Friday, May 1, 2020

Watching my mother disappear

Florence Fogel, Princess cruise 2011

“Are you my mother?” she asked.

“No, I’m your Older Daughter,” I said. Even though my younger sister died over a year and a half ago, I still refer to myself as the Older one. I manage my mother’s finances from California. I often give her advice and deliver news about her continuing care. She thinks, then, I’m her mother telling her what to do.
Marilyn, Florence, Barb, and Fred, 2007

“Who’s that guy you’re married to? He looks like a movie star,” she would say at least once every phone call. We would switch to my asking about what she had eaten for lunch or breakfast. We used to talk about books we were reading, movies we’d seen, but she no longer is able to read much of anything.
Evan and his grandmom, Outer Banks, 2000

This last call, she didn’t even understand the question about food.

Three weeks ago, my 93-year old mother Florence Fogel moved into a memory care facility after 7 years in an independent living apartment in South Jersey. Three years ago, we started hiring home health care assistants to help her out with simple tasks. We began with 3 hours per day twice a week and ended up at 24-hour care just before Mom moved into the memory care home. Things had come to an unpleasant head the Monday after her recent birthday. No longer able to recognize who was coming in her door, she panicked when a health care worker came in. She was belligerent, out of touch, and violent.

She, of course, was not always this way. My mother spent a good 90 years being the life of the party--one who was always up for a good time. Watching the slow mental decline over the past few years has been difficult for the family to watch. This week’s Zoom call was almost the lowest point—she looked OK, but had little recognition of who we were or what we were talking about.
Engaged! 1948 Mom and Dad

Florence was born in Philadelphia on April 5, 1927, to Helen and Stanley Hencinski. The family lived in Camden, New Jersey in a row house along with other Polish families nearby. Camden was a decent place to grow up in back in those days. Camden High—the Purple and the Gold—was a good place to go to school. She lived through the depression without problems. Her dad worked for a floor refinishing company; her mother was a maverick and family doyenne. As a kid, my brother and I spent many Saturday nights with these grandparents.

My mom met my dad when she was working as his personal secretary at RCA in Camden just after World War II. She was a city gal; he a country guy. They married in October 1948 with a small church wedding. For about 5 years, they settled in a brand new apartment in Collingswood New Jersey, before moving to 7 Greenvale Road in Moorestown from 1955 to 2013—almost 60 years!
Collingswood apartment, 1949

Mom was never a doting mother. She cared and took care of us. She made dinner every night, with barely a day off. She was an average cook with a small menu that was repeated week after week. Thursday was spaghetti day, which became my favorite day of the week. When my father came home from working at RCA, she greeted him with a cigarette and cocktails—Manhattans made from bourbon and vermouth. She adored my father, who was often a grumpy fellow when he didn’t get his way. But they made it work. When I reflect on my past, I realize how fortunate I have been to have her as my mother. Mom was fair, honest, helpful, and caring. I grew up with minimal drama and always knew I was loved.
Fogel Family, 1997

Florence was a social animal! [This virus social distancing has been awful for her.] She was a stalwart Lutheran church member, Girl Scout leader, and bridge player.  For a time she was involved with Ladies Clubs, swimming pool women’s groups, book groups, and a sewing club that met monthly for many years. Seeing the social aspect of her personality diminish has been emotionally draining for the whole family.
Dana, Mom, and Movie star, Cape May, 2013

At my age, we ask ourselves, “Would you rather decline physically or mentally?”

I’ve been dealt the end-of-life physical decline pathway. My mother, the mental decline route. While my days are filled with small, life-altering physical challenges, fortunately I’m still able to hold my own mentally as a 67-year old scientist. If I had had a choice, I would pick physical decline, but had hoped I’d have the luxury of another 20 years or so in good shape.
Great grandson Travis and Granny, 2019

Fortunately Mom could come out to California in November for a good long visit. It wasn't easy for anyone involved in getting her here or helping out with her care, but things went well. The trip has left great memories for the family. Florence was dancing, playing the piano, and talking to whoever engaged her in conversation.

“When will you come visit?” she still asks. No one, not even those in nearby Jersey or Philadelphia, can visit, much less me. Most likely, I’ll never see her in person again. It pains me, and it’s fortunate that she can’t comprehend this.

Most of us in our 60s have lost one or both parents. Their deaths are defining moments in our lives marking the boundary between adulthood and senior adulthood. I wonder if my physical self will hold out longer than her mental self. I hope so. Meanwhile, it’s an anxious time watching and waiting for virus scares and other potential things that could take her out. But, mentally speaking…

She’s disappearing. Before my eyes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Any creative scientist worth her salt

Slow down for Wombats!

Any creative scientist worth her salt has almost as many unproductive ideas that lead nowhere as she does ideas that produce publishable results. [The same goes for men as well…] The goal is to let your thoughts soar to places that force them to go where they normally don’t reside. Taking a scientific risk in the course of one’s career keeps things fresh, pushes the boundaries, and opens new doors and collaborations.

We all make “mistakes” doing things that we wouldn’t have done if we’d thought more about it or knew more. That’s not I’m writing about here. I called those “isomistakes”.

Below are more of my “brilliant” ideas that didn’t pan out. I had many successes developing and implementing robust methods for isotope measurements. I wrote earlier about my first major failure with oxygen isotopes in organic matter. Not only did the methods fail, but the impetus for the science didn’t pan out either.

After trying to coax hydrogen gas out of iron tubes, Hoering and I had the idea that we’d confirm our deuterium measurements by measuring tritium isotope fractionation. We calculated what we would expect for tritium, 3H, (mass 3) versus deuterium 2H (mass 2). Our colleagues at DTM had some leftover tritium from the biophysics group and an old scintillation counter to measure radioactivity. I grew phytoplankton cultures in tritiated water, took precautions to keep the radioactivity contained, then prepared the samples for the radioactive counter. Anyone who’s measured tritium or 32P knows that these measurements aren’t as precise as measuring with mass spectrometers. We didn’t spend much time on this and moved on.
We thought we had a clever way to catch large fish, Wooller, Quinn Roberts, and Marilyn

In the field, I’ve already written about the failed experiments using labeled uric acid to trace chicken waste.
In the lab, I had the idea that liposomes—essentially microscopic bags made from synthetic lipids--could encapsulate proteins and protect them from degradation. I had an intern from Yale for the summer trying to carry out these experiments. By the end of the summer, I’d driven him to chain smoking and years later he told me the frustration drove him into a life of economics and policy. He’s now a senior advisor in finance!

Negative results can be extremely disappointing and deflating. Postdoc Robin Sutka worked with her postdoc advisor Dave Emerson at the American Type Culture Collection trying to prove that iron-oxidizing bacteria used the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide as autotrophs. These bacteria have the Rubisco gene. People assumed they used the enzyme to take up carbon. Robin cultured the microbes with 13C labeled bicarbonate for at least 12 weeks in a row. We expected to see a whopping isotope signal, but week after week, the results showed that maybe—maybe—only 5% of their carbon came from the bicarbonate. This is not enough to yell Success! We never quite figured out what was going on. It seemed time for all of us to move on to other things. Robin turned her career to the business sector and is now a senior chromatography sales rep for Thermo-Fisher.

In the mid-1980s, I worked with Geophysical Lab colleague Ed Hare on isotope methods for extracting collagen from fossil bones.  Noreen Tuross was in residence about this time and she served as the go-between us after awhile. I worked on this subject on and off for the next 20 years. We tried modern biochemical methods to try to retrieve useable collagen from heavily degraded Australian megafauna fossils. The results were always disappointing. Fortunately, I worked for as many years with eggshells from ostriches and emus, which preserve isotopic and elemental compositions for hundreds of thousands of years. 
Fossil Wombats

Teeth hold onto their stable isotope signals for even longer, but forget trying to readily date them with 14C in the mineral apatite. Seth Newsome and I tried and failed with an extensive collection of wombat teeth. We have great excursions of isotopes within a seasonal cycle. Without a secure date, though we had to lump our data into “before” and “after” extinction rather than get a better picture of ecosystem change. The wombat adventure was a good ecological experience, and I probably have the world’s largest permitted collection of Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat skeletal materials.

In 1998, I had a “better” idea. Colleague John Magee from the Australian National University had been given three samples of termite “pavements” that were found in archeological contexts. These sedimentary termite samples were fossilized termite mounds that native people had used to build hearths for their cooking fires.

Termites consume plants. If termite hearths had some organic matter remaining in them, they could provide a good representative sample of vegetation that was associated with human activities. We were not allowed to touch human remains, but our work relies on human alterations of the ecosystem to influence Australia’s continental climate. Analyses of the three fossil termite hearths showed they had ample carbon in them for bulk isotope analysis. I thought they might prove to be the perfect samples to link human activity to climate change.
Marilyn and termite mound, Western Australia, 2010

Termites are the grazers of Australian deserts. They are ubiquitous. My next great idea was to collect modern termite mounds from southern Australia all the way to the Top End, near Darwin. In 1998, we started in Perth, traveling north collecting about 75 samples along the way.  When I brought the samples back to the United States through Customs, I declared my plants. The custom forms asked if I had any insects. Technically, I did not. It was 1998; Bill Clinton had just testified that he did “not have sex with that woman.” I only had termite remains.

I anticipated that I’d find a gradient in carbon isotope values in the termite mounds that corresponded with the percentage of C3 and C4 plants on the land that vary as a function of latitude. I pictured the Money Figure, as we call them, the figure that gets a publication in Science or Nature.

Next, I planned to implement compound specific isotope analyses of lignin monomers—fragments of a plant’s structural material—to determine plant types as well as species specific isotope patterns. Rose Filley, Tim Filley’s wife, was my lab assistant at that time. Tim was a postdoc working mostly with George Cody. He had a new method for analyzing lignin. Never mind the full chemical name. TMAH was a magic reagent that could do the reaction to chemically release and modify the lignin monomers in one easy step at a moderate temperature.
Y2K Party: Evan is on George Cody's lap; Tim Filley front, next to Dave and Suz George; Rose in back right with child, 2000

But if your samples were not sealed up right, the glass tubes exploded. And TMAH stinks! This of course happened with one batch of samples. We learned to be more careful.

Turns out that the termite mounds I collected showed that those termites ate only grasses—and only C4 grasses at that. My Money Figure was a bust showing no relationship between latitude and carbon isotopes. Furthermore, we never found any more fossilized termite hearths, no matter how hard we looked. To make matters worse, the compound specific work was work! There was little to no reward.

Another brilliant idea shot down. Rose went on to become a managing director for Purdue’s Climate Change Research Center shifting away from her geochemical roots.
It was her brother from Yale who shifted to finance after another brilliant idea bombed. 

I suppose this leaves me as a stubborn individual going from one idea to the next—reflecting along the way. I kept marching forward. Sometimes failure provides a person with a way to realize that something isn’t right for them. In that case, it’s not really a failure. It’s a Learning Experience.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Brilliant Idea #1: Helium arc welding and hydrogen isotopes

Marilyn and Tom, 1980

Not many women can say they’ve owned a welding rig. I purchased a helium arc welder (i.e., heliarc welder) as a new staff scientist to try out a possible new method for measuring hydrogen isotopes in animal tissues.

“A welder?” you ask.
“What’s she doing with a welder?”

It wasn’t just any welding machine. It was a fancy, brand new welder designed for detail work—sealing small bits of metal together, rather than the rigs used to build bridges. We had it installed down in the basement of the old Geophysical Lab, where the custodial staff made their lunches and changed into their uniforms.

We’d been having problems with our combustion vacuum line when I was analyzing protein-rich animal tissues. Tom Hoering had read a paper that reported sealing organic matter into a pure iron tube, heating it to over 1500°C at which point the iron metal became pervious to hydrogen gas which seeped out. It wasn’t easy to find pure iron tubing, but our instrument shop had a small stock that they weren’t using. They donated it to our new, bright idea.

Here was our plan. Once we learned how to weld, we’d seal our samples in the iron tubes, place them in a specially-made glass vacuum line and heat them up. Because of the extreme temperature that we needed to achieve, we couldn’t use a regular furnace—not even a platinum one—because the glass, even quartz, would melt. Instead, we needed to use an induction heater [think the fancy cooktops people have these days] that was the size of a modern isotope ratio mass spectrometer, about a cubic meter and weighing over 200 kilograms. With induction heating, only the iron metal tube would get hot, allowing the hydrogen gas out. We’d collect it and measure its isotope patterns.

The day the welding machine was installed, Tom and I joined “the Guys from the Shop” and were instructed by the welding salesperson how to use the welder. Tom took a stab at it first. “Damn!” he said, as he burnt through the metal. He tried a second time—it was better, but not pretty.  I was next.

I donned the welding shield, settled in, watched by Andy, Steve, and Herb from the Shop, Tom and the welding rep. No pressure! I sparked it up—and wouldn’t you know it, burned a hole just like Tom. He and I laughed—a loud chortle from Tom and a small snicker from me. I did three more tries, and by the last one, it wasn’t half bad. Tom and I were satisfied and proud.

The Shop guys inspected our work. They were clearly not impressed. They were accustomed to precision work. Our work was “good enough for government work”, but it didn’t look too hot. Tom and I carried the ‘sealed’ tubes to our vacuum line and checked them out. Only two out of five or six were actually sealed. With a bit of practice, we finally got it figured out and were ready to start the measurements.

I weighed out 5 milligrams of dried mouse liver and tapped it into an iron tube that had been welded on the bottom. We took five of these down to the basement, fired up the welder, taking turns welding them shut, and brought them back upstairs to Tom’s lab for the analyses.

Picture the older scientist with his necktie tucked into his shirt along with me, bushy long hair held back by a rubber band, a highly unlikely pair trying out a wild idea.

The induction heater was fired up. It was noisy, required 240 Volt electrical power and had huge vacuum electric tubes that needed to be warmed up for 30 minutes before it was ready to go. It took about an hour to process each of the five samples, followed up by running them on our hydrogen isotope mass spectrometer that I had on and ready. One of the samples was not sealed properly. Two of the others had low yields. The remaining two had measureable amounts of hydrogen with isotope values similar to each other, close to measurement we’d made by more “traditional” methods.
The old hydrogen mass spec, 1979

I wouldn’t call this a success in any sense of the word. Today, a similar analysis takes about 5 minutes to weigh a sample, and another 5 for the analysis. No welding, no monster furnaces. Tom and I did another two sets of samples with similar results. 

We had to admit to ourselves that this wasn’t ever going to be a robust method. We spent our time re-designing and building a better combustion vacuum line that ultimately worked well. The welder was given to the Shop, but none of the Guys wanted to learn how to use it. Eventually we gave it to our sister lab, DTM, who had folks who knew heliarc welding.

Sometimes you get “good” ideas. They make sense. They’ll solve a problem or open up a new scientific door. And other times, well, more work is necessary.

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...