Monday, November 2, 2020

Mat Wooller--and charm of the Seven "P"s


Phoebe, Diane, Mat, Dana, Marilyn, Chris, Owen, Evan, Alaska 2017

“Prior preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance”—The Seven “P”s by Mat Wooller


With regards to personality tests, I am abstract-sequential: Mat Wooller is concrete-spatial. Those who have worked with me know that I don’t keep detailed lab procedure manuals—that stuff should be learned and memorized! But my approach to complex instrumentation doesn’t work for everyone. When Mat Wooller came to the Geophysical Lab after finishing up his PhD in Wales, he joined my lab group as an isotope technician—with no real experience in stable isotope analysis.


What was I thinking of to offer this position to Wooller? It was his application letter, written with passion, that stated although he had little to no training with stable isotope analyses, he was keen to do what it took to learn. One of his professors wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for him, but his major professor, a Doyenne of Paleoclimate at the University of Swansea, refused to recommend him. She felt he was destined for something better.


Who starts their career this way? More than a hundred original publications later, Mat Wooller, now a full professor at the University of Alaska, ( has been directing Alaska’s isotope lab since 2002 (his CV neglects to mention his humble beginning as a lab tech at Carnegie).


How did he rocket from Zero to 90 in the world of stable isotope biogeochemistry in a little under three years? Innovative approach to science, plain hard work, and a pound of humility.



It didn’t take long for Mat to settle in at the Carnegie. We began a long-term study of mangrove ecology ( that I’ve highlighted previously. That concrete-spatial approach counter balanced my abstract-sequential one in the field and the lab. For example, I knew by thinking about it over night where I wanted to sample and what I wanted to accomplish after a day in the mangrove swamps. For Mat, I labeled a few sample bags and tubes, scribbled a list of stations in my notebook, then enjoyed a cup of coffee under island palm trees with him, while he ran the day’s itinerary in his mind.


Similarly in the lab, I’d assess a problem by isolating the variables and doing some tests. He’d look on, assemble the tools needed for a repair, and we’d get things back up and running quickly. After 4 months as a technician, his employment status changed. (



Mat Wooller fired!” was the subject line of the email. My colleague Doug Rumble jumped out of his chair and was on his way to my office to protest, but saw the next line.


“Mat Wooller hired as postdoc!” (Belize research:


So how did he go from postdoc to Lab Director in two years? Here’s my story—and I’m sticking to it. Two things were important and both of them happened in 2002 at the Isotope ecology conference—Isoecol 2002—in Flagstaff, Arizona.


Mat and Marilyn, Belize 2006


I’d rented a house for the greater lab group—me, Noreen Tuross (Isotope Contessa), visiting postdoc Diane “Butterfly” O’Brien, Wooller, and intern Quinn Roberts. The conference holds a big banquet every year, and we began a “tradition” of holding a party for colleagues afterwards.


That year Don Schell was the invited speaker. Don, the Director of the Stable Isotope Lab in Fairbanks, Alaska, had studied isotopes in seals, whales, and Arctic sediments for his career. He was retiring, and his position was open and the talk of the meeting.


Noreen and I hatched a plan. As Queen and Contessa, we sat on either side of the unsuspecting Don Schell. We refilled his wine glass frequently. Seated across the table from us sat Mat, next to postdoc Diane O’Brien.


Noreen would lean in and ask, “So, Don what’s your next step? You’ve done such great work.”


I followed. “Any idea who you’ll hire to fill your position?”


“Not yet,” he answered, “any ideas?”


By his third glass of wine, I nodded my head towards young Dr. Wooller. “He’s good,” I said mildly.  “In fact, he’s learned how to run a lab in record time,” I added.


By the fourth glass of wine, Noreen and I were no longer coy. “Mat Wooller would be an excellent choice. Perfect for the position,” I recommended sagely. Noreen chimed in, “That’s a great suggestion. He’d be perfect!”


The seeds had been planted. We moved on. We were on a tag-team high.

Many know by observation that women often go to the restroom in a group. This practice encourages a bit of gossip and chitchat. When Diane O’Brien stood to head to the restroom, Noreen and I excused ourselves and followed.


Mat and Diane, honeymooners

“What do you think of Mat?” we asked.


“He’s kind of cute,” she answered, “Haven’t really thought about it.”


We didn’t believe her.


Mat, we knew, had a crush on Diane, but she was Ivy League, sophisticated, and a bit proper. Wooller had a British mouth (e.g., he swore), a casual (e.g. sloppy) manner of dress, and was not “proper”.


“He likes you,” I blurted out.


“That Wooller!” she answered. “He doesn’t like me.”


“Yes, he does!” Noreen and I chimed.


It was the start of a secret whirlwind romance ending in marriage! When they finally revealed their intentions, I couldn’t have been happier. They published this classic paper while working on getting two jobs in the same town.


D. O'Brien and M.J. Wooller. (2007). Tracking human travel using stable oxygen and hydrogen isotope analyses of hair and urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.21: 2422–2430.


Needless to say, Mat won the job at Alaska on his own merits. Maybe the chat with Don Schell had something to do with it. I think it did.


That evening ended with yet another favorite story. Somehow the news of our house party traveled around the conference. Without our knowing, the conference buses stopped outside and off loaded more than 100+ isotope ecologists, who trooped into the small rental house. As a party, it was a raging success.


Noreen retired around midnight, leaving the rest of us to clear out the house by 2 am. Wooller and Diane served at the back of house corralling partygoers to the front door. I stood by the door, shaking their hands, shoving them firmly out, making sure their exit was complete. When the last isotope ecologist had departed, we high-fived and went through what had just transpired.


Then, there was a knock at the door. Puzzled, I answered. There was a very young Scott Wankel, swaying with the breeze. “Can I sleep on your couch?”


I thought for a micro-second. “No,” I answered and shut the door firmly. Vintage day.


When Mat departed for Alaska, he held his own goodbye party at his house in Takoma Park, Maryland. We were to come in James Bond themed costumes. I dressed as a Nigerian diplomat and took on the job of shaking, not stirring, the martinis for everyone.


I didn’t pour myself one of my own, but if there was a bit left in the shaker, I finished it off. There were a lot of people—and many martinis. It was a rookie mistake…


By the end of the evening, in the company of my kids Dana and Evan who had not seen their mother this way before, I rolled down Mat’s steep front yard into the bushes then was gently helped into a friend’s car for a ride home. [I didn’t do that again.]


Mat, Diane, and their kids remain friends. As an Alaskan, he’s refined his sling-shot abilities, snow athletics, print making, and moose hunting (observing, not shooting). Mat continues to surprise. He founded a new lab recently for non-traditional stable isotopes with a multi-collector isotope instrument.


Sling Shot competition 2017

My family and I visited them in Alaska in 2017. He’s helping me with my spiritual journey into Buddhism. That early connection remains firm.


I made the right call to bring on an unknown, young paleoclimate scientist to the States back in 1999. Keep your eyes open for people like Mat and always remember:

“Prior preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance”—Mat Wooller








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...