|Naming Ceremony for Endowed Chair (l-r): Provost Cindy Larive, Marilyn, Dean Kathryn Uhrich, Chancellor Kim Wilcox|
When I came to UC Merced, the Dean at that time, Juan Meza, asked me only two questions during my interview: would I accept a leadership role? And could I work with under-represented minority students? I quickly answered yes to both. I’d been frustrated at the Geophysical Lab, since I did not win the Director position and had what my husband termed “Leadership Deficit Disorder”. When I came to UC Merced, I became Chair of my faculty group and served in University leadership positions. I tried at that time to get interest and traction to start a “College of Sustainability in the Anthropocene” during the proposed campus build out scheduled for 2018-2020. In an internal memo, I wrote:
“Creating a new College of Sustainability in the Anthropocene will provide a home for undergraduates from all majors, grad students from diverse graduate programs, and faculty from all three of UCM’s current Schools. The hallmark of this College would be the infusion of sustainability and environmental education and research to the members of the College and the wider campus community. It would house student clubs focusing on the Earth, recycling, and the environment; a green dormitory; a strong, targeted general education program for its students; the community garden; and a local and organic dining facility.
In addition to new undergraduate opportunities, the College would provide a home for interdisciplinary faculty where offices and laboratories would be co-located in a single building that would promote the type of strong research that is hoped for as a consequence of the Strategic Academic Focusing plan. The College could also become the natural “home” for research units and community and scientific partners that are currently distributed throughout Merced. For example, Sierra Nevada Research Institute, UC Solar, and the UC Natural Reserves might all benefit from having their administrative offices in close contact with faculty and students.”
The concept and vision didn’t fly very far at UC Merced and was eventually watered down and co-opted by other individuals on campus. People were uncomfortable with the word Anthropocene, thinking that it referred to apes or monkeys of some sort.
I follow the job listings for academic positions so that I can send them on to postdocs looking for permanent positions. A posting caught my eye in early 2016 when a couple of things were happening in my life: 1) I was searching for an answer to my medical issues, and 2) I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to build a coalition to consider an interdisciplinary program at UC Merced. The position description was for the Director of the Environmental Dynamics and Geo-Ecology (EDGE) Institute. It was associated with an endowed chair and at the rank of distinguished professor. Wow! A faculty position in Geo-Ecology, a field that I’d worked in for decades but I’d not recognized that I was in fact a card-carrying Geo-ecologist. I wrote an email of inquiry to Professors Mary Droser and Tim Lyons at UC Riverside and heard back immediately.
|The start of the EDGE Institute Laboratory, 2016|
Mary Droser is a feisty, seasoned UC professor who is a premier paleontologist studying ancient organisms that inhabited the ocean hundreds of millions of years ago. Even at formal campus events, Mary sports her signature flip flops, cropped pants, and beach-inspired T-shirts. Known widely throughout campus and the paleontological community, she serves as my unofficial mentor. Mary tells the story of talking to me on the phone, pacing around a parking lot, thinking “We want her to apply!” Which I did a couple of weeks later. Fast forward to my interview in which I was asked to provide a Vision of the new EDGE Institute. I’m one of those people who can be quiet, but if asked, I can spout a good vision for just about anything I’m interested in. I can also get things done. My challenge has always been bringing other people along and building coalition. I received a very generous offer from UC Riverside to “get the party started” with EDGE.
It took a good three months for me to move to Riverside, get a lab underway, and learn who the players were on the Riverside campus. I’d had enough of dealing with Deans, Provost, and other administrators and was happy to work together with an invested, smart faculty from different departments. I met many times with small groups of faculty and one-on-one with interested people listening to what they thought EDGE should be. I set up my outer office with white boards, a screen for presenting talks, a coffee bar, and a comfortable conference table. Humble as it is--I’d started the EDGE Institute.
|L-R: Ying Lin, Aradhna Tripati, Valery Terwilliger, Jess Miller Camp|
My endowed chair—the Wilbur W. Mayhew Endowed Chair of Geoecology—is not named after the donor, but after a UC Riverside professor who devoted a major part of his career to preserving land for scientific study. Bill Mayhew was one of the original creators of University of California’s Natural Reserve System. He was a beloved teacher of ecology to many undergrads that he took into the field. Bill was also adept at convincing landowners to sell their property to UC for a good price. Today, UC Riverside has five UC Natural Reserves highlighting desert and dry mountain landscapes. At UC Riverside, I began a slow alteration of my personal scientific agenda to include a wider audience interested in working on scientific problems related to the environment and sustainability, as well as climate change.
|Marilyn schmoozing Dean Uhrich and Donors|
An Endowed Chair at a University usually means that donor(s) have put up a substantial sum of money, usually $1 Million or greater, to support a faculty member of unusual promise. Those funds are placed into an account which generates interest, that is then used to support the work of the faculty member. In my case, I use these funds (about $50,000 per year) to support EDGE Institute’s activities in the broadest sense—buying equipment that serves multiple investigators, promoting student research, outreach activities, and personnel that gets EDGE’s mission accomplished.
|Center: Lifelong friend Franny Kasen talking to former student Matt Hoch|
One of the first tasks that I needed to accomplish was to hire an administrative assistant, whose job it is to do all of the myriad administrative actions that attend creating a new Institute. In February 2017, Ms. Jeanette Westbrook was brought on board and has provided the critical assistance needed to communicate with an ever-larger UC Riverside population of scientists, organizing and planning events, assisting with outreach activities, and creating an interesting and dynamic web presence. Because of the duties of a Full Professor, along with moving a laboratory and establishing a new research program at UC Riverside, it was not until I hired Jeanette that I really gained traction on making something of EDGE.
With a mane of dark hair always fashionably styled, Jeanette has become a resource not only for EDGE, but also for the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department as a whole. She has a smile that lights up a room, a way of tip-toeing in and getting things done. Together we have traversed numerous personal challenges in the short time we’ve worked together, forging what she has called a title of “Work Mom” for me based on our conversations about life, how to get along with difficult people, and getting ahead. Finding and keeping an administrative assistant has been key to the successes I’ve been able to accomplish with EDGE.
|L-R: Jon Nye, Jeanette Westbrook, Bobby Nakamoto|
My 2nd major task was building the EDGE Institute Laboratory. I purchased a suite of instruments that complements capabilities in the Earth, Botany, and Environmental Science departments with my startup funds because I wanted to extend UCR’s research portfolio from paleontology to ecology to astrobiology. Although I found singular pockets of analytical strength at UCR, it was clear to me that a more cohesive plan for stable isotope research was needed. With the help of a recent UCR undergraduate, we cleaned out and organized the laboratory suite creating a working environment that has attracted graduate and undergraduate students from throughout the UCR campus.
I purchased a first-of-its-kind mass spectrometer setup that creates a new way of investigating biochemical pathways and enzymatic mechanisms in living organisms, taking advantage of the opportunity to buy new equipment. The instrument includes two mass spectrometers which run in tandem: an isotope ratio mass spectrometer that precisely measures isotope compositions to the 5th decimal place along with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that can accurately determine the position of an isotope label within a molecule. During my 40+year career in this field, I have never had such a nice instrument to carry out my research! This mass spectrometer is now the central workhorse of the EDGE Institute and will be used to interrogate intramolecular clumped isotopic compositions of metabolites (e.g. amino acids) and more complicated biomarkers. While it is known that microbes, animals, and plants use different metabolic pathways for simple molecules, combining traditional compound specific isotope analysis with site-specific isotope analyses will allow us to determine rates and fluxes, as well to tease out sources from complex mixtures.
I completed the hiring of key personnel including a laboratory manager, Dr. Ying Lin, and a postdoctoral scholar, Dr. Kaycee Morra. Dr. Lin is managing two isotope ratio mass spectrometers, about ten graduate students, and a handful of undergrads in the EDGE Institute Laboratory. Kaycee is working with recent Ph.D. Jon Nye and grad student Bobby Nakamoto on my new tandem mass spec.
|Nye, Westbrook, Nakamoto, Morra, Barnett, Fogel, and Lin|
My second instrumental push complements faculty members in the Environmental Science department: Francesca Hopkins, Hoori Ajami, and Pete Homyak, newly hired Assistant Professors. Together we have assembled a suite of instruments—portable and able to “run on the go”—designed to measure the concentrations and isotope compositions of four of the major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. We recently purchased a Mercedes Sprinter van that is fixed up to hold these four instruments as well as a full weather system. The van has a trailer hitch which can pull a trailer owned by botany professor Darrel Jenerette that includes a tower, generators and other gear for remote use in the field. It is the University of California’s first full mobile isotope laboratory, and one of very few in the country.
The van travels around California to measure the “breathing” of the environment in places like the Salton Sea, UC’s Natural Reserves, dairy farms, and ponderosa pine forests. The instruments are fully operational when the van is moving, complementing the air quality instrumentation and research that UCR has at CE-CERT, the College of Engineering’s environmental research unit. It will also be deployed in agricultural fields to learn how perturbations in climate and the environment affect the fluxes of greenhouse gases. From a personal perspective, I have no experience using these types of instruments so I am very much so looking forward to learning something new.
Next, I’ve developed a series of graduate symposia to bring students from different departments together, showcase their work, and enjoy good Mexican food. For our first symposium, I invited geomicrobiologist Jan Amend from USC as our keynote speaker. The event was attended by about 100 people from across the campus. Grad students presented posters, and we had a banquet of local Mexican food to celebrate EDGE Institute’s new beginning. We also awarded graduate research scholarships funded by UCR alumnus Michael Devirian and by the Endowed Chair fund. Students submitted competitive proposals and were judged by a faculty committee. Now, Jeanette and I have organized three of these symposia—each time serving a Mexican feast along with cold beers and wine. The students’ work ranges from understanding speciation of the California palm, Washingtonia, to studying microbes living on commercial grapevines, to learning about the effects of humans on populations of marine mammals in South America.
|Mexican feast, Grad Symposium|
|Logo for our Mobile Isotope Van|
In 2017, I learned that the Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSST) Department in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science held the major in Sustainability at UCR. This was surprising news to me. I worked to integrate EDGE with their 100+ Sustainability undergraduates hiring two undergrads majoring in Sustainability and had them work on projects of their choice to improve UCR’s campus sustainability program. Katherine Avila chose to work on implementing recycling in the Geology building. She supported EDGE during public outreach events organizing activities for the public that included making tote bags out of old T-shirts and self-watering planters out of used water bottles. Intern Stephanie Cleese (Sustainability Class of 2018) worked to implement composting of food waste on campus. She interviewed people from dining to facilities to the UCR’s community garden (R’Garden) and beyond to develop a simple protocol for keeping food waste from being shipped across the state, UCR’s current procedure. These simple activities gave the students hands-on training that they couldn’t possibly learn in the classroom.
|Bombay Beach sculpture|
For my teaching duties, I taught classes in Stable Isotope Ecology and Biogeochemistry—old favorites. I also taught many freshmen seminar classes. For one of the freshmen seminars we read “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, teaching students about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Another freshmen class read “Water, Water Everywhere”, and I taught them about water rights in the West, how the Colorado River functions, and water “sense”. I’m particularly proud that I taught a class in the Gender and Sexuality Studies department to 7 sustainability majors on the subject of the Salton Sea.
This class was the first time these students had met a “real” scientist, not just a lecturer in a large impersonal classroom. One week we read and discussed social science papers and issues, the next week I taught them basic science related to the Salton Sea. Chris and I took the students on a field trip to experience the beauty and human-challenges of the region. It was mid-May, rather late for seeing many birds, which was disappointing to me. The students, however, enjoyed seeing the public art sculptures on the shoreline at the outskirts of funky Bombay Beach, and then speaking to a 5th grade elementary school teacher who discussed the environmental justice challenges of living in the Salton Sea area. Back in the classroom, we discussed racial issues regarding the people who lived around the Sea—mostly Hispanic immigrants and many Native Americans. On student remarked, “I really don’t like white people.” I was the only white person in the classroom! Fortunately for me, I think being in the wheelchair made me less threatening—less “white” and less a “scientist” who many of the students thought were suspect. I learned from these experiences.
|GSST class at Lorene Salas School in Mecca|
Now, in my last year at UC Riverside, I am working with the Directors of the campus Natural Reserve System (Kim Hammond) and Center for Conservation Biology (Darrel Jenerette) to create a Consortium of Ecological and Environmental Centers at UCR. It’s time to strategically think about what the EDGE Institute will “look like” once I retire in June 2020. Based on my personal connections with other faculty on campus, as well as consultation with my Dean Kathryn Uhrich, I have been working on a plan to build a consortium with the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) and UCR’s Natural Reserve System (NRS). In so many ways, this is a “no brainer”, but as with many things, the devil is in the details.
In 2017, I assembled a team of faculty and students who are very keen to work on the basic science underpinning the large restoration effort that California and the US Fish and Wildlife departments will be leading on the Salton Sea basin. Starting in 2018, the water flowing into the Salton Sea was largely diverted to San Diego for domestic use. The migratory birds and endangered species of fish that inhabit the region will be forced to adjust. It is predicted that once shorelines are exposed to air as the lake shrinks, toxic dust will be blown around the Imperial and Coachella Valleys. In short, the area is going to become a major environmental problem for the coming decade. In 2017, we held the first all hands meeting to discuss the Salton Sea’s past, present, and future.
Although an interdisciplinary, inter-campus grant was not funded, I have forged ahead on the Salton Sea research. This spring UCR hosted scientists from the US and California Fish and Wildlife Service, who are actively working on ecological problems at the Sea. My recent Ph.D. Jon Nye started a one-year postdoc examining the stable isotope ecology of the fish and birds in the region. We’re also collaborating with Tim Lyons and his postdoc, purchasing a zippy inflatable Zodiac boat so we can get off the shorelines and sample more of the Sea itself.
Related to this research is a new project I’m starting with UCR’s new Science to Policy group headed up by emeritus Prof. Susan Hackwood, former Dean of UCR’s College of Engineering and founder of California’s Council on Science and Technology in Sacramento. I’m working on writing a scientific strategic plan for the Salton Sea that will address the research that needs to be done in the next five years as mitigation plans begin to be implemented. We’re looking for a sponsor for this report and developing ties to local legislators and the Salton Sea Authority. Having my work related to science policy is a completely new direction for me and doable as my physical self continues a slow decline.
|Jonny Nye sampling fish, Salton Sea|
Research on the Salton Sea dovetails nicely with CCB’s continuing work on the urban-wildland interfaces in Southern California. The EDGE Institute’s mobile van and laser isotope equipment are contributing to CCB’s studies. One of the goals of the Consortium is to have a set of intersecting research themes: Salton Sea (EDGE), Urban-Wildlands (CCB), and the San Jacinto-Salton Basin Watershed (NRS). We’ve got the parts and pieces—integration is going to take more work.
Graduate student engagement is one of EDGE’s goals, and going forward something the Consortium would like to foster in a more defined way. We held three events geared towards grad students in 2018-2019: 1) The Best Donuts in SoCal—a morning coffee and donut informal meet-and-greet; 2) Salton Sea field trip in February led by my husband Chris Swarth and me; 3) Annual Graduate Research Symposium and awards. EDGE—from endowment dollars—funded six research awards for graduate students including one taking place in an NRS site and one relating to conservation. This October, we co-sponsored the Science-2-Policy Hackathon, a 48-hour computer extravaganza designed to bring an interdisciplinary group of students to study a topic (in this case the Salton Sea) and produce a policy statement.
|Chris and Marilyn (Center) leading Salton Sea trip|
Last but not least, EDGE joined UCR’s campus efforts in Sustainability. EDGE Institute led by Jeanette Westbrook sponsored a Cool Campus Challenge team. What is the Cool Campus Challenge? A friendly competition to reduce UC's carbon footprint and create a culture of sustainability across the campuses. Over 30 participants signed up and reduced their carbon emissions from April 1 - 26. Not only did EDGE enter the Challenge, but also more importantly we sponsored the Pentland Planet Pals from the undergraduate Pentland dormitories. I’m proud to report that the Pentland Planet Pals came in 1st Place on the UCR campus!
|Pentland Puppies and Pizza Party-Fun!|
Working alongside our EDGE Institute Intern Patrice Barnett, we organized the Puppies and Pizza Party for over 200 undergrads. About a dozen puppies (well, actually dogs) came to campus and the students took turns petting them, throwing balls for them, and enjoying the friendly vibe of a puppy. They also scarfed 20 pizzas in record time. Intern Patrice Barnett was in my first freshmen seminar class that I taught in Spring 2017. She stood out as someone special—and we kept in touch. I hired her as the Sustainability Intern, funded by endowed chair funds, in Winter 2019. She’s a star. I am convinced she’ll go on to great things.
As I wind down my time as an Endowed Professor and transition to an emeritus professor, I will be spending time writing the Salton Sea policy and science report, working with colleagues on forming a more perfect Consortium, and continuing to figure out how EDGE can be a long-term viable force at UCR. The opportunity for me to do something interdisciplinary and outward-reaching has been a real joy. The opportunity for me to implement campus building activities that bring EDGE Institute to the forefront of students and faculty is a fitting last chapter to my career.
|Isa and Tope--the EDGE mascots|