Saturday, April 4, 2020

Doug Rumble--isotope geochemist and restaurant critic

(L-R): Garret Huntress, Marilyn, and Doug Rumble, fancy dress party 2006

“Do you like good sushi?” he would ask. Who doesn’t like good sushi? Washington DC abounds with great places to sample sushi from small, packed classic places to Avant-garde restaurants with the latest trends in fine Japanese dining. Doug Rumble knew them all. It became his trademark—the restaurant critic--at the Geophysical Lab for over 45 years.

He and I worked together for 35.5 years sharing laboratory space that entire time. It wasn’t always easy sharing lab space with someone that had almost completely different sensibilities about what constitutes an efficient lab space—but we made it work—most likely because at a very basic human level we worked to understand each other. Douglas Rumble III and I recently chatted over Zoom comparing our lives now on the other side of the continent.
Marilyn's lab in foreground; Doug's in background, 2008

Doug retired at the end of 2019, as the Geophysical Laboratory merged with DTM, which happened quietly and slowly as fall progressed. It was time. Doug’s 10 years older than I am, and I’m at the age where I plan to retire in a few short months. We’ve always talked about this time and what we’d do once it arrived. Yesterday, in his new home surrounded by Ponderosa pines and sitting next to his wife, Doug waxed poetic about the geology of Northern Arizona. They’d just completed a hike that took them to a deserted outcrop impacted by recent volcanic activity. If they’d been in Washington, DC, they’d have been stuck in their house with nowhere to go.
When I arrived at the Geophysical Laboratory in 1977, I came from relatively humble beginnings. Nowadays, Penn State and the University of Texas are powerhouse public schools. Then, both schools were very popular locally with big football teams and loyal alumni. Neither belonged to the Ivy League. The majority of staff members at the Lab were graduates of Harvard, Yale, Caltech, University of Chicago, or Johns Hopkins. Doug was a graduate of Columbia and Harvard, sporting the Harvard flag on the inside of his office door. Ve-ri-tas or Latin for “Truth” was emblazoned on its center.

Although it was often intimidating for me to join the ranks of my colleagues then, I learned to pay attention to my own work and what I knew rather than worry about how others viewed me. Doug and I shared the back laboratory in Tom Hoering’s suite of old chemistry labs when I was a starting postdoc. I worked silently inside my white, plywood transfer “hood” which allowed me to grow sterile cultures of microorganisms alongside of Doug’s handmade glass and metal vacuum line. He was a relatively new staff member, a permanent position given to promising young scientists and had yet to get his own lab. At that time, Doug was primarily a field geologist with a talent in geochemistry, but was learning the stable isotope trade. Although he had a few years experience on me, we were both under the mentorship of Tom Hoering at that time.
Shuhei Ono, Marilyn, Doug--new Sulfur mass spec

I’ve already written about many of the hare-brained things I did when I first started as a stable isotope biogeochemist. Here’s one of my favorite stories about Doug. He decided he needed to change the oil in the vacuum pump that was the workhorse for making sure his oxygen isotope analyses of rocks worked without issue. The pump on his ‘line’ was one of the larger ones, attached to a tenuous glass tube with a stout rubber hose. Doug had wrestled the hose off the pump and dragged it to the center of the lab. He lifted it onto one of the Carnegie’s ancient wooden stools, found a 1-liter beaker, and started to remove the oil cap and drain the dirty oil.

“Darn!” he said, as I heard the clunk of the cap hit the bottom of the beaker. The slimy cap had slipped from his fingers landing in the sludgy oil. I watched as the oil poured out quickly, rapidly reaching the top of the beaker.
Ed Young and Doug, laser vacuum line, circa1995

“What am I going to do?” he exclaimed, as the oil starting spilling onto the linoleum floor. I grabbed the lab’s trashcan, rushed it over under the oil spout, and saved the day. The old trashcan was a mess, but not nearly the mess that would have happened should that extra liter and a half of oil poured out on the floor. Hoering would have never let him forget it.

“Thanks for that,” said a relieved Doug. I felt good. Even though this is a trivial action, I’d thought fast and helped my colleague. We began to develop a professional relationship.  I knew nothing about metamorphic rocks; he knew nothing about enzymes and photosynthesis. It didn’t take long for us to talk over problems we were having with mass spectrometers and share our analytical isotope triumphs when we had them. When I was appointed as a staff member two years later, Doug was as happy and proud of me as any.

Together we wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a new mass spectrometer that was to be built by the Nuclide Corp. in State College, PA. It was the first of its kind with a metal inlet system, isotope collectors that could be individually adjusted, and an upgraded vacuum system. The proposal was funded and we shared in the maintenance, financing, and operation of this instrument for almost 15 years from 1982 to 1996. I spent time in his laboratory analyzing oxygen isotopes of manganese oxides. We shared the mentoring of many postdocs. Mutual respect and friendship followed.

While Doug was an extremely driven, focused scientist, he had other interests. Over the years, he obsessed over ocean kayaking, Paris, Japan, restaurants, cooking, Dartmouth, bird watching, fine wines, China, opera, and river sculling.  His family was front and center in his life, and his bulletin board outside his office was covered with their pictures. Every summer Doug and his wife Karen would head up to Lyme, New Hampshire, where they rented a cabin on a lake populated by loons. Those of us remaining in sweltering DC dealing with electrical outages were often jealous of his peaceful serene summers.
Brendan O'Connor, high school intern mixing Doug a drink, Karen in background, 2008

Scientifically, his research themes expanded from metamorphic rocks and fluid flow to graphite to meteorites to sulfur isotopes to methane isotopes. His last work was pioneering the development and use of the large format mass spectrometer known as Panorama. Doug is an exacting writer and a gifted speaker, who turns on his Southern accent when he gets excited about a topic.

When either of us experienced personal challenges, the other was there offering a chicken casserole, an understanding ear, and some sage advice. While I pick up on social cues with emotional intelligence, Doug has a broader philosophical approach to life. We had discussed years ago that when the time had come for either of us to retire, we’d let each other know.
Ken Rumble, son, roasting Doug at 70th birthday party

Before coming west to the University of California, our joint lab space was essentially split in half. My side included instruments that were fully automated, high throughput machines that operated 24/7/365. I had high school kids making measurements. We played loud music, swore, and carried out pranks. Doug’s half was aging, complicated, and often on standby after two decades of producing the best quality isotope data of its kind in the world. After I left for a new life in California, he missed me. Fortunately for me, we’ve kept in close touch.

Together we’ve shared five isotope ratio mass spectrometers and remain good friends to this day. To those who aren’t familiar with these instruments, it’s quite a fete to work together—and remain friends--keeping equipment in top shape.

Tom Hoering, who passed away in 1995, had trained us well.

“Show it who’s boss,” he’d taught us. And we did.

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