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.
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.