Saturday, February 13, 2021

Carolin Frank--made from tough cloth

 

Carolin Frank has discovered bacteria "fertilize" pine trees

Pine trees grace the mountainous hillsides throughout California growing on rocky outcrops, right up to the tree line, persisting for decades through freezing winters and dry summers. Needles on these trees can last for 1-2 years or much longer (more than 6 years!) depending on the species of pine. Inside those needles live another form of life—symbiotic microorganisms that are able to take abundant nitrogen from the air and turn it into “fertilizer” for helping these trees thrive.

 

 A leader in the discovery of those microbes and how they work is UC Merced’s professor A. Carolin Frank, a Swedish scientist who joined the University of California in 2007 as an Assistant Professor. I met her during my interview in 2012, when she was about 7 months pregnant with her daughter, her second child. I had lunch with three of the younger female faculty riding with Carolin and the others to and from the campus. We had an “off the record” conversation in which I heard their descriptions of subtle (even not so subtle) gender discrimination, carefully worded about early life at UC Merced. All of them hoped I would join them and provide leadership and combat this problem.

 

Carolin, new "girl", 2008

 

 

By the time I arrived at UCM in January 2013, Carolin’s baby was over 6 months old and Carolin was transitioning back to work. I learned quickly about overwhelming lab space issues for those faculty located at the remote Castle campus (Carolin from 2007-2012; In 2013, Jessica Blois, Mike Beman, Asmeret Berhe, Teamrat Ghezzehei, and me). When I realized that my original Castle lab did not have the electrical capacity I needed for an isotope mass spectrometer lab, I was assigned Carolin’s former lab space.

 

When it rained, the floor flooded from underneath the lab’s outside door adjacent to agricultural fields. In summer, the AC often went down for weeks at a time when outside temperatures soared above 100°F. The air handling system choked under the strain of extreme levels of atmospheric dust—laden with agricultural chemicals and microbes. For a scientist trying to carefully isolate and characterize the genomes of plant microbes, the lab’s environmental conditions rendered Frank’s work impossible.

 

Funky AC unit at Castle lab

 

 

Carolin was finally assigned temporary space on campus, limited to a thin strip of lab bench in a larger laboratory shared with two inactive, more senior colleagues. When I became department Chair in September 2013, I toured all lab spaces assigned to our faculty. Carolin’s students worked in an eerily quiet lab surrounded by aging analytical equipment that was never turned on—and probably would not have worked if the machines were powered on. Hardly an environment where Carolin could take the leadership of her lab appropriately. Having had to share my own lab at the start of my career, I felt for her.

 

Just prior to writing Carolin’s merit review in 2014, she came to my campus office. After some awkward small talk, she revealed, “I’m expecting. Again.”

 

I fully expect any faculty—female or male, married or not—to take the time to create their immediate families, but in this day and age, I naively thought most would only have two kids, especially pre-tenure. As a child of the 1950s, families with three or four kids were not unusual, less so today. Carolin looked happy but exhausted. When we saw her with the family at local restaurants, she was typically papered with her children, begging for her attention, her patience, and her energy. I sighed, hearing the news, hopefully showing a neutral face.

 

“When’s the baby due?” I asked—June 2014.

 

After her 2nd son was born, I saw her only occasionally for the next 6 months. She’d lost weight, had new worry lines, and her normally snazzy fashion sense was limited to bland T-shirts and shorts. I’ve given a lot of advice to folks in science over the years, but never this.

 

“Are you getting enough to eat?” I asked. “How about milkshakes and cheeseburgers?”

 

Women disproportionately bear the burden of family building—often at the expense, not only of their careers, but also their personal well-being. Fortunately, Carolin’s what I call a Classy Dame—a gal with a flair, an intellect above most of her colleagues, and with strength even she might not have been aware that she had in her.


She persevered.

 

In 2015—7 years after joining the faculty—Carolin was given “permanent” lab space. By this time, she was given 25% of another shared lab, this time with other like-minded colleagues—young professors sharing the science of genomics.

 

We met regularly when she returned to work fulltime. We reviewed each grad student, their work and the likelihood that they’d submit a paper by tenure time. We strategized over networking and what meetings she should try to attend even with three youngsters and a similarly busy husband. We bandied about names of potential reviewers, discussing their ability to see Carolin’s Larger Story than what might be evident from merely counting publications. Some times, these meetings lifted her up; other times it seemed I’d heaped mountains of heavy, unrelenting work on her.

 

She worked her ass off.

 

In the midst of her rocky tenure review year, Carolin came into my office and said she wanted to discuss something serious. It was April 2016. I was showing signs of medical problems—falling over without cause, having a funny lopsided gait, and showing signs of what would prove, a month later, to be the diagnosis of ALS, a terminal neurodegenerative disease.

 

“I’ve been talking to my father,” she said with concern. Her dad is a physician in her home country of Sweden. “I’m worried about you. I see you struggling to walk, stand, and get around.”

 

“What did he think?” I asked.

 

“He couldn’t say, but hopes you can get this figured out.” It was brave of her to discuss this sensitive subject with me. Others found it too difficult.

 

Carolin with Mark Beutel, 2016

 

 

By June of 2016, prior to my heading out the door to UC Riverside, I finished a final tenure promotion case analysis that resulted in Carolin Frank getting tenure. Her case was clear, if not something that required careful consideration.

 

Along the way, I learned the tough cloth that Carolin is made of. Now, she has three children draped on her slender frame, but her health has mostly returned along with her fashion sense. Women these days discuss if it is OK to mention how we look. Call me old fashioned, but appearances matter and they do show how a person might be feeling. 

 

Carolin and her husband, Dave Ardell, 2019

 

 

The years whizzed by. Carolin has taken on the Chairmanship of UC Merced’s faculty welfare committee. She has a leadership gene in her that is starting to be expressed. This week Carolin revealed via Facebook how she felt at UC Merced going back in time.

 
“When I negotiated startup for my UC Merced position as a spousal hire (and a 33 year old mom who looked nothing like a scientist) I was told by the Dean that I was to be 'computational faculty' and therefore would receive $100K in startup funds—a fraction of what others got—and an office (thanks!). When I asked for lab space, which I needed to continue to do the science I was trained to do, she allegedly said "the girl wants a lab now?!" I had zero negotiating power and was given useless, minimal space and some equipment inherited from another faculty member. 'The girl' got her first real lab space 7 years later….This rocky start greatly derailed my career. Trying to get tenure under these circumstances made me sick…I am still struggling with some of this.” Carolin Frank, February 2021

 

That former female Dean left for a nearby private university in 2012, before I arrived in California. People were relieved that she departed. Learning about her disregard for Carolin as a faculty member in her own right makes me angry. It is a constant struggle for scientific couples to be provided with fair startup packages and lab space. Often this is a female burden, but the inadequacies can also be granted with men as well.

 

Fair hiring requires that the academy pay attention to inequities like what Carolin experienced. Real change needs to come from the top! Hopefully, Professor Carolin Frank will be one of those who eventually finds herself in the position to make that difference. She’s on her way to do so.

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