Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Lucky Seven Anat Shahar--Non-traditional in many ways

Marilyn and Anat at Tadish Grill, SF, 2015
Marilyn and Anat at Tadish Grill, SF, 2015

Some women take off their wedding rings when they interview for jobs in STEM fields so that they won’t be judged on their marital status. Anat Shahar didn’t bother back in 2008, because she was 8 months pregnant, something she couldn’t disguise on a Skype interview. That did not deter her from putting her best foot forward, impressing the postdoc search committee, and landing an in-person interview with her 3-month-old son Adam a couple months later.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington, then, was not known for diversity and inclusion for much of its history.  Gender diversity there was a problem, in my opinion, since it’s beginning. Andrew Carnegie described the special “man” who would serve as Carnegie’s staff scientist. At the Geophysical Lab, I was the 2nd female staff member starting in 1979. It took 30 more years to hire another.  During that time, there were one or two offers extended to women, but there were spousal problems and startup cost issues that got in the way of these offers being accepted.


The Geophysical Lab had its eyes on Anat since she was a summer intern in 2002, then a grad student with former postdoc Ed Young at UCLA. When two staff member positions opened up in 2010, Anat was in the middle of a successful postdoc at the Lab. With over 100 candidates, she rose quickly to the top tier. I was pleased that she joined me as only the 3rd woman staff scientist in over 110 years.


Anat’s start at the Lab was rocky. There were similarities to my own experience in a few ways but different in others. I was awarded $20,000 for starting my lab; Anat was able to purchase a multi-collector-ICP-mass spectrometer with hers. [For those who aren’t familiar with these instruments, they cost about $400,000 or so.] Having the right level of resources was great, but there was No Room at the Inn for Anat to house the fancy mass spec. Like me, she was forced to have a senior, seasoned staff scientist move out of a small lab space so she could have a couple of benches to call her own and a place for her postdocs to build their reaction mixtures. [I was required to share a lab space with the staff member who was asked to retire, so I could replace him. The atmosphere for me was frosty to say the least.]


Ed Young, Chris, Colleen Young, Anat, GL 2012

Meanwhile, Anat, a go-getter, now with two children under the age of five, negotiated space for her mass spec in a DTM geochemistry laboratory across the campus. She was new--“tradition” didn’t phase her a bit. It was a smart move in so many ways. Her instrument was put under the watchful eye of DTM’s Tim Mock, the technical whizz who runs DTM’s mass specs. She also developed clear and meaningful collaborations with DTM’s scientists, including Steve Shirey, an expert geochemist who has studied diamonds for much of his long career.


Isotopes are Anat’s stock in trade. Iron isotopes—what we in the Isotope Geochemistry field call Non-Traditional isotopes--are her specialty. At UCLA, she developed the prowess to work on iron, silicon, magnesium, and chlorine isotopes. There are very few labs in the world that can do this type of work—and only a few headed up by women.

Iron, silica, and magnesium are major elements comprising the solid Earth. Living organisms, of course, take up and metabolize iron and the other elements. For a while, iron isotope patterns catalyzed by microbes were a hot topic. But the work proved too complex to use them for definitive tracers of life, which folks had hoped would be a useful tracer for signs of life in extraterrestrial (e.g., Martian) samples. Unlike the “traditional” isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur, the isotope effects in these non-traditional elements are quite small—tenths the size of isotope patterns in those other elements. Therefore, the measurement of such small isotope differences takes a special breed of geochemist. Anat’s an accomplished member of that group.


Even more demanding, Anat measures non-traditional isotopes in miniscule samples that she’s synthesized in her laboratory using specialized high-temperature, high-pressure equipment that takes years to master. It is the trademark of her work to mix straight geochemistry with isotope geochemistry, something even less common than analyzing non-traditional elements.


In 2016, she was awarded the Macelwane Award by the Mineralogical Society of America for a young scientist deemed to be well on her way to a promising lifelong career. Anat was over the moon when she won the award. I had flowers delivered to her at work, which she displayed in her Avant garde office decorated simply and tastefully, as opposed to the typical shabby academic office littered with old reprints and coffee cups.

From her acceptance speech: “I can’t say that I was one of those people that always knew what they would become. The only thing I knew as a child was that I loved math but that most of all I loved to learn. My goal was to stay in school as long as possible as I loved nothing more than opening a crisp new notebook at the beginning of the school year and writing down pages and pages of notes that my teachers would recite. I couldn’t think of anything better. I was an engineering major in undergrad but had no clear path forward until I started hiking around the Ithaca gorges for a few years and I suddenly became very curious about them! So during my junior year in college, I took mineralogy with Sue Kay and it changed everything. We were assigned a project where we had to find any mineral and figure out what it was. I found a beautiful green mineral, powdered it and put it in a diffractometer. Within minutes I knew what it was. I was amazed! It was then I realized that the only thing better than taking notes about someone else’s research was taking notes about my own research. I became extremely enamored with mineralogy and was lucky enough that Professor Bassett offered to teach me advanced mineralogy the following year. It was then that I learned more about crystal structure as well as what a synchrotron was, what a diamond anvil cell was, and amazingly what the Geophysical Laboratory was. Little did I know at the time how much that year would influence my future path.”

As a staff member Anat and I formed a small group with Alycia Weinberger from Carnegie’s DTM, in which we organized women’s forums to discuss sexual harassment and discrimination on the campus. We held gatherings at our houses for all Carnegie women—scientists and staff--which were a lot of fun and did much to build a stronger community. Since I left in 2013, Anat has carried the mantle of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Geophysical Lab, which is now combined with DTM to form the department of “Earth and Planets”.


Anat and Marilyn, Mariposa 2016

Today, Anat continues to break barriers. This week she took her children, now 10 and 12, down to Black Lives Matter Plaza in DC to teach them a practical lesson about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. As a mother having to deal with home-schooling this spring, Anat keeps pushing the scientific boundary with more work on iron isotopes in every thing that is the most difficult to measure, all the while on the emotional roller coaster in the time of COVID-19.

Stay tuned for her latest work with former DTM collaborators (now Earth and Planets colleagues). Taken together her work is changing how we think the Earth formed billions of years ago from pieces of large meteorites that found each other in space. She’s also tackling the field of astrobiology working together with astronomers to understand what makes a planet habitable.

Anat and Steelie, Marilyn Madness organizers, 2016

A woman like Anat Shahar is the future of geoscience and the future of a more inclusive and diverse workforce in earth science.

I am honored to have known her from the start. Without a doubt she is the Lucky Seventh Scientist from Carnegie’s earth and planets departments joining those from the past and present ( and who has reached the level of her scientific sisters.

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...