Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Student Bobby J. Nakamoto—Mr. POM soon to be Dr. Fish

Bobby Nakamoto, UC Merced Castle Lab 2013

            “Are you his mother?” nurses asked in the emergency room of Mercy Hospital in Merced California. I was sitting in a chair across from my student Bobby Nakamoto, who was undergoing evaluation for what turned out to be a collapsed lung. His long dark hair was swept up in a surgical cap. It was a tense situation.
            “Uh—yeah, I guess so.” I answered, not knowing how to explain to these folks the complex relationship professors, in particular female professors, have with their long-term students. Bobby is half Japanese, half Caucasian. We look nothing alike. The medical people were a bit puzzled why I wasn’t sure how to answer.
            Earlier that morning, when Chris and I arrived on campus, Bobby was leaving the Science and Engineering building looking green. He and I had spent the end of the previous day diagnosing problems on the mass spectrometer. He appeared healthy at that time. On his way home twenty minutes later, he experienced chest pains and headed to the ER thinking he might be having heart trouble. Mercy Hospital is not at the forefront of medical care. After spending 8 hours with a chest x-ray and blood tests, Bobby was sent home with a “clean bill of health”. In the morning, the attending physician who had just come on duty noticed the x-ray showed Bobby had a collapsed lung and ordered him to come straight in. When I heard the news, without question I drove him to the hospital and spent the day as he suffered through several invasive procedures to treat his problem. Everyone needs an advocate when they are in the hospital. I was happy to take on that role. Finally, when I heard his father was on his way down from Northern California, I took off.
Bobby, UCM, New lab 2015
            I described earlier how I met Bobby in my first UC Merced Ecology class (see ** below). Since 2013, we’ve been working together and I’ve had the pleasure of watching him mature from a funny dapper undergraduate to a talented senior grad student who can fix a mass spectrometer, run complex statistical analyses on data, and digest the most complex ideas and theories. Along the way, I’ve asked him to take samples out of the dumpster, pick through coyote shit, work in the 105°F sunny, dry environments near UC Merced’s campus, and re-calculate hundreds of data points and write them down with pencil and paper. On the plus side, he’s also gotten in on the ground floor with hydrogen isotope amino acid measurements, something I originated previously and which will eventually have a substantial impact on the ecological field. He’s had a fully funded PhD project working with a collaborative team from UC Davis as well as UC Merced, and I’ve sent him around the world to present his work.
Marilyn Madness (l-r) Dan Toews, Marilyn, Jon Nye, Liz Wiliams, Joy Stewart, Bobby, 2016
            In return for the positive things, Bobby has provided my “eyes and ears” on the ground in the lab, when I am not there. His judgment in assessing a situation is pretty good for a young man of his age—almost 26 years old. As his major professor, I review his manuscripts and tests and encourage him when he has seemed overwhelmed. Recently, he had to write and submit a 15-page, double-spaced examination to qualify as a PhD candidate. He was required to do this without my normal editing and advice. For months, he moped around the lab. All of us in my lab group could see he was suffering from a lack of confidence, as though an albatross was hanging around his neck (see The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge for the analogy). At the eleventh hour, I glanced at the penultimate version, added a couple of verbs to incomplete sentences, flagged a few commas, and said it looked great. With very few critical comments, he passed the exam on his own merit and hard work. What puzzles me sometimes is how such a talented person can have swings of feeling “not good enough.” I’m hoping that I’ll see continued progress in his learning, skills, and confidence as he passes through the next phase of his PhD work.
            Bobby’s research originally focused on using stable isotope tracers at the natural abundance level to learn about how organic matter—from both algal and bacterial sources—affects the food web in one of California’s river systems. The majority of rivers in California have been dammed to control flow for agriculture and to prevent disastrous flooding. Our research team, in which Bobby is a member, has been studying one of California’s undammed rivers, the Cosumnes that flows towards the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta near the city of Stockton in Central California. Although the river has not been dammed, its banks have been levied with berms of soil to hold back floods during high rainfall events. Consequently, the ecosystem of levied and dammed rivers cannot and does not support the food web that it did historically, resulting in the collapse of some California’s native salmon populations.
            To understand how the Cosumnes river system is currently working prior to major earth-moving planned to remove some of the levies, Bobby collected and measured hundreds of samples of riverine “muck” filtered from one liter of water taken over the course of two years. We call the “muck” particulate organic matter or POM. Bobby has become Mr. POM of the Cosumnes, a title he’d rather not hold onto. His primary passion is for the study of fishes. While fishermen in bass boats ply the Delta bagging their limits of bass, our scientific team was unable to obtain a permit for any fish collection, because we might have accidently taken one of the endangered Delta smelts that are in severe decline, heading towards extinction.
Kingsley Odigie and Bobby, UC Riverside 2017
            Mr. POM took his hundreds of data points, graphed them, modeled them, and wrote his first paper where he took the lead on writing the document, compiling reviews, and submitting the paper. After more than 40 rounds of revision, the work is back in the hands of anonymous reviewers. Meanwhile, Bobby has his hands (well his analytical hands) on a set of Chinook salmon grown in experimental cages in rice paddies and the river. Working closely with a UC Davis team, he is figuring out whether “Dark Carbon” (not to be confused with Dark Matter) originating from microbial processes removed from photosynthesis is important for supporting the growth and reproduction of these native fish. Further, he’s branched out with a new collaboration studying fish and working with an evolutionary biologist from Texas A&M who has an interesting study system in rural Mexico. I’m thinking he’ll be moving on to the moniker Dr. Fish pretty soon.
            During the nearly seven years I’ve known Bobby, he’s had two serious relationships that I am aware of. As is typical with the difference in age and position, I don’t usually know what’s going on until after everyone else in the lab does. As a major professor and a science “mother,” there is a fine line between knowing too much about a person versus knowing just enough to keep someone on track to accomplish their work and be happy. For each and every student or postdoc, the path that I take is different for each, because, of course, we’re all individuals and no one size fits all. On that awful day in the hospital three and a half years ago, after two tries, the physician at Mercy Hospital managed to inflate Bobby’s lung. We were relieved. I could hang up my temporary science mother role for a while, and put on my more serious, demanding role as a Major Professor. I’ve got to see this young man launched and will work hard to see that I do.
L-r: Bobby, Jeanette, lab folks Riverside CA 2019
** “A second student who stood out that first semester was only a sophomore. On exam days, he wore a tie or a bowtie and dress pants. His first examinations placed him among the “A” students. His third midterm performance was sub-par. I wrote to the student, Bobby Nakamoto, asking him to come in for office hours. After a few days of not hearing from him, I called him to the front of the classroom after lecture and asked directly when he was coming into my office. It was the start of a six-year professor-student relationship that continues to this day.

            As my first semester wore on, I often looked to ecology students Bobby to explain simple mathematical concepts that some of the students weren’t grasping. He has a knack for explaining abstract concepts in simple terms, something I struggle with. Bobby worked as a volunteer for the following semester, then I hired him as a student assistant. He was assigned nutrient analyses of soils, meteorite extracts, and waters. Both of us think through procedures sequentially and abstractly. I could give instructions with a few words and a wave of my hands. He understood and carried out the work silently. When he was about to graduate, Bobby looked around at other graduate schools, but no one was smart enough to bring him into their program. He joined my lab group, now a senior graduate student, the person who can fix anything and is my right hand now that I’m physically limited.”

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