Thursday, March 5, 2020

Patrick L. Parker--got a lot of isotope geochemistry going

Patrick "Chief" Parker

“There’s a tanker coming in!,” he shouted. I looked up from my table of data that I’d been explaining to one of my major professors, Pat Parker, and glanced out the huge picture window in his office onto the ship channel that funneled big oil tankers into port from the Gulf of Mexico.

My other major professor, Chase Van Baalen, sighed audibly and said, “Come on Parker, focus.” Reluctantly, Parker resumed his on-again/off-again interest in my data on isotopes and enzymes that formed the backbone of my PhD dissertation.

I’d come to grad school in the small town of Port Aransas, Texas, expressly to work with Patrick L. Parker. To a youngster from Penn State, I’d read all of his papers and imagined him as a distinguished professor. In early January 1974, I flew down to Texas from my family home in New Jersey. My one suitcase was filled with woolen winter clothes, leather boots, and only a few summer things. I brought my pillow and a typewriter.  Professor Pat Parker picked me up at the airport in his old VW bug, rusted out on the sides. He was a modest looking man with a small mustache, a bit of a limp, and shaggy brown hair. Even as the Director of the Institute, he wore old khakis and an un-ironed short sleeve shirt with no tie. I had formed a different picture of how he looked based on his Science papers that I had read at Penn State.
We drove to Port Aransas on Mustang Island, where the University of Texas Marine Science Institute was located, with the final portion of the journey via ferry. When we arrived on the island, Parker drove his VW right out onto the beach, which surprised me. It was a foggy day in January and it felt like we were on the edge of the continent, which we were.
Marine Science Institute, our labs were at the end of the building in 1974

Pat served as the Director of the Marine Science Institute, which seemed perpetually plagued by heavy Texas academic politics. Fortunately for me, my other two professors Chase Van Baalen and Bob Tabita had their feet on the ground and taught me everything I needed to know. Parker saw the Big Picture. Parker and Van Baalen often sniped at each other, but it was all in the sense of familiarity and camaraderie.

Parker’s lab was my first venture into the field of stable isotopes. There was one aging Nuclide 6-inch isotope ratio mass spectrometer with a glass vacuum line and mercury columns that served as the inlet system. He had a gas chromatograph that sometimes worked, a lot of lipid extraction glassware, and some ovens and balances.

Parker and Van Baalen, my major professors
I learned Marine Chemistry from Parker. Years later, former student John Hedges and I compared our memories of what we’d learned about marine chemistry from him. We couldn’t recall much about the ocean, but learned a heck of a lot about the Green River shale, a sedimentary rock strata loaded with organic carbon. The Green River shale wasn’t even formed in the ocean, but instead a freshwater lake system. Hedges and I laughed over how we’d managed to succeed in marine chemistry regardless.

Students called Parker “Chief” or “the Chief” depending on how you felt about him that day. I often wished he was more involved in my work, but eventually learned that that wasn’t his strength.

He was actually a people person. Parker attracted students who shaped the stable isotope and organic geochemistry field to a much greater extent than most people realize. Although he was one of the early scientists at the Marine Science Institute, he also had a 2-year postdoc at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory, then became a temporary staff member there for another couple of years. It was at that time that he wrote his paper on “The biogeochemistry of the stable isotopes of carbon in a marine bay” (Parker, 1964).

I believe this is one of the earliest works on compound specific isotope measurements in fatty acids, published just after Phil Abelson and Tom Hoering published their landmark study on amino acids and isotopes (1961). Carbon isotope measurements in lipid molecules weren’t investigated further until almost 25 years later when Kate Freeman, Martin Schoell, Bob Dias, and John Hayes started the modern technique that has exploded worldwide.
I’ll bet few people these days recognize Parker’s contributions. Not only did he launch me into the field of isotope biogeochemistry, but trained John I. Hedges, a marine organic geochemist, Steve Macko, and Brian Fry—all of whom have been or are tremendously productive people in biogeochemistry.

I kept in touch with Pat until he passed away in 2011. He served as a mentor to me, making trips to DC almost every year. That’s well over 30+ years of mentoring! One of his classic lines in regard to the life of a scientist: “You’ll never be rich, but you’ll be comfortable.” His insight into mentoring grad students: “You can teach ‘em to read and write, but they have to think on their own.” In 1995 when Tom Hoering was dying of brain cancer, Parker wrote to me knowing I was worried about Tom. He said, “Don’t forget to relax once in awhile.”

The local newspaper, The South Jetty, had this to say about Pat after he passed away: 

“Parker served on the Port Aransas Independent School District Board of Trustees throughout most of the period between 1965 and 1977. One year, when he didn’t file for office, he still won a seat on the school board as a write-in candidate, according to his family.
Cartoon from UTMSI newsletter, 1993

Parker also was co-owner of Coastal Science Labs, a small Austin-based business. The company’s Web site described the business like this: ‘We are specialists in the analysis of stable isotope ratios of the light elements carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur. Applications for this type of analysis range from food adulteration detection to the exploration for fossil fuels.’ 

After he retired, Parker and his wife moved to Arkansas where they took up the repair and restoration of a 100-year old family home called the Thompson House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.”

His long term colleague Dick Scalan said, “The house was a complete wreck. It was leaning in two directions and the chimney was falling down,” he said. Over a period of three or four years, Parker used jacks to level it, he replaced parts of the frame and dismantled the rock chimney (numbering all the pieces) and put it back together.”
Parker's old house in Arkansas

Parker’s son Dan said, “He was a fun, cheerful and highly likable man who moved through life with a positive attitude, despite having a congenital condition that caused his bones to be highly brittle for many years. On and off, from the time he was a child to just this year, he suffered literally dozens of broken bones all over his body from simple falls. He spent many months in casts over the course of his lifetime. And yet, he maintained good humor and an optimistic, constructive outlook on life.”

I served on the Treibs Medal Nomination Committee that recommended Parker for the prestigious Treibs Medal given for lifetime contributions to Organic Geochemistry. Parker couldn’t come that year because of a broken leg, but made it to the following GSA meeting in Denver. I recall sitting near the front of the audience listening to Dick Scalan give the citation. He showed a picture of Parker in an old, ragged white T-shirt, fixing up his house in Arkansas.

Parker looked just like a hillbilly, which indeed he was in some ways. I watched the facial expressions of some of my more distinguished colleagues, who seemed to squirm slightly in their seats. 

He’d made it to the top of his field with international acclaim all on the back of his creative spark as a young scientist and his talent at picking bright students. When Parker took the stage to accept the medal, he was humble—the way he’d always been. 
Parker's grad students who attended his memorial, 2011

I was proud of The Chief.

Some of my favorite papers of his:

P.L. Parker, The biogeochemistry of the stable isotopes of carbon in a marine bay,
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 28, Issue 7, 1964, Pages 1155-1164.

John I. Hedges, Patrick L. Parker, Land-derived organic matter in surface sediments from the Gulf of Mexico, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 40, Issue 9, 1976,
Pages 1019-1029.

Fry, B., Joern, A. and Parker, P.L. (1978), Grasshopper Food Web Analysis: Use of Carbon Isotope Ratios to Examine Feeding Relationships Among Terrestrial Herbivores. Ecology, 59: 498-506. doi:10.2307/1936580


  1. Marilyn, I think you captured my dad's character and spirit well. Thanks for writing this. - Dan Parker

  2. Marilyn,
    Thank you so much for filling in some of my academic history. And I loved your piece on Engel and Macko. I have always appreciated my link to Pat Parker although we never met. Pat passed away shortly after I received a RAPID grant to evaluate the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on O2 metabolism in the Gulf. It turns out there isn't much of a link although we published two papers addressing sediment vs. water column respiration based on stable isotopes. In writing, I recalled the other great Gulf oil spill, Ixtoc, and Pat's research on the tarballs washing up on the beaches (my brother pointed out that Ixtoc can be respelled as Toxic!). In any event, I dedicated the paper to Pat's memory (GCA 140: 39-39 (2014). Best wishes and keep writing,
    Nathaniel Ostrom


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