Sunday, December 15, 2019

AGU--Done and Dusted!!

For about 10 years, the Fab Four Geochemistry women have been meeting at AGU, supporting each other's careers during the year, becoming friends. L-R: Hilairy Hartnett, Liz Sikes, Marilyn with Iso and Tope, and Kate Freeman
        Tears rolled down my face as I was wheeled out of the Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco at the end of my poster session on Friday. It was a busy week at the American Geophysical Union meeting that started Sunday evening, stretching all the way to Friday afternoon. I’m not sure I’m ready to give science up just yet. If I could manage a week in a busy city with 20,000 attendees, perhaps—just perhaps—I could do this again.
Marilyn and Chris, AGU
            With my husband Chris Swarth and trusted assistant Jeanette Westbrook, we traveled over 10 miles with me in the “Cougar” wheelchair, a light-weight aluminum manual chair, over cable car tracks and through San Francisco’s busy streets. There were no accidents, no falls, and we arrived at our appointments every day on time. For me, it was akin to running a marathon.
Jeanette Westbrook and Marilyn, AGU
            Planning a trip for a disabled person with limited physical abilities like myself requires a lot of forethought and thinking. Our Subaru Outback was loaded down with accessibility gear needed to exist in a hotel environment not customized to my needs. I quipped that traveling with me is similar to traveling with a 2-year old.  Although we had an accessible room in theory, in practice without all of our equipment I wouldn’t have been able to use the bed or the bathroom. Even in a major hotel that is part of an international chain details on what makes a room “accessible” are not as well thought out as they should be. My tolerances for moving around are at the 1-inch level (about 2 centimeters), which is much more demanding than what might be the “average” disabled person.
            Even in the newly renovated convention center, it lacked single-use, gender-neutral restrooms which are critical for families and people like myself. Entrances to the building had only one place with an automatic door button, often located in an area far from where it was most convenient to enter. Without help from colleagues, it would have been difficult to make it around and gain access to talks, where seating plans did not allow for wheelchair “parking”. I sat in the aisles of the session rooms, blocking access for those hoping to get a proper seat. It’s interesting, and a bit troublesome, that people don’t readily open doors for someone in a wheelchair. My last gripe before talking about all the good things that happened is accessibility to tables in restaurants. In several places, I needed to use elevators or enter through a back door. But when I sat at the table, the wheelchair with its footpads extending forward prevented me from getting closer to the table than was comfortable for me, especially since my dexterity at eating has declined.
Bobby Mr. POM, AGU
            But let’s get on to the good things!! After writing to my earth science colleagues the week before and asking them to notice me in a wheelchair, they did! As we strolled between sessions and buildings, I was treated with the delights of hugging and shaking hands with people I thought I’d never see again. I also have learned to shout out a person’s name when they were whisking briefly by. Even that brief passing recognition and greeting had a tremendous positive effect on my mental state.
UCSC students and Fogel Lab folks at AGU

            My schedule was to wake up around 7 am, take the “normal” three hours to get ready, then head down to the Conference for 4-5 hours before returning to the hotel, where I needed to be to use the bathroom. During that time, I could attend oral sessions, poster sessions, have lunch, and meet with colleagues and students from different labs. A favorite meetup was with UC Santa Cruz students and my lab group at a table in the Biogeosciences section of the posters. Our group faced Matt McCarthy’s lab group, exchanging research topics, plans, and problems. Hands down—face-to-face interactions trump digital social media and email. By 3-4 pm I was tired of sitting in a wheelchair, so propped my feet up in the hotel room, taking a brief snooze before heading down to the hotel bar at 6 pm. Every evening, my long-term colleagues—Giff Miller, Dave Baker, Anat Shahar, Steve Shirey, Josh Viers—joined us, reconnecting in person. The stimulation cannot be over stated.
Ivar Mitkandl, AMASE colleague

            Then, we rolled out of the hotel to restaurants around the City, meeting more people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. Thursday night’s meal was a highlight with 30+ isotope colleagues hosted by Kate Freeman (Penn State) and me for community building. The meal was first rate culminating a “feast” of science at the session that we organized with Liz Sikes (Rutgers) and Hilairy Hartnett (ASU) earlier in the day. The oral session was held in a packed room with our younger colleagues (including Mr. POM Bobby Nakamoto) giving the talks. The session was capped by a panel discussion that I participated in with Alex Sessions (Caltech), Matt McCarthy, Kate Freeman, and Barbara Sherwood Lollar (Toronto). As our meal ended, I kept the faces of these dear people in mental photographs. When I’ll see them again, or if I will, I don’t know.
The Thermo isotope ratio mass spec booth at AGU

            Wednesday morning I was treated to recent Ph.D. Jon Nye’s presentation on public policy and the looming scientific disaster at the Salton Sea in southern California. He spoke to a crowd of policy-oriented scientists, who nodded their heads when Jon outlined the new methods he’s using at UC Riverside to connect science research with legislation and public policy. (Stay tuned for a blog on that subject.) Jon’s often a shy, quiet young man, but is fast developing a speaking skill that is engaging folks outside of his scientific discipline. I am enormously proud of him.
Jon Nye's policy talk, AGU
            Monday night’s highlight was Doug Rumble’s retirement party. After nearly 50 years at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory, Doug’s cleaning out his lab of old waste bromine-pentaflouride, boarding a flight this coming Friday for Flagstaff Arizona where he’ll join his wife Karen in a much earned quieter life. The party was filled with his former postdocs and students—which he claimed were his intellectual superiors—a claim that could be argued given Doug’s abilities to recognize and nurture brilliance when he sees it. Either way, it was a room of geochemical talent not often gathered together. I was given the opportunity to roast Doug, telling stories about our 35-year career sharing laboratories and postdocs, forming a special friendship that transcends the usual collegial relationship.
            So, back to that final poster session. I’d sweated over making my poster describing results, findings, and ideas the week before. Not that many folks really wanted to discuss the poster. They came to say goodbye and take selfies. I was overwhelmed. How fortunate has my life been to forge strong bonds and relationships with the people in my career and work environment. These are people who have opened their hearts to me, and the family. It was an emotionally charged moment for me. Given a tissue, I dabbed at the tears and left the conference before fully blubbering.
            Together with all the help—Chris, Jeanette, Dave, Bobby, Jon, Kaycee—we did it. Perhaps—just perhaps—I’ll try it again.
Kaycee Morra (right) at her poster, AGU


  1. Oh Marilyn, I am so glad that AGU was, on the whole, a good experience. I'm glad so many took the time to say hi and to celebrate the many accomplishments of your career and the relationships you've fostered. And I'm glad you blogged about it.

  2. Your earlier blog posts encouraged me to say "hello" when I spotted you at the Moscone Center Friday. We've not worked together, but share the same years of scientific maturation. Your blog really hits home, and I'm very happy you have shared your many experiences with us. Positive messages in the face of struggles are things that truly inspire people!

  3. It was so awesome to see you smiling in your element. Science can be a cold profession sometimes but I felt a lot of warmth, love and even a little rock-star admiration around you at the meeting. I hope that feeling rolls on.

  4. We survived AGU 2019! Now let's take a SELFIE!


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

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