Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Valery Terwilliger--Can we really afford to lose this top scientist?

Fieldwork in far northern Ethiopia, 2015 with Marilyn (left), crew and Valery (right)

“I like Valery,” my daughter Dana said, after having dinner with Valery



at my house in Riverside, California in September 2019.

She was making her 6th visit to my laboratories since the mid-2000s, when she first came to the Geophysical Laboratory while on a leave of absence from the University of Kansas. I first met Valery in 2000 at an Isotope Ecology meeting in Germany. She seemed a bit of a nervous person, unsure of herself, and frankly, a bit on the unusual side.

“I couldn’t make the right words or even any words come out when I tried to talk to Marilyn.  By that time, I had taught a stable isotopes graduate seminar several times and assigned some of her papers.  However, when I thought to start a conversation by letting her know how much I thought of her work and why, I couldn’t remember important points made in the papers. Everything that came out of my mouth was stupid.  I still wince when I remember that I asked her how many stable isotope ratio mass spectrometers she had in her lab.  Alternatively, I would try to speak and nothing at all would come out of my mouth.” V. Terwilliger, 2020


Who hasn’t felt that way at some time or another?


I don’t remember the subject of her talk then, but she describes her speaking style as one of two types:

“I am a very uneven public speaker.  Sometimes I live my worst nightmares with a slow, tired, scared, longwinded, halting, and dull delivery. Sometimes I’m very on and compelling, even stealing the show.”  V. Terwilliger, 2020


I know the feeling. Some days you feel on top of the world, and others, mumbling through it. A couple years later, Valery wrote and asked to spend her leave of absence in my lab. It was a busy time—as most of my life was back then. She wanted to measure the isotopes of water in trees or fresh leaves from branches of oak trees. Either way, the research was only at the margin of my interest.


We worked out a simple plan—Valery would do her research at the Smithsonian Institution’s Environmental Research Center (SERC) and come to the Lab to run her leaf samples on my mass spectrometer.

“I was fully expecting a cold reception when I went to Marilyn’s lab at Carnegie with my first batch of samples.  It was not cold.  Marilyn was the Queen Bee but she treated me with a level of respect to which I was quite unaccustomed.  She showed me my desk.  I was not expecting desk space.  She gave me an official letter saying I was a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie.  She introduced me to other scientists. Those signs of belonging were unexpected too. But I tried to remember my game plan was to be as little of a weight on her career as possible.” V. Terwilliger, 2020


Funny how almost 20 years can whizz by and someone recalls a casual meeting in such detail. We often sat together at the computer table running the mass spec’s analytical system, loaded the samples together, and watched standards running before leaving for the evening. I got to know Valery during those visits and listened to her stories of fighting her way through academia in Kansas. I had my own share of sexual discrimination—subtle exclusions, mistaken for a secretary, or left off an important email, but nothing in comparison to Valery’s trials.


Valery thinking about ancient civilizations
To deal with this, Valery took leaves as often as possible. In fact, it could be said that she might have become used to being under estimated by her colleagues—something that gnaws at your very being.

“When I was first assigned to my department’s colloquium committee (a committee of one), I was unprepared for the obstacles involved.  An expected obstacle was lack of money.  The less expected ones included being boycotted by some of my colleagues and their students, and another show their superiority of having the room the colloquium was supposed to be in reassigned to them for another purpose at the last second.  Sometimes I succeeded in bringing in speakers that were at the top of the sub-disciplines of the boycotters.  The speakers would give their talks to an audience of eight people and wonder where those in their sub-discipline were.” V. Terwilliger, 2020

I listened further as we sat with the old fashioned printer chugging away in the background. Valery had developed cracker-jack classes to teach environmental science and stable isotopes. But, and this is big, her colleagues dinged her for creating too difficult a class! She expected her students to read and write. Her competence as a teacher was questioned.


Fortunately, Valery is a true intellect. Her “lite” reading runs towards the history of science and autobiographies. Her first published paper described the daily wandering and activities of tapirs (large, herbivorous mammals with a prehensile trunk) in the jungles of Panama. While there at the Smithsonian Lab, she met her husband, Michael Greenfield, a noted expert on insect sounds. They’ve built a life in academia with Michael often leading and Valery fiercely following, marching to her own drumbeat.


As a postdoc, she landed in a lab at the University of California and first heard of my work. Her postdoc mentor held a weekly seminar for his lab group.

“The seminar consisted mostly of presenting and discussing papers.  For one session, we examined not a paper, but an attack—authored by [the lab chief]--of a paper that Marilyn had published.  [The lab chief] spent at least 20 minutes of class time letting us know that an idiot [that means me!] had written the paper and that we should not even bother to read it because it was so flawed. [H]is diatribe worked against his intentions as I was so curious, I had to read a bunch of Marilyn’s publications.  I was impressed.  I couldn’t understand why—from a purely objective, scientific standpoint—he wasn’t.” V. Terwilliger, 2020


Forget subtle criticism. This person blatantly called me a crass name and showed hostility. Valery wasn’t the first person to let me in on this behavior, so when she told me about it, I wasn’t surprised. I snorted.  We compared notes on how we’d dealt with these slights along the way.


A friendship developed.


I began to read several of Valery’s published works. They are detailed, scholarly, exacting, demanding, and serious. She doesn’t publish “easy” papers. And with few exceptions, these papers are not well cited. Because she never had the opportunity to build her own laboratory, her work has followed a different type of “playbook”—one that was not written by men.

“Key lab needs at mine weren’t going to be met no matter what I did, making research funding and attraction plus meaningful training of students elusive.  That situation would make employment in a less obstacle-ridden environment elsewhere elusive as well.  But meaningful research was what I wanted most to be doing.  So, I hatched a very sketchy plan to take leaves of absence to more productive locations as often as possible in order to somehow develop research interests.” V. Terwilliger, 2020   


With shear tenacity, she met a researcher from Ethiopia, Dr. Zewdu Eshetu, and developed a research program that has continued for more than a decade.

I am a proud coauthor of two publications on climate change in Ethiopia over the past 5,000 years using both traditional analyses of soils as well as more complicated compound specific analysis of the tiny bits of lipids left in her samples.


Valery organized a hydrogen isotope conference in France, 2011

Valery isn’t a naturally gifted analyst; lab work took concentration and conscious thought. She once loaded elemental analyzer samples on top of the plastic cover of the autosampler—a rookie mistake because she’d always used the more labor-intensive vacuum lines. For the fatty acid work in soils, it took time and there were some miss steps, but she eventually mastered the very complex analytical methods for hydrogen isotopes.


In the lab UC Riverside, 2017

When Valery’s husband got an offer to move his work to France, she went along with him, patching up her work as best she could. The last several trips to my lab were made when she was on an extended “leave of absence” now living in France. Essentially, she’d given up her status as a tenured professor, continued by dint of cleverness. Val’s last trip to Riverside in September of 2019 was to analyze samples from Ethiopia after her 6th trip there collecting samples.


Recently, I leaned on Valery when I needed an honest opinion about something I was personally wrestling with. In early 2017, when I was turned down for a promised promotion, I wrote an angry editorial I thought of submitting to Science’s Work/Life page. She told me to swallow the article—my neck was bared and it wasn’t pretty. I listened to her. She has been a stalwart critic of my memoir and blog. Sometimes you need someone to tell you straight that you’re thinking in the wrong direction. She might not think this, but I pay attention to what she’s saying.


I ask myself. Why is it that such a brilliant scientist should be “lost” from academic research? Another example of the leaky pipeline where half the best people—women—are not included in moving science forward. Without question, Valery was given the message that somehow she didn’t belong.


Buna time (coffee time) with colleagues in Ethiopia, 2015

It hasn’t been easy, but Valery has managed to make a life for herself in France—learning the language, collaborating with organic geochemists, and getting her work funded with colleagues in Canada to continue studies in Ethiopia. Now, when she comes to the University of California, my lab group perks up and smiles.


There remains, for sure, a bit of the unusual character, but one that has made my scientific life richer for it.


I like Valery.


See this week’s release of a full length movie “Picture a Scientist” that tells the stories of several brave women who have fought sexual discrimination and harassment as female scientists.



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