah Marilyn... I fondly remember you "Slatering" the entire audience at the Isotope Ecology Meeting in Flagstaff (2001 or 2002?)... Slater's seminal work on freshwater turtles... a true classic that I will never forget! Your joy of scientific discovery has always been so well coupled with your ability to convey such humor and reality.


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