Friday, December 6, 2019

It's AGU week! Geophysical Lab lore

Marilyn addressing crowd at Marilyn Madness, BBR lunch room 2016

Geophysical Lab History and Colleagues: 1950s to 2008

            Phil Abelson became the Director of the Geophysical Laboratory in 1953, after spending the years during and after World War II at sister lab, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. One of his first hires was Tom Hoering, then a professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, a hot bed of isotope research in the United States. His second hire was P. Edgar (Ed) Hare who was postdocing at Caltech. Both were some of the first of a new breed of chemist—geochemists trained to study the compositions of rocks and sediments, rather than synthetic products that most chemists study. Tom and Ed were even more specialized: they analyzed the organic remains of living organisms from geological samples thousands, millions, or even billions of years old.

            Abelson, Hoering, and Hare joined the Geophysical Lab’s senior staff that had for over 50 years concentrated only on inorganic samples. It might even be said that the three were second-class citizens who were doing something completely out of the Lab’s mainstream. Abelson became President of the Carnegie in 1971, leaving just Tom and Ed to carry out the biogeochemistry program. They hosted several successful postdoctoral fellows during this time and were vigorous researchers on their own. In the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Annual Report of 1971-1972, the research highlighted a new type of mass spectrometer for identifying compound structures (Hoering, 1972; Hare, 1972) from hydrocarbons and amino acids from the Cariaco Trench, an anoxic sediment basin just north of Venezuela. In the 1972-1973 annual report, there were only two reports on Biogeochemistry, dwarfed by petrological studies of all sorts. That trend continued—Hoering published one or two papers per year switching between organic geochemistry work and stable isotope studies; Hare was dating bones by new techniques; postdocs contributed one or two sound reports. Ed Hare had firmly established himself as the expert in measuring amino acids in everything you could think about. Tom Hoering was a generalist with a hand-made stable isotope laboratory with some new “toys” for studying rare molecules. This was the scenario when I arrived in 1977 to work on hydrogen isotopes.

            In 1963, Tom wrote to Abelson about his feelings in the early days of biogeochemistry.

“The decision to work on organic geochemistry was not a bad one and I feel that the work we have done in the last few years has been good work. However, as I look about and see what progress has been made in the field of geochemistry of stable isotopes, I feel that we may be missing the boat in that area. In fact relatively little progress has been made in the last five years. I am sure the field is not “mined out.” Only one new laboratory that is doing first class research has been opened up in that time. For example, my initial work on the geochemistry of the stable isotopes of nitrogen has not been extended by anyone and I see no one who will in the near future…When the true facts are known, there is relatively little enthusiasm among the rest of the staff members for organic geochemistry. This has tended to make me feel a little isolated from the rest of the group. Also, the fact that I have set up, from scratch, a reasonably expensive laboratory has caused some long looks my way…After five years, I scarcely know some of the other staff members…”

            “I think one major area that the laboratory could profitably undertake that would complement the program in organic geochemistry is “biogeochemistry,” the interaction of the biosphere with the lithosphere…It would seem that if we are going to worry what is happening to the organic matter in ancient sediments, we should worry about what is being fed into recent sediments and how this organic matter interacts with the inorganic world about it. It would be well to have someone who has had some training along biological lines. “

            When Tom wrote this memo I was 11 years old and in the 6th grade. That year, I wrote an essay that when I grew up I wanted to have a chemistry lab, six dogs, and five children. It took fourteen years for me to make it to the Geophysical Lab, ready to take on the challenge of building a biogeochemistry program. Hoering also noted in this letter than someone needed to work on the oxygen isotopes of silicate rocks. In 1972, my colleague Doug Rumble, a Harvard grad and UCLA assistant professor, was hired to do just that. Tom was prescient in so many ways.

2801 Upton St. N.W. The “old” Geophysical Laboratory
            Built in the early 1900s, the Geophysical Laboratory, two blocks off of busy Connecticut Ave. in Washington DC was specially designed for sensitive temperature measurements important for determining how the interior of the Earth was structured. The Laboratory’s interior walls were 18 inches thick (about 40 centimeter) and the exterior walls at least two feet thick. Perched on top of the second highest hill in Washington (the National Cathedral is on the highest), the Lab commanded a view of much of downtown D.C. through the filter of tall trees that graced the grounds. I first saw the Lab in July 1977, a few days before starting my postdoc. It was the 4th of July weekend, so I was to start work immediately after the holiday. My friend Nancy “Nat” Peters drove me by. We stared in awe of the august building. I felt humbled.

            When I arrived for work a day or so later, entering through the double doors of the main entrance, the First Floor hallway was eerily silent. Wooden museum cabinets flanked the walls containing mineral specimens that had been given names in honor of the famous scientists who had worked at the Geophysical Lab. I reported first to Tom Hoering in his office and lab suite on the First Floor. Hoering’s office centered on his old oak desk and was flanked on either side by lab benches holding a balance for weighing, a small refrigerator, and two gas chromatographs. He loved being among the hum of instruments, even in his office. The main lab held three mass spectrometers—an old homemade instrument, a new Nuclide mass spectrometer to measure hydrogen isotopes, and a third mass spectrometer for measuring the chemical structures of unknown compounds from sediments, oils, and rocks. Lab benches by the front windows were covered with custom made glass vacuum lines with columns of liquid mercury, pumps, and furnaces. A smaller interior lab included two ancient soapstone hoods that barely worked, a bromine-pentafluoride vacuum line for analyzing oxygen isotopes in rocks, and the laboratory bench that became my “home” for doing research for the next several years.

            After a brief meeting, I was taken to the Second Floor where the Director had a suite of offices and the secretarial staff was located. In those days, people used telephones and letters to communicate, rather than email or text messages. Secretaries answered most phone calls, then used a complex series of bells to summon us to answer the phone. My call sign was 5-1: ding ding ding ding ding pause ding. Hoering’s was 5-2. When we heard five rings, we both listened up. The secretaries also typed all of our manuscripts and correspondence. They were sources of important information on how things really worked.

            I was assigned a desk space at the other end of the hall from Tom’s lab, just outside of Larry Finger’s crystallography laboratory on the First Floor. With tousled curly brown hair and a matching beard of a similar unruly nature, Finger had designed an automated laboratory with two or three sophisticated X-ray instruments specially designed to measure the crystal structure of very small pieces of common and rare minerals. He was an early computer whiz. His inner office, stacked with paper computer codes, punch cards, and various computer parts, was the typical scientific mess. Larry was assigned the job of computer support for the Lab, which took up a considerable amount of his valuable time. Often he was seen as a grumpy tyrant, but in reality, he was very generous with his time and knowledge.

            Over the next few years, my Lab “real estate” expanded from the Basement all the way to the Attic floor. To sterilize the media for my microbial cultures, I used an autoclave—a large, hot, pressurized cylinder that was installed in the basement room where the maintenance staff ate their lunches and changed their clothes. When I was coming down the spiral staircase into this room, the support staff “lair,” I whistled so that I wouldn’t literally catch them with their pants down. One floor lower was where the Boiler Room and Electrical Vault lay. The Lab’s only shower, peppered with mold and grime from years of not being regularly cleaned, was located on this level. The few women at the Lab rarely, if ever, used it. The Electrical Vault doubled as a Barber Shop, run by our mail clerk, Harvey Lutz. Budget conscious staff scientists had their hair trimmed there on a regular basis.

            The Attic was a similarly unusual place that served many purposes. It housed a storeroom of used glassware and chemicals, a dark room for processing photographs and slides, an archive of old papers, a museum-like office with former staff member Frank Schairer’s pipe, desk, and papers, and a small room that I used for transferring microbial cultures. When any postdoc needed a few beakers for an experiment, she/he was sent by Dave Singer, the Assistant to the Director, to the Attic to see if some could be found in the jumbled storeroom. The storeroom held a treasure trove of old historic junk, including all of the radioactive samples analyzed over the Lab’s history.

            In order to maintain sterile conditions, I needed to shine ultraviolet lights on the bench tops for 8 hours prior to working. Here was my routine: 1) make the culture media in my lab on the First Floor; 2) carry it and the glassware for growing the microbes into the Basement where it was sterilized; 3) bring it up to the Attic for inoculating with microbes; 4) carry down the cultures to my lab on the First Floor. Hardly convenient, especially since the Laboratory had no elevator!    

            Tucked underneath the stairs on the Ground Floor, Doug Rumble’s small lab housed the Nuclide isotope ratio mass spectrometer we shared. I would prepare samples in my First Floor lab, then shuttle them downstairs for final analyses. Our gas tanks came into the Ground Floor from an adjacent parking lot. When we needed one upstairs, our janitorial staff used an old-fashioned dumbwaiter to physically haul it up. The instrument shop took up much of the real estate on the Ground Floor. Employing three to four machinists at any one time, the Shop could make any complex metal structure you could imagine. Having this facility on site made the difference for most of the Lab’s scientists, who designed their own specialized equipment. The men’s only restroom was on the Ground Floor and was the only restroom in the building when it was built, meaning there was no ladies restroom!
Sometime in the 1930s, a Ladies room was built on the Second Floor.

            The rear of the Laboratory held three external, separate buildings: the Dog Sheds, low “temporary” laboratories built for research during World War II; the Electronics Shack, housing our electron microprobe; and a metal shed holding years of old, often-leaking chemicals. Rus Hemley managed to build a nice lab in the Dog Sheds that overlooked the volleyball court, which was outside the Dog Sheds and actively used for games at lunchtime. We also used the court for disposing waste bromine pentafluoride, a nasty explosive chemical that reacted safely with the water vapor in DC’s humid air.

            The exterior of the Lab was tan stucco, with a very distinct patch on the side where stucco was replaced after a serious fire. Two tall holly trees dwarfed the front flanks of the building. Rambling roses covered the front entrance giving the appearance of a modern day Sleeping Beauty castle. Azaleas imported from Japan by visiting scientists rimmed the front lawns. We held picnics and barbecues there, as well as the Friday afternoon beer sessions. A curving driveway swept up from Upton Street in a loop. It was not that unusual for someone’s car to roll off the driveway into the lawn because their parking brakes weren’t set.

            In photos of the Lab when it was first built, all of the trees were small saplings. A large weeping willow, planted by staff member Joe Boyd to hide the electrical lines, frequently took out our power because branches fell on the lines at the first sign of wind or a thunderstorm, something that happened almost weekly in the summer. The saplings grew into massive oaks, maples, and walnut trees. In one of the violent storms that swept through the area, postdoc Zach Sharp and I watched from the front doors as tall trees were completely uprooted, flying like tooth picks in the violent winds. The grounds were nearly destroyed, and electric lines were downed. A large, uprooted walnut tree at the rear of the Lab was recycled one weekend by my husband Chris and postdoc Susse Wright’s husband Tom. Tom Wright, an NSF program director, grew up on a tree farm in Alabama and had a chain saw. He and Chris sawed off the limbs, loaded the heavy trunk onto the back of Chris’s Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary work truck and took it to a small sawmill in southern Maryland. We have a picnic table built with the lumber and shared some of it with others at the Lab. I cherish it as a memory of that day and of the old Upton Street Laboratory.

            Without question the old Geophysical Laboratory building had history, class, and a unique character. We all loved it, but eventually it began to limit our scientific research. The electrical system was a rat’s nest. My laboratory had power lines coming in from three sources, one of which ran through the Instrument Shop. When they turned on a certain milling machine, one of my mass spectrometers would catastrophically shut down. We didn’t have enough space for new equipment; if we did, it often got stuck on the stairways bringing it in. NSF refused to fund a new mass spectrometer we desperately needed until we moved to the new lab. The fume hoods could no longer handle the chemicals we were using. The DC Environmental Protection agency was appalled at our old chemical storage shed. In summer time, the room air conditioners were insufficient to cool labs. In winter, the old boiler often broke down for days at a time. The Lab was contaminated with radioactive carbon, so our work on dating bones needed to move to the National Bureau of Standards. It was time for a change.

            In 1990, we moved to the 5251 Broad Branch Road N.W. campus amid a flurry of activity. Ed Hare claimed he wouldn’t move and refused to pack up his lab when the moving trucks came. The Laboratory photo that year showed us all in our work clothes, informally posing on the front steps. Tom Hoering worked so hard, he took naps on cardboard spread out on his old lab benches, now vacated. The move took over two weeks. When it was over, we came back to see the bones of our beloved building. Even today, when I dream about the Geophysical Lab, which I do often, it’s always the Old Lab that I dream about. Memories of the old Lab are dear to many.
Pedro Roa, our custodian from Nicaragua, and Tom Hoering, circa 1992

Thomas C. Hoering: Staff member: 1959-1995
            I have peppered my memoir with stories about Tom because he had a way of contributing pithy advice whenever you or he thought you needed it. In summer of 1994, he attended the Organic Geochemistry Gordon Conference in New Hampshire, when he first noticed that he had a difficult time opening the screen door of his house on his way to the airport. That fall, his usually fastidious glassblowing was lopsided, even sloppy. In late September, he confided in me that he thought something serious was wrong. A few weeks later, he learned he had an aggressive form of brain cancer. He went through two surgeries in November and December. He trundled into the lab a few days that fall, with shaved patches on his scalp and bruises from numerous IV infusions. By February of 1995, he entered a skilled nursing facility in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

            All of us from the lab visited every week, but it was clear he was declining fast. One Saturday, he told my husband Chris to move his “mass spectrometer” out to the patio—he meant his wheelchair. Tom had declared he was retiring at the end of June 1995. I had started planning his retirement festschrift to be held at a resort on the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Colleagues from around the world were invited and coming. We held the event in May 1995, but Tom was unable to attend. It was his wish to continue to hold the festschrift in his honor even though he’d not be sitting in the front row napping frequently during the scientific talks. People who came from afar stopped by the nursing home and said goodbye. With colleague Dave Freeman, a chemistry professor from Univ. of Maryland, I assembled a booklet with reminiscences from many of his colleagues (see below).

            Maxine Singer, President of the Carnegie at that time, wrote “His enthusiasm for science and sense of the Carnegie community have been evident in his frequent comments and questions about modern biology. His broad thinking extended to the constantly changing borders between biology and geology.” Colleague David Freeman noted about Tom, “He had big instruments, and worked with big ideas. He also had his own ideas. 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.”

            Tom was variously described by his colleagues as “curmudgeon, impatient, cynical, distinguished, beloved, friend, generous, scientific marksman, pragmatic, enthusiastically contagious, loyal, respectful, supportive, fun, remarkably broad, analytically ingenious, pioneer, butterfly, leader, rigorous, gleeful, and kind.” As he aged, Tom was a magnet for postdocs who had a tough analytical problem. He enjoyed swiveling around on his desk chair, propping his feet up, and giving advice. He was known for folksy phrases:

            “It’s more than tinkering. It’s what I call ‘having hands’.”
            “We young people need to stick together.”
            For lab equipment: “You have to show it who’s boss.” 
            And “If you don’t run the machines, they will run you.”
            “Shoot first and ask questions later.”
            “Pick five well chosen samples.”

            Phil Abelson and Tom Hoering had an oft-challenging relationship. When they worked together as colleagues, Tom complained that Abelson could be sloppy and ask Tom to chase projects he wasn’t interested in. One year, Abelson asked Tom to take his place at a conference where Abelson was scheduled to speak, saying he was too busy to attend. Tom dutifully got on a plane, headed to California, and while giving the presentation, looked up and saw Abelson sitting in the audience! Every Friday, Tom’s phone would ring about 2 pm, and Tom would bark, “That will be Abelson!”

            As editor of the prestigious Science magazine, Phil called Tom for advice while writing his weekly editorial. In 1995, Abelson wrote this about Tom, “Soon after Hoering arrived at the Geophysical Laboratory, he and I collaborated in a number of experiments. In the course of these, while we were in daily interactions, I observed his superb qualities as a rigorous scientist. While he moved quickly and decisively, he was always cautious about random or systematic errors in his measurements. He was completely aware of the behavior and capabilities of his equipment and of possible isotope effects in procedures.”    

11.3 P. Edgar Hare: Staff member 1963-1999
            Ed Hare was born in 1933 in Burma, while his parents served as missionaries for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He attended Pacific Union College, an Adventist school where he received his B. S. in Chemistry. One year later, he earned a M. S. degree from University of California at Berkeley. For his doctorate, he studied at the California Institute of Technology, under the guidance of Hans Lowenstam. Ed’s dissertation was on the amino acids and proteins from carbonate minerals found in the shells of modern and fossil mussels (Mytilus californicus), which was subsequently published in Science magazine in 1963.

            His work attracted the attention of then Geophysical Laboratory Director Phil Abelson. The two scientists corresponded for several years until Ed Hare was invited to join the scientific staff in 1963. During his early years at the Laboratory, Ed set up an instrument, new at that time, to measure amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. His first paper on the development of new methodology for amino acid analysis was published in 1966, in which he described the use of pressure coupled with automation to simplify the analytical procedure.

            In 1968, Ed Hare and Phil Abelson published the first paper on the discovery of left and right-handed amino acids in fossil shells. Living organisms are composed almost exclusively of left-handed amino acids. After an organism dies, the left-handed amino acids convert to right-handed amino acids as the organic matter in bones and shells starts to decompose.  Hare developed a process for accurately measuring the amounts of left- and right-handing amino acids that could be use for dating ancient shells and bones. His work for the remainder of his career centered around studying the conversion from left- to right-handedness, called racemization, and exploiting this phenomenon for dating Early Man in North America, early human evolution in Africa, and the geological progression of Arctic climates.

            When the first rocks came back to Earth from the Moon, Hare was involved in searching for signs of life on these precious samples. He published his findings in Science in 1971, finding some evidence for amino acids in lunar samples, but most probably from terrestrial sources. By this time, Hare’s laboratory became the training ground for young scientists from paleontology, geochemistry, archaeology, and biochemistry. In 1979, he published a landmark methods paper on new techniques for measuring the left and right-handed amino acids. With co-author and inventor Emanuel-Av from the Weitzmann Institute of Science in Israel, they obtained a patent on their invention.

            Ed passed away in 2006. I spoke at the memorial service for him that was held at the 7th Day Adventist Church in Takoma Park. He had retired in 1999 and died seven years later on the day of the Geophysical Lab’s Centennial Celebration, which also happened to be Tom Hoering's birthday. Ed Hare, as one of three organic/biogeochemists at the Geophysical Lab, worked with Tom and me from 1977 until Tom’s death in 1995, when George Cody arrived on the scene. Tom and I worked closely together over the years, but Ed was more of an occasional colleague. At the old Lab, Ed's lab and office were on the Second floor, whereas Tom and I were on the first floor.

            The memorial service brought up some of the central issues of Ed's Life.
First, to The Seventh Day Adventist Church and his family and friends, Ed was known as Peter, which was his first name. As we listened to the stories about Ed, it was even more clear that Ed as Peter was a completely different person than the man we knew at the Geophysical Laboratory. The Seventh Day Adventist Church is one of the fundamentalist religions: they don't eat meat, their Sabbath is on Saturday, they don't drink alcohol (at least not when others are noticing). They also believed the Earth and the world were about 5,375 years old before Ed started his work in amino acid dating.

            The story came out again and again at the Memorial service that Ed Hare
changed the way this fundamental religion viewed the Creation. At a party he was asked what was the oldest organic matter he had ever analyzed. "25,000 years,” he said," but some rocks are hundreds of millions of years old.” These facts blew the minds of the Adventists that day, but as earth scientists we knew he’d analyzed rocks billions of years old, and some of those bones were over a million years old. It was the dichotomy of Ed/Peter's Life. Ed was sent to graduate school specifically to try to prove that the Earth was only 5,375 years old, like the Bible claims. When he reported his findings to the Church along with Irving Taylor and David von Endt, the Church essentially excommunicated them for several years. Eventually, the Church came around, with Ed and his colleagues writing a book for them on rectifying Bible stories with Science.

            At the annual Geophysical Lab Christmas party, I think Ed often ate a piece of the roast beef. Even in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, God is forgiving, and when the roll is called in Heaven, Ed will be there. Near the end of his career at the Lab, he was heard to emit a swear word or two; God is forgiving, and when the roll is called up yonder, he'll be there. Let me describe his normal working day at the Old Lab.

            The door to Ed's lab was always closed. You walked into his office, also the home of the amino acid analyzers and gas chromatograph. Around a corner was another instrument lab complete with whirring liquid chromatographs and ovens. Further around the corner was a chemical prep lab littered with dirty glassware, old samples, various science trash, and a fume hood that never worked. In an interior room entered through a swinging door, was the acid room. Fixtures corroded to a fine, peppery green, acid stained floors, cabinets, windows, and the proverbial fume hood that did not work. Instruments that entered this room never came out unless they were sopping with acid and completely destroyed. It was science the old way.

            Layer onto this scene the people. When you opened Ed's door you could be assured that someone, typically a visiting scientist, would be standing at one of the machines. Ed had a complete spectrum of people from the biggest nuts of the day to the most prestigious and serious scientists. Often, the scientists/students were from the Church. Ed continued quietly to interface church and science as a professor at the Adventist Columbia Union College in Takoma Park. Once a student or visitor came, they always returned. The legacy of people who lined up to use Ed's one of a kind instruments is enormous. When we planned his retirement festschrift, an argument ensued as to whether we should invite his direct legacy or amino acid scientists with no regard to connection. It turned out that there were no amino acid scientists who did not originate in some fashion from Ed Hare.

            As the Memorial service went on, with accolades heaped on Ed, I could not help thinking about how we at the Lab and his close colleagues thought of him in the last 10 years or so of his career. Ed had turned into a difficult man. The timing was hard to pin down. Was it a difficult postdoc that he had? Was it the move to the New Building? Was it the requirement to write grants? Was it the death of his old Professor? Was something happening at home? Was he depressed or having complications from medication? We could not pin down the problem.

            Time after time, Tom and I would try to start a project with Ed, only to have it stall at the start, or halt in the middle, or putter out at the end. Ed was unable to write scientific papers, and his presentations were growing embarrassing. I recall his last presentation to the Visiting committee, when he appeared with some yellowed overheads, and talked about work he'd done twenty years before. In conversation, Ed had a way of looking off to the distance after about 5 minutes; in the lab, he could get angry and yell at a student.

            So we grumbled. I did my work with my friend Noreen Tuross. Ed's lab was propped up by visiting scientist Glenn Goodfriend. When Ed retired, he simply walked out of the lab leaving fifty years of papers and samples untouched. I was tasked with the chore of cleaning out his scientific life. Ed never threw away anything, nor did he open most of his mail. I found some very interesting unopened correspondence, but threw out an enormous amount of junk mail. The signs were all there, but we were not able to read them.

            Within 6 months of his retirement, Ed was no longer able to hide his problems. It was determined that he had an advanced stage of Parkinson's disease, without the shaking. His wife Patti took over. She was on a mission to save her Peter from the ravages of this disease. They moved from their new home in California to a retirement community in Florida. His wife was a true saint throughout this time. Ed never recovered, and also had Lyme disease on top of Parkinson’s. After his death, it was determined that he had a form of dementia somewhere in the middle of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. He is gone; the roll will be called up yonder, and Ed will be there.

            At the service we heard only good things. Peter (Ed) was a trumpet player; he loved basketball and baseball; he took his grandchildren to fast food restaurants; he gave science lectures to the Church and changed their opinions about the age of the Earth and the Creation. There was little mention of how the disease had affected him, but it was in our minds, those of us who worked with him daily.

            Ed Hare was a great scientist. He revolutionized paleontology by enabling
people to date fossils. He trained an army of geochemists, archaeologists,
stratigraphers, and organic geochemists. At the Lab, he was both Yin and
Yang. The memories of Ed at the Lab are dimmed, only a handful of people knowing who he was and what he accomplished. His last years did not help him. None of us understood what he was going through.

            As Type A people, we reward those scientists who continue "sharp as a tack" at the office every day until they die. We tend to judge older scientists with the eyes of youth--why aren't they on the same funding track as I am? Their labs are old fashioned, we really need their space. I'll never get old, and if I do, I'll make way for younger folks. And then, there you are. Looking retirement, or possible disability in the face, and what do you decide? What can I learn from Ed's story? A host of things: tolerance, learning not to judge without knowing all the facts, acceptance that old age isn't always Golden.
Chris Hadidiacos, Bob Hazen, and Margie (either Imlay or Hazen?), circa 1976

11.4 Text Box Marjorie Evelyn Imlay: Secretary and Assitant to the Director 1955-2008
            If you are lucky enough, you will have had a friend like Marjorie Imlay some time in your life--a friend who was there to listen, to offer some advice, but also one who was willing to leave you alone when you needed that. A friend who always had a funny phrase or joke to pick you up when you needed it most. As a young woman, Margie was a curly headed blonde with the sparkling blue eyes, a big bust, and flashy jewelry. She regaled me with stories of pouring vodka tonics, flirting with the Geophysical Laboratory scientists, and joking with the women. For me, working at the Geophysical Lab, I relied on going to her office, often as not, to speak to Marge as a voice of reality and common sense.

         Margie had a wonderful life. She did pretty much what she wanted. Margie enrolled in secretarial school and worked in various government and business offices in the DC area just after graduating from Roosevelt high school in Washington, DC. She started work at the Lab in her early twenties. Phil Abelson hired her in 1955 for the princely sum of $3,200 per year. Early on Margie was breadwinner for her family after her father’s sudden early death. She sometimes worked three jobs at once to pay the bills. She embraced the hard work and enjoyed the experiences.

         In the early 1960s, she scraped up enough money to buy an old MG convertible with holes in the roof that served as her early “wheels.” Imagine the young blonde zipping around DC, for sure a heartthrob to many a young lab postdoc during that time. She was very popular, but never married, and dated some very interesting men, even some GL people that she kept a careful secret! I never learned who they were. Margie claimed, when pressed, that everyone she dated seriously proposed marriage, but she never accepted that we know of!

            When I met Margie in 1977, she served as the head secretary for the Lab and was the most skilled typist and stenographer. She worked in the back office surrounded by knickknacks on her desk that were mementos of her family: her sister, her mother, and her aunt. Margie was imperious to me in those early days: she spoke with authority, always carried a large purse bulging with important papers, and a wallet stuffed with cash. Margie typed my first GL manuscript and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was to make sure my tables were in final format before she spent the time typing them! When I was offered a staff position at the Lab, Margie quickly became my ally, letting me in on things that I needed to know to get by in an all male world.

            Margie’s work life was a welcome escape from her family’s health issues.  She progressed from secretary to head secretary to assistant to the Director after the death of Dave Singer in 1986. Margie’s stock in the Geophysical Lab rose substantially during this time, and she not only did the bidding of the director, but also held together the postdocs, students, and other young people as they came through. Margie’s office served as a place where you could let the Director know informally “through the back door” how things were going, if you had any problems, or if you had great successes. There were weeks that I avoided going over to see her, because I knew it would be hours before we would be finished with all the things that needed to be said.

            As Assistant to the Director, Margie held responsibility for appointment letters, keeping records on scientists, arranging for hiring and performance reviews, and organizing social functions. For over twenty years, she served as Unofficial Photographer. For Directors Hat Yoder, Charlie Prewitt, and Wes Huntress she served as their Eye and Ear on the day-to-day workings of the Lab. These men trusted her judgment and wisdom, often asking her opinion on issues with which they struggled. She had many stories about people at the Lab - some very funny and some tragic.

            At the age of 75, Margie retired. Her blonde hair was thinner, her bust even larger, and she still wore great costume jewelry, but she looked tired. She had spent 5 months working with her new boss, Rus Hemley, and had started to train her replacement. With typical Margie stealth, she eschewed a big retirement party, preferring to avoid the spotlight. Avoiding the spotlight was one of Margie’s hallmarks. A woman who served to support people, who provided a major source of advice and support for my own career and family life--she was a person who helped others before herself.  Margie died suddenly in 2008, only nine months after her retirement.  Complications from a blood clot ended the life of a friend, colleague, and one of the Lab’s most colorful characters.
Campus cherry blossoms, 2018

The Postdoc Experience at the Geophysical Lab
            When a student in the field of science gets her/his PhD, 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. In some circumstances, postdocs can be asked to do a lot of non-research tasks like excessive teaching, grant writing, or conference organizing. At the Geophysical Lab, the great majority loved their time as a postdoc because they were given intellectual freedom and stimulation.

            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 later 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 particularly 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 for someone with a science bug.

            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 of 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.

            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 Kaye 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.

            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.

            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 is mentioned in a subsequent chapter.] 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 second 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  fourth year as an Assistant Professor at Dartmouth.

            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 have a slight edge and are hired very quickly, whereas men need more exposure to get noticed. We spent 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, December 3, 2019

Wedding vows @ 33 years!

Marilyn and Chris, Sept. 20, 1986, Moorestown, New Jersey

I posted the story below about how I met my husband Chris Swarth in 1985. So, it's a bit of a rerun, but get to the bottom and see how the wedding renewals went on Saturday. Our dear friend Paul Sussman officiated and read this poem.

Vow by Diana Khoi Nguyen 

It will be windy for a while until it isn’t. The waves will shoal.
A red-legged cormorant will trace her double along glassy water, forgetting they are hungry.
The sea will play this motif over and over, but there will be no preparing for it otherwise.
Water will quiver in driftwood.
Sound preceding absence, a white dog trailing a smaller one: ghost and noon shadow, two motes disappearing into surf.
And when the low tide comes lapping and clear, the curled fronds of seaweed will furl and splay, their algal sisters brushing strands against sands where littleneck clams feed underwater.
Light rain will fall and one cannot help but lean into the uncertainty of the sea.
Bow: a knot of two loops, two loose ends, our bodies on either side of this shore where we will dip our hands to feel what can’t be seen.
Horseshoe crabs whose blue blood rich in copper will reach for cover, hinged between clouds and sea.
It will never be enough, the bull kelp like a whip coiling in tender hands, hands who know to take or be taken, but take nothing with them:
I will marry you.
I will marry you. 

So we can owe what we own to every beautiful thing.

The Kiss 2019

How Chris and I met: Positive experiences and good times are equally important in shaping a person’s personality. For example, although scientists rarely receive positive feedback, when we get a nice review or compliment from a student, it's a real rush. After my divorce, I spent a couple of years as a footloose and fancy-free woman glad to be released from a difficult situation. Science was blooming and when I left for California to work on the oxygen isotope project, I met my future husband. People often ask how we met and it's a now “classic” story in our family.

            In 1985 during my first sabbatical trip to work at Carnegie’s Plant Biology lab, I signed up for a whale-watching trip that took place on a Sunday on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th. Grey whales could be seen at Point Reyes National Seashore from the promontory where the lighthouse perches hundreds of feet above the ocean. I didn’t have a car, so signed up to share a ride from Palo Alto up to the Visitor’s Center of Point Reyes with a Chinese grad student who had a new license and little familiarity with driving. The front passenger door of her car was inoperable, so I sat in the back seat with another woman. As we drove north through San Francisco’s hills, we clutched the doors in shear terror. When we assembled with the group, the leader of the trip asked if anyone wanted to ride with him in his VW bus. I leaped at the chance!

           The leader was a trim, good-looking fellow from Berkeley, with curly brown hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. On our way to the lighthouse, he spotted a bobcat in a meadow at the side of the road. Even before we reached our destination, he’d pointed out about a dozen coastal bird species. Throughout the day, we chatted on and off, spotted whales breeching and exhaling offshore. At lunchtime, we shared sandwiches on a bench overlooking Drake’s Lagoon, where I told him about my research with stable isotopes. As the end of the day drew near, I wrote down my phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it to him, hoping that he’d call. He looked pleased, but answered, “Great, we could talk about your research some more.”

            I called my friends in the following days and told them I was excited to have met this cool ecologist, Christopher Wood Swarth. By Wednesday of that week he called! We set a date for that weekend. On our first date, we ate beef tongue sandwiches at San Gregornio Beach and fried calamari for dinner. Why we chose those two weird foods, neither of us can explain, but we’ve never cooked them again. By the time my brief 6-week trip was ending, we had grown to know and like each other enough to feel ready for a long-distance relationship. We traveled back and forth from the DC area to California, culminating with a trip to Europe in August just prior to Chris’s fieldwork in Cameroon. It was an exciting day when he was able to call me all the way from the US embassy in Africa!

            My second sabbatical trip started in January 1986. Chris returned from Africa, and we drove across the country with Sputnik the dog. We rented an apartment in Menlo Park and furnished it with Chris’s few belongings. That spring he proposed in a salt marsh—one of our favorite places—and I happily accepted. I returned to DC for the summer months, while wedding plans took shape. Back at the Lab, I told Tom Hoering about the engagement. He could tell I was excited and happy, but he wanted to make sure that this man was good enough for me. Tom and his wife Martha went for a vacation to Berkeley, ostensibly to visit a colleague at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. One afternoon, Chris, who was working as a biology outreach teacher at the Lawrence Hall of Science, was notified that he had a visitor at the main desk. There was Tom Hoering, standing in the main lobby, with the sole intent of checking Chris out to see if he was suitable. Tom had a way of sniffing the air that meant he was thinking about a situation and sizing someone up. It was a brief meeting, but Chris evidently passed muster. In September 1986, we got married in my parents’ back yard in New Jersey with family and friends.

            After over 30 years of marriage, I can look back and see what was important for us as a couple, a family, and for me as a working woman. Before our kids were born, we both enjoyed the freedom to work as long as we wanted and travel wherever we needed to go. When Dana and Evan were very young, we hired a remarkable young woman, recently emigrated from Nigeria, to be their “daycare mother” for their first 5 years. Susan Agugua, bright, perky, and funny, arrived every morning at 9 am, every bit as “Practically Perfect” as Mary Poppins. Having someone you trust with your children allowed us both to keep our careers going while raising a family.

            When the kids were in elementary school, I took them to school and Chris picked them up from after-school care. When one of them was sick, we put our “cards on the table” and negotiated who had plans that could not be changed and who could shift things around and stay home. Being able to pursue a scientific career requires work on weekends, remote locations, and dedication. Whenever possible, we took them to work with us, including on overseas field trips in Australia and Belize. Chris worked for almost 25 years at an ecological park, a veritable treasure trove of fun places for the kids to explore and learn about nature. Both Dana and Evan also spent time in my lab, weighing samples and washing glassware. Evan and several of his buddies even learned to run the mass spectrometers during their senior year in high school. For several years, the whole family trekked out to Southern California to do field work re-examining the San Jacinto Mountain ecosystem first studied in 1908 by Chris’s grandfather, Harry S. Swarth. They helped trap mammals, pressed plants, assisted with collecting and preparing bird skins for museums, collected insects, and monitored bats.

            Early on I learned to take off from work when they had spring break or Christmas holidays. We usually took a trip to see a new national park or a new beach, or visited Chris’s parents in California. Sharing with them our love for nature and our dedication to things we found important were important lessons for them. Dana is a natural-born artist and has also become a talented organic farmer and educator, hiking and camping whenever she can. Evan has chosen the medical field, using his interest in the human body to start a career in nursing. They’re independent and resourceful. When I was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, they rallied around to help out.

            Key to not running yourself into the ground with marriage, family, and a career is to keep your mind engaged on where you are at that moment. When I was at the lab, I got my analyses done, my writing completed, and my students and postdocs trained. When at home, I enjoyed cooking the nightly dinner, made sure our home was pleasant, if not fastiously clean, and delighted in hosting other families at our house. Our home was a mecca for the kids’ friends after we installed a half-court basketball platform and a hot tub in the backyard. As I matured as a scientist, I was more confident in my role as a leader and frequently hosted dinner parties at our house for colleagues from around the world. I morphed into the role of “Science Mother,” making sure postdocs and students were getting what they needed in their careers, as well as their personal lives.
Evan, Dana, Marilyn, and Chris, Riverside 2017
November 30, 2019: We had 65 family members and friends spend a cold November afternoon and evening at our "wedding renewal" ceremony. It had been raining cats and dogs for the first time in over 6 months. The skies remained dark and threatening but the rain held off. We set up chairs in front of our cave of rocks in Mariposa. Our friend Greg Ennis played jazz while people bellied up to the bar for an afternoon libation. We walked 'down the aisle' to the tune of "Can't help falling in love" by Bely Basarte.
Franny Kasen leading the way to the ceremony--it was cold!

I'd worked all week on thinking about what I would say. I decided to talk about the vows we took in 1986 when we originally married and discuss what's important now and how it fits with the past 33 years. 

"I, Marilyn, take Chris to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish, til death do us part, thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you."

When you marry in your 20s and 30s, you know about "having and holding"--its all about having and a lot of holding.  Then, in any typical relationship, especially a marriage, the better or worse is gonna happen. It sure did happen for us--two beautiful, outstanding children, great jobs, beautiful homes, fun trips around the world. Then, there was the "worse"--the family illnesses, death of 3 of our parents, a couple of dogs passing away, mostly normal things. Fortunately for Chris and me, we started out "poor" and ended up on the richer side being frugal, paying off debts, and saving as much as we could. Dana and Evan are both financially responsible so the next generation is in good hands.

Since the 2016 ALS diagnosis, the sickness and health now has special meaning. We sure are in the middle of that now--big time. Chris and I need even more confirmation that we'll be there for each other, especially he'll be here for me as I need more and more help from him. There was never any doubt, but it felt good to recommit and renew.

So we said our vows again on November 30th looking out on a sea of faces that expressed compassion, love, solidarity, joy, and happiness. Their faces also had some tears. It was a moving ceremony marked by singing, poetry, and heart felt words. I couldn't imagine a better gift for Chris and me to give to ourselves.

We partied 'til 10:30 pm--hell we're 'old' people--dancing to the Macarana with everyone and "Crank dat Solja Boy" with the lab group--shooting off illegal fireworks--drinking fine beers and wines--smiling the whole time.
Wheelchair dancing!

I know now even more than before that family and friends will be there for Chris (and me) as our challenges grow more complex and difficult. Our hearts were open. We'll make it through.

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...