Friday, September 6, 2019

Seth Newsome: Postdoc, Colleague and "Science Son"

Marilyn and Seth Newsome, circa 2006
         After meeting Seth at the Isotope Ecology meeting and “Slatering” him, it wasn’t difficult for me to see that here was a young man who was going places in the Geo-ecology field. Seth arrived in DC in 2006, fresh from receiving his Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz. A tall, lanky Californian with a surfer air about him, Seth moved into a shared postdoc office with three more “traditional” geochemists who were not used to informal California mannerisms. Seth played volleyball at lunchtime with Bob Hazen and the Carnegie team. When he dressed in his shorts, he casually draped his work clothes over his desk chair. Within a week or two of this, I received word from his office mates that they did not appreciate Seth’s “underwear” being displayed in their office. This prompted an “Underwear” discussion in my office with closed doors. You have to laugh about things like this. When there was an opening, Seth moved into a more private postdoc office with an attached lab, where he hosted many students and visitors—no longer worrying about gym clothes.
         Seth’s first task was to set up the Gas Bench, a finicky piece of instrumentation for measuring isotopes in carbonates, specifically eggshells from Australia. At that time, we had the Gas Bench interfaced with a mass spectrometer (Thermo-Finnigan 252) we shared with Doug Rumble. Often there were conflicts in terms of time and use. Seth speaks his mind and with his easy good looks, he comes off as a strong force. He mastered the Gas Bench analyzing hundreds, if not thousands of eggshells and wombat teeth. He trained other postdocs, Dominic Papineau and Andrey Bekker, on how to use the instrument. But, his real interests lay elsewhere.
Seth in the Outback of Australia
         It wasn’t long before Seth asked if he could analyze a few sea otter samples from Santa Cruz. Several thousand samples later, he’d run sea otter whiskers, sea urchins, crabs, eagle feathers, killer whale teeth, kit fox bones, owl and warbler feathers, livers, and who knows what else. There were no flies on Seth—he was an analytical whirlwind. A couple of times I needed to reign in his analytical enthusiasm and remind him he needed to finish the Australian work and get it published. I needn’t have worried. He published a raft of papers while at the Lab, and many more when he left. Even though Newsome was involved in more than 10 different international projects, because his academic degrees were in Earth Science and his postdoc at the Geophysical Lab, he struggled to get a tenure-track position in an Ecology department.
         After a few years in DC, Seth and his new wife Anne couldn’t wait to leave the crowded city of Washington, DC. He landed another research associate position at the University of Wyoming. These were golden years for them, as they loved Laramie, Wyoming, and the work they did. Finally, in 2012, when I received my offer from UC Merced, Seth landed an assistant professorship at the Univ. of New Mexico. We started our new university labs at the same time. It’s been a lot of fun comparing equipment and teaching responsibilities. Our students and postdocs interact frequently.
         Along the way of this somewhat typical academic journey and relationship, we became real friends. Seth’s mom and my sister shared a few similar challenges for their care. We understood what was required to take care of family and that family was important. Seth also picked up the idea of hosting social gatherings for colleagues is important—not just attending them, something that shows leadership.
Seth Newsome and Jen Eigenbrode, Fancy Dress party, 2007
         Seth, Jen Eigenbrode, and I held a Fancy Dress Dinner on the deck outside our house in Silver Spring that was a blast. Guests arrived in evening gowns and tuxedos. I hired my son Evan’s friends to serve as waiters and waitresses paying them $20 each. We had proper plates and silverware. An unusually stiff wind brought a chill to the diners. We handed out blankets and coats from our supply. Following dinner, we danced under the lights of a disco ball, no longer minding the cold. At the end of the evening, Seth noted, “I’ve had too much to drink to drive an airplane, but I could fly a car!”
         Usually, I say “When the eagle leaves the nest for a faculty position…” this means a former postdoc is on her/his own. Not so with Seth. Projects were developed with Wyoming students and continued with Gary Graves from the Smithsonian. We were awarded our first joint NSF grant in 2011 and our 2nd grant just last year. When I first received my diagnosis of ALS, Seth (and Andrew Steele) were the first non-family to know. Unlike Steelie, Seth is of an age where, in theory, I could be his mother. We’re Science Mother and Son instead. Now, as my physical health is declining, I depend on his relative youth and vigor to keep things going. I continue to serve as his mentor, guiding him to what has turned into the Associate Directorship of a big isotope lab in New Mexico, shared with former postdoc Zach Sharp. He’s leading the charge in the United States, and most likely the world, on stable isotope ecology towards the next generation of discovery.
Seth helping Marilyn's mother Florence Fogel play the Wedding March, Evan and Meghan's wedding, Geophysical Lab, 2018

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