Friday, January 24, 2020

A life of sport: I have a real track record

Maryland Senior Olympics, 2008

            Today if I am able to walk 400 steps and stand up from sitting 36 times, I call it a successful day physically. But this wasn’t always the case. I had a lifetime of trying out different sports—doing well in some and mediocre in most of them, but enjoying them immensely while I was participating in them. I am pretty proud of my last real effort at serious athletic adventure—track and field—which I participated in from 2007-2012.

            My last track meet was in September 2012 at the 37th Annual Potomac Valley Games in Falls Church, Virginia. I would get up early on a Sunday, eat a light, protein rich breakfast, pack some snacks, Gaterade, water, and my shot put and discus then drive across town to the track and field meet at Falls Church High School. Rarely were there any women in my age class. Typically, the meet was populated by high school aged track stars who were interested in getting some extra practice in. Young men in their 20s and 30s gathered to do the 100 meter dash. For the field events, discus and shot put, mostly older men, even in their 80s, were common. I won three gold medals that day in shot put, discus, and the 100 meter dash, but it wasn’t my personal best. I’d done much better in previous years, but nonetheless I enjoyed concentrating on my event and was elated when it was over. How I ended up doing something slightly unusual is due to a number of fortuitous events.

            In 2005, I was in way northern Svalbard on the AMASE Expedition (see earlier blogs on AMASE). Our ship, the M/V Polarsyssel, was anchored in Bocfjorden in clear view of Sverrefjellet volcano and the Devonian-aged red beds that looked like Mars. We’d spent the day on Sverrefjellet examining the unusual rocks called xenoliths that come from deep inside the Earth’s mantle—tens of kilometers below the surface. These xenoliths are apricot to apple sized sphere-shaped rocks with a core of green minerals that are mostly olivine—which as this mineral’s name implies is green--surrounded by black volcanic basalt. Each year on AMASE, our fearless leader Hans Amundson and the crew planned a barbecue for everyone that took place on the shore directly adjacent to the ship. On this particular year, one of the Norwegian scientists was celebrating his 40th birthday. 

AMASE barbecue on shore. Marilyn in blue down jacket, center 2005

            There is an old saying “when the Norwegian takes the cap off the Aquavit bottle, he throws it away.” Well, maybe it’s not a real ancient saying in Norway, but I’d observed this to be true.

            The birthday party continued from early evening to early morning. As the senior woman on board ship, I felt a sense of motherliness in watching how people were behaving. Around 3 am, one of my younger colleagues was bundled into her bunk after some drama that included some tears and some ragged laughter. After she was safely in bed, I needed a last breath of fresh air and headed back to the upper helicopter deck where the birthday celebrant and our resident artist were smoking cigarettes. The ship was illuminated by early morning light that graced the towering volcano. It was magical. I recall standing next to the birthday boy on one side with artist Eammon Shaw on his other side staring at the mountain and taking in its beauty.

            Suddenly, I found myself on the hard metal deck of the ship. I was bewildered then realized that my colleague, who was obviously still very much under the influence of the Aquavit, had thrown me down. WTF?! Eammon was also manhandled down as well but he fought back. He was uninjured, but I, on the other hand, struggled to stand up. This one brief incident caused years of pain, surgery, and jump-started my track and field career.
Carnegie Team, 2005, day one of torn ACL and MCL

            After two knee surgeries to repair two ripped ligaments (my ACL and MCL), I began a long period of recovery with weekly physical therapy. I was out of work for about a month and worked as much as I could from my laptop sitting on my bed. When my physical therapy ended in 2006, I joined an exercise group at my local YMCA in Silver Spring Maryland. The group met at 7 am three times a week. The leader was a Vietnam vet with a white ponytail and leg warmers. My fellow exercisers were mostly in their 70s, if not older. The class worked for me to get me going but eventually I need something more.

            The YMCA had a bunch of personal trainers and I was assigned to Anthony Segun Sokenu, a young man who hailed from Nigeria and came to the United States in high school. His nickname amongst his peers was “Black” and during his college years he was a super Decathlon athlete mastering all ten of the track and field events. Anthony is an Olympic class athlete, but owing to a pulled muscle, he was unable to qualify for the Olympic trials in his last year at University. This misfortune for Anthony benefited many more people in so many ways. Anthony’s day job was working for Special Olympics of Washington DC where he works with young people who are developmentally disabled, but often physically able.
Anthony Segun Sokenu and Marilyn consulting during track meet, 2008

            I was a different challenge for him. As a high-functioning adult in terms of mental capability, I was a pathetic specimen of an older female who couldn’t run 100 feet without collapsing in exhaustion. Anthony took me on as a special case. We met twice weekly at the YMCA gym and fields for a year. He was pushy and demanding as well as patient and understanding. By the end of 6 weeks, I was running and walking a mile. By 8 weeks, I ran my first mile without stopping! It was a redletter day for both of us. We paired our running exercises with strength training in the gym. I became a bit of a gym rat with my weightlifting gloves, spandex pants, and Nike t-shirt. After 9 months, I ran my first 5k race and finished without walking, albeit at a slow comfortable pace. I could bench press 80 pounds easily.

            Anthony’s strategy worked. After the serious physical training, in 2007 I was able to summit the Sverrefjellet volcano once again without a problem! I was jazzed and kept continuing to build my strength and abilities. 
Hans and Marilyn summiting volcano, 2007

            One day in 2008, Anthony said, “I’d like to ask you a question. “

            “Sure,” I answered.

            “Are you just in this for fun or would like to take this seriously? Are you interested in perfecting this as a sport?”

           I stammered. I’d not considered doing anything more serious than a few 5k runs and some weights. “What do you mean by that?” I asked.

            “Let’s take this to a new level,” he answered. “Have you considered training for something further?”

            “Like what?”

            “How about something like the shot put? I think you could do it and be good at it. It’s something to work for.  Take things to a more competitive level.”

            I thought about for a minute then answered, “Let’s go for it!”

            We embarked on a training regimen three evenings a week for the next 4 years. One day we did track and field specific work. The shot put requires minute adjustment to position along with strength, flexibility and coordination. I needed to work on all of these aspects. One day we worked in the gym on strength and flexibility. The 3rd day we had fun—played tennis, went for a fun run, learned golf and soccer skills, played basketball. I was ready in September 2008 for the Senior Olympics of Maryland.

            It was a sunny morning with cool temperatures for September on the east coast. I awoke early—nervous and excited. I stopped off at a local 7-Eleven and downed a Red Bull energy drink. I was pumped. I arrived, registered, then headed to the shot put circle where a few other “senior” women were warming up. As we got nearer to the competition, my son Evan and his buddy Nick Smith Herman arrived to photograph and video the event. Coach Anthony came as we were starting.

            You get three tries at shot put in a formal meet. Your best score---the greatest distance you were able to heave the metal ball--is your final score. The strategy is to make sure your first throw is “safe”—no faults, no going outside the shot put circle, just a good attempt. Your second throw is one with your best energy. With each throw, you shout out a loud “Eeee-yah!” The third attempt should be when you put it all together—technique, energy, and perfection. My third attempt was my best. The judges huddled together to compare the scores of about 6 women in my age class. I was awarded the Gold!

            The following year Chris and I went west to Stanford California where I participated in the National Senior Olympics. People from all 50 states gather for the Nationals. While I did “OK”, very fit and strong women who really knew how to throw a shot put seriously outranked me. Usually, they had started the sport during high school. I was on the more unusual side, starting as a senior myself. It felt so invigorating to be participating in such a large event with people of all abilities pushing themselves as they could.
National Senior Olympics, 2009

            Anthony “required” me to sign up for no fewer than three track meets per year as well as several 5k races. It kept the pressure up to maintain my skill levels. Monthly, we “ran hills”, a day of extreme exertion in which I ran repeatedly up a fairly steep hill to train for the 100 meter dash. Typically, we trained during the year at a local high school track in Northwest DC.

            I recall fondly hearing some kids in the bleachers shout out, “Man, that lady sure is fast!” I may not have been actually that fast—but you could see I was giving it my all.

            Given where I am now, those days fill me with great pleasure. I was so fortunate to have taken the time and made the relationship with Anthony to be a senior track and field medalist. 
2009, Maryland Gold Medal

            Looking further back, I spent about 5 years learning shuri ryu karate with a women’s karate group in Takoma Park Maryland taught by Sensei Deb Friedman. I was practicing with the group for many months before I realized that this was mostly a gay women’s class. The strictness of the sport and the social interaction with women outside my normal sphere was eye-opening. We scientists tend to stick together without a particularly wide social network. I learned even more when a mother-daughter pair joined our group. Elizabeth, a high school student, has Downs syndrome. It was a challenge for Deb and our class to work with Elizabeth, but at the end of the day, we learned much more than just karate moves. As a group, we made our way from white to yellow to blue to green belts, taking regular tests and mastering techniques. None of us were super karate women, but we had a wonderful time meditating, working out, and being together. The Zen of karate and the camaraderie with these women made a permanent impact.

            After my separation and divorce in the 1980s, I learned sailing with my friend Nancy ‘Nat’ Peters. We learned a few basic moves on a 470-cm (about 14 feet), small sailboat from her brother Eugene, then practiced a couple nights a week out on the Chesapeake Bay by ourselves. The ‘470’ is not a forgiving boat. When the sail comes around for making a turn, you needed to hit the deck or suffer being swiped over board by the boom. One evening when we were returning to the dock, a puff of wind capsized our boat. We had been slightly careless and did not have our life jackets on. The mast of the main sail stuck in the Bay’s gooey mud—we had “turtled” and were stuck. Hard stuck. We scrambled for our life jackets and clung to the up-turned boat. Fortunately a couple of guys came by in a motor boat and pulled our ‘470’s mast out of the mud, picked us up, and towed the boat to shore.  

            These were glorious evenings. We’d leave DC after work, sail out in the Bay for a couple hours. It was a great workout—vaulting from side to side as we tacked, leaning way out to balance the boat, and managing the sails and lines. We capped off the evening at a local restaurant with a couple of Miller Lite beers and burgers. On Saturdays, Nat and I raced the boat competing with about 10-12 other ‘470’ sailors. Although we were usually the slowest boat, we finished every race. Racing provided a real sense of accomplishment.

            In later years, Chris and I went in on purchasing a larger boat—a Lightening, a 19-footer—with our friends Charles and Nabeel. With young kids, only one of us could sail at any one time. We raced this boat a few times, and once came in first place in a pretty decent field of competitors. But by this time in my life, however, children took precedence over sailing. We gave up our share in the boat after a couple years.

            In retrospect, my life of active sport extended from childhood football and baseball games in our Jersey backyard with the Greenvale Raiders (the neighborhood kids) as players through swimming butterfly for the Moorestown High School team to competitive sailing, karate, and track and field.

            I could never have guessed that sports would be out of my reach as a senior. If you have the chance to workout, do yoga, hike up a mountain, or play on a team, do it! And do it with joy and gusto.

            I’ll be rooting for your team!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Status of the Memoir--working away

At my "office" in Mariposa, photo taken by Caroline Korn

            I am now working on the 7th major version of my memoir. Over the past several months, I have received both verbal and written comments on older drafts. Every day, I tinker a bit with the writing, taking into account what folks have suggested to make the book more interesting and understandable to a wider audience.
            I have been helped with the “Pitch” by Cat Jarman who is currently writing her own book “River Kings”. I met Cat in 2014 in Kiel, Germany, at an archeological isotope meeting. She was just finishing up her PhD work with Brian Popp, University of Hawaii. Cat’s dissertation work is on the isotope ecology of people from Easter Island—a topic that I’d worked on earlier with Noreen Tuross. Cat and I met again in 2016 at the Marilyn Madness workshop at the Geophysical Lab and share some life experiences. 
Marilyn (left), Cat Jarman (next), Kate Freeman (far right), Marilyn Madness, 2016

            I’ve received many line-by-line edits from people including Valery Terwilliger, Merri Wolf, and Roxane Bowden. Valery has been a tough and valued reviewer of my writing for many years. She went through both major manuscripts—the Geochemical Perspectives article and then the memoir. She made me make hard choices of what to include. Merri Wolf, now retired, was for 2 and a 1/2 decades a Library Technical Assistant at the Broad Branch Road Carnegie campus. She has talents as a playwright and satirist and encouraged me to put more “Marilyn” into the writing. Roxane, my former lab manager at the Geophysical Lab, wrote a commentary that I have largely pirated and revised under the section “Who will be interested in this book and why.” Her insights into what would make this a more understandable book for a wider audience have been invaluable.
Chris, Roxane and Pete Bowden with Marilyn, Joshua Tree National Park, 2018

            Dave Ardell, colleague from UC Merced and neighbor, came by one afternoon and gave me his personal impressions about what he’d read so far. Dave’s an evolutionary biochemist who loves to think about arcane scientific issues. He basically told me—you need to write more, not less. Don’t sideline things—mainstream them. Great comments for me to think about. I’ve been working on interweaving the science with the life stories.
            In my quest to get more male opinions, I’ve heard from Marc Fries and Bruce Curtis. Marc’s a former collaborator on the AMASE project. He’s worked his way through the beginning making sure my writing can be understood by people who don’t know all of those “ologies” as he said (geology, astrobiology, ecology…). Bruce Curtis, the dad of an Isogeochemist colleague, is a retired English professor from Michigan State. He wanted a timeline and a glossary—which I added. He also provided guidance on making sure I had connected the threads of my life from “quiet, shy” to outgoing, leader. He also suggested a new title! Let’s see how this flies.
            Meanwhile, I’m no closer to finding a publisher or an agent, although I’ve sent out several inquiries. I understand this takes time. So, as I continue to revise, I’ll continue to send our more queries and improve the manuscript. Have a look at my pitch and the Who and Why and the latest table of contents. The timeline is at the end after the table of contents. Suggestions are always welcomed for topics to include in new blogs.

Queen of the Isotopes:
Memoir of a journey in bio-geo-chemical-science

Marilyn L. Fogel
January 17, 2020
Version 7.0

The Pitch

I aim to appeal especially to educated readers with an interest in science, distilling complex concepts down to understandable explanations, focusing on stable isotopes - the extraordinary, invisible factor that binds all of these questions together: How do we find out if there is life on other planets? How can life survive in extreme conditions? How can we track migration in people and animals? How do humans change climate on continental scales? My memoir will show what it's like to be at the forefront of investigating these fascinating questions; making new discoveries whilst challenging both established authorities and gender roles, surviving and thriving as a woman in a male-dominated field. And finally, what happens when life throws you the ultimate curve ball of a cruel disease just when you've managed to smash through the glass ceiling.
Who will be interested in reading this book and why?

            Everyone who reads this book will be able to identify with some of my struggles and feel inspired because setbacks do not need to define you or hold you back. I have intertwined my family struggles with my professional struggles and successes which is important because both men and women need to know that everyone has these struggles and one can survive and thrive despite them.  My story is meant to be inspiring--get up every day and carry on! Women, especially, need to be reminded that you can make a poor choice (even if it seemed right in the moment) and still be a success. Everyone has that one experience, that one family member, that one bad idea that brings worry, shame or anxiety. 
Marilyn and her sister Barb, Better days, New Jersey, 2005?
            Women need to know that the path they follow in the work world was barely there 50 years ago, and women like me paved the way, regardless of conscious effort or not.  The struggles I faced are not completely gone, particularly in academia and science. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s sexism was more obvious. Today women deal with “subtle” sexism, sometimes harder to recognize and combat. Reading this memoir, men should see what real sexism looks like--even men who truly believe in equality and have the utmost respect for women but what they do still may carry subtle biases. My story will hopefully open their eyes--even further.
            My memoir is also written to highlight the life burden women carry.  A lot of ‘enlightened’ men think they know, but they don’t really know. Sometimes the demands placed on women need to be stated clearly, in particular why they struggle with life balance. I have illustrated the impact a supportive partner can have on one’s life. I have also pointed out how much women put up with and do (for example, second and third jobs) to make their life and relationships work. This information is even more impactful coming from a person like myself who has had great success.
            The details I provide about what was required to make the scientific measurements I made in the 70’s and 80’s before current instruments were designed and then fully automated is invaluable.  I have written these sections to give non-scientists a flavor of the ingenuity required for scientific analyses. Some younger scientists think that it’s a waste of time to study publications more than 10 years old! So many young scientists take for granted the instrumentation they now have at their fingertips. 
            Last, my memoir also describes many of the relationships and collaborations that faltered and didn’t work out.  While this may make some people uncomfortable, it is good to see, in writing, that failed partnerships (both personal and professional) happen. I acknowledged it and moved on. Young people today are much more afraid of failure and can have unrealistic ideas about the impact of negative experiences or interpersonal relationships. I hope my honesty will be helpful and encouraging to them.

 Table of Contents


About the author

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Introduction
Isotopes are invisible—why have I bothered
What is an isotope?
   Discovering science as a child

Chapter Two: Life as a budding scientist: The Penn State Years
Standing out as a woman scientist

Chapter Three: Graduate school in Wild Southwest Texas

Chapter Four: Early years at the Geophysical Lab
Early Personal Trials in Washington, DC

Chapter Five: Starting a new field---Biogeochemistry

Chapter Six: Discovering Life in Extreme Environments: Hot Springs of   Yellowstone National Park

Chapter Seven: Getting Started on Nitrogen Isotope Biogeochemistry
Early Years as a Female Geoscientist

Chapter Eight: Geophysical Lab History and Colleagues: 1950s to 2008
2801 Upton St., N.W., The old Geophysical Laboratory

Chapter Nine: The mysteries of Salt Marshes

Chapter Ten: Challenges and triumphs we all face
Family, Friends, and Partners
Family Triumphs and Meaningful times

Chapter Eleven: Biogeochemistry Going Full Speed
Noreen Tuross and Isotope Tracers of Nursing and Weaning
A magnet for hurricanes: Atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the ocean

Chapter Twelve: The stable isotope laboratory
Measuring nanograms of “stuff”

Chapter Thirteen: Adventures in the Australian Outback: How humans can change climate with fire

Chapter Fourteen: Wages and Attitudes for Women in Earth Science
         Implicit Attitudes
         The Wage Gap

Chapter Fifteen: Tropical Adventures in Belize: Mangroves, Muck, and Corals in Belize

Chapter Sixteen: Carnegie’s Lunch Club
                        Tried and true recipes
                        My favorite lunch club recipes
                        Some questionable recipes

Chapter Seventeen: Are we alone in the Universe? Astrobiology
Andrew Steele AKA Steelie
A ride on the Vomit Comet

Chapter Eighteen: Intersection of Biogeochemistry with the Study of Meteorites

Chapter Nineteen: Bringing the study of Astrobiology down to Earth:
Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expeditions (AMASE)

Chapter Twenty: Personal Reflections and Stories
Just plain life
Mentoring notes
Women in Science before the #Metoo era

Chapter Twenty-one: My two favorite publications of all time

Chapter Twenty-two: Don’t take yourself too seriously
Nancy Drew #1 Stories
Slatering or How to confuse pesky colleagues

Chapter Twenty-Three: Earth’s Earliest Signs of Life: If we found it, could we recognize it?
Traveling the world to find old rocks

Chapter Twenty-four: Shifting from Biogeochemistry to GeoEcology
Seth Newsome: Postdoc, Colleague and Friend
Isotopes in Bird Feathers reveal their diet and geo-location
Wombat “hunting” across Australia and a wild ride

Chapter Twenty-five: Chasing Chicken Shit Across the Eastern Seaboard

Chapter Twenty-six: Career Advancement and Forging a new career
Leaving the Geophysical Laboratory
Nancy Drew story #2

Chapter Twenty-seven: The great battleship of the University of California
Starting a new life at the age of 60
Campus Culture

Chapter Twenty-eight: Teaching the students I have—not the students I thought I would have
Bobby J. Nakamoto—Mr. POM soon to be Dr. Fish

Chapter Twenty-nine: University of California research
Hydrogen isotopes in Amino Acids tell about an organism’s food and water
Vernal Pools and Soils

Chapter Thirty: Diagnosed with ALS

Chapter Thirty-one: Interdisciplinary research
Journals I’ve published in
Final Project: the EDGE Institute at UC Riverside

Chapter Thirty-two: Hitting the glass ceiling—then breaking it




1952---Born in Camden, New Jersey on September 19; First years spent in Collingswood, New Jersey

1955---Moved to Moorestown, New Jersey

1970---Graduated from Moorestown High School and left for Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

1973---Graduated with B.S. with honors in Biology from Penn State

Winter 1974---Moved to Port Aransas, Texas to begin graduate school at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute; married Jack Estep

Fall 1974---Moved to Austin, Texas for course work in Botany at the main campus of the University of Texas

1977---Graduated with Ph.D. in Botany and Marine Sciences in May; Moved to Washington, DC area in July

Summer 1977---Began Carnegie Corporation Fellowship at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Started work on hydrogen isotopes

1979---Appointed Temporary Staff Member of the Geophysical Laboratory; Constructed my first isotope vacuum line

1981---Appointed Staff Member (Senior Scientist) in Biogeochemistry at the Geophysical Lab; Started fieldwork in Yellowstone National Park

1982---First postdoctoral Fellow, Stephen Macko arrived at the Geophysical Lab; Started work on nitrogen isotopes

1983---Completed studies at Yellowstone National Park; Started work on compound specific amino acids; Separated from first husband

1985---Began sabbatical leave at Carnegie’s Department of Plant Biology with Joseph Berry; Met future husband Christopher Swarth

1986---Married Chris Swarth; finished sabbatical on oxygen isotopes in the atmosphere

1988---Dana Swarth, first child born; Started isotope study on nursing infants with Noreen Tuross

1990---Began studies on atmospheric nitrogen deposition with Hans Paerl in North Carolina

1991---Evan Swarth, second child born; Started studies on plant decomposition; Installed first gas chromatography-combustion-isotope system

1994---Chief Scientist on the R/V Cape Hatteras; Caught in Hurricane Gordon at sea; Started work on the paleoclimate of Australia with first field trip

1995---Visiting Professor Dartmouth College; Colleague Thomas C. Hoering is honored at Hoeringfest; He passes away in July

1997---Became a member of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board; Moved to new home in Silver Spring, Maryland; Both children in school fulltime

1998---Started astrobiology studies with Ken Nealson at Jet Propulsion Lab and George Cody, Bob Hazen, and Hatten Yoder at the Geophysical Lab; Second fieldtrip to Australia

1999---Keynote speaker at the 1st Stable Isotope Ecology meeting in Saskatoon, Canada; Started fieldwork in Belize with Matthew Wooller, Myrna Jacobson, and Candy Feller; Installed first automated isotope system

2000---Carnegie Evening Lecture at Administration building on P. St., NW; President of my son’s elementary school Parent Teacher Association

2001---Awarded the Mellon Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Research Center

2003--- Elected as Fellow of the Geochemical Society and European Association of Geochemistry

2004---First trip to the Arctic with AMASE (Artic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition) with Hans Amundson and Andrew Steele

2006---Fulbright Scholar, University of Oslo, Norway

2008---Chief Scientist on the R/V Lance on AMASE in Svalbard

2009---Program Director for Low Temperature Geochemistry and Geobiology program at the National Science Foundation; Dana and Evan both at Universities; Chris and I are empty nesters

2011---Field trip to Hudson Bay to collect Precambrian rocks with Dominic Papineau

2012---Final year at the Geophysical Laboratory as a Staff Member

2013---Began position as Professor of Ecology at University of California Merced; Awarded Treibs medal for career in organic geochemistry and elected Fellow of AAAS; Chris and I moved to Mariposa joined by Dana at the end of the year

2015---Last international field trips to Ethiopia with Valery Terwilliger and to Svalbard with Steelie and Liane Benning

2016---Started position as Director of the EDGE Institute and Wilbur W. Mayhew Endowed Chair of Geoecology at University of California Riverside; Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in May; Evan and his partner Meghan moved to Los Angeles

2019---Elected Member of the National Academy of Sciences; Promoted to Distinguished Professor

2020---Retired from active service in June

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...