Friday, November 8, 2019

Isotope Queen Preface

Marilyn, Extreme Dining Belize, 2002

“It is my opinion that for a laboratory as small as ours, the main thing in choosing a new staff member is to find a man with a set of good ideas, the ability to carry them out and the personal drive to work alone. I would consider then the nature of the work he wished to do. The laboratory is too small to do everything, and is even too small to do everything that is significant in the earth sciences. It then seems to me that the type of man that is available is of prime importance… It would be well to have someone who has had some training along biological lines.

Thomas C. Hoering to Philip H. Abelson, 1963

A woman was found instead.


         Looking in the rearview mirror at the 50 years of my journey in science, I see a life rich in scientific discovery as well as scientific colleagues, who have without a doubt enriched my life. No one can predict what path their career will follow. Mine began in 1970 at Penn State University as a biology major, where I became intrigued by recent findings of ancient life on Earth. The Viking space probes had landed on Mars, and impacted my curiosity about life on other planets, a theme that remained dormant for many years. I knew at an early age (19 years old) that I wanted to use my interest in chemistry to investigate biological phenomena that happened during the span of Earth’s history. My career has encompassed three different fields: Biogeochemistry of modern environments and ecosystems; Paleo-biogeochemistry of fossil and historic ecosystems; and Astrobiology. What I’ve learned about how organisms interact with their environment, essentially the study of ecology, and what stable isotope patterns might be associated with those relationships has been critical for interpreting ancient rocks and fossils, as well as signatures of potential life from outer space.

         My PhD work in 1974 was funded by a NASA Exobiology grant. Later in my career, it came as no surprise that I would be fascinated by the search for life in the universe. My work came full circle 30 years later with the study of astrobiology in the Arctic, India, and other extreme environments.

         The majority of my professional career took place at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. I was fortunate to land there at a time when biogeochemistry was in its infancy. Without fully being aware of where I was headed, I jumped with both feet into multi-disciplinary work, not being afraid to collaborate with smart people in many different fields along the way. Carnegie encouraged its staff scientists to think broadly, try new things, and be creative. In the early days from Carnegie Institution’s inception until about 1980, we did our research without significant government funding. My early work was supported in part by grants from private foundations, money that I may have never seen explicitly, but nonetheless provided support for my postdocs, lab supplies, fieldwork, and an occasional conference.

         As I grew more experienced, I transformed from a shy, quiet, perpetually youthful looking woman into a more outgoing leader. Always serious, it took awhile for me to realize that being quiet did not help my career. I attribute the transformation to a supportive husband, motherhood, and great colleagues. My husband, Christopher Swarth, forced me, pleasantly, to stand up for myself and speak out when I had an opinion. As a mother of two young children, I learned more about how to work effectively as a scientist, while taking care of others. Eventually, I developed personal relationships with Geophysical Laboratory scientists, Tom Hoering and Doug Rumble, as well as others who supported my ideas and recognized the value of my hard work.

         Mentoring young scientists along the way became one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Carnegie supported a vigorous postdoctoral program, and typically I worked with one to three postdocs at any one time. Although the Carnegie Institution did not grant academic degrees, I served on the committees of many graduate students and was an active participant in their research. Bright undergrads and high school students somehow magically appeared each summer and enriched my career with their innate fascination for science. I learned much from these folks.

            Below is the story of my career thus far (1970 to 2019).  Its path has influenced many of my direct associates as well as those related to them. My academic family tree, thanks to a lifetime of mentorship from people who cared and were smart, is healthy, active, and strong. These relationships buoy me daily, especially as I transition to the next phase of my career. In 2016, I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Motor Neuron Disease in Europe), which abruptly changed the way that I had planned to end my career. No longer able to travel at the drop of a hat to far-flung field areas, no longer able to wield the wrenches in the lab, and finding it difficult to travel to conferences, I have had to consider what is most important in this phase of my life and why it might be so. Accordingly, it was finally the right time to write a memoir of the experiences I’ve had as a scientist that I hope will serve as inspiration for young and old readers alike on the joys and challenges of a full intellectual and personal life.         
Queen Thora with attendants Susanna Jorge and Liane Benning, Svalbard 2005

            Science today is as important for advancing civilization as it was 50 years ago, but how it’s carried out and by whom is shifting. China has surpassed Japan as the Asian science powerhouse. The European Union is investing large sums of its resources in bigger projects with which the U.S. is not competing. Consequently, how science is done in America and whether or not as a country we will be able to maintain a healthy scientific agenda remains, in my opinion, to be seen. How are young people being introduced to a scientific career? Will they have the freedom that I enjoyed to pursue the science I felt was important? Students I talk to at the University of California are curious about how a career gets started and how it evolves. In particular, early career women want to know how to manifest the right amount of competitive spirit without appearing bitchy and unbecomingly ambitious. I hope that the stories of my journey as a scientist, person, wife, and mother show that women can be “female” and “normal,” all the while being a good scientist. How I handled obstacles provide good examples for early career academics figuring out how to navigate their lives.
Addressing my subjects in Norwegian, M/V Polarsyssel, Svalbard, 2005

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Publishing my memoir—essentially this blog

The Science Part of me, UC Riverside 2018
            I need your help!
 I’ve finished writing the end of my memoir. I’ve edited the manuscript by re-arranging and editing blogs I’ve been posting for the past three months. I love writing. Every morning I am excited to perfect my life’s story by making it more readable and interesting for a wider audience. I have to balance this with lab management, continuing the work of the EDGE Institute, and keeping up with new discoveries.
            I’m now looking for reviewers who don’t know me or who haven’t followed my career for the past forty years AND a publisher who is interested in working with me to turn the draft manuscript into a book.  I want the book to grab the attention of a much wider audience than I now have through Facebook, Twitter, and colleagues in geoscience. I’ll tackle the issue of reviewers first.
            To date, I’ve received four reviews from friends—all women who I’ve known for many years. All are familiar in some way or another with my work; one is a current collaborator. Their comments have been very helpful, but I feel the need now for an expanded perspective: those who aren’t geochemists, men of all ages and backgrounds, and people who don’t know me personally.
            If any of you would like to volunteer to provide a review and who fit this category (for example, non-scientists or guys), let me know! I’m also asking if you could suggest friends or contacts in the literary field, who might provide feedback.
Email me at
            For a publisher to consider my book, I need to write a cover letter with a Hook and a Pitch. The Hook is the thread(s) that runs through a book that keeps the reader turning the page ideally early on in the book.
            Hook #1: The memoir chronicles the challenges that I have faced and overcome as a woman in science over the last half century and how things have changed for me and women in general.
            Hook #2: The memoir describes my evolution as a person and a scientist as a new interdisciplinary scientific field—biogeochemistry--developed.
            Hook #3: The memoir highlights the importance of people and personal relationships in my life and career, something that isn’t always considered important for a scientist’s success.
            The Pitch consists of 2-3 sentences summarizing the book.
            Idea for a pitch:
·      The interdisciplinary science—bio geo chemistry—was ramping up when Marilyn Fogel began her scientific career at a time when women were at a disadvantage for the best jobs. Her memoir chronicles her transition from a shy, quiet person to an outspoken iconoclast in her field. She describes the challenges she faced and continues to face through a half century of achieving success as a scientist, woman, wife, mother, and thoughtful and caring human being. 
            I’ve thought a lot about the audience for the book.  I recently published the geochemical, mostly scientific, version of my career. Writing that article took a full year but provided the framework for the more personal account that is in my memoir.
·      See the link to this open access article which you can download:
            I started the Isotope Queen blog, which is the modern way for a new writer to learn what is engaging her readers on a real-time quick basis. I can see which posts draw the greatest readership. I can see which posts most likely appeal to a smaller group of readers probably with a more scientific bent, although I cannot be sure of this. What I do know for certain is that people are reading about personal challenges I’ve had. They are also interested in light-hearted stories. Last, because geoscientists in general are following the blog, readers are interested in learning about my trials in setting up a laboratory, teaching students, and mentoring women in science.
            My target audience is educated readers who have an interest in science, but may or may not be scientists. I think the book will be of interest to women of all ages, especially those who aspire to a fulfilling career and a satisfying family life. I hope that men will enjoy the journey I’ve written about as well, although I think their opinions and feelings about the memoir may be different. 
The Family/Mother/Wife part, Evan and Meghan's Wedding, DC 2018

            The blog also shows me that it takes more effort than is usual to engage general readers to actually read and understand scientific writing and concepts. It’s also been difficult for me to switch my style of writing so that a non-scientist would want to read about a topic they might typically avoid. A good example of an engaging writing is found in Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, which alternates between short discourses on plants and the up-and-down story of her career and personal and professional challenges. Since we in the same scientific field, I skimmed the science bits but devoured the personal ones. Although I’ve known Hope for many years, I was unaware of her struggle with mental illness. Lab Girl is well worth your time to read, if you haven’t already.
            My chore in the next couple of weeks is to continue to revise and improve the manuscript and prepare submission proposals for a couple of publishers. The University of California Press might be a good possibility. I’ll look at Johns Hopkins University Press since much of the book takes place in Washington DC. Last, I’ll continue my search for smaller, boutique presses that are interested in women’s issues.
            Any suggestions you might have or better yet leads—I’m all ears.

Monday, November 4, 2019

David H. Freeman--a critical thinker and sailor

David H. Freeman (3rd from left) with his daughter Kate (2nd from left), Virignia 1995
 I shared my office with Dave Freeman back in 1980. He was spending his sabbatical with my colleague Tom Hoering at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory in Washington DC. The two of them were developing new methods for purifying a particular type of fat molecule that was in low abundance in marine sediments and ancient rocks. Dave’s expertise was in chromatography—both the liquid type and the gas kind. The majority of his work up to this point was in pure chemical systems. He was starting to branch out into the natural world, which intrigued him more than his earlier methodological studies. His first paper on compounds from sediments was published in 1981. From that point on he delved in the environmental and organic geochemistry realm in which his daughter Kate now is a leader.
            Kate’s news of Dave’s sudden passing brought back some good memories, which remind me of what an endearing fellow he was to me and many others.
            During his sabbatical, he was at a critical juncture in his career and wanted to assess where he’d been and what he’d accomplished. Reading over a list of his publications, he said to me in our shared office, “Do you know what your best five publications are?”
            “Sure,” I said quickly. At that point in time, I only had 5 publications. It wasn’t difficult at all.
            Looking back, Dave was making the conscious decision to take his career in a different more rewarding path. He and Tom Hoering had an easy collaboration style. The two of them maintained a close friendship until Tom’s death in 1995. Dave continued to visit the Geophysical Lab from time to time, and I also developed a friendship with him as I reached scientific adulthood.
            It wasn’t his science necessarily that endeared him to me. It was the infectious, often mischievous little smile that he wore when he was thinking about something that interested him. He was a real thinker—not only about science, which he loved--but about life, people, music, religion, and art. He and his wife Linda also loved to entertain. Just prior to when Chris and I got married in 1986, the Freemans invited us for a sail on their boat moored in the Magothy River on Chesapeake Bay.  We were excited to go! The invitation also included dinner at a local crab shack where we’d have all the blue crabs we could eat.
            We boarded the boat in mid-afternoon. Linda had stocked the galley with appetizers—nuts, olives, cheeses—and a good supply of gin and tonic. We motored out into the open bay, unfurled the sails and glided a few miles across a nearly calm bay. Around 5 pm, Dave weighed anchor and we had our cocktail party overlooking the vast shoreline of coastal Maryland. By the time we were ready to come back to the dock, the wind had completely died. We were “in irons” with the sails luffing, going nowhere. As dusk deepened, Dave said, “Hey, no problem. We’ll motor in.” We laughed, sounded good.
            Unfortunately, the motor couldn’t be turned on after trying for nearly an hour. The stars appeared in the twilight. Eventually, we hailed a passing motorboat, who gave us a tow back to the dock. Dave was nonplussed and Linda seems reconciled that things like this weren’t terribly unusual. We made it to the crab shack eventually. I recall this day most fondly and vividly 33 years later.
            When Tom Hoering was nearing his end, Dave was a stalwart visitor to him. He spearheaded the publication of booklet honoring Tom and wrote this about him:   “ The scientific life for Tom is a complex of doors that open to ideas inside—any one of which might shift a perspective, reveal something new, or lead to a better question.” The quote captures Dave’s flair for words and deep thought.
            In 1995, when we held Tom’s festschrift at a resort in Virginia, Dave sailed his boat down from Maryland and took out a bunch of younger organic geochemists for an afternoon sail on the day of our banquet. By 5 pm, we were starting with a pre-dinner talk. No one had seen the crew or Dave yet. A couple of hours later as dusk fell, I experienced déjà vu. We watched from shoreline as a motorboat towed Dave’s sailboat back to the dock with his guests on board looking relieved.  We had a rousing cheer for them when they came to the banquet.
            It might be said that Dave’s main contribution to science was raising his daughter Kate and mentoring her to become an earth scientist and a chemist. I like to think that because we knew Dave that Kate came to the Geophysical Lab as a college student to wash my lab glassware and help Tom out with chromatography. It might have been that connection that turned her towards grad school with John Hayes, one of the premier stable isotope scientists of my day. Dave was immensely proud of his daughter.
Dave, Marilyn, and Linda, Carnegie 2018

            In April of last year (2018), Chris and I spotted Dave and Linda at a Carnegie event on “Origins” at the P Street location. We called to them and enjoyed catching up over a buffet dinner. They both regaled us with their tales of teaching and learning, ever the active intellectuals in their late eighties. I am so glad I got to touch base with him then. The world will miss Dave. I picture him sailing his boat towards a shore in heaven—sails full of crisp breezes. May he rest in peace.

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...