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

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The good of a dog


Dana and Nicky, circa 2009

A black and white Korean mutt stands next to my wheelchair asking to be petted. She lays down in close proximity, ears alert, then settles in for a short nap. Stella, Evan and Meghan’s dog, just by being herself provides happiness and peace. Of course, when she leaps up barking ferociously at a neighborhood cat or the mailman, Stella is slightly jarring—a bit annoying. She is a very clean dog, never peeing or pooping or throwing up in the house, but she sheds fine white hairs that layer onto black clothing. A dog is a dog with its fine parts and its downsides. But I’ve always loved dogs!
Stella, 2019

My friend Franny and I were dog “nuts”. When we were 7 or 8 years old, we kept scrapbooks of dog pictures scavenged from Life and Outdoor Life magazines that our parents read. Life magazine had the cutest pictures of puppies. Outdoor Life, a hunting and fishing magazine that my father read, had pictures of pointers and beagles. Franny and I were both lucky to have parents who brought puppies home for us to grow up with.

My family had boxer dogs—rowdy, slightly dumb dogs, that slobbered all over, but delivered serious amounts of fun to my brother and I. Our first boxer Rex unfortunately didn’t last long. He was discovered by our mailman and his death was quietly murmured in the family. I was too young to really understand. Our next boxer lived to a ripe old age. Rudy, a stocky male with a curbed tail and floppy ears, was a constant presence in my life from early childhood until my freshman year at Penn State. We loved him and he loved us.

Rudy was often a bad dog, however. He chased one of our neighborhood kids and knocked him over whenever he saw him. He jumped through our living room window breaking the glass as he went to chase an “invading” cat. He devoured all of my mother’s Christmas cookies one year, when she’d left them cooling, unguarded in the kitchen, while the family decorated the Christmas tree in the living room. He pulled on his leash every time you walked him. He bolted out the door, not to return for a day, whenever he got the chance.
 
Rudy provided comedy relief with these antics. He was a co-conspirator of my brother and I when we were fed fried liver and asked to clean our plates. Rudy would slink into the kitchen when my father finished his meal, then we’d slyly feed him the offending leathery meat. Rudy was our alarm clock. Every morning, he’d dash into our rooms and jump on our beds giving us a taste of his slobbery kiss. He loved to play, race around the house, and roughhouse. He was a great dog for me.

Franny, who had the cutest beagle and a fluffy cocker spaniel, and I formed the Dog Club of America. We were its founding and only members. We considered others, but didn’t really admit anyone else to our club. I recall that we had a secret password and danced around a tree hopping on one foot and professing our love of dogs.

Rudy died when I was in college. My mother couldn’t bring herself to call me, so she wrote a letter. When I opened it in the college dining area, I slumped down to the floor and cried. Rudy had been sick for a while—it was his time. I learned then the deep sorrow that comes from loving a dog. A friend of mine said, “There’s nothing worse than losing the family dog.” And that’s true, the devotion to a pet, like a long-lived dog, runs deep.

As a young adult I had two great dogs—Bummer, a large well-trained German shepherd, and Sputnik, a small mutt who became my companion when I sorely needed one. Having a dog as an adult means you need to find a place to live that allows pets. You can’t just leave home and forget about them—they need constant care and attention. Sputnik died after Chris and I left her in a kennel when we went on a trip to Alaska. I returned home to a very sick dog in time to kiss her goodbye at the vet’s office. I was four months pregnant at the time, which was a relief. One dog gone and one precious daughter born soon after.
Marilyn with Sputnik, Fred and Lucky, Linda and Trina, circa 1884

We lived a dog-less life for a while because commuting, working, and day care were too complicated. Finally, when she was in 5th grade, daughter Dana insisted that all she wanted for Christmas was a dog. While I was thinking of all the reasons why we couldn’t have one, Dana, Chris, and Evan found Australian shepherd puppies for sale. That was it. We chose the shyest one—a black, white, and brown “Tri” colored Aussie that we named Nicky.

Nicky wasn’t the cuddliest pup. Sometimes she nipped at Evan. Often she hid under the bed or in the shower and wouldn’t play with the kids. Eventually, though, she became the loyal family dog keeping tabs on the kids’ whereabouts. She never ran away from home. We needed no fence to keep her on our property. Nicky was a one-family dog though and eschewed being petted by anyone other than our family. She defended our home fiercely, once biting a friend who unwittingly came in the door while we weren’t in the room.
Nicky at Christmas, circa 2008

She traveled with us everywhere a dog could go—Canada, the beach, my parents house, you name it. Like many dogs, when she saw the suitcases come out, she’d sit by the door or jump in the car and sit waiting patiently to go along and not be left behind. Nicky died of kidney failure after only 11 years with us. It was Evan’s first loss of a pet. Chris, Evan, and I drove Nicky to the vet’s for her to be put “asleep”. We came home and held a funeral for her with Evan’s friends and neighbors that included a lot of tears and a couple of beers. Dana was graduating from college in Washington state the day after, so she missed the sad parting. She and Evan made a memorial to Nicky a couple days latter on a deserted Pacific beach.
Dana and Evan's memorial to Nicky, 2011

Chris and I are dog-less again. But we’re grandparents of Stella. When we come from Mariposa to Riverside, Stella shows her fondness, wriggling and wagging, and follows us like honored family. I’d like another dog. We’ll see. Maybe one will come our way and provide that loving touch that is unique to a dog.

Other dogs I have known:

My brother’s dog Lucky—a golden brown Chiua-what-what mix that my sister Barb found at a 7-11 in New Jersey. Lucky ate shoes, glasses, and expensive furniture, but he was responsible for capturing the heart of my sister-in-law Linda.
Fred and Linda's beagles with Florence and Marilyn, 2018

Paul Koch has another Chiua-what-what named Aaron. In a recent visit to our house, Aaron pooped on the carpet, bit one of our guests on the leg, and walked on the kitchen table, all in the first hour of his visit. He’s a dog with a strong Napoleon complex.
Marilyn with Aaron and Paul Koch and Ike, 2016


My sister and her husband Tim got a huge, untrained German shepherd named Cooper, after their son Chris died. Both Cooper and Chris caused a lot of problems, but both were lovable in their own way.
Barb, Colleen and Stacey, and Cooper 2018

Franny’s dog Jammer was an elite competitive fly ball star. Jammer kept Fran on the move taking the dog nationwide to compete by jumping and flying through the air. When Jammer became blind, Franny could use voice commands to direct him to a ball she’d thrown.

There are many others. A dog keeps you from being “too clean”, “too fussy” and “too self-centered.” I’m glad they’ve been in my life. heH

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