Sunday, June 13, 2021

Colleagues that become Friends

Mat Wooller and Marilyn, Artists, Mariposa, CA 2021


My experience has been beer first, friends and family connections next, and let collaborations evolve.


James Ehleringer, Univ. of Utah


Last week, Mat Wooller, a former postdoctoral fellow and current friend, traveled all the way from cool Fairbanks, Alaska, to spend a week in hot Mariposa, California. I was eagerly anticipating his visit as restrictions began to lift from the pandemic and we’d been vaccinated. Our last time together was in summer 2017, when my family traveled to Alaska and our families enjoyed fun times together going on walks, canoeing, sharing meals. Mat and his wife Diane O’Brien are prime examples of people who started out as colleagues and ended up as friends. Not only do we have many funny science stories to share, but also we share in the day-to-day triumphs and challenges of being human in a world where kindness and respect can be elusive.


Friend: one attached to another by affection or esteem She's my best friend.

b : acquaintance

2a : one that is not hostile Is he a friend or an enemy?

b : one that is of the same nation, party, or group showbiz friends

3 : one that favors or promotes something (such as a charity) The friends of the library will host a fund-raiser.

4 : a favored companion


Colleague: an associate or coworker typically in a profession or in a civil or ecclesiastical office and often of similar rank or status : a fellow worker or professional. First recorded in 1515–25; from Middle French collegue, from Latin collēga, equivalent to col- “with, together” + -lēga, derivative of legere “to choose, gather.”


Those who begin as a colleague but end up a friend—let’s call them “Frolleagues”.


Frolleague: a person who began as a colleague and through shared experiences and conversation became a friend.


Wooller and me, Alaska, 2009

Extreme dining, Belize 2005


As I travel along the journey of living with ALS, friends and Frolleagues have become more important to me than ever before. It’s not enough to be born, grow old, suffer, then die—and never has been good enough. Reaching out and sharing life with all of its joys and challenges makes my journey more meaningful. Friends make it, not only tolerable, but actually fun.


When I asked the stable isotope community of scientists to send me stories about their friendly colleagues—no one answered! Usually, this group is eager to contribute stories about their lives. I realized I needed to probe further by writing directly to people I knew had forged special bonds going from colleague to friend. Some basic—and important—themes evolved.


Marilyn and Sue Ziegler, DC, 2016

Sharon Billings (Univ. of Kansas) and Sue Ziegler (Memorial Univ. link) came immediately to mind. Sue and Sharon shared early career life at the Univ. of Arkansas, where they worked as stable isotope biogeoscientists while becoming parents. The bonding over babies, meals, family trips has lasted and bolstered their lives and careers.


Sharon: We [Sue Ziegler and I] have shared the joys and sorrows encountered when designing and implementing tracer experiments in the lab and field, and natural abundance studies using field samples. We’ve shared horribly embarrassing stories of how we’ve messed up in the lab, mistakenly said the opposite of what we knew to be true in front of senior stable isotope-oriented colleagues because of nerves, navigated the treacherous waters of starting careers as women in a male-dominated field, and counseled each other on how to deal with sticky situations in strong, confident ways without being jerks. We have stayed up much of the night painstakingly preparing isotopically labeled pine needles for inclusion in decomposition studies. We have probably caused a redistribution of 13C and 15N on the planet by purchasing many jars of 99.99% 13C-glucose and 15N-nitrate--all while knowing deep in our hearts that any topic worth study must be part of an iso-topic!


Sue: There is something quite special with frolleagues and I feel so very fortunate to have you two [Sharon and me] as such in my life!! The adventures Sharon so nicely described are typically laced with an amazing giddiness that comes with deep-seated mutual interest in the work, work that can seem like play really.  I recall some moments during a first visit to some of the NLBELT (Newfoundland-Labrador) field sites when we just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. It was an amazing sense of pleasure - like we felt we couldn’t be any more fortunate! We were exploring new sites and setting up field experiments to address question we enjoyed thinking about. You both have enabled me to have so much joy in this work we do!!


Food is often the cornerstone of budding friendships. At Carnegie, I participated in the daily Lunch Club and Friday Beer Hour. In DC and at UC Merced and Riverside, Chris and I often hosted large gatherings of colleagues that revolved around potluck dinners, BBQs, picnics, or restaurants. In the early days, food preparations weren’t as important as just getting together outside of the lab. Add some beer and wine, pass the whiskey bottle, and you’ve got folks who loosen up, talk about their lives and families, and open up to knowing others.

Paul Koch, Matt McCarthy, Seth, 2019

Paul Koch (The Dean of Science @ UC Santa Cruz) has built a lab culture that is revered by his students and others. “A positive sign is that the lab served as an attractor. We have pretty much always had groupies/adopted members."

Justin Yeakel (UC Merced): When I think back to Santa Cruz days, backyard BBQs always seemed to be happening, and talk would range across all sorts of topics, usually non-science related for the first half of the evening, but as the fire burned low, the plates stacked in the sink, and a bottle of scotch passed around, the talk would veer towards giant squids, coyotes, sharks, and mole rats.



When I first arrived in Santa Cruz in 2004, I was really amazed that everyone in the lab spent time together outside of the lab. I think one of the first big get-togethers was at Sora's house - I remember her parents being there as well as Katie Snell's family. It was a big picnic, and having just moved across the country for the first time, it felt a lot like family picnics from home. These grad students were so impressive to me with all of their cool projects covering such a wide range of critters, landscapes, and time periods. It became a pretty easy decision early on to follow that path after 2 years of being the Koch Lab Monkey. I was also drawn to Paul's willingness to allow his students to follow their own interests and ideas. Being able to be part of that group during that period of time was one of the most exciting and formative periods of my life, and I'm thankful that I've been able to stay close to so many friends and colleagues that I met during that time!”


Justin and Paul, 2004

Seth as youngster, 2004

Seth Newsome (Univ. New Mexico): Once in a while the Koch Lab took the show on the road and would hike our goods (and kegs) into the Sierra Nevada forest in the middle of winter to spend a weekend at a cabin. I share one story about a trip to the Dartmouth alumni cabin near Tahoe one winter. Justin and I made a huge pot of inexpensive chili to feed the 20 people that ended up crashing in the ~1200 ft2 cabin that night. Justin mistakenly switched the amount of chili powder and cayenne in the recipe so we ended up with a very spicy, very large, nearly inedible pot of chili for the crowd. This was great going down with copious amounts of beer, but it didn't lie well with our collective gastrointestinal tracts such that when we woke up, we had to open up all the doors and windows on a very cold winter morning to air the place out prior to breakfast.


Getting to know the whole family is an important step. We have always invited the spouses and kids to our social gatherings. Sometimes, it takes awhile for them to get used to the camaraderie of the lab people, but family members have a greater understanding of the people involved in their partners work life. I believe this has a positive impact on work-life balance.


Y2K with Cody, Filley, Tuross, George families

with Shuhei Ono and son, 2005

Sampling party, 2002

Talking about non-science topics is necessary. Sharing books, movies, TV shows, travel adventures, hikes, and restaurant suggestions opens up windows into who a person is outside of their identity as a colleague. Often, politics and religion are topics that are debated, particularly when you get a glimmer of how a person leans (e.g., Left vs. Right). It would be impossible to become a real “friend” without knowing what makes that person tick in a more rounded way.


Sora Kim (UC Merced): “Maybe foundational to wanting to eat food and listen to music together was that we didn’t always talk about work with results, manuscript progress, etc. Those things made it into conversation, but we also talked about a lot of other things, too. Paul was willing to share his time and energy to hang out more casually. This is something I struggle with as a PI with two young kids, especially with the restrictions related to the pandemic. One memory I have from grad school is a time after Paul bought us a nice stainless steel carafe coffee maker. He found a website called and we would spend 10-15 minutes in the morning just looking up the trends of baby names through time. Totally not stable isotope related, but a way to spend some time and laughs together.

Sora Kim, 2005

Seth Newsome: I shared an apartment with several members of the Koch lab (Mark Clementz, Gabe Bowen, Justin Yeakel) so living together certainly helps forge friendships. But more than that I would say casual and consistent socializing was something that the Koch lab was quite fond of (and probably still is). Our socializing revolved around food, which we took very seriously. For one, it was sometimes hard to procure enough sustenance living in Santa Cruz on a TAship wage, so we often pooled our resources and had parties highlighted by Justin’s enormous pan pizzas, delicious and endless amounts of Korean food handcrafted by Sora Kim, or big pots of pasta served up by yours truly. 


Listening and accepting often follow. Anyone’s life can feel isolated; for scientists who keep their heads down and their eyes focused on details, it can feel especially so. We are constantly judged by our peers for our data, our publications, our methodologies, our ideas, our teaching, and our grants. Barely a week goes by without some form of rejection or conflict. Having colleagues to work things out can save a career. Establishing trust takes time—but it’s vital.


Sora Kim: “I often tell people that their grad adviser and group are the most crucial elements to their success. There are high points (i.e., results, publishing, graduating) but there are a lot more low and rocky points. I think what is important in the Koch “family” is that we have deep enough relationships and trust that we can weather these low points and even turn to one another for support. I feel very fortunate that my connections to the Koch lab extend so far in time. “


Laughter often seals the deal—frolleagues are born! Allowing yourself to kick back, be in the moment, and celebrate the positive can be powerful. The phrase “what happens in XXX, stays in XXX” often signals a good time.


Brian Popp (Univ. of Hawaii): “Walking to the river at the Organic Geochemistry Gordon conference after Matt McCarthy poured the bottle of wine over your head and jumping into the river with varying bathing costumes.”

with Jolly Chuck Douthitt, Carnegie, 2016

Frolleague map






Continuing to keep in touch and reach out to new people along the way serves to keep things fresh. The Geochem Girls (me, Hilairy Hartnett, Kate Freeman, Liz Sikes, and Liz Canuel) meet at big meetings that can be isolating and impersonal.


Kate Freeman (Penn State): I have attended AGU for many, many years, but found myself increasingly isolated and lacking a peer group. This was compounded by the explosive growth in size of the meeting, which prevented finding friendly companions by chance as the dinner hour approached. I had started to schedule dinners with Liz Canuel. We have known each other from our mutual connections to Stuart Wakeham and sometimes we have shared a room at the Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conferences. At some point we linked up with Liz Sikes, who was more of an acquaintance but whose science I have followed since her early work on alkenones. I first got to know the delightful Hilairy Hartnett at a NASA proposal review panel some years ago, although I had long taught her work in my classes, and learned later that she was a close friend of Liz Sikes. I recall we agreed with enthusiasm that Marilyn had to join us for a dinner, which led to the memorable Farm meal.

Our annual meals have completely transformed my AGU experience for the better!”

AGU 2019


Hilairy Hartnett (Arizona State Univ.): The fall of 2015, dinner was planned for a great restaurant that Liz Sikes and I had tried out the year before (I remember a small place with interesting upholstered chairs). Liz always has a reservation for four so it was no problem to spirit you away from the Biogeosciences section meeting. The difficulty was in convincing you that you could leave the meeting you were chairing! Dinner was lovely and as I recall it, the three of you asked me very pointed questions about my research, my career status, and my (then notional) plans for promotion. Desert was single malt scotch.”

Liz Sikes (Rutgers): “One thing I can add to the memory of the dinner with Kate, Marilyn, & Hilairy, that started with the Uber ride to the restaurant (I had barely heard of Uber and there we were with Marilyn rocking it!!)--is that I was struggling with my promotion to full professor at the time.  Marilyn and Kate, the higher ranked professors at the table, volunteered to look at my statement so I sent it.  My favorite line from Marilyn's assessment was "Where's the beef?" She really tore into what was a rather boring statement-- and after that my case flew through with flying colors. The friendship was cemented.”


Liz Canuel (VIMS): Female friendships are incredibly important to me and dinners at meetings as well as our “quarantini” get togethers during the pandemic have been a tremendous joy.

Yosemite with Chris and Mat, 2021


I often sum all of these “Frolleague” characteristics up with the line—“Don’t work with assholes.” Yes, that’s a bit vulgar, but everyone knows what it means. Sometimes, we get drawn into situations or collaborations with people who won’t go that extra step, take themselves too seriously, and don’t respect our human condition.


Are Frolleagues better than mentors? Maybe so. The casual nature of a friendly relationship has, for me, a greater power to fortify and help than any mentorship I have received. I’ll guess it’s the feelings of trust, respect, and acceptance that friends provide, which can transform the human condition to purpose and resilience.


Make new Frolleagues, but keep the Old. One is silver and the other gold.





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