Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Leaving the Geophysical Lab 2012

Members and spouses of my lab group 2012: Derek Smith, Dave Baker, Roxane Bowden, Verena Starke

            After leaving the Carnegie Institution at the end of December 2012, many people wanted to know more than the boilerplate story I gave them about my husband’s desire to be in California. This reason was in fact true, but the atmosphere of the Geophysical Laboratory had changed under Rus Hemley’s leadership, and in my opinion, not for the best. I admit that I was extremely disappointed that Carnegie President Dick Meserve chose Rus over me. My relationship with Rus swung from polite to adversarial almost immediately. For example, Rus tried to tell me, and maybe other staff members, what we should be doing. Many of us were appointed to committees that held no importance. In general, I felt for the first time that Carnegie really wasn’t appreciative of the work I was doing.

            Hemley and staff member Dave Mao had invented a new method for making synthetic diamonds in the lab using methane gas at high pressure and temperature. They partnered with some diamond investors from England and Israel, Clive and Ouzi, and formed a business “Washington Diamonds, LLC” sometime around fall of 2010. Carnegie Board members and the President were convinced that the diamond business was going to make them a lot of money. The Carnegie Institution of Washington is a non-profit organization, so we wondered how a profit-making business would impact our tax status. More and more we noticed secret business meetings and locked doors on campus. People gathered in my office frequently to complain about the commercial venture. Not a day went by without someone expressing anger about how the “old Lab” was no more.

            About the same time, Bob Hazen was in contact with Jesse Ausubel at the Sloan Foundation. Hazen, a polymath, was promoting a program to study carbon in the deep earth, a project that I had started with George Cody, Andrew Steele, Bjorn Mysen as well as Bob and Rus Hemley years before. When the Sloan grant was awarded, Cody, Steelie, and I were surprised that Sloan required that scientists from places other than Carnegie receive the lion’s share of the funding. I was disappointed that our research was set aside. As the Deep Carbon project unfolded, some funds came our way, but neither George, Steelie, nor I engaged much with this effort.

            Staff members began to discuss whether “small” science or “big” science was more important. Small science referred to what an individual investigator could do on her/his own. Big science meant you were part of a large consortium or a team working on, contributing, and possibly leading that effort. Staff member Doug Rumble was one who made the transition from “small” science to “big” science through the support of the Sloan Foundation to help design and build a new generation, large format mass spectrometer. He managed to launch a new career for himself, being an expert in the instrument’s new findings and consulting around the world on its utility. Personally, I found this discussion about big vs. small to be tedious. I had worked in both “small” and “big” science efforts over the years. I had my own vision for what I wanted to accomplish and resented being told what I should study. Others felt similarly. My office served as a local therapist’s office for a significant part of my day. It seemed like 40% of my valuable time was spent on Lab politics. I could not imagine ending my career in this environment. 
Doug Rumble with his children, Ann and Ken (right) and daughter in law Meg, 2012

            I started interviewing for potential positions in California starting in 2010. My first interview was at Humboldt State University, Chris’s alma mater, located on the coast of Northern California. The position was Associate Dean of the School of Marine Science. I would be in charge of an oceanographic vessel and have an office overlooking a beautiful part of the California coast. When I mentioned my salary requirements and my laboratory wishes, the Dean blanched. The position was terminated, ostensibly because of the economic downturn.

            My second interview was at Univ. of Southern California to be the Director of their Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I had been encouraged by many of USC’s faculty to apply and think big. When I interviewed, I was asked if I thought I could direct an institute and do research at the same time. Of course, I answered confidently. I had done so when working at NSF. When I thought about this later, I realized how insulting that question was. The two previous Wrigley directors did both—why couldn’t I? Fortunately, they chose another candidate. Given recent problems in USC’s administration since then, I dodged a bullet.

When Chris asked what UC Merced looked like: "middle of nowhere and cows"
            My third interview landed a good offer and startup package at UC Merced. It was difficult to tell some of my long-term Geophysical Lab colleagues that I would be leaving the lab. Steelie knew I was interviewing of course, and Steve Shirey, but I kept things quiet with George Cody and Bjorn Mysen. They suspected I was looking around and weren’t surprised when I told them I had an offer and was seriously considering it. Doug Rumble was another story. Chris and I made a reservation for Doug and his wife Karen at one of our favorite restaurants. When the wine was served, we let them know we’d be going. My farewell party after 35+ years was originally to be cake and champagne at 3 pm, but reason won out, and we had a small symposium followed by a blowout Mexican dinner.

            Nine months after arriving at UC Merced, my phone rang with the news that Rus Hemley had stepped down as Director. George Cody replaced him immediately as Acting Director. Whatever the reasons for the abrupt action, my departure to UC Merced was a warning sign to the Board of Trustees that things at the Geophysical Lab were not going well. By the time I left the Lab after 35 and a half years, I felt like an exile. In early 2014, Dick Meserve retired as President followed by the appointment of Matthew Scott. Within a year, Scott invited me to a Carnegie Trustee’s dinner in Palo Alto. Chris and I drove over to attend, figuring we’d hang out on the sidelines with George Cody, drinking some good wine. I was fully surprised to be seated at the head table with President Scott and Board Chairman Steve Fodor and welcomed back to the Carnegie “family”. It felt good—really good.

            Although my leaving the Lab was based somewhat on negative feelings, I landed at one of the finest public universities in the world at the time when they were rebounding from the recession of 2008-2009. My world has expanded enormously and I’ve been given the opportunity to give back to a community of students, staff, and faculty some of the wisdom I’ve learned over the years. When I received the ALS diagnosis in 2016, Carnegie staff responded by throwing a full blown, outrageously wonderful conference in my honor—Marilyn Madness.
Marilyn Madness Geophysical Lab 2016!

L. Nancy Drew story #2

            For many years, I wrote long email stories about “Nancy Drew”, a ficticious character who solved mysteries on the Carnegie campus. Her first antagonist was a raccoon aptly named Rocky, who drank liquid nitrogen from the outdoor tap, stole cookies from Lunch Club, and created general mayhem. I enjoyed writing these stories. Below is one that I sent around the campus to let everyone know I was leaving. I invented names that sounded like names of people on campus: George Cody, Doug Rumble, Steve Shirey, Andrew Steele, Bjorn Mysen.

On 12.09.2012 20:29, Marilyn Fogel wrote:
Nancy had been working hard, maybe even too hard some might say, keeping her head down and not making too many waves. She'd easily solved the Mystery of the Missing Forks. It turned out that when she was invited to a party at Dr. Lemon Peel's house, she saw the forks nailed to the roof of his chicken coop. (The coop was a favorite feeding spot of our old nemesis Rocky Raccoon).

She also solved the Case of the Generator with Two Loose Screws. Never
mind a 6000 amp breaker, raccoons had moved in via the cozy stove pipe
which malfunctioned in summer. Nancy suspected that Rocky, frustrated by the lack of access to Dr. Peel's chickens, had moved back to the Broad Branch Rd. campus once again. Following the storm that resulted in the 2nd generator failure, Nancy conducted a stake out, carried out a “smoke out” with belching diesel fuel and set those varmints high tailing back to Rock Creek Park.

So, this leaves our heroine back in the lab. She'd worked for a variety of scientists during her tenure. There was Born Again Gleason, who had her grinding bits of glass and melting it to insane temperatures. She would never forget her summer with By and Large Roadie in which she was tasked with finding loose hamiltonians that had escaped from his NMR lab. A month of helping out Dr. Beer Mug Jumble gave her the latest on top restaurants in the world, along with ion paths in giant wombat-like mass spectrometers. Nancy did not strictly limit herself to the Geophysical Lab, either. She did her time in the Geochemistry Building separating Rhenium and osmium from some really old rocks that all looked either gray, dark gray, medium gray, or light gray. Her supervisor there, Dr. Peeved Enquiry was at the pinnacle of Nerdom, with his pens tucked into his shirt placket and his obsession with diamonds, not as objects in women's jewelry, but the lightest of gray rocks.

Nancy wanted to work with a female staff member though. Brooklyn Vocal,
one of the few female staff members on campus known for her east coast,
brash, outspoken ways, was high on Nancy’s list. Why, Dr. Vocal was so
yappy that her postdocs and students needed to work with ear-phones on so that they could get some peace and quiet and actually think.

Brooklyn (really from Jersey, not New York, but did you ever hear her
pronounce "coffee" (cawfee) or "dog" (dawg)?) was on a Mission. Every
leaf, every feather, every bone, every microbe, every variously-shaded
gray rock needed to have isotope values measured on them. Nancy wondered why. Was Dr. Vocal striving for election in the prestigious National Academy like many of her colleagues? Did she have some special knowledge that at the stroke of some unknown date the mass spectrometers would turn into pumpkins and mice?

Nancy needed to solve this mystery. She was assigned, of course, the
tedious job of weighing microgram quantities of all the above items into little pieces of tin and silver. (Again Nancy groaned at the waste of good silver going for science rather than jewelry). She began to wonder, where was Dr. Vocal when she wasn't being her noisy self? Nancy observed Dr. Peel, Born Again, Dr. Roadie, Beer Mug, and Peeved Enquiry carrying on numerous closed door chats. From her father, Chief Detective Drew (now hopelessly confined to a wheelchair), she borrowed his old listening device. This device, running off of an old car battery with vacuum tube electronics, could pick up the sound of a flea at 25 meters.

The next morning, Nancy sauntered into Dr. Vocal's office and asked for
her "advice" on a problem with her roses, her dog, her boy friend, her
experiments, and her career. Familiar with that sort of request, Dr. Vocal put on her “psychologist’s face”, while Nancy sat in the blue office chair and spilled her guts for an hour. [Vocal always kept a box of tissues at the ready, for those who cried. Nancy had seen many come out of Vocal’s office red-eyed, but smiling.]

As Nancy unloaded, they were interrupted by 2 staff members, 1 director, 3 grad students, 4 postdocs, and a custodian.  After these interruptions, Brooklyn looked slightly more puzzled than usual and said, "What were we talking about?" Nancy took the opportunity to walk to the side of her desk, plant the "bug" in the mess of papers, samples, tissues, and pens on Vocal's desk. Then said, “Oh, it was nothing. I just thought I might need some advice about grad school.”

The next day, Nancy weighed samples all the while listening to
conversations in Brooklyn’s office. She heard the words “California”,
“negotiations”, and “transition”. She heard words like “boo hoo” and
“congratulations”. Piecing it all together she realized that within
months, there would be a disappearing staff member.

Screwing up her courage to confront the oft-times stern Dr. Vocal, she
tapped timidly at the door. “Dr. Vocal? Could we chat?” “What? More
problems Nancy? Can’t you figure life out on your own? What will happen
when I move to California?”

Oops, the word was out. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

Chapter 2:
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll write as Marilyn Fogel.

Friends and colleagues, after 35 wonderful years, I will be leaving the
Lab and taking a job as Professor of Ecology at the University of
California at Merced. Not only is Merced the opposite of Washington, DC,
but UC Merced is the opposite of Carnegie. Merced is an agricultural,
small, no-restaurant, economically depressed area in the Central Valley of California. UC Merced was started in 2005, is surrounded by cow pastures, and a work in progress. After 35 years and at the age of 60 (as of 19/9/12), it offers a wonderful opportunity for me to do something completely different than I’ve done before.

My husband, Chris Swarth, was born and raised in California. When we
married 26 years ago, it was our “plan” to move west after 10 years. But who could leave the warm, comfortable environment of the Geophysical Lab? It took some thinking and realizing that this opportunity offers us new people, a new environment, and a new life, all the while being somewhat “old” people.

We’ll be leaving DC after Christmas, in January 2013, driving across the US, and starting to teach by January 15th. My new colleagues on the UC Merced faculty will be 50% women, and I will be the oldest person in the group!

Following the story, I include a letter from a colleague Neil Irvine, an igneous petrologist. 

From:      T. Neil Irvine <nirvine@ciw.edu>
Subject: Re: [GL] Nancy Drew and the Case of the Disappearing Staff Member
      Date: November 29, 2012 11:23:36 AM PST
                 To:            Marilyn Fogel <m.fogel@gl.ciw.edu>
            Cc:     irvine@gl.ciw.edu, lirvine@gmu.edu

                                                                                   November 29, 2012
Dear Marilyn,
             I was very sorry to read your message that you were leaving the Geophysical Lab.  All things considered it was not a surprise that you are going, but the announcement still had impact (even though I have typically managed to wait until the last minute to respond)!  You have been the brightest of lights around here for the past 35 years—and you unquestionably rate as the most delightful staff member the Lab has ever had.   As I’ve mentioned to you before (probably more than once), during your first year or two around here (while you were working with Tom on Upton Street) you impressed me as being shy and extremely quiet, and I would never have imagined then that you would turn out to be a star Shakespearian actor, the verbose “Brooklyn Vocal”,  a renegade researcher on Svalbard while simultaneously sporting a tux and toting a rifle to fight off the polar bears—and on and on.   Certainly the place will never be the same without you! 
            You have also been an outstanding scientific staff member in respect to your productivity and your abilities to motivate pre- and post-doctoral fellows and collaborate with colleagues.   You and I are probably as far apart in our research interests as we could possibly be, nevertheless I have always thought of you as the second-best person around here to whom I could go to for reliable advice on my laboratory problems.  (You are second only to Larry Finger, who I necessarily have to keep on a pedestal above all others!)  My personal thanks to you for this help and for everything you have done for our Lab community.
             Lorna and I wish you and Chris the very best in California.   We expect you make a host of new friends there, and we expect you both also to find and face many new challenges and to laugh your way through them.   I wish you good fortune, too, in finding a host of important new isotopic and other scientific problems, all of which you can solve!
Neil (and Lorna) Irvine
Advice for others, Marilyn Madness 2016

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