Friday, May 15, 2020

Kate Freeman--Now with wit and sparkle

Marilyn and Kate Freeman, Orleans, France, 2011

When an intern walks through the door of your lab, you can never tell whether she will stay with science or just give it try for the summer. In 1981, Dave Freeman, professor of chemistry at the University of Maryland, was on sabbatical at the Geophysical Lab. His daughter was starting her undergraduate career trying to decide between a liberal arts education versus a degree in chemistry. Katherine Freeman spent that summer, her vacation periods, and whenever she had some time in the next few years, working with Tom Hoering and sometimes down the hall in my lab.

Her “job” as an intern was to do random chores that Tom might think up. He had interns make glass capillary columns, grind and extract rocks, inject samples on the gas chromatographs, and help keep the lab clean. What Tom enjoyed most was sitting with his feet up on his desk and telling stories about science and life. He’d ask questions about what someone was interested in, then make an expressive face, and offer up a suggestion as to how the intern might go forward in science—or not.

My new laboratory was getting in full swing in 1981 with renovations completed and two older isotope mass spectrometers installed therein. I was growing cultures of algae and bacteria in large batches and developing tedious, work intensive methods for compound specific isotope analyses with Ed Hare and Steve Macko. There was a considerable amount of glassware that needed washing every week. Kate Freeman often was detailed to scrub it up, rinse it with distilled water, and keep things in tip-top shape. When Kate became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, I made sure people knew that she’d once was the low woman on my lab’s totem pole.

When she worked at the Lab, Kate shared an office with grad student Andy Gize in residence from Penn State. I recall that Kate had her first instance of sexual harassment there with a prank phone caller who dialed up Kate and Andy’s phone every afternoon. The prank caller had dialed earlier and when Andy (a male) answered, he hung up immediately. When Kate arrived, hearing a female’s voice, egged him on. I’m not sure what he whispered exactly, but it was unpleasant and annoying. Finally, they asked this jerk why he was making these obscene phone calls to this particular phone number.  Apparently, their phone number when translated into letters spelled out “Big Tits”. After laughing about this, the prank caller gave it up and left them alone.

During winter break in 1983, Kate was making plans for what she’d do after getting her B.S. degree from Wellesley College. Tom, I recall, phoned up John Hayes at Indiana University and told him that he knew of a promising student who’d be perfect for John’s training in stable isotopes. He followed that up with a letter of recommendation, and as we say, the rest is history. With John, Kate worked with Finnigan engineers and others to design the first continuous flow system to measure isotopes in individual compounds. Her first ten publications described using this technique for some of the first measurements of carbon isotope signals in various lipid molecules from sediments and ancient rocks. Her first publication in 1990 remains a classic.

It was in 1990, that Tom Hoering and I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, to test out this instrument in Hayes’ lab where Kate was using it every day. John was out of town, leaving Kate to do the demonstration and sell the instrument. The Finnigan 252 isotope ratio mass spectrometer and their new way of measuring isotopes was a real winner. Freeman and Hayes sealed the deal for us.
Kate and Dan Schrag, Hoering Fest, 1995

Kate recalls, “I remember showing the instrument to Tom. It was an exciting moment for me (and a bit terrifying). Tom walked into the room and immediately disappeared.  We were startled but quickly found him crouching behind the instrument to see the pumps and guts of the thing.”

In 1987, when Tom was awarded the Alfred Treibs medal in Organic Geochemistry, he chose Kate to give his nomination speech. Kate was still a graduate student then, but buoyed by her background in literature and her mother, a college English professor, Kate delivered an address from her viewpoint as a young person entering the field. Thirty years later, Kate joined Tom and me as a recipient of the Treibs medal, the second woman to reach this level of respect from the community.

As Kate grew in experience and stature, she developed a regal demeanor. There are very few people who make me slightly nervous to talk to them about science—Kate was one of them. My tongue felt tied, I stuttered and mumbled feeling like I couldn’t explain myself, something I rarely have a problem doing. Perhaps this is because our ways of “doing science” is so different. My approach to science is more random. I grab at ideas that come from out of left field. Kate takes a more measured approach. Her ideas follow logically. I didn’t build new instruments like she does. I take already built ones and make them work.
IMOG meeting, 1995

An example I like to tell about the differences in our approaches can be described by a simple story when we attended the International Meeting in Organic Geochemistry in the Basque region of Spain in 1995. We shared a hotel room at the conference. It was the time before posters were printed on large format printers and carried in rolls on airplanes. I spent the day before flying to Spain cutting out pieces of poster board to fit the drawings, text, and photographs for my poster.  The poster boards were cut in sizes to fit the material—none of them were the same size. When Kate arrived, her poster fit neatly into her small carryon bag. She said blithely, “I get the print shop to cut poster paper 15 inches by 20 inches and then print my diagrams to fit.” A one-size fits all, completely practical approach never occurred to me!
Bernie Simoneit, Kate, her dad Dave, and Bernie's wife, 1995

My husband Chris and I attended Kate and her husband Mark’s wedding reception party that Kate’s dad Dave held for her 6 months after they had tied the knot. I wrote earlier about my relationship with Dave Freeman, in some ways a complete opposite to Kate. [] Chris and I spent several evenings with Dave and his wife Linda, which were always pleasant, feel-good times. Linda is much more organized, detail oriented, precise, and exacting. I think that Kate inherited all of these talents from her mom, a person who may not always get full credit for raising a brilliant scientist daughter.

The first decades of her meteoric career saw Kate rocketing to fame. It was a heady time. And to me, it seemed like a stressful time when Kate had to keep up with the accolades she was receiving, as well as the omnipresence of her critical and demanding advisor John Hayes. Kate was running with the Big Dogs then, in a field known for cliquishness. People struggle to do the best they can, but with new found fame can come stress as well.

When Kate’s children were born about 20 years ago, I sensed a softening in her. She had trained up a stable of bright grad students—Tim Filley, Bob Dias, Rich Pancost, and Mark Pagani—who all became leaders in stable isotope geochemistry rising to the tops of the field. These guys were a handful as students, however, and a challenge for a young assistant professor. We discussed at that time how we kept order in a lab group and kept up motivation. [I looked over my reading glasses at lab folks and adopted a stern visage.] Learning to be flexible and knowing that it takes time to bring out the best in people helped her success in educating more than thirty grad students, many postdocs, and a hoard of undergrads.
#GeochemGirls: Hilariy Harnett, Liz Sikes, Marilyn, Kate, AGU 2019

As Kate transitioned through tenure to a full professorship, she also developed a sharp wit, a wry sense of humor, similar to that of her chemistry professor dad. Taking time to travel with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, attend her son’s baseball games, and share in the care of her parents as they aged, has put a patina on Kate that shines brighter than during her glory days as a young-up-and-comer. This winter, Kate gave a seminar at UC Riverside and charmed the audience with, not only her good work, but a humility and down-to-earthiness I’d not seen before.

I no longer need to be “on my toes” to talk to Kate. She’s heading into new things now that the kids are off to college and beyond. Our group of #GeochemGirls is going strong and celebrating our careers, families, and lives as people—just plain folk.

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...