Saturday, February 6, 2021

Limping Laboratories in COVID Times

Center for Stable Isotopes-Univ. of New Mexico


Zach Sharp of the University of New Mexico wolfed down his lunch before starting a Zoom seminar on “The history of mass spectrometry” Monday morning. About 40 people had logged on from New Mexico, California, and around the world to hear him give what I now understand is a yearly homage to isotope ratio mass spectrometry. Zach’s isotope textbook is available for free (Zach's Text) with over 25,000 people taking advantage of this opportunity. His seminar began with a set of equations about velocity, charge, momentum, and mass—all parameters important for getting those isotopic ions down the throat of a mass spectrometer into the arms of collectors waiting to count them.


At the end of his talk, I asked for a “tour” of the new UNM lab so he walked around with his computer showing a quiet, dark lab with no one in sight. The New Mexico Center for Stable Isotopes  (CSI) is directed by Zach, co-directed by Seth Newsome, and run with the able hands and brains of Viorel Atudorei and his team of techs and students. Although UNM has suffered less slow down than many schools, nonetheless its normal busy pace hasn’t been possible. It’s remarkable that they were able to move into their new space in the midst of the pandemic.


Even the experimental mice were not breeding “like mice” normally do. An afternoon zoom call with Seth, postdocs Christy Mancuso and Kaycee Morra, and microbiologists Tina Vesbach and Conner Mertz highlighted the toll on our joint NSF-funded research project (GUTS) that links activities by an animal’s gut microbiome on the stable isotopes of animal tissues. Because of COVID-19, the microbiology aspects of the project are behind schedule. Along with those lazy mice, it’s set us back a year or so.


Christy and Connor with frozen mouse balls (food)

Meanwhile at UC Riverside, Kaycee Morra, working with postdoc Jon Nye, was finally getting our system for intramolecular isotope measurements back up and running. After an annoying hard disc failure on the triple quadrupole mass spec we use to make these measurements, the final software linking our two computer systems, two mass specs, a gas chromatograph, an autosampler, and a combustion system were swung back into service. At UCR we were prevented for more than 6 months to have more than one person in the lab at a time. Outside vendors were not allowed in, so the repairs took longer than forever. [The TSQ is now backed up properly…] Kaycee showed the data comparing uniformly labeled alanine, a simple amino acid, with a singly labeled alanine molecule. She’s close to writing up a methods paper—delayed by COVID-19.


Kaycee's alanine fragments from TSQ

Jon Nye’s short postdoc was severely impacted by the lockdown. Funded by EDGE Institute’s small budget, Jon’s been doing an isotope study of the Salton Sea ecosystem until he finds another postdoc to broaden his horizons. Piecing together bits and scraps of funds for him has been a challenge. Jon is a great writer, our lab’s software guru, and an accomplished field scientist. Jobs,  however, are mostly for climate modelers, not field or analytical positions. He continues to search for his next opportunity.


As the Equity Advisor for UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences I spoke via Zoom to some faculty about how their departments are doing with respect to Diversity, Equity, Justice, and Inclusion. Not being able to see people in person sets these efforts back. Without direct human interaction, people have a greater tendency to write things they might never say in person. Fortunately, there are concerned people who are paying attention and doing the “right thing” to keep civility front and center.


On Thursday, I zoomed with colleagues Derek Smith, now at Case Western, and Melanie Suess, Washington Univ. in St. Louis, and student Bobby Nakamoto, living with his parents during COVID-19 time. We’ve been zooming biweekly to understand some complex carbon and hydrogen isotope data from carefully cultured microbes. After 10 months, we’ve got a first complete draft. Our small group checks in before we begin earnest data discussion—we agree politically, compare notes, and discuss COVID’s effects. Derek’s lab at Case Western is quiet, often he’s the only one at the bench.


With Mel (back R) and Derek (front) Goldshmidt Boston 2018


This week he said, “It’s hard. Those times when you have an idea and just want to talk to someone about it—they’re impossible right now.”


Derek's Bioreactors-he is a pro!

Isolation from casual conversation is something I’ve experienced since “retiring” from ALS’s limitations on my getting around. Hearing Derek’s plight, though, is but one voice in this global pandemic. Mel Suess, Alex Bradley’s lab manager, is often the only one in the lab as well—dealing with a finicky chemostat and a Gremlin-impacted mass spectrometer system. She’d like more people to bounce solutions off of.


At the other end of my lab at UCR, lab manager Ying Lin was taking advantage of the slower pace by learning how to repair leaky vacuum pumps. Normally, we swap them out when they leak, leave the messy pumps under a table, until we need to put them back in service. With the extra time, Ying has oiled turbo pump wicks, repaired pump seals, and updated spreadsheets with standard values marking time until undergrads return. Because of COVID-19, UCR has a hiring freeze, meaning a new, energetic faculty member will not replace me for sometime. The future of the lab is, therefore, uncertain. Jobs for folks like Ying were plentiful a year or so ago, but now weeks go by without any advertisements for isotope lab managers appearing.


Ying's fixed vacuum pump

When will we return to normal? No telling.


The vaccine is in short supply in the United States, even though our government has invested billions of dollars in it’s invention. As a 68-year old with a serious medical condition, I am still nowhere near getting scheduled for the vaccine. The rural county where I now live is receiving only 300 doses per week. At this rate it will take it’s 9,000 adults about 60 weeks to give each of us two shots.


I continue to isolate.


Limping laboratories, worldwide. Even if we are able to fully open for analyses, without informal, in person contact, important thoughts are lost. Can we recover? Sure we will. Keep the faith and may your lab’s isotope Gremlins be banished.


Champagne (gift from D. Rumble) to celebrate Isotope Queen publications


Isotope Queen books are now available:

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...