|Bobcat (UC Merced mascot) on the Vernal Pool Reserve 2013|
Although I cried for about half an hour when Chris and I pulled out of our neighborhood on our way across the country to California, the sadness didn’t last long before excitement took its place. We wound our way across the continent stopping to see relatives, Stephanie and Jim in St. Louis and Judy and Peter in Albuquerque. But I was anxious to pick up the pace. I’d purchased our new house in Mariposa by myself. Chris hadn’t seen the quirky property from the inside, and I was a bit nervous. Also, classes were starting fairly soon, and I’d never really taught a full on course before. We arrived in Mariposa around dusk after over a week on the road. Tied to the top of our Subaru Outback were sleeping bags and pads, a few pots and pans, a coffee maker, and clothes for a week.
Our first few days were magical. The house in Mariposa is a rambling, multi-story home with 7 acres of large granite rocks, two ponds, and a small forest. Our moving van was fast in coming. David, our driver who packed up a full 55-foot van with all of our possessions and my lab gear, made two drop offs at the Castle and the house in Mariposa. Miraculously, only two things were broken—a lamp and the frame of an old Swarth family painting.
|House in Mariposa, Evan in pond, 2015|
We both reported for work the following Monday, and I began to move into my new office. Campus building specialist Steve Rabideaux had reserved a nice, full window corner office at the Castle building, UC Merced’s out post in the small town of Atwater adjacent to the former Castle Air Force base. I was shown my mega-laboratory space. You could literally hold a square dance in the room. One side had black and blue lab benches that looked like they came straight out of a junior high school science lab. One older fume hood was located in a back room. There was no running water, no lab sink. I was also assigned two support rooms to serve as offices when I hired folks to people the lab. I slowly unpacked the boxes of samples, put away files, and looked at the rag-tag bunch of stuff I’d brought from Carnegie. It was fun to carry out the renovations to make this a working laboratory.
|Marilyn in Castle Lab, 2013|
At the Castle, I was alone. Alone! After the whirlwind fall at the Geophysical Lab where I was never alone, always busy with a constant stream of people coming through to get their last minute bits of advice and give some out as well. I also had a shared office on campus. Jessica Blois, the other new ecology professor, and I shared a nice office so that we could meet with students, get to know the campus, and have a small foothold with our colleagues. We both started teaching right away. I was nervous for my first class in Ecology. Heck, I had been practicing ecology for decades, but I’d come from an earth science and astrobiology laboratory. It didn’t take long for me to lean into the teaching and enjoy it. (For more on my experience with students, see a forthcoming blog.)
|Selfie after first class--big smiles, 2013|
Again, because I was far removed from my Carnegie people, I got to know the students that year, even recognizing their hand writing on quizzes and tests. I met many of my best students that semester. Meanwhile, Chris was excited to work half time as Director of a new UC natural reserve property adjacent to campus. He was also team teaching a large general education course in Earth System Science. He’d been a college instructor many times in the past, including teaching grad classes at Johns Hopkins when he worked at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, but this was The University of California! At night and on the long drives to and from campus to our house in Mariposa, we discussed our common employer—the University of California Merced. We were working together! Commuting together after 26 years of separate lives. It was a lot of fun.
After 9 short months, I became the Chair of our embryonic Life and Environmental Science Department. I loved and embraced the job. I started work at 5:00 in the morning, with a cup of Peet’s coffee, sitting at our kitchen table. I wrote emails, organized my lectures, and prepared for the day. We left the house around 8:15 am arriving on campus to drop off Chris by 9. I continued another 15 minutes to the Castle laboratory. Our drive, so different from our DC and Maryland commutes, went through miles of blue oak foothills and grasslands. Often we saw eagles soaring over the small creeks. Daily, we drove through agricultural fields where our nation’s food is grown. Different species of hawks—red tails, ferruginous, Swainson’s, and red shouldered—flew overheard every day.
I was able to hire and retain almost half of the faculty in the department. I walked several through the demanding tenure process. I negotiated lab spaces for new assistant professors. I served on leadership campus committees and met everyone from the Provost to the night cleaning staff. It took 16 months for my first isotope mass spectrometer to be operational on April 1st, 2014. I’d hired a former undergrad, David Araiza, and a postdoc, Christina Bradley. We were going places! What a relief to hear vacuum pumps gurgling away again. I had garnered a generous start up package and was having fun buying all new “toys”.
|L-R: David Araiza, Marilyn, Christina Bradley, mass spec boxes 2014|
Chris had the thrill of creating the Merced Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve, a 6,500-acre property, as part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System. He learned an entirely new ecosystem, was breathing the air of his home state, and making new connections with vernal pool biologists across the state that had had an adversarial relationship with previous campus administrators. He traveled out to “the Reserve” daily, driving a small, 4WD off road vehicle--the Gator--on its primitive roads. Chris also had a switched-on crop of undergraduate interns, who made his time on campus worthwhile and tied him into the larger academic scene. Cami Vega, Daniel Toews, and Katherine Cook, all seniors, completed projects and helped out as needed. Together, Chris, his interns, my lab group, and I built a research program starting small and going big. On Friday afternoons, when the campus was eerily quiet, we would rustle any faculty, students or staff to join us in the Gator to view the stark and inspiring vistas of the Reserve.
|Bobby Nakamoto on the Reserve, 2015|
After several years of contentious colleagues at the Geophysical Lab, my UC Merced colleagues were a breath of fresh air. Peggy O’Day, founding Professor, was my recruiter. We have a common geochemistry background and many colleagues in common. The soil scientists, Asmeret Berhe, Steve Hart, and Teamrat Ghezzehei, formed a small group that I warmed to with time. Their science was not immediately interesting to me, but eventually I learned its importance and relevance to terrestrial ecology. The biology-oriented colleagues, Carolin Frank, Danielle Edwards, Justin Yeakel, Jessica Blois, Mike Beman, Mark Sistrom, and Mike Dawson, provided a daily influx of scientific juice that I missed at the Geophysical Lab. Furthermore, they were all younger than me—and young, period—a stark contrast to the senior scientists at Carnegie.
|Chris showing Danielle Edwards and Mark Sistrom kestrel boxes, 2015|
Probably around 2 years from when we arrived at UC Merced, there developed a number of small annoyances that erupted into soul-draining battles. For example, there was little administrative support to run the department, and almost no money. Furthermore, although my colleagues at the Castle were promised we’d have lab space on campus by a certain date, the times came and went without forward progress. As a senior tenured faculty member, I shouldered the burden of fighting for their inclusion on campus with UC quality facilities. By the start of 2016, about 40% of my time was occupied fighting campus “battles”. I felt like General Dwight D. Eisenhower fighting on the African, Southern, and Eastern fronts.
|New lab on main campus, November 2015|
At the same time, Chris was facing increasing scrutiny dealing with environmental issues and access to the Vernal Pool Reserve. His vision for managing an NRS reserve differed significantly from that of his faculty supervisor. He received little support from the very busy faculty on campus. For a combination of reasons, he retired at the end of 2015.
When the opportunity presented itself to me to start a new Institute at UC Riverside doing exactly what I had wanted to do at UC Merced, I jumped at the chance to learn more about it. Chris and I were disappointed with our life at Merced. We knew we’d made the right decision to leave the east coast and strike out for California. We were less convinced we landed in the best place.