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 ( 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  ( 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 ( 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 (


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


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