Tuesday, November 19, 2019

End of the Geophysical Laboratory as we know it

Geophysical Lab Pistons Soccer team, 2012

            After 114 years, the Carnegie Institution’s department known worldwide as the Geophysical Laboratory (GL) will merge with its sister department The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM). They will become a single unit with the generic name (at this point in time) of Carnegie Earth. It's a change that’s been long in coming and not without earlier controversy and contention. Most of the world’s petrologists and high-pressure mineral scientists have worked or interned at the Geophysical Lab. The Lab fostered the start of the fields of Biogeochemistry and Astrobiology, interdisciplinary endeavors that I helped pioneer. Its relatively quiet halls and laboratories have provided a place to think and then to act, shielding its scientists from many of the demands that often limit the time academic scientists can devote to their research.
Marilyn, Andy Carnegie 1, Andy Carnegie (Penny Morril) 2

            My 35 years with the Geophysical Lab are treasured even though I’ve grown tremendously as a scientist and as a person since leaving in 2013. A former GL postdoc who was nearing the end of a successful career in academia pointed out, somewhat sarcastically, that senior staff scientists were somewhat treated like children. The Director of the Lab made all of the day-to-day decisions, including for the most part the hiring of new staff scientists and postdocs. He (always a man) determined salaries and raises, dealt with personnel issues, and communicated with the administration at P Street in downtown Washington. He also managed the Lab’s uncommitted funds, which weren’t much given the Carnegie’s large endowment and its small staff. Although childlike in some ways, GL scientists probably have more publications per research dollar than just about any earth science department in the world. As for external funding, NSF, NASA, and private foundations supported the research and allowed senior staff members to discover new materials, origins, and extremes of materials and living organisms.
GL sign not painted--before new BBR leadership
            The outside world often wondered why there were two earth science departments. The real answer is that over its 100+ year history a different, and distinct, culture developed in the two departments, which set the tone and the pace of research, staff choices, and overall direction. In 1985, then Carnegie President James D. Ebert had plans to merge the departments and fire half the staff. It was a very tense time. Jim Ebert became universally reviled in the Institution eventually. A visiting committee of noted scientists concluded that Ebert’s idea for a merger and a reduction in size was unwise and unwarranted. At that same time, Carnegie tested the waters for moving the Geophysical Lab to a university campus. We were courted by Princeton and the University of Chicago, but nothing came of it. In 1990, the Geophysical Laboratory moved to the Broad Branch Road (BBR) campus and has co-existed there with DTM for almost thirty years.
Dave Mao, Sean Solomon  (DTM director), Agnes Mao, Charile Prewitt (GL director) circa 1995
            In that time, there have been five GL Directors, including Acting Director George Cody who served for four and a half long years with minimal support for advancing GL’s goals. Meanwhile, DTM updated its seismology group and strengthened its planetary astronomy staff. Since my departure in 2013, my former laboratory remains without permanent support. My isotope mass specs have been taken over by research scientist Dionysis Foustoukos, who has worked hard to maintain the aging laboratory. Doug Rumble, my partner in stable isotopes, is retiring at the end of December. His mass specs are in mothballs. With the exception of hiring of Mike Walter, the new Director, and one other staff member, Sally Tracy, the Lab hasn't grown in many years. Viktor Struzkin, Dave Mao, Rus Hemley, Doug Rumble, and I have retired or moved on, shrinking the Lab’s size by almost 25%--perhaps an ideal time for a merger..
            The merger is probably a good idea. Over the 30 years of coexistence, GL and DTM have merged a few cultural customs. Most important, the Lunch Club, a 75-year tradition started by DTM, is fully “integrated”. The maintenance staff has been working between departments for most of this time. Under new leadership, operations are more uniform than they were when the GL arrived in 1990. There is only one holiday party in December and one harvest party in fall. For GL’s first years at Broad Branch Road, we held a separate holiday party maintaining our tradition of singing Christmas carols accompanied by Bob Hazen on his trumpet following the traditional “Beef and Brew” meal served with leathery green beans and pumpkin pies. DTM’s holiday party was a potluck, and Christmas carols were not in favor. The merged holiday party now features heavy hors d’oeurvres, wine and beer, and a Secret Santa gift exchange. It's a more “vanilla” party than those of the past, but the campus has embraced the new tradition.
            Early in my time at the GL, we had inter-departmental volleyball and softball games once or twice a year. They were largely low-key events, no one was ever injured, and not every one participated. Once GL moved to BBR, the twice-annual Mud Cup, a fierce soccer rivalry between departments, started. Often played in the rain on a muddy field, the Cup itself is a large trophy that is filled with beer and drunk by the winning team. I played for many years on the GL team along with my son Evan, who served as GL’s goalie when he was in high school. I helped organize the women’s contribution to the teams, which were always coed. We usually had 2-3 women per team on the field at anyone time. 
Sean Solomon (DTM) with Mud Cup, gloating
            Mud Cups dominated the banter at Lunch Club and Friday evening’s Beer Hour for a few weeks with a lot of trash talking, conjecturing, bringing in “ringers”, and finding a decent field to play on. After several very serious injuries, including broken legs and crumbled knees, we hired a referee to hand out yellow cards and keep the game within the boundaries of civility. Steelie’s knee injury was not good resulting from what I think was an intentional tackle. No one touched me. And come on, who would injure a 50+-year-old senior scientist? The last “regular” Mud Cup was played this fall with DTM winning 2-1.
            Most importantly, what will happen with the science? Staff member Ron Cohen, whose work focuses on natural and man-made materials under extreme conditions, doesn’t necessarily pigeon hole into the topic of “Earth”. The astronomers at DTM certainly go beyond “Earth” to “Space”, Carnegie’s second concentration. Where would I have landed being a card-carrying biologist? In Carnegie’s third concentration “Life”? As an interdisciplinary scientist dabbling in Earth, Life, and Space, I view the simplification of the Carnegie departments wistfully. I am certain, however, that the GL and DTM merger will go well. Twenty years of Astrobiology have teamed folks like George Cody and Anat Shahar (GL scientists) with DTM folks like Conel Alexander and Alycia Weinberger. Anat has had her mass spectrometer in DTM’s labs for years. Perhaps, with the merger the old isotope ratio mass spec laboratory Doug Rumble and I shared will be upgraded and turned back into its former glory days. Carnegie scientists are resourceful, and I have every confidence that there will continue to be great discoveries in the years ahead.
            To support college and high school interns for both departments, consider contributing to the Fogel fund that I established with my husband Chris in 2016.

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