Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Half measures never work!


Maxine Singer and Marilyn, 2016

Daniel Toews (left), Marilyn, Jon Nye, Liz Williams, Joy Stewart, Bobby Nakamoto, 2016

"Half measures never work"—Maxine Singer, 2016


Seated at the Carnegie’s Lunch Club table during Marilyn Madness, a conference of science friends honoring my career, I had a conversation with Maxine Singer (Maxine's profile) former President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Daniel Toews, a grad student of mine at UC Merced was sitting directly across the table from Maxine. He wasn’t fully aware who the dignified, petite, sharply dressed woman was—but based on her comments, he soon realized she was a person of note.


Maxine and I reminisced about our times interacting over the years. There was the time she was showing a prospective Trustee the Geophysical Lab, when a postdoc’s huge, slobbering Newfoundland dog barked at the gentleman. He turned down the invitation to join the Carnegie team. Maxine claimed that wasn’t necessarily the case, but the story remains an Urban Legend.


I told her I was building my last lab now at UC Riverside. She retorted, “How do you know it’s your last?”


Then, we talked about the time George Cody and I petitioned Maxine to hire a 3rd organic geochemist studying the new field of astrobiology before a new Director was selected in 1998. We made the request because we were still holding on to scientific endeavors that were winding down—ocean science for me and ancient plant biochemical research for George. She practically snorted at us.

Maxine Singer's portrait

“Half measure never work,” she quipped, meaning if we wanted to get into astrobiology, we needed to jump in and make a commitment. George and I left the meeting with our “tails” between our legs. After a day or so of thinking, we decided she was right—we made major changes to our research portfolios.


Looking back, I can see where I had an idea, or a postdoc presented an idea, and we dabbled and chewed at the edges of the question, not taking full ownership of the problem. There are often logical reasons why a “half measure” is all that is expended. Perhaps, the idea was half-baked, not supported by the literature. Maybe the idea required a larger team or more money than I had. Also, perhaps I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.


One example stands out for me. In 1998, as I entered the Biosignature research program with Ken Nealson’s NASA Astrobiology Institute group at JPL, I was intrigued by a new mass spectrometer system, the ProteinChip Reader, that could identify high molecular weight, unknown compounds—molecules as big as 400,000 daltons or more. [For the non-scientists, these are big things like proteins, 1000 times larger than conventional instruments could identify.] My idea was to use the instrument to look for large, unknown molecules in samples of Martian sediments and rocks that were supposed to be returned to Earth in 2005 or 2008.


I flew out to the San Francisco Bay area of California and met with the President of the Ciphergen Company, the folks who designed and built the ProteinChip Reader. The president of the company was the inventor of the new technology that used a time-of-flight mass spectrometer in tandem with a novel, propriety “chip” with a surface designed to selectively bind large molecules. Small salts and other less interesting compounds were washed off. The chip was then placed in a high vacuum chamber and gently nudged with a laser to coax the big molecules off without blasting them apart. Once detached from the Chip, they entered the mass spec and the time it took for them to reach the detector was recorded in nanoseconds (billionths of a second). Larger molecules take longer times to “fly” to the detector. Thus, based on their time to fly into the detector, I could tell their molecular weight to one decimal place.


I convinced NASA’s Astrobiology Institute to purchase the instrument for me. I worked pretty much by myself on the standardization and parameters of the instrument. But, probably not enough. I studied molecular structures of dissolved organic matter, meteoritic organic matter, and bacterial proteins from cultures and natural samples. I was a decent analyst and could keep the instrument running. I understood the software. The data was interesting. But then proteomics exploded.


Wes Huntress, Doug Rumble, me, Ken Nealson

Bigger, more sophisticated instruments were developed. People were now figuring out molecular weights to the 3rd or 4th decimal place. They were developing sophisticated software to figure out exact chemical structures, not just molecular weights and guesses. I never published the work, and when I left for UC Merced, the instrument was mothballed.


I should have jumped on this faster and should have enlisted help. In the end, it feels like a half measure.


On the stable isotope front, my half measure list is pretty long: compound specific isotopes of amino acids from diatom cultures, forams separated from ocean sediments, rotting bones, fossil eggshells; termite mounds; biomarker lipids in plants; various bits and pieces of food webs; starving paleo-people; ultra-degraded organic matter in bones; turtle isotopes; labeled mangrove experiments; nutrient studies.


In some cases, dead ends were reached because a visiting scholar or student dropped the project. In others, the data was muddled—a clear result did not emerge, and consequently, I moved on to projects that did work out. Some were beyond my capabilities—biomarkers in mangrove peat sediments. These were complex samples, and Jen Eigenbrode, the postdoc who was to work on them, got a permanent position at NASA’s labs at Goddard Space Center and moved on. My skills at identifying biomarkers remain primitive. We had isotope values, but I couldn’t confirm the exact identification of the molecules.


Jen Eigenbrode with mangrove core

So, some things end up as half measures.


In other cases, proposals were not funded, so the work could never go beyond the preliminary stage. Ron Benner and I submitted a proposal three times to NSF to measure the hydrogen isotopes of individual lignin monomers from the ocean’s major water bodies. It was a big, bold idea. Heck, we were big bold people. It was risky work, but would have answered questions about the extent and duration of terrestrial organic compounds in the ocean. We couldn’t even afford to go partway on this one.


Sometimes, especially when a student intern is involved, a paper is written based on a summer’s work. The intern has done all she can do in the time she’s had. The work is good, but it’s often just “half” of the work needed to convince reviewers that it should be published. In my humble opinion, “half measured” work like this deserves a place in the public eye, since it’s not the same as “half assed” work that is poorly designed.


I call these studies Small Science or Small Data. Increasingly, there seems to be an interest in case studies and other small concept work that might seem like a half measure.


Maxine’s advice remains good advice though. Daniel, now in his 5th year of grad school, has learned first hand about half measures. He’s working as best he can with three boys under the age of four and intermittent childcare to take his dissertation research from the “half measure” stage to the full deal. The phrase keeps him going and when I sense he’s giving into half measures, a gentle reminder sets him straight.


George Cody, Marilyn, Mary Voytek, award in astrobiology

Astrobiology and Early Earth Studies


Steele, A., D. McKay, C. Allen, K. Thomas-Keprta, D. Warmflash, S. Pincus, M. Schweitzer,  J. Priscu, J. Sears, J. Hedgecock, R. Avci, M. Fogel, 2001. Mars immunoassay life detection instrument for astrobiology (MILDI). Lunar and Planetary Science XXXII.


Maule, J., M. Fogel, A. Steele, N. Wainwright, D. L. Pierson, and D. S. McKay, 2003. Antibody binding in altered gravity:  implications for immunosorbent assay during spaceflight. J. Grav. Physiol. 10: 47-55. Work for this paper required flying and working on a Zero-Gravity NASA airplane.


Hazen, R.M., A. Steele, G.D. Cody, M.L. Fogel and W.T. Huntress, Jr. (2003) Biosignatures and abiosignatures. Astrobiology 2, 512-513.


Wang, Y., Y. Huang, C. M. O'D. Alexander, M. Fogel, and G. Cody, 2005. Molecular and compound-specific hydrogen isotope analyses of insoluble organic matter from different carbonaceous chondrite groups, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 69: 3711-3721.


Lindsay, J. F., M. D. Brasier, N. McKouhglin, O. R. Green, M. Fogel, A. Steele, and S. A. Mertzman, 2005. The problem of deep carbon- An Archaen paradox, Precambrian Res. 143: 1-22.


Ono, S., N. Beukes, D. Rumble, and M. Fogel, 2006. Early evolution of Earth’s atmospheric oxygen from multiple-sulfur and carbon isotope records of the 2.9 Ga Pongola Supergroup, southern Africa, S. Afr. J. Geol. 109: 97 - 108. This paper was awarded the Jubilee Medal of the Geological Society of South Africa, 2006.


Steele, A., M. D. Fries, H. E. F. Amundsen, B. O. Mysen, M. L. Fogel, M. Schweitzer, and N. Z. Boctor, 2007. Comprehensive imaging and Raman spectroscopy of carbonate globules from Martian meteorite ALH84001 and a terrestrial analogue from Svalbard, Meteoritics Planetary Science 42: 1549-1566.


Alexander, C. M. O’D., M. Fogel, H. Yabuta, G.D. Cody, 2007. The origin and evolution of chondrites recorded in the elemental and isotopic compositions of their macromolecular organic matter, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 71: 4380-4403.


Martins, Z., C. M. O’D. Alexander, G. E. Orzechowska, M. L. Fogel, and P. Ehrenfreund, 2007. Indigenous amino acids in primitive CR meteorites, Meteoritics and Planetary Science 42: 2125-2136. 


Cody, G. D., C. M. O’D. Alexander, H. Yabuta, A. L. D. Kilcoyne,, T. Araki, H. Ade, P. Dera, M. Fogel, B. Militzer, and B. O. Mysen, 2008. Organic thermometry for chondritic parent bodies, EPSL, 272, 446-455, 2008.


Martins, Z., O. Botta, M. L. Fogel, M. A. Sephton, D. P. Glavin, J. S. Watson, J.P. Dworkin, A. W. Schwartz, and P. Ehrenfreund, 2008. Extraterrestrial nucleobases in the Murchison meteorite, EPSL 270: 130-136.


Ohmoto, H., B. Runnegar, L. R. Kump, M. L Fogel, B. Kamber, A. D. Anbar, P. L Knauth, D. R Lowe, D. Y Sumner, Y. Watanabe, 2008.  Biosignatures in ancient rocks: a summary of discussions at a field workshop on biosignatures in ancient rocks.  Astrobiology 8: 883-907.


Younse, P., A. Stroupe, T. Huntsberger, M. Garrett, J. L. Eigenbrode, L. G. Benning, M. Fogel, A. Steele, 2009. Sample acquisition and caching using detachable scoops for Mars sample return. 2009 IEEE Aerospace conference: 1-12.


Alexander, C. M. O'D., G. D. Cody, M. Fogel, and H. Yabuta, 2009. Organics in meteorites - Solar or interstellar?, in “Organic Matter in Space”, S. Kwok and S. Sandford, eds., International Astronomical Union Symposium 251, Cambridge University Press, doi: 10.1017/S1743921308021765 .


Papineau, D., R. Purohit, T. Goldberg, D. Pi, G. A. Shields, H. Bhu, A. Steele, M. L. Fogel, 2009. High primary productivity and nitrogen cycling after the Paleoproterozoic phosphogenic event in the Aravalli Supergroup, India. Precambrian Res. 171: 37-56. 


Papineau, D., DeGregorio, B., Cody, G.D., Fries, M. D., Mojzsis, S. J., Steele, A., Stroud, R.M., and Fogel, M.L., 2010, Ancient graphite in the Eoarchean quartz–pyroxene rock from Akilia in southern West Greenland I: Petrographic and spectroscopic characterization, Geochem. Cosmochim. Acta 74: 5862-5883.


Papineau, D., DeGregorio, B., Stroud, R. M., Steele, A., E. Pecoits, K. Konhauser, J. Wang and Fogel, M.L., 2010, Ancient graphite in the Eoarchean quartz-pyroxene rock from Akilia Island in southern West Greenland II: isotopic and chemical compositions and comparison with Paleoproterozoic banded iron formations, Geochem. Cosmochim. Acta 74: 5884-5905.


Alexander, C. M. O.-D., Newsome, S. D., Fogel, M. L., Nittler, L.R., Busemamnn, H., and Cody, G. D., 2010, Deuterium enrichments in chondritic macromolecular material - Implications for the origin and evolution of organics, water and asteroids, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, Description: cleardoi:10.1016/j.gca.2010.05.005.


Yabuta, H., Alexander, C. M. O.-D., Fogel, M. L., Kilcoyne, A. L. D., and Cody., G. D., 2010, A molecular and isotopic study of the macromolecular organic matter of the ungrouped C2 WIS 91600 and its relationship to Tagish Lake and PCA 91008, Meteoritics and Planetary Science 45: 1446-1460.


Papineau, D.,  B. T. De Gregorio, G. D. Cody, J. O’Neil, A. Steele, R. M. Stroud & M. L. Fogel. 2011. Young poorly crystalline graphite in the >3/8-Gyr-old Nuvvuagittuq banded iron formation. Nature Geoscience  4: 376-379.


Herd, C. D. K., A. Blinova, D. N. Simkus, Y. Huang, R. Tarozo, C. M. O’D. Alexander, F. Gyngard, L. R. Nittler, G. D. Cody, M. L. Fogel, Y. Kebukawa, A. L. D. Kilcoyne, R. W. Hilts, G. F. Slater, D. P. Glavin, J. P. Dworkin, M. P. Callahan, J. E. Elsila, B. T. De Gregorio, and R. M. Stroud, 2011. Origin and evolution of prebiotic organic matter as inferred from the Tagish Lake meteorite, Science 332, 1304-1307.

Steele, A., F. M. McCubbin, M. Fries, L. Kater, N. Z. Boctor, M. L. Fogel, P. G. Conrad, M. Glamoclija, M. Spencer, A. L. Morrow, M. R. Hammond, R. N. Zare, E. P Vicenzi, S. Siljestrom, R. Bowden, C. D. K. Herd, B. O. Mysen, S. B. Shirey, H. E. F. Amundsen, A. H. Treiman, E. S. Bullock, A. J. T Jull, 2012. A reduced organic carbon component in martian basalts. Science 337: 212-215.

Alexander, C. M. O.’D., R. Bowde, M. L. Fogel, K. T. Howard, C. D. K. Herd, and L. R. Nittler, 2012. The provenances of asteroids, and their contributions to the volatile inventories of the terrestrial planets. Science 337: 721-723.

Guy, B. M., S. Ono, J. Gutzmer, A. J. Kaufman, Y. Lin, M. L. Fogel, and N. J. Beukes, 2012. A multiple sulfur and organic carbon isotope record from non-conglomeratic sedimentary rocks of the Mesoarchean Witwatersrand Supergroup, South Africa. Precambrian Res. 216-219: 208-231.

Agee, C. B., N. V. Wilson, F. M. McCubbin, K. Ziegler, V. J. Polyak, Z. D. Sharp, Y. Asmerom, M. H. Nunn, R. Shaheen, M. H. Thiemens, A. Steele, M. L. Fogel, R. Bowden, M. Glamoclija, Z. Zhang, and S. E. Elardo, 2013. Unique meteorite from Early Amazonian Mars: water-rich basaltic breccia Northwest Africa. Science 339: 780-785.

Papineau, D., R. Purohit, M. L. Fogel, and G. A. Shields-Zhou, 2013. High phosphate availability as a possible cause for massive cyanobacterial production of oxygen in the Paleoproterozoic atmosphere. Earth and Planet. Sci. Lett. 362: 225-236.

Stern, J. C., A. C. McAdam, I. L. Ten Kate, D. L. Bish, D. F. Blake, R. V. Morris, R> Bowden, M. L. Fogel, M. Glamoclija, P. R. Mahaffy, A. Steele, and H. E. F. Amundsen, 2013. Isotopic and geochemical investigation of two distinct Mars analog environments using evolved gas techniques in Svalbard, Norway. Icarus 224: 297-308.

Fogel, M. L. and A. Steele, 2013. Nitrogen in extraterrestrial environments: Clues to the possible presence of life. Elements 9: 367-372.

Alexander, C. M. O.’D., K. T. Howard, R. Bowden, and M. L. Fogel, 2013. The classification of CM and CR chondrites using bulk H, C, and N abundance and isotopic compositions. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta,123: 244-260.

Wang, Y., P. Griffin, K. Jin, M. L. Fogel, A. Steele, and G. D. Cody, 2013. Tracing H isotope effects in the dynamic metabolic network using multi-nuclear (1H, 2H and 13C) solid state NMR and GC-MS. Org. Geochem. 57: 84-94.


Alexander, C. M. O’D., G. D. Cody, Y. Kebukawa, R. Bowden, M. L. Fogel, A. L. D. Kilcoyne, L. R. Nittler, C. D. K. Herd, 2014. Elemental, isotopic, and structural changes in Tagish Lake insoluble organic matter produced by parent body processes. Meteoritics and Planetary Sci. 49: 503-525.

Purohit, R., Papineau, D., Mehta, P., Fogel, M., Rao, C. V. D.  2015.  Study of Calc-Silicate rocks of Hammer-Head Syncline from Southern Sandmata Complex, Norwestern India: Implications on Existence of an Archean Protolith. Geological Society of India 85: 215-231.

Alexander, C. M. O.’D., R. Bowden, M. L. Fogel, and K. T. Howard, 2015. Carbonate abundances and isotopic compositions in chondrites. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 50: 810-833.

Papineau, D., B. DeGregorio, S. Fearn, D. Kilcoyne, G. McMahon, R. Purohit, and M. Fogel, 2015. Nanoscale petrographic and geochemical insights on the origin of the Paleoproterozoic stromatolitic phosphorites from Aravalli Supergroup, India, Geobiology 14: 3-32.

Dodd, M. S. Papineau, D., She, Z., Fogel, M. L., Nederbragt, S., Pirajno, F. 2018. Organic remains in late Palaeoproterozoic granular iron formations and implications for the origin of granules, Precambrian Res. 310: 133-152.


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