Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Postdoc Experience

Geophysical Lab Postdocs, circa 1995; Center is Mike Walter--now GL Director!
            When a student in the field of science gets her/his Ph.D., it is customary for the newly minted Dr. to work for another two to four years as a semi-autonomous to fully independent researcher in another person’s laboratory. The position is comparable in some sense to a medical residency, except that postdocs are not required to work excessive 80-hour weeks. They may choose to work as long and hard as they wish, but that generally depends on how passionate they are about their work, the work environment, and the competition in their specific field for a permanent position.
             A postdoc will either work on a project of her/his choice usually as a fellow, or as part of a grant-funded project in which the basic research will be outlined by a senior researcher. Because postdocs no longer need to take classes or pass exams, they can make swift progress with new research. At the same time, they are expected to mentor junior scientific staff in the lab and write up their dissertation work for publication. With the right relationship, a postdoc can amass a lot of data, that can be published in the early years when they’re getting their own labs established. With the wrong relationship, a postdoc can feel like an indentured servant, possibly told to work overtime without compensation. At the Geophysical Lab, the great majority loved their time as a postdoc.
            One of the best things that the Geophysical Laboratory, in fact the Carnegie Institution as a whole, spends its endowment on is funding postdoctoral fellowships, which attract some of the best young minds from around the world. It was not uncommon for a promising postdoc to be offered a position at the Laboratory when there was an opening. I started my career this way, along with current Geophysical Lab staff members Doug Rumble, Yingwei Fei, Tim Strobel, Alex Goncherov, and Bob Hazen. As a staff scientist at the Lab, I mentored many postdocs, many of whom I’ve written about in the memoir (e.g., Mat Wooller, Diane O’Brien, Dave Baker, Seth Newsome, Dominic Papineau, Sue Ziegler, Carmen Aguilar). Each postdoc has her/his own story—most of which were unique—and many of who went on to highly successful careers in academia, government, and private industry.
            Geophysical Lab postdoctoral applicants wrote 2-3 page proposals describing their ideas for a one or two year research project. Mine wasn’t particular good, and I never carried out the work I proposed. When I arrived at the Lab from a fully equipped biology facility in Texas, I landed in an earth science focused environment without the equipment I really needed. Usually for most Geophysical Lab fellows, this was not the case. The Geophysical Laboratory has mass spectrometers, high-pressure apparatuses, and sophisticated microscopes, all available to any postdoc who might want to use them—for free. Once I obtained some used instrumentation from DTM, I was ready to go. With a clean slate, open doors, and plenty of senior scientists to mentor you, a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab is akin to a kid in a candy store.
Shuhei Ono, Sulfur Isotope line, circa 2006

            Frequently, postdocs brought innovation to the otherwise quiet Laboratory. They had youthful energy, new ideas, were fearless. They kept the Lab alive and vital. I’ve mentioned Steve Macko’s nitrogen isotope innovations; Shuhei Ono revamped the sulfur isotope methodology to a high level; Francis McCubbin brought petrology into relevance in astrobiology; Sarah Stewart changed the way we do high pressure experiments; Sung Kyun Lee merged Bjorn Mysen’s petrology studies with George Cody’s NMR expertise; Noreen Tuross infused anthropology with medicine; Matt McCarthy kept my “feet” in ocean sciences; Shiv Sharma brought his expertise in Raman spectroscopy. These are just a few examples of the impact postdocs have had on Geophysical Lab’s scientific direction.
            Women started being hired as postdocs and Predoctoral fellows in the 1960s, although there were very few. Once we came, there were relationships, followed by marriages. It was common for single women to find another postdoc whom she was attracted to, particularly if they shared an office or lab space. Paul Koch, now Dean of Science at UC Santa Cruz, was a postdoc with me who came up with the Gerbil Theory. When placed in a small cage (i.e., the postdoc office), gerbils will mate (i.e. people will pair up). I watched it happen many times, as scientists can be socially introverted. Or, great minds think alike. We’ve had some wonderful, enduring pairs over the years.
Paul Koch, circa 1989
            When Paul Koch arrived at the old Geophysical Lab on Upton St. from the University of Michigan, he was young and green. His project was to analyze carbon and oxygen isotopes from bones and teeth from various animals. He was a contemporary of Zach Sharp’s but did not have the lab skills Zach had. He’d never been in the field, didn’t own a car or truck, and seemed puzzled about how to carry out life. His first field trip was with Kay Behrensmeyer from the Smithsonian to go to Kenya to collect plants and bones as part of her work on taphonomy, the study of what happens to animal carcasses after death. My other postdoc David Velinsky and I took him in the lab and packed his luggage with sampling gear that Paul would need. The trip was a success, and he returned with enough samples for a publication. Within a couple of years, Paul got a loan and bought a truck, wrote an NSF grant and got it funded, then published a paper in Science. The postdoc was just the time he needed to figure things out. Dave Velinsky, a talented experimentalist and field person, now leading a department at Drexel University, fine-tuned his professional skills in speaking and writing while a postdoc. It can be a transformative time for many.
Wooller, Koch, McCarthy, Tuross, and former college intern Jake Waldbauer, 2007
            The Lab also hosted postdocs from around the world. The first from communist China and the USSR came to the Lab in the late 1980s. They were often “handled” by older, senior government officials, who made sure they didn’t defect. Postdocs from Europe typically hung out with each other after work, smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, and talking until the early morning hours. Japanese postdocs (e.g. Taki Yagi, Hikaru Yabuta, Shohei Ohara) had to get accustomed to the English language, completely new customs, and a different way of relating to senior scientists. It was common for international postdocs to come in quiet and leave as strong, independent, English speaking forces that turned out to be leaders when they returned to their home countries.
L-R: David Velinsky, Greg Hickmont, Zach Sharp, circa 1989
            Doug Rumble usually had one postdoc at a time—and they were first rate. They often came from Harvard or another distinguished university. [Page Chamberlain has been mentioned earlier.] Zachary Sharp impressed everyone at Carnegie with his early zip and enthusiasm. Zach, a slight curly haired fellow with an intense manner, invented a laser-based system for analyzing oxygen isotopes in rocks when he was a postdoc. Tom Hoering gave him some practical advice; I served as a sounding board for his ideas and results. Sharp fairly flew up and down the stairs, particularly when his new method worked. He remains, even today, a person who loves new techniques and is a master of his lab at the Univ. of New Mexico.
            James Farquhar took a different path. He spent much of his time thinking about what he could do, rather than what he did do. His ideas diverged from the confines of his dissertation research. George Cody and I listened to him talk for hours about subjects far from what he thought he’d be doing at the Carnegie. James went on to a 2nd postdoc at UC San Diego, where he had his big chance to break into new territory. He discovered unusual sulfur isotope patterns in Precambrian rocks, billions of years old that led to the realization that sulfur isotopes could tell us when the Earth’s atmosphere became oxygenated. He’s come full circle, purchasing a large format mass spectrometer identical to the one Doug Rumble has been working on for the past decade.
            Ed Young, another of Doug’s postdocs, has the world’s first large format mass spectrometer at UCLA and is still working with Doug. The two are opposites in many ways—Ed has a fastidious office and laboratory. He is detail oriented, sharply dressed each day, and driven. Doug’s office is cluttered, his lab holds a dozen or more broken pumps, but he somehow manages to produce sound data. It’s very much a father-son type science relationship that goes back and forth like many regular father-son relationships do when the son is fully grown.
            The Geophysical Lab also hired some non-traditional postdocs who kept unusual hours, drove flashy cars, left precipitously, had affairs with the wrong people, or even wrote their own letters of recommendation. That happened rarely, maybe once every 4-5 years, but formed the stuff of lore for the Laboratory. One “enterprising” postdoc did not get along with Director Hat Yoder. It took a couple of weeks for Yoder to notice that he was no longer receiving any mail—it had been forwarded by the enterprising postdoc to a fictitious address!
            James Scott fit the bill of a non-traditional postdoc, but in a good way. He was a towering, heavyset African American from Ken Nealson’s lab at the Univ. of Wisconsin. I had met James during visits to see Ken, and we had discussed his coming to the Lab for a postdoc. During James’ interview, he brought over 100 plastic overhead slides that slipped off the table when he was giving his presentation, falling in a jumble on the floor. It had to be one of the worst talks we’d ever seen. But, he had remarkable conversations with everyone during one on one interviews. We hired him immediately. James continued to impress us, but he followed a different path—a brilliant man but with little practical sense. Everyone loved him.
            James’ first field trip was to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. He needed to obtain a visa from the Tanzanian government in downtown DC. He spent a couple of days sitting in the waiting room for an appointment, but was never called. When he told us this story, we said, “Oh, you need to ask if you could “expedite” your visa with a cash contribution!” He did, and after handing over $20, he had his visa in about 30 minutes. On the way to Lake Tanganyika, he lost his wallet and credit cards—or they were stolen. Penniless, he called collect and begged for cash. I wired him $1,000 to the local telegraph office, which he picked up in small bills that filled a backpack. We called this adventure “James—Out of Africa”. James always lived this way lurching from calamity to personal challenge. Sadly, he passed away from a massive heart attack during his 4th year as an Assistant Professor at Dartmouth.
James Scott and Dartmouth student circa, 2006

            Although postdocs have little primary responsibility for running a lab, they have the heavy burden of finding a permanent position in a short time frame. In the ‘70s and ‘80s when universities were expanding, Geophysical Lab postdocs were snapped up quickly. At that time, hiring women in interdisciplinary fields wasn’t common, so I suffered many rejections. Now, the opposite is true—women are hired very quickly, whereas men need more exposure to get noticed. Senior scientists spend a lot of time going over interview strategies, cover letters, CVs, and practice talks. Most staff members were essentially teachers in a scientific “finishing school”. We remain very proud of our early career scientists. Mentoring them remains one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Every year at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, former postdocs join Carnegie staff members in celebrating the gift and privilege of doing discovery-based scientific research.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Leaving the Geophysical Lab 2012

Members and spouses of my lab group 2012: Derek Smith, Dave Baker, Roxane Bowden, Verena Starke

            After leaving the Carnegie Institution at the end of December 2012, many people wanted to know more than the boilerplate story I gave them about my husband’s desire to be in California. This reason was in fact true, but the atmosphere of the Geophysical Laboratory had changed under Rus Hemley’s leadership, and in my opinion, not for the best. I admit that I was extremely disappointed that Carnegie President Dick Meserve chose Rus over me. My relationship with Rus swung from polite to adversarial almost immediately. For example, Rus tried to tell me, and maybe other staff members, what we should be doing. Many of us were appointed to committees that held no importance. In general, I felt for the first time that Carnegie really wasn’t appreciative of the work I was doing.

            Hemley and staff member Dave Mao had invented a new method for making synthetic diamonds in the lab using methane gas at high pressure and temperature. They partnered with some diamond investors from England and Israel, Clive and Ouzi, and formed a business “Washington Diamonds, LLC” sometime around fall of 2010. Carnegie Board members and the President were convinced that the diamond business was going to make them a lot of money. The Carnegie Institution of Washington is a non-profit organization, so we wondered how a profit-making business would impact our tax status. More and more we noticed secret business meetings and locked doors on campus. People gathered in my office frequently to complain about the commercial venture. Not a day went by without someone expressing anger about how the “old Lab” was no more.

            About the same time, Bob Hazen was in contact with Jesse Ausubel at the Sloan Foundation. Hazen, a polymath, was promoting a program to study carbon in the deep earth, a project that I had started with George Cody, Andrew Steele, Bjorn Mysen as well as Bob and Rus Hemley years before. When the Sloan grant was awarded, Cody, Steelie, and I were surprised that Sloan required that scientists from places other than Carnegie receive the lion’s share of the funding. I was disappointed that our research was set aside. As the Deep Carbon project unfolded, some funds came our way, but neither George, Steelie, nor I engaged much with this effort.

            Staff members began to discuss whether “small” science or “big” science was more important. Small science referred to what an individual investigator could do on her/his own. Big science meant you were part of a large consortium or a team working on, contributing, and possibly leading that effort. Staff member Doug Rumble was one who made the transition from “small” science to “big” science through the support of the Sloan Foundation to help design and build a new generation, large format mass spectrometer. He managed to launch a new career for himself, being an expert in the instrument’s new findings and consulting around the world on its utility. Personally, I found this discussion about big vs. small to be tedious. I had worked in both “small” and “big” science efforts over the years. I had my own vision for what I wanted to accomplish and resented being told what I should study. Others felt similarly. My office served as a local therapist’s office for a significant part of my day. It seemed like 40% of my valuable time was spent on Lab politics. I could not imagine ending my career in this environment. 
Doug Rumble with his children, Ann and Ken (right) and daughter in law Meg, 2012

            I started interviewing for potential positions in California starting in 2010. My first interview was at Humboldt State University, Chris’s alma mater, located on the coast of Northern California. The position was Associate Dean of the School of Marine Science. I would be in charge of an oceanographic vessel and have an office overlooking a beautiful part of the California coast. When I mentioned my salary requirements and my laboratory wishes, the Dean blanched. The position was terminated, ostensibly because of the economic downturn.

            My second interview was at Univ. of Southern California to be the Director of their Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. I had been encouraged by many of USC’s faculty to apply and think big. When I interviewed, I was asked if I thought I could direct an institute and do research at the same time. Of course, I answered confidently. I had done so when working at NSF. When I thought about this later, I realized how insulting that question was. The two previous Wrigley directors did both—why couldn’t I? Fortunately, they chose another candidate. Given recent problems in USC’s administration since then, I dodged a bullet.

When Chris asked what UC Merced looked like: "middle of nowhere and cows"
            My third interview landed a good offer and startup package at UC Merced. It was difficult to tell some of my long-term Geophysical Lab colleagues that I would be leaving the lab. Steelie knew I was interviewing of course, and Steve Shirey, but I kept things quiet with George Cody and Bjorn Mysen. They suspected I was looking around and weren’t surprised when I told them I had an offer and was seriously considering it. Doug Rumble was another story. Chris and I made a reservation for Doug and his wife Karen at one of our favorite restaurants. When the wine was served, we let them know we’d be going. My farewell party after 35+ years was originally to be cake and champagne at 3 pm, but reason won out, and we had a small symposium followed by a blowout Mexican dinner.

            Nine months after arriving at UC Merced, my phone rang with the news that Rus Hemley had stepped down as Director. George Cody replaced him immediately as Acting Director. Whatever the reasons for the abrupt action, my departure to UC Merced was a warning sign to the Board of Trustees that things at the Geophysical Lab were not going well. By the time I left the Lab after 35 and a half years, I felt like an exile. In early 2014, Dick Meserve retired as President followed by the appointment of Matthew Scott. Within a year, Scott invited me to a Carnegie Trustee’s dinner in Palo Alto. Chris and I drove over to attend, figuring we’d hang out on the sidelines with George Cody, drinking some good wine. I was fully surprised to be seated at the head table with President Scott and Board Chairman Steve Fodor and welcomed back to the Carnegie “family”. It felt good—really good.

            Although my leaving the Lab was based somewhat on negative feelings, I landed at one of the finest public universities in the world at the time when they were rebounding from the recession of 2008-2009. My world has expanded enormously and I’ve been given the opportunity to give back to a community of students, staff, and faculty some of the wisdom I’ve learned over the years. When I received the ALS diagnosis in 2016, Carnegie staff responded by throwing a full blown, outrageously wonderful conference in my honor—Marilyn Madness.
Marilyn Madness Geophysical Lab 2016!

L. Nancy Drew story #2

            For many years, I wrote long email stories about “Nancy Drew”, a ficticious character who solved mysteries on the Carnegie campus. Her first antagonist was a raccoon aptly named Rocky, who drank liquid nitrogen from the outdoor tap, stole cookies from Lunch Club, and created general mayhem. I enjoyed writing these stories. Below is one that I sent around the campus to let everyone know I was leaving. I invented names that sounded like names of people on campus: George Cody, Doug Rumble, Steve Shirey, Andrew Steele, Bjorn Mysen.

On 12.09.2012 20:29, Marilyn Fogel wrote:
Nancy had been working hard, maybe even too hard some might say, keeping her head down and not making too many waves. She'd easily solved the Mystery of the Missing Forks. It turned out that when she was invited to a party at Dr. Lemon Peel's house, she saw the forks nailed to the roof of his chicken coop. (The coop was a favorite feeding spot of our old nemesis Rocky Raccoon).

She also solved the Case of the Generator with Two Loose Screws. Never
mind a 6000 amp breaker, raccoons had moved in via the cozy stove pipe
which malfunctioned in summer. Nancy suspected that Rocky, frustrated by the lack of access to Dr. Peel's chickens, had moved back to the Broad Branch Rd. campus once again. Following the storm that resulted in the 2nd generator failure, Nancy conducted a stake out, carried out a “smoke out” with belching diesel fuel and set those varmints high tailing back to Rock Creek Park.

So, this leaves our heroine back in the lab. She'd worked for a variety of scientists during her tenure. There was Born Again Gleason, who had her grinding bits of glass and melting it to insane temperatures. She would never forget her summer with By and Large Roadie in which she was tasked with finding loose hamiltonians that had escaped from his NMR lab. A month of helping out Dr. Beer Mug Jumble gave her the latest on top restaurants in the world, along with ion paths in giant wombat-like mass spectrometers. Nancy did not strictly limit herself to the Geophysical Lab, either. She did her time in the Geochemistry Building separating Rhenium and osmium from some really old rocks that all looked either gray, dark gray, medium gray, or light gray. Her supervisor there, Dr. Peeved Enquiry was at the pinnacle of Nerdom, with his pens tucked into his shirt placket and his obsession with diamonds, not as objects in women's jewelry, but the lightest of gray rocks.

Nancy wanted to work with a female staff member though. Brooklyn Vocal,
one of the few female staff members on campus known for her east coast,
brash, outspoken ways, was high on Nancy’s list. Why, Dr. Vocal was so
yappy that her postdocs and students needed to work with ear-phones on so that they could get some peace and quiet and actually think.

Brooklyn (really from Jersey, not New York, but did you ever hear her
pronounce "coffee" (cawfee) or "dog" (dawg)?) was on a Mission. Every
leaf, every feather, every bone, every microbe, every variously-shaded
gray rock needed to have isotope values measured on them. Nancy wondered why. Was Dr. Vocal striving for election in the prestigious National Academy like many of her colleagues? Did she have some special knowledge that at the stroke of some unknown date the mass spectrometers would turn into pumpkins and mice?

Nancy needed to solve this mystery. She was assigned, of course, the
tedious job of weighing microgram quantities of all the above items into little pieces of tin and silver. (Again Nancy groaned at the waste of good silver going for science rather than jewelry). She began to wonder, where was Dr. Vocal when she wasn't being her noisy self? Nancy observed Dr. Peel, Born Again, Dr. Roadie, Beer Mug, and Peeved Enquiry carrying on numerous closed door chats. From her father, Chief Detective Drew (now hopelessly confined to a wheelchair), she borrowed his old listening device. This device, running off of an old car battery with vacuum tube electronics, could pick up the sound of a flea at 25 meters.

The next morning, Nancy sauntered into Dr. Vocal's office and asked for
her "advice" on a problem with her roses, her dog, her boy friend, her
experiments, and her career. Familiar with that sort of request, Dr. Vocal put on her “psychologist’s face”, while Nancy sat in the blue office chair and spilled her guts for an hour. [Vocal always kept a box of tissues at the ready, for those who cried. Nancy had seen many come out of Vocal’s office red-eyed, but smiling.]

As Nancy unloaded, they were interrupted by 2 staff members, 1 director, 3 grad students, 4 postdocs, and a custodian.  After these interruptions, Brooklyn looked slightly more puzzled than usual and said, "What were we talking about?" Nancy took the opportunity to walk to the side of her desk, plant the "bug" in the mess of papers, samples, tissues, and pens on Vocal's desk. Then said, “Oh, it was nothing. I just thought I might need some advice about grad school.”

The next day, Nancy weighed samples all the while listening to
conversations in Brooklyn’s office. She heard the words “California”,
“negotiations”, and “transition”. She heard words like “boo hoo” and
“congratulations”. Piecing it all together she realized that within
months, there would be a disappearing staff member.

Screwing up her courage to confront the oft-times stern Dr. Vocal, she
tapped timidly at the door. “Dr. Vocal? Could we chat?” “What? More
problems Nancy? Can’t you figure life out on your own? What will happen
when I move to California?”

Oops, the word was out. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

Chapter 2:
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll write as Marilyn Fogel.

Friends and colleagues, after 35 wonderful years, I will be leaving the
Lab and taking a job as Professor of Ecology at the University of
California at Merced. Not only is Merced the opposite of Washington, DC,
but UC Merced is the opposite of Carnegie. Merced is an agricultural,
small, no-restaurant, economically depressed area in the Central Valley of California. UC Merced was started in 2005, is surrounded by cow pastures, and a work in progress. After 35 years and at the age of 60 (as of 19/9/12), it offers a wonderful opportunity for me to do something completely different than I’ve done before.

My husband, Chris Swarth, was born and raised in California. When we
married 26 years ago, it was our “plan” to move west after 10 years. But who could leave the warm, comfortable environment of the Geophysical Lab? It took some thinking and realizing that this opportunity offers us new people, a new environment, and a new life, all the while being somewhat “old” people.

We’ll be leaving DC after Christmas, in January 2013, driving across the US, and starting to teach by January 15th. My new colleagues on the UC Merced faculty will be 50% women, and I will be the oldest person in the group!

Following the story, I include a letter from a colleague Neil Irvine, an igneous petrologist. 

From:      T. Neil Irvine <>
Subject: Re: [GL] Nancy Drew and the Case of the Disappearing Staff Member
      Date: November 29, 2012 11:23:36 AM PST
                 To:            Marilyn Fogel <>

                                                                                   November 29, 2012
Dear Marilyn,
             I was very sorry to read your message that you were leaving the Geophysical Lab.  All things considered it was not a surprise that you are going, but the announcement still had impact (even though I have typically managed to wait until the last minute to respond)!  You have been the brightest of lights around here for the past 35 years—and you unquestionably rate as the most delightful staff member the Lab has ever had.   As I’ve mentioned to you before (probably more than once), during your first year or two around here (while you were working with Tom on Upton Street) you impressed me as being shy and extremely quiet, and I would never have imagined then that you would turn out to be a star Shakespearian actor, the verbose “Brooklyn Vocal”,  a renegade researcher on Svalbard while simultaneously sporting a tux and toting a rifle to fight off the polar bears—and on and on.   Certainly the place will never be the same without you! 
            You have also been an outstanding scientific staff member in respect to your productivity and your abilities to motivate pre- and post-doctoral fellows and collaborate with colleagues.   You and I are probably as far apart in our research interests as we could possibly be, nevertheless I have always thought of you as the second-best person around here to whom I could go to for reliable advice on my laboratory problems.  (You are second only to Larry Finger, who I necessarily have to keep on a pedestal above all others!)  My personal thanks to you for this help and for everything you have done for our Lab community.
             Lorna and I wish you and Chris the very best in California.   We expect you make a host of new friends there, and we expect you both also to find and face many new challenges and to laugh your way through them.   I wish you good fortune, too, in finding a host of important new isotopic and other scientific problems, all of which you can solve!
Neil (and Lorna) Irvine
Advice for others, Marilyn Madness 2016

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...