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

Geo-ecolgy and the Smithsonian fellowships

Marilyn, Jess Parker, Glenn Piercey, Smithsonian Research Center, preparing to soar in a crane 40 m high, circa 1999
      As my career developed, I became more engaged in straight-out ecological research because stable isotope biogeochemistry was becoming increasingly accepted by the ecological community.  My goal as a stable isotope ecologist is to learn as much as I can about modern ecosystems on a global scale so that I can use that knowledge to interpret fossil ecosystems where direct observation of the plants, animals, and microbes is not possible. I have worked in most of the major biomes: deserts, temperate deciduous forests, grasslands, alpine, arctic, taiga, tundra, temperate rain forests, woodlands, freshwater wetlands, estuaries, coastal wetlands, lakes, marine ecosystems, and coral reefs. From my first forays in South Texas bays in 1974 to my last trip to Arctic Svalbard in 2015, the unity of nature in combination with all of the variables that shape ecosystems and influence their isotopic composition has been a learning experience. My work took me to almost every continent: North America, South America, Central America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa, only missing out on Antarctica. Doing ecological field work internationally requires extensive preparation, sampling permit applications, import and export permits, advance planning, and being nimble on your feet when conditions change---but it is worth it all. In relationship to field work, Mat Wooller, University of Alaska, trumpeted the “Seven Ps”: “Prior preparation and planning prevent piss poor performance.”
         The term Geo-Ecology, as it pertained to my research, surfaced around 2009. For the first two-thirds of my career, the impetus for my research was primarily in sync with the biogeochemistry community, and secondarily the geochemical community. Much of my early work established isotope fractionations for certain biochemical pathways, information which proved useful for others who were interpreting isotopic measurements that were more applied to a particular problem or ecosystem. The major incentive for me to begin to concentrate more on ecology came from two fellowships (Loeb and Mellon Fellow) awarded to me by the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Maryland. I was awarded unrestricted funds to develop collaborations with Smithsonian Institution scientists at SERC, as well as to provide access to my stable isotope lab at Carnegie since the Smithsonian did not have an IRMS facility at that time.
Rhode River, Maryland, site of fish studies at SERC
Setting up a fish weir on the Rhode River
         My first collaboration was with Anson Tuck Hines, Associate Director of SERC and a fish and crab biologist. Seining for estuarine fish and other field sampling took place weekly on the Rhode River, Hines’ lab study site on the Chesapeake Bay. We measured the carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of over 800 samples of fish, invertebrates, zooplankton, phytoplankton, and seaweeds in three Chesapeake Bay tributaries: Rhode River, Nanticoke River, and Muddy Creek. Ecologists are interested in identifying the source of primary production at the base of food webs and how it changes over space (habitats) and time. In terrestrial river systems, organic carbon that supports food webs can come from sources produced in the river-estuary system (i.e. autochthonous) or from terrestrial plant material washed in from land (i.e. allochthonous). For my first project with SERC, we determined that autochthonous sources were most important for zooplankton and the larger fish, such as the striped bass, whereas allochthonous sources influenced the diets of benthic organisms, like clams. In the Chesapeake Bay, the striped bass is an important and threatened fish species which once supported a plentiful, commercial fishery. Now the catch is strictly regulated and open only to recreational fishing.
Marilyn and Jess Parker in the crane, SERC
         With SERC plant ecologist Jess Parker, we rented a crane that took us to the tops of 30-40 meter trees to collect leaves in SERC’s temperate deciduous forest. How cool is that to be lifted high off the ground in a little bucket pointing out leaves you’d like to sample? We documented that leaves growing higher in the canopy have more positive carbon isotope values than those lower in the canopy. Our results were paired with Penn State’s results on tropical rain forests, which were used to bolster the interpretation of carbon values measured in fossil leaves. In a sedimentary deposit, leaf fragments often persist millions of years (e.g. Schweitzer et al., 2006), and their carbon isotope values serve as proxies to construct paleoenvironmental conditions such as paleo-carbon dioxide levels, temperature, or rainfall. 
         Not only did the Loeb fellowship open up doors with Smithsonian colleagues, but it provided funding for me to hire laboratory technical support, postdocs, and undergraduate and graduate interns. With all of the samples to analyze, I needed to hire a lab assistant to help out. My first choice for the position was Mat Wooller, then finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Swansea in Wales. Mat had about a year left to finish up before you could move to the United States.  I was left with a quandary of what to do for the year gap. I ended up hiring Glenn Piercey, who had little to no direct experience with stable isotopes. Glenn’s girlfriend at the time—my current postdoc Sue Ziegler—was hoping that she and Glenn would have a chance of getting to know each other further, if he had a job in the Washington, DC, area. Hiring Glenn seemed a good way to get the Loeb projects started. Within a few months, Sue and Glenn announced their engagement, were subsequently married, and have a full life and family. I’d say this was a most successful hire on many fronts.
Glenn Piercey running the isotope instruments, 1999

         Another project that extended for many years was a collaboration with Tom Jordan, a nutrient biogeochemist. A normally taciturn man, Tom had an easy going way about him and thought carefully before beginning a project. We settled on using stable isotopes in nitrate to learn if runoff from farmer’s fertilizers were contaminating the Chesapeake Bay. This study required that I come up to speed with oxygen and nitrogen isotopes in silver nitrate—an analysis that requires strict chemical processing, running lots of standards, and keeps you on your analytical toes. Our results from years later showed that buffer zones between a farmer’s fields and the Bay worked to convert much of the fertilizer runoff into nitrogen gas, which escapes into the atmosphere.
         The Mellon Fellowship provided funding to study the effects of the waste from chicken farming on the Chesapeake Bay and environs. More on that later.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Isotopes are invisible--why have I bothered?

Marilyn fixing the mass spectrometer. The Pig Hat (Arkansas razor back) is put on to channel energy and intelligence.

            Most people work with things they can see. Doctors deal with patients, real humans. Even if they are trying to figure out a disease, they can look at blood and tissues, listen to organ systems working away. Most ecologists deal with plants, animals, or soils that they can hold or observe, count with their eyes, or manipulate. Even chemists can carry out reactions with liquids, solids, and gases and create products that can be seen, smelled, and weighed. Engineers create tangible things—cars, computers, and bridges. Non-scientists sell things, nurse people back to health, teach students, or manage money.
            I’ve spent over 40 years working with something that I can’t see, hear, smell, or taste—studying the stable isotope, which can only be studied through a complicated series of chemical and physical steps that result in a very small electric charge being turned into a computer signal. The work is abstract. It’s picky. I have to be satisfied with looking at a computer screen or a spreadsheet to get my work’s reward.
            Why in the world would anyone spend four decades in such a pursuit? Because those small differences in the types of isotopes—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur—can tell those who have studied them how animals and plants have survived over billions of years. We can understand chemical reactions that can’t be seen, but are vital for living organisms to function. We can tell the types of foods you’ve been eating. We can figure out where you were born and where you moved during your childhood years.
A "dirty" source--needs an expert to take about >100 pieces to clean.
            My expertise did not come suddenly, and it wasn’t learned from a book. When I was a graduate student, I knew nothing. We had to memorize how a mass spectrometer—the instrument we use for our measurements—worked, but had no real understanding. As a postdoc, I made many mistakes in the laboratory. Broke a lot of glass lines, blew up a few things. I learned from those mistakes, but truly, couldn’t work my way out of any complicated situation. What I did learn during this time was how to interpret the “magic numbers” that were calculated after all the chemistry and physics was done right. I figured out something about the biology of the organisms I was working on. The magic numbers were no longer “magic”—they were real.
            As a new staff member building my own lab, I built up my experience by learning new things every year or so. Many scientists spend their whole lives researching one slim topic. I branched out quite early, which was key for developing a broad sense about invisible isotopes and what they mean. Today, I can trouble shoot an instrument from my desk in Mariposa, talking to students and postdocs via Skype. None of us see the isotopes, but we measure times, temperatures, flow rates, and peak sizes. They are learning the nuts and bolts of their chosen field.
            We analyze substances referred to as isotope standards. There are internationally recognized isotope standards, commercial isotope standards, inter-laboratory isotope standards, and individual laboratory isotope standards. These substances range from toilet seats, peach leaves, plastic, oil, amino acids, milk protein, water, gases, hair, feathers, fertilizers, extinct fossil shells to meteorites. Some believe that if you are going to analyze animal tissue (e.g. squirrel monkeys), you need to have a squirrel monkey standard. Every time we isotope geochemists measure one sample, we analyze 3-4 standards of different types to compare it to.
Shuhei Ono's lab at MIT

            For a first pass, our standards need to provide the correct “magic number” or else something is wrong. One of the chemical steps might need adjustment. There might be a vacuum leak. An electrical wire might be loose. If the numbers do come out matching what others have measured, we then look to see if they are reproducible. The laws of chemistry and physics are the same in Riverside, California, as they are in Beijing, China. If we can make a measurement in August, we should be able to repeat it in December. To make accurate and precise and reproducible measurements of small, sub-microscopic particles demand that attention be paid to the smallest details.
            What sort of person takes up this type of science? Starting in the 1960s, only a handful—literally—was interested and involved in the field. When I started in the 1970s, you personally knew almost everyone in the field. You read just about every paper published with stable isotopes. Now, there are several thousand scientists interpreting these “magic numbers” figuring out how the Moon was formed, learning about processes on distant planets, and finding out if Tour d’France bike racers used illicit performance enhancing drugs.
            We’re a fairly tight knit group in some ways. I correspond with about 100 different people a week on the small details of stable isotope analyses. We criticize each other’s work, usually supportively. Many of us meet once or twice yearly in person, where we present our findings for critical review. 
My lab at UC Merced

            The hazards in this field are numerous. We depend on explosive chemicals—fluorine gas, for example. We generate poisonous gases—carbon monoxide, for example. We use deadly chemicals—hot mercury and hot uranium. I’ve been burned, shocked, hit with flying glass shards. Some of my colleagues have suffered much worse. With only a very few exceptions, isotope scientists are careful people. We work well with details. 
            Now, when I see a landscape or learn about a new animal, I think, “How would stable isotopes help figure how these things work?” It might be surprising to anyone else that someone could spend such a long time devoted to things I can’t see, smell, taste or hear. But, to others, not surprising at all.
            We’re isotope nerds.
Isotope Nerds at Univ. of New Mexico: Marilyn, Seth Newsome, Page Chamberlain (Stanford), Paul Koch (UCSC)Back row: John Whiteman, Alexi Besser, Christy Mancuso, Emma Elliot-Smith


Before the #Metoo Era

5 Women out of 51 attendees: Marilyn is center front row
            In the early days of my career, I was typically one of about 5-8 women out of the 100-200 people who attended the smaller conferences in my discipline. At larger meetings like the Geological Society of America (GSA), there were ususally about 10 women for every 100 men. It should come as no surprise that we women were often targeted for unwanted sexual attention, bordering on sexual harassment.
            In 1983, at the International Meeting of Organic Geochemists (IMOG) that took place in The Hague, Netherlands, I was subjected to a particularly embarrassing situation. At all IMOG meetings, on the next to the last day of the conference, a banquet is held. These are no “rubber chicken” banquets—they serve shots and glasses of local whiskies, wines, and beers. Typically, the alcoholic beverages are served for an hour or two before the food arrives. Several times at IMOG, the food was secondary to the liquor. 
11 Women with 152 attendees. Marilyn is in 3rd row, 2nd from left.

            There is also always dancing at these meetings. Imagine 150 men hanging around 10 or so women in 1983. My “dance card” was always filled so to speak. Later in the evening, one of the senior organic geochemists, Wolfgang Seifert of Chevron Oil, had had more than enough to drink. When the next song started, he literally grabbed me and started madly dancing. Geochemists parted and formed a circle around us--cheering, hooting, and clapping—the kind of attention that a young professional female scientist, 31 years old, does not need. I was powerless to free myself. With one arm around my waist and the other holding my hand, he lifted me off the floor, feet in the air, and swung me around and around. The geochemists whooped even louder and laughed hysterically. I was mortified.
            The end of the evening was capped off by another encounter with a drunken organic geochemist, who blubbered his admiration and sloppily propositioned me. Scenes like this often took place. My more sober male colleagues knew who the serious alcoholics were and shook their heads. Often, they offered to get rid of the pesky idiot for me. In today’s world, offensive behavior like this is no longer tolerated at conferences or scientific meetings. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, some people thought that women got their scientific ideas from the men they slept with. Today, this is an absolutely ridiculous notion!
            As the only senior woman scientist at the Geophysical Lab for 30 years, I was usually the person that all of the other women went to when they had a problem. One afternoon circa 1998, while I was working on some data late in the day, a student knocked timidly on my door and stuck her head in.
            “Can I come in for a minute?” Sure, I answered. She looked uncomfortable, so I asked if she wanted me to close the office doors. She nodded and looked relieved. A visitor to her lab had followed her into the Ladies Room, cornered her in the laboratory, and put his hands on her where they should never have been. The student was not the type you’d think might attract a creep like this. She kept to herself, worked odd hours, and wasn’t the sort to wear anything close to “suggestive” clothing. I had incorrectly assumed that a person like this would be an unusual target. On hindsight, she was just the type of person—shy, introverted, quiet—that is picked on by predatory men. I reported the incident to Director Charlie Prewitt, who I describe as the “Jimmy Carter” of Geophysical Lab directors. He was pained to hear this and acted promptly by revoking the visitor’s invitation to work at the Lab. Within a week, the Pernicious Creep was gone.
            Sexual harassment and discrimination is usually not that easy to deal with. Often the line is “fuzzy”—did someone do this intentionally? Was it harassment or discrimination? My next big challenge came in the form of a lab fire, of all things. I was the Geophysical Lab’s Safety Officer, in charge of chemicals, hazards, and compressed gases. I had just finished cooking a lunch club meal, talking with former Postdoc Carmen Aguilar, when the fire alarm went off in the building. Another postdoc rushed in and shouted, “Do you know if lithium is toxic?” I thought for minute, as I was preparing to vacate the building, then answered, “Well, they give it to people with bipolar disorder. Can’t be too toxic. Wonder what this fire alarm is about?”
            Turns out, this postdoc had dropped lithium metal that had been soaking in water onto the floor of the Science Building. The linoleum floor caught fire, as the metal reacted violently with the water, melted the glass beaker holding it, and dripped onto the floor. Within minutes, four large fire engines came to the campus and extinguished the fire. As Safety Officer, I needed to direct the fire fighters into the lab, advise them on hazards, and tell them what started the fire. When the Captain heard the word “chemical fire”, many large 6 foot 4 inch tall fire chiefs surrounded me and demanded to know about lithium and its toxicity. The campus was evacuated, and everyone except for a few of us was sent home. The laboratory was cleaned up and repaired. The poor postdoc with the reactive lithium was apologetic.
            Three weeks later, four women postdocs from our sister lab, DTM, knocked on my door. This was unusual, so without asking we shut the outer doors and I waited. Slowly the story spilled out. The lithium fire started in their office, by the postdoc who was showing off by pouring bottled water directly on the lithium. The women were offended that he wasn’t reprimanded. It didn’t seem fair to them that he had gotten away with something this serious. It felt like special treatment, discrimination in a sense that a man could do this, but god forbid a woman would do something so stupid and dangerous. I went immediately to inform the current Lab Director, who was furious with the new version of the story. How the postdoc who started the fire was subsequently disciplined, was a mystery. We heard he was fired, then learned he was reinstated. To me, it was symptomatic about the way in which men seemed more entitled than the women scientists working at the lab.
            A few years later, I received a complaint from one of the Hispanic maintenance men, an unlikely person to report sexual harassment. Carnegie hired contractors to clean our campus buildings. I suspect some of the women cleaners might have been undocumented workers, who were afraid to report that they were being harassed. Apparently, at least three of the women were followed around, cornered as they worked, asked out on “dates” by one of our maintenance supervisors. If they rebuffed his advances, they were fired. I shared this with my senior female colleagues, now that I was no longer the only senior woman on campus. We took the problem to our Directors. They prevaricated, made excuses, and refused to consider discussing the matter with the employee without further “proof”. We were angry, disappointed, and held a meeting for all of the women on the Carnegie campus. Eventually, years later, with a complete change in leadership, this problem was dealt with and the harassment stopped. But it took years for this to happen. Why should that be?
            How often do we hear of Universities like Berkeley and UC Irvine, failing to deal with serious sexual harassment issues? Geoff Marcy and Francis Ayalla were serial harassers, yet because they were famous scientists and brought in copious amounts of grant money, administrators ignored the complaints. As a UC Professor, I am now required to report anything that possibly might violate Title IX legislation. I have seen and known, now, of the pendulum swinging the other way. Are we being too sensitive? How are we investigating the complaints?
            As new Assistant Professors, both the men and the women, will now need to develop a better way of dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination that seem to be surfacing in every walk of life. For young, vulnerable women (and men), I feel that the new era is empowering them to recognize and stop abusive behavior. It’s an aspect of my career that I wish I hadn’t had to deal with, but I am glad I accepted the challenge to defend those who needed it and sought justice. Always stick up for the “little” gal or guy. It’s the right thing to do.

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...