Tuesday, December 29, 2020


This week I opened up Kindle Create software, plopped one version of the memoir into it and pushed the “Publish” button (Kindle Memoir). Feels good to me and about time. This version of my memoir is part of the story of my career as a scientist woven along with my life as woman (1970 to 2020).  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.


Science today is as important for advancing civilization as it was 50 years ago, but how it’s carried out and by who 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.


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 his or her career will follow. 


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.        


My academic career began in 1970 at Penn State University as 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. One is biogeochemistry, which is the study of how living things chemically interact with the environment. Paleo-biogeochemistry is the second, which is the study of fossil and historic ecosystems.  Finally there is Astrobiology, or the study of potential life and the chemistry that might make it possible, elsewhere in the Solar System and beyond. I have learned from the combination of these fields how organisms interact with their environment, which is essentially the study of ecology. Also, learning about 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 Ph.D. work in 1974 was funded by a NASA Exobiology grant. “Exobiology” was an early term for the field that has evolved into Astrobiology, so I had an early start in this young field. 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, as well as extreme environments.


Quote in the front of the book


The majority of my professional career took place at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington DC. 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 attending 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 a while for me to realize that being quiet did not help my career. I attribute the transformation to a supportive husband, to the challenges of motherhood, and to great colleagues. My husband, Christopher Swarth, while patient and pleasant about it, forced me 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.


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.


In 2013, I took a big step leaving the Geophysical Laboratory and taking a position as a Professor of Ecology at the fledgling University of California Merced. I learned there how people fare in more impersonal, big college campuses having to parse out research time from time spent developing courses, sitting on committees, and working to teach inexperienced students. The work fascinated me and lifted me up from the somewhat cloistered life at Carnegie into a much larger, multifaceted world. There, I was forced to rely on what I’d picked up over the years—independence, risk taking, listening, creativity, and insight. Not everything I did there panned out, but what did work was satisfying.


It was a gamble in some ways to move in 2016 to University of California’s Riverside campus. Now, as a disabled person dealing with a slow physical decline, I had to forge new connections, think about new projects, and balance creating an Institute with winding down my career. On the whole, it was a pleasant change of pace for me. UC Riverside has a similar student population to UC Merced, but its faculty and staff are more experienced, calm, and forward-thinking. In retirement, my continued connection with the campus has proven to be critical in day-to-day life isolated in rural Mariposa California owing to the pandemic.


I hope folks will enjoy seeing this memoir in one place, as opposed to my weekly blog posts. ENJOY.



Monday, December 21, 2020

Happy Zooming Holidays


Son Evan and Dog Stella in Riverside--the red sky tells it all

The corona virus has kicked us in the butt this year. Usually this week, we’re attending Christmas parties, after spending the week at the 20,000-person American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. At home, we’d be planning the guest list for Christmas Day—usually neighbors Dan, Mark, and Angus, and Chris’s cousin, Eric. In the lab, we’d be putting instruments on “soft” standby ready to jump back in the first week of January. The holiday break would come just in time for everyone, because we’d have been working hard and getting a lot done.


‘Rona has changed all that. I am so thankful that husband Chris and I held a wedding renewal for friends and family last year and that I spent a week at AGU in 2019.  AGU was virtual this year—I didn’t bother to attend. Our isotope instruments have been running almost every day with Academic coordinator Ying Lin, but she’s been working alone pretty much every day, also managing the home schooling for her three children. Bobby “Mr. POM” is working remotely—but needs to return to finish up his PhD. Meanwhile the virus is raging in Riverside California, so maybe this isn’t such a good idea right now.


AGU session I helped plan, 2019


Zoom, the Chat, and Share your screen, are the words of the day. Even as a retired professor, I spend time working with colleagues on Zoom. We started the year with Zoom cocktail parties—now I zoom in at noon everyday to monitor my 93-year old mother’s COVID-19 progress. [She’s made it through the worst of it and officially “OK”.]


I think even the Isotope Gremlins are social distancing.  It is my hope that as the vaccine rolls out, we’ll be able to enjoy people in real life once again.


So, below are links to all of the different people I’ve written about in this blog. People I’ve known in the flesh, so to speak, and care about. Some of them departed.


Meeting with students at AGU


Let’s all hope that all of us keep healthy this holiday season and will return soon to the joy of seeing actual human faces—without masks!


Merry Isotope Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!


Highlights of Women:


Fran Kasen—brash, standup comedian, lawyer and childhood friend for life (Franny)


Franny and Matt McCarthy, 2019



Noreen Tuross—distinguished, big ideas (Isotope Contessa)


Katherine Freeman—from youth to National Academy (Kate)


Sue Ziegler—loves her estuaries and biogeochemistry (Sue Ziegler)


Carmen Aguilar—to the ship, a field scientist (Carmen Aguilar)


Valery Terwilliger—deep thinker and different (Valery)


Liane Benning—big plans and on top of things-- and Pamela Conrad—biogeophysics and Mars (Babes of Science)


Anat Shahar—non-traditional isotopes and mom (Lucky Seven)



Highlights of Guys I’ve worked with:


Brian Fry—famous for ecology and old clothes (Isotope Prince of Ecology)


Doug Rumble—wine, good food, and isotopes (Doug)


Ron Benner—perfectionist and critical (Ron)


Steve Macko—many ideas and lots of energy-- and Michael Engel—behind the scenes isotopes (Macko and Engel)


Paul Koch—from postdoc to Dean, Zach Sharp—from postdoc to Isotope Guru (GL Postdocs)


Richard Tax—rainmaker and artist (Richard Tax)


Matthew Wooller—concrete spatial and builder (Mat Wooller 1) and (Wooller 2)


Andrew Steele—astrobiologist and musician (Steelie)


Seth Newsome—making isotopes look good (Seth)


Bobby Nakamoto—great hopes for an isotope future (Mr. POM)




Departed Friends and Colleagues:


Thomas Hoering—endless stories of mentoring and glassblowing (Tom Hoering)


Ed Hare—amino acids were his thing (Ed Hare)


Margie Imlay—she could predict the future (Margie)


Patrick Parker—wandered through lots of isotope studies (The Chief)


James Scott—wicked smart but bad luck (GL Postdocs)


Barbara Fogel Lis—unselfish but troubled (Sister)


David Freeman—Kate’s dad and serious thinker (Dave Freeman)


Chuck Douthitt—every body knew him, a great promoter of isotopes (Jolly Chuck)









Friday, December 18, 2020

Brian Fry--Isotope Prince of Ecology!


Isotope Prince of Ecology or Distinguished Commoner?

“You are what you eat” is a phrase that almost anyone can understand. In the realm of stable isotope ecology the phrase has a lot deeper meaning. Although it makes sense that you are what you eat, a living organism completely modifies its diet such that only very few compounds in food actually end up in tissue. That said, although the molecular structures of food are mostly scrambled, the stable isotopes in the scrambled mixture are almost identical to those in an animal’s food with only very small changes. Ignoring those small differences stable isotopes are enormously powerful tracers of who is eating whom and figuring out complex food webs.


Brian Fry was at the heart of this research and his work has influenced the field of stable isotope ecology since the late 1970s. When I named myself Isotope Queen a while ago, there were very few senior women in the stable isotope field—and none of them objected to crowning myself Queen. Brian certainly counts as Isotope Royalty. For three years, we were both students at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in remote Port Aransas. The day I defended my dissertation for a PhD, Brian defended his Master’s thesis.


So, if I am a Queen, that makes Brian a Prince. But not just any Prince! He is literally the son of Arthur Fry, Univ. of Arkansas, who was one of the original isotope scientists who rose up in chemistry departments after World War II. Brian is the academic son of Pat Parker (Parker's blog), who was also one of my academic fathers. Therefore, Brian is my Isotope Younger Brother. We are alike in curiosity, creativity, and non-conformity. 


Brian and Marilyn, Germany, 2014



Isotope Prince of Ecology Brian Fry seems appropriate.


Neither of us originates obviously from the Univ. of Chicago lineage of isotope scientists, but in fact we are! Martin Kamen (https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.1583542) co-discovered the synthesis of radiocarbon at UC Berkeley in 1940. Kamen earned his PhD at the Univ. of Chicago in 1936 before his stint at Berkeley. After his work in California, he joined Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as Tom Hoering’s major professor. Tom trained Pat Parker—and consequently Brian and I come from a different Chicago isotope line from Urey and others.


Brian’s 2nd paper published in 1978  (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1936580?seq=1) is a blockbuster but has only been cited 204 times! In this paper, Brian lays out the fundamental basis for “you are what you eat” using stable isotopes as tracers. When I teach stable isotope ecology, we begin with Brian’s paper. Grasshoppers from a south Texas ecosystem were captured, identified, and their stomach contents identified and quantified. Brian then collected specimens of all of the plants found in grasshopper guts—and measured stable carbon isotopes in all grasshoppers, stomach contents, and plants. I don’t know of another paper that tackles the subject with such detail. He introduces the isotope mixing model—a simple concept—that new students to the field find tractable in reading this paper.

Pat Parker's students at Parker's memorial, 2011


As a grad student, Brian had shaggy, long brown hair, never combed, wore ragged T-shirts, cut off shorts, and usually sported bare feet. I dressed the same as Brian, then, but had a pair of $1.99 flip flops that I wore into the lab. While I lived in a little travel trailer as a student, Brian lived in what we called The Shack, a two-bedroom cottage next to the Ship Channel. He shared the Shack with Parker’s other student Woei Lih Jeng from Taiwan. Woei Lih wasn’t used to the loose mannerisms of Americans, and in particular Brian. Their living arrangement was a real cultural exchange. Between the Shack and the ship channel, there was a short pier that led out to a hut that held a shrimp net to be used for sampling the invertebrates coming in and out of the channel—for research purposes. Brian did his PhD on shrimp, but prior to that research, he often sampled the shrimp from the channel net to supplement his diet.


Brian was known for his unorthodox lab practices. At the time, it wasn’t well known which animal tissue should be sampled for isotope analysis. Brian handled this by placing whole animals in a Waring blender and rendering them to a slurry. A “blended” lab mouse turns into a light brown chocolate mousse with a silky sheen. Sometimes Brian neglected to wash out the blender leaving the dirty glassware in the lab’s sink. Our lab technician Rita O’Donnell griped that Brian had left mouse fur in the sink one day, shaking her head at the idea of blending up mice.


From Brian: "Even as a grad student I was famous. I ground up some fish in that old Waring blender (to check isotopes in whole animals vs muscle) and put the fish paste in an oven to dry late one evening, but not in a hood. The smell was all over the lab the next day, and my fame began."

After his PhD, Brian moved up to Indiana where he postdoced with John Hayes. There he did some cool work with sulfur isotopes and microbes (https://aem.asm.org/content/54/1/250.short) that was completely different from his earlier work with animals. John Hayes, as many of you would know, was a very neat, buttoned person, but the two got along and appreciated each other’s strength and vision.


From Indiana he took his first permanent position at the Ecosystems Center, where we planned and carried out our first Isocamp (Isocamp blog) for training students in stable isotope ecology. I spent many weeks up in Woods Hole getting ready for the workshop and interacting with Brian. In my opinion, he injected a new sense of energy to the Center with his casual ways, can do attitude, and the new instrumentation. After a short period of time, he had projects going with just about everyone on the staff. It was a period of significant scientific growth for him. 

Brian and Bob Michener, Ecosystems Center, 1985


His lab manager Bob Michener writes about his time working with Brian around 1985 or so.

“That was a long time ago and his first position as a professor. I was his first research assistant, so we had a lot of learning to do! He basically set me on my career path with stable isotopes. I learned a lot from him and spent a LOT of time using the vacuum line!  As you know, Brian loves wearing his flip flops. He would go up to Toolik Lake every summer to the field station in the Arctic and wear those flip flops. The people up there started calling them his “tundra walkers”. 


There was the time Brian was trying to combust dried water samples for dissolved organic carbon (DOC) analysis. The combustion tubes were about a foot long and 3 inches in diameter. We had a large furnace to combust the tubes. Brian took one of them out and set it on the bench. An RA and I were across the lab when that sucker exploded…glass all over the lab! Fortunately, Marty and I weren’t hurt. Good times!”


But Woods Hole labs are soft money institutions requiring constant, permanent grant writing. It’s also cold there during the long winters. Brian, hoping for stability and warmth, took a position on the faculty at Florida International University in 1995 (or thereabouts). That turned out to be a difficult position—and he resigned in the late 1990s. The normally loquacious and happy go lucky Brian disappeared from regular contact. 


I was heartened to learn he’d be attending the 1st Isoecol meeting in Saskatoon, Canada, in 1998. Mark Teece, then a postdoc at the Geophysical Lab, and Matt Fantle, a postbac lab intern, had heard all about Brian Fry from my stories—his brilliance, his work with grasshoppers, his iconoclastic personality. They had read his work and were excited to meet him. The first night of the conference I found him at the welcome cocktail party and said, “Join us for dinner!” 


As the meal progressed, he told his story about the move to Florida and how his time there unfolded. I need not go into any of the details, and at a distance of 20+ years they dim. What I recall clearly was seeing my friend and colleague extremely sad with tears in his eyes. Mark and Matt were initially talkative, but were subsequently quieted as they listened. How could the Isotope Prince of Ecology be treated this way?


Now unemployed, Brian eventually decamped to Menlo Park, where he moved into Carol Kendall’s lab, pioneering some new methods. Thermo Engineer Frank Trensch described a flight he took from the States to Bremen. His assigned seat was next to a shaggy guy with an old plaid shirt---who turned out to be Brian! [The world is small.] Brian had contributed in a major way in the development of the instrumentation that most of the world now uses to analyze stable isotopes. Brian’s engaged tinkering made the company some real money.

Old plaid shirt, baseball cap, 2018


Brian then ended up in Hawaii in the late 1990s where he developed a relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service there. Importantly for a new graduate student, Brittany Graham, he ran into her at the University of Hawaii and helped out with her isotope studies of tuna fish in the Pacific Ocean.

“In the midst of my graduate experience at MSU, where I studied the impacts of marine-derived nutrients delivered to SE Alaskan streams, my M.S. advisor, Peggy Ostrom, gave me the great news we would be going to the National Benthological Society Meeting (NABS). I was so excited that I might meet Brian Fry at NABS. I had read so many of his papers and was so impressed; his work clicked with me… We were about to sit down for a talk in a large room and Peggy spotted Brian and rushed in for us to sit next to him. I was shocked. Brian was wearing a worn-out, dirty baseball cap and was in baggy jeans with holes in them. I loved it. To my worry, he spoke to me the whole time (i.e., I was worried it was rude and distracting to the speaker and audience).   

After that conference and our chats, I was determined to try to work with Brian and attain my PhD under his watch. I contacted him, after spending many days constructing an email. He replied quickly and mentioned a potential fisheries project examining tuna and looking at variations in the nitrogen and carbon stable isotope values in the tropical Pacific and how it might relate to top predators. At that time, he was working with a great group of people at the Hawaiian Forest Service. I continued on that opportunity and was lucky enough to begin my PhD research at the University of Hawaii working with Brian Popp, an amazing isotope scientist who taught me so much. Brian Fry was a big part of my PhD research really the one leading me and our team into new directions. However, it was Popp who pushed us to new levels with compound specific amino acid research. Fry and I were still sure the bulk isotope analyses would lead us to some insightful answers. Thankfully the combination was the key and to the success of the work. Brian would still visit from LSU, staying on my couch and enjoyed the island life.”


According to Britt, Brian was a colorful visitor—think John Candy in the movie Trains, Planes, and Automobiles [my interpretation].


“During my PhD research, Brian was by my side the whole time. We would have lengthy discussions about more of his creative ideas, which there were so many! I was always listening carefully, while many others dismissed them for being unusual or not cutting-edge…Brian was full of ideas, ones that showed his absolute brilliance and were pushing-boundaries, others were not going to be fruitful for the field. I listened and absorbed them all.  


A time our team went out to dinner in Noumea, New Caledonia, we ate at an upscale French restaurant. Brian was in one of his goofy moods and decided to ask for ketchup--knowing full well this was uncouth for French cuisine. The others, all senior, well-respected scientists, were horrified by this, and then Brian proceeded to sloppily eat his meal drenched in ketchup. It was Brian Fry in his essence. By the way, Brian prefers to eat foods that are mainly orange.”


Eventually, Louisiana State University had the good sense to hire him and provide support for his lab. Brian spent many productive years there developing his skills in using all of the “traditional” stable isotopes to solve problems in estuarine ecology and ocean sciences. Maybe it was wanderlust that made him uproot ten years later and move to Australia. His most recent work on intra-molecular isotope patterns in amino acids showcases—yet again—his agility in putting together new methods to solve old problems (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0224297).


Today Brian keeps as busy and engaged as he always has, even though like me, he is “retired.” He remains the Isotope Prince of Ecology.

“Brian has shaped many of the moments of my life; both scientifically and personally. Yes, he is quirky and unusual. I enjoy that. To end, his impact has gone as far as I named my dog after him. Fry is a great dog and full of quirks and excitement too.” Brittany Graham


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Jolly Chuck Douthitt--the death of a saleman


Jolly Chuck and Marilyn, Merced, 2013

“I’m your Number 1 Customer!” I would say to him when we talked on the phone. He would laugh softly, then agree and say, “And all your former postdocs, too.”


 [News arrived on December 9 that Chuck passed away December 8 from complications related to an injury.]

Chuck was the quintessential salesman. For as long as I knew him, he had his nose up in the air, sniffing a possible mass spectrometer sale. He got to know students in the field and made sure he kept up with their whereabouts. He knew your family, buttered you up, and read your papers. When he was closing in on a deal, he told stories about the new work you’d be able to do with your new instrument. He dreamed big, and he let you know you were the one to break the analytical barriers with the new equipment.


When the initial quote from Finnigan-Thermo-MAT-Fisher came in, I’d snort at it, pass it along to NSF, Carnegie, or Univ. of California, so they’d see the cost. Then I’d call and ask when I’d see the Number 1 customer discount. It always came. He always clinched the deal. I purchased 7 isotope ratio mass specs from him during my career—probably not enough to be a Number 1 customer, but not bad.


If he didn’t make a sale, oh boy watch out! The table was turned, your lab might be described as inferior, and you, well, you were not invited to the Finnigan-Thermo party at GSA! When he lost a sale, he pissed people off royally. I observed both sides—this second way from afar. He wanted to win!


When the order was finally placed for a new system after months of negotiations, Chuck Douthitt became absolutely giddy and earned the nickname “Jolly” Chuck. Informally, we referred to him just as Jolly [I believe Paul Koch started this name.]


Me, Zach Sharp, Seth Newsome, Page Chamberlain, Paul Koch--Number 1 Customers, 2018

Hosting the annual Finnigan-Thermo party was a chore he loved and lived for. Anyone who was anyone in the field came. In the early days, the party was open to anyone, no matter who you bought a mass spec from. The drinks flowed, the isogeochemists got a bid rowdy, and a good time was had by all. With time, there were so many isotope geochemists that you needed a ticket to get in. Jolly would stand at the door and collect the tickets. Arrogant people like me didn’t need no stinkin’ tickets! [I was his Number 1 Customer.]


We never knew how many isotope ratio mass specs he sold in his long career. Nor could we ever figure out his profit margin. I believe he was pretty successful. A person like Chuck can, and did, have an outsized influence on the field of stable isotopes.


 Love him or hate him—he was a real character.


A few Jolly Chuck stories:


1987: The snoring at the back of the lecture room was loud enough to disturb the speaker at the front of the room. Jolly Chuck, then a much younger man, was enrolled in an isotope workshop I ran with Brian Fry. Chuck suffered from sleep apnea—had the body of someone who would. A large belly, stout frame. It kept him up at night and consequently he dozed off during talks and seminars. I had to shake him awake and tell him he’d be ejected if he snored again. He looked sheepish and apologized.


Chuck with dark beard behind Bob Michner, Woods Hole, 1987

2008: In negotiating prices for a new Delta V Plus, he offered me a 10% discount for a video of me throwing the shot put. [I was Maryland State Gold Medalist in the Senior Olympics back then.] He thought it was a particularly clever request and so did I!


2013-2014: Fast forward until I was setting up a lab in backwater Merced California. Jolly came in for the pitch and was our first houseguest in rural Mariposa. He treated my husband Chris and me to the best meal in our little town. A year later when I had a lab group, he returned and took us to lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  Student David Araiza and postdoc Christina Bradley sat and stared in amazement as he shoveled in guacamole by the fistfuls, meanwhile talking about isotopes the whole time. He tucked into fajitas with gusto, with abandon. If you’d eaten with Jolly—you know what I’m talkin’ about.


Later he and Andreas Hilkert took Chris and me out to the fanciest restaurant in Merced for dinner. Four bottles of red wine were consumed that evening. Suffice to say, I can’t drink a bottle of wine, and Chris and Andreas were designated drivers. Whoa…


Jim Ehleringer's photo of Isocamp, 2019

2018: The news came in via email—Jolly Chuck is no longer working for Thermo-Fisher. The man who represented the company for over 30 years was “retiring”? Not so fast. Apparently Chuck sent a Reply All email criticizing the Company that reached the CEO—who fired Jolly promptly.


Chuck was devastated. His life was selling mass spectrometers.


I was on sabbatical in New Mexico with Seth Newsome that fall. Zach Sharp, Seth and I invited Jolly to visit and get out from his place in Arizona, where he owned a car wash among other things. He drove over to Albuquerque and dragged himself in to the University. He was despondent. Later at a party at Zach Sharp and Karen Ziegler’s house, Jolly was way too “jolly”—drinking more than just wine. I was worried.


We kept in touch. Then, his other shoe dropped—his wife left him, did funny things with his bank accounts, and there he was without the other part of his life.


2019-2020: But he prevailed. He doted on his grandchildren, who visited him daily. Chuck chronicled their growth. He traveled to see his family. At AGU last year, he joined the Thermo booth with a sling on his shoulder looking thinner than normal. He was adjusting—figuring out how to continue to engage--always in touch with the isotope community.


AGU 2019 Thermo Booth

Charles “Jolly Chuck” Douthitt was a real character and mover and shaker in the isotope field. Without a doubt, he propelled this field of study from a fledgling endeavor to the thousand plus isotope geochemistry field it is today.


Jolly and Page, 2020

I’ll sorely miss Jolly.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sue Ziegler--estuaries, isotopes, and working the system


Marilyn, Sue (overalls!), Ron Benner, Ellery Ingalls, Texas 1998

Both of my children were toddlers (1 and 4) in 1993 when Sue Ziegler (https://www.esd.mun.ca/wordpress/sziegler/?page_id=78) came to southern Maryland to start an internship with my husband Chris at the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. Sue was a senior (4th year) at the University of Massachusetts and needed field experience. Jug Bay volunteers had been collecting water samples for more than 5 years to learn about water quality and nutrient cycling.


Sue was assigned a project to go deeper into nutrient cycling in sediments and waters as a function of time. In 1993, David Velinsky, a former postdoc then working at the Potomac River Commission, and I trained Sue how to do the chemical analyses and lent Jug Bay a portable spectrophotometer for her work.


Sue took to the muddy work like a duck to water.


By the end of summer, Sue had analyzed hundreds of samples and had roped David and me into the work. Included in her research plan were diurnal measurements—meaning samples had to be collected over a 24-hour period. At the time, my family spent every weekend at the Wetlands Sanctuary living in a log cabin reserved for my husband, the Sanctuary’s Director. It was easy to find people to sample from early morning to early evening, but what about the middle of the night?


My kids were still often waking up sometime in the night—I was a wimp of a mom who couldn’t do the “let them cry” method becoming popular then. So, when a 3 am sample was needed, I volunteered. I got up 20 minutes in advance, pulled a pair of sweat pants over my pajamas, then headed out into the dark night and drove the 1 mile down a dirt road way out to a freshwater tidal marsh. I walked along a boardwalk that extended 100 yards over towering marsh plants and thick mud to a duck blind.


There, Sue had all the bottles ready for sample collecting. I grabbed a set, went down a rickety set of wooden steps to a platform at water level, and bent down to sample the marsh water, followed by temperature and pH measurements.


Jug Bay Marshes

It was a magical time. I was wide awake and happy breathing decaying vegetation. The marsh had its own sounds—water lapping gently, wind in the wetland plants, and the faint chirping of katydids.


Sue returned during winter vacation to make the same measurements—but now it was cold as hell in the marsh. Those middle of the night samples were frigid, quick runs under a cold full moon. I was glad when the work was over.


Getting ready to graduate in June 1994, Sue was looking for her next step. She was an outstanding intern, so I recommended her to a good friend who was/is known as a leader in marine biogeochemistry—Ron Benner (Ron's Google Scholar Page), then a professor at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, where I did my PhD research. Sue was hesitant at first to contact such an eminent scientist, but finally she did. He accepted her readily.


In comparison to my first trip to Port Aransas Texas where the UT Lab was located, the town was a bit more settled than it was back in mid-1970s (Blog on Texas Grad School). Nevertheless, Sue was yet another young, somewhat shy, Yankee female scientist headed to wild Texas. Sue thrived there studying ecosystem dynamics. Working with Ron’s technician, she spent days on a small boat in the Aransas bays sampling water and mud.


I served on Sue’s PhD dissertation committee, a real pleasure that allowed me to make frequent trips to Port Aransas for her exams. It was a big day to come down for her defense in 1998. And the party afterward! Sue and I shopped for the party loading pounds of ribs and chicken into the shopping cart, which was then piled high with 30-packs of Pearl and Lone Star beer cans. Sue passed with flying colors and the party was a real Texas wingding.


Sue's team working with nets to avoid black flies

Sue applied for a postdoc at the Carnegie’s Geophysical Lab and was easily a top candidate. She arrived in 1998 when we were just getting started with Astrobiology studies, and now had a new mass spectrometer with the elemental analyzer attached, as well as compound specific isotope instrumentation. I taught Sue new techniques in protein purification and immunology that I was learning. She began with a simple experiment—what happens to the stable isotopes as a single protein, Rubisco—the carbon fixing enzyme in plants—is degraded by bacteria. 

[Sue and I went to NASA Ames to the first Astrobiology Institute meeting, where she first met John Hayes--who bought her a beer!]


A sample’s amino acid fingerprint--the relative differences in the carbon isotopes among amino acids--could be altered during microbial decomposition either by the preferential breakdown of amino acids or addition of microbial proteins leading to a heterogeneous mixture.  Sue (Ziegler and Fogel, 2003) and I compared the carbon isotopes of amino acids of phytoplankton (e.g., diatoms) with particulate organic matter (POM) sample, bacteria, and dissolved organic matter in the Jug Bay estuary where Sue started her career back in 1993. The fingerprint for the POM fraction was very similar to the bacterial fraction on the basis of amino acid fingerprints. Interestingly, although bulk isotope compositions of POM were almost constant throughout the year, the carbon isotopes of some amino acids, varied by quite a bit. This particular study is important because it demonstrated the power of compound specific analyses for studying dynamic ecosystems with significant microbial inputs.


Not only was I getting into Astrobiology then, but I began a major initiative concentrating more on ecology. I was awarded two fellowships (Loeb and Mellon Fellow) by the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Maryland, which included unrestricted funds to develop collaborations with Smithsonian Institution scientists at SERC, as well as to provide access to my stable isotope lab at Carnegie since the Smithsonian did not have an IRMS facility at that time.


My first collaboration was with Anson Tuck Hines, Associate Director of SERC and a fish and crab biologist. Seining for estuarine fish and other field sampling took place weekly on the Rhode River, Hines’ lab study site on the Chesapeake Bay. We measured the carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of over 800 samples of fish, invertebrates, zooplankton, phytoplankton, and seaweeds in the Chesapeake Bay. With plant ecologist Jess Parker, we rented a crane that took us to the tops of 30-40 meter trees to collect leaves in SERC’s temperate deciduous forest. How cool is that to be lifted high off the ground in a little bucket pointing out leaves you’d like to sample? We documented that leaves growing higher in the canopy have more positive carbon isotope values than those lower in the canopy.


Sue as postdoc, 1999

The Loeb fellowship opened up doors with Smithsonian colleagues, and it provided funding for me to hire laboratory technical support. With all of the samples to analyze, I needed to hire a lab assistant to help out. My first choice for the position was Mat Wooller, then finishing up his PhD at the University of Swansea in Wales. Mat had about a year left to finish up before he could move to the United States.  I was left with a quandary of what to do for the year gap. I ended up hiring Glenn Piercey, who had little to no direct experience with stable isotopes. Glenn’s girlfriend at the time—postdoc Sue Ziegler—was hoping that she and Glenn would have a chance to get to know each other further, if he had a job in the Washington DC area. Hiring Glenn seemed a good way to get the Loeb projects started. Within a few months, Sue and Glenn announced their engagement, were subsequently married, and have a full life and family. I’d say this was a most successful hire on many fronts.


Glenn and Marilyn, tree canopy sampling

In no time, Sue was snapped up by the University of Arkansas in 2000 to begin an Assistant Professorship in the Biology Department. Dave Evans was on the faculty at that time; with his expertise in plants, Sue’s interests in microbiology were a good fit and resulted in the start of good projects for her.


Her first teaching assignment was General Microbiology with a class of over 400 mostly pre-med students. Sue’s a slight woman, a couple inches taller than 5 feet, and has always been a casual dresser. In fact, I used to bug her as a postdoc to get a real purse, not just a backpack. She finally caved in and bought a small, around the shoulder pouch to carry her credit cards, nothing like a fancy leather bag that many women use.


Sue and son Noah, 2004

I pictured Sue with a t-shirt and khaki pants in front of the conservative Arkansas students. They pulled her chain for sure, but Sue’s tough and by the end of the semester, she wore a suit jacket to class and developed the very serious, almost stern, demeanor she has to this day. As was typical for her, she mastered teaching.


While Arkansas was decent enough, Sue learned—the hard way—that she was vastly underpaid relative to her male colleagues in the Biology Department. At Christmas time, when she was visiting her parents in nearby Virginia, she asked what I thought about that. With experience of my own in being paid 75 cents on the dollar, I advised her to ask directly for a raise. She did, but was low-balled, hardly making any headway towards financial parity.


When a Canada Chair position opened up in 2006 at Memorial University, Sue jumped at the chance to apply. She was successful once again! The family moved to the far-flung island of Newfoundland, which happens to be her husband Glenn’s home turf. Now a Full Professor, she is not even 50 years old!


She’s widened her scientific sphere to include soils, climate change, and fatty acids. Her lab includes not only isotope instrumentation, but chromatographic instruments of all kinds. I spent some time with Sue’s group in western Newfoundland one season. Although I am not allergic to anything in the lower 48 states, I was knocked down by an allergy to balsam fir. Sue recalled recently that when I managed to feel better I cooked a complete turkey dinner for her field crew.


Newfoundland wetland

Sue’s continued to fight the battle talented women continue to face in earth and physical sciences. She fought for air conditioning in her lab; decent grad students; to repair laboratories subjected to flooding; and fair assignment of teaching and service duties.


Her work is slowly being recognized (Sue's Google Scholar Page). Her publications are detailed, even introspective, and never simple. She’s taken advantage of carbon tracers to tease out microbial processes in soils. She’s trained students, added new colleagues—she’s there.


Ron Benner and Sue, 2017, The Sea Ranch, California

For the past 3 years, Sue has made the long trip from St. John’s Newfoundland to join Ron Benner and me in California. Since my diagnosis of ALS in 2016, she’s proven her commitment of friendship to me—something more valuable than publications or grant money.


That’s what matters after 27 years of working with people you like and admire in science.

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...