Monday, March 8, 2021

Beverly Johnson and Roxane Bowden--Remarkable Women


Shuhei Ono and Roxane Bowden, 2016

Mat Wooller, Bev Johnson, and Giff Miller, 2016

Most of the women I know are ordinary in many ways—and remarkable in others. When you think about this some more, women are remarkable even when they are ordinary.


For International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting two women in the stable isotope field who have taken a slightly different course than the traditional research university professorship—Beverly Johnson and Roxane Bowden.


First: Beverly Jane Johnson called me up in March 1991 and asked if I might analyze the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in eight samples of eggshells that she was starting to study as part of her PhD research at the University of Colorado. I was seven months pregnant at the time and not really looking for any extra work. Somehow, we figured out how to analyze the samples and then planned for her to spend nine months as a pre-doctoral fellow the following year.


Her work went smoothly. Bev soon became a whiz at operating the isotope vacuum line we used back then. To analyze the samples, we had two mass spectrometers—a brand new Thermo 252 with a semi-automated multiport and an older Nuclide modified Dupont 491 mass spec for nitrogen isotopes. Bev could vacuum seal 16 samples one day, combust them overnight, then prep and analyze them the following day. This was a lab record. Colleague Doug Rumble, an early to work fellow, noted that often when he arrived at the Geophysical Lab at 7:00 am, Bev’s old Honda was already in the parking lot.


I served on her PhD committee, and she spent a major portion of her graduate career working in DC measuring isotopes in ostrich eggshells from different sites in Africa. She spent several months in South Africa collecting modern samples, found ostrich eggshells from farms in the United States, and pioneered methods for a research program that I continued to work on for about 30 years!


Bev's Wedding shower at my house, 1996

A tall, curly-haired woman, Beverly Johnson stood out as an active and interactive young scientist—upbeat, thoughtful, funny, and fun-loving. Her thoughts often erupted rapidly with ideas and hand gestures explaining paleoclimate scenarios. Fearless in the lab and in person, she did not put up with any crap from male colleagues, who drifted into my lab when she happened to be working.

Searching for eggshells, 1994


I traveled to Australia with Beverly in 1994, well before she started her family. She needed to stop every couple of days at a pay phone to call some guy in Colorado, Matt Duvall, who became her husband a few years later. The two have forged careers at Bates College, a small private liberal arts school in Maine. When her two children were toddlers in 2002, she called me up and said, “Guess what I did today? I went to teach my class with my dress on backwards and inside out! I’d even forgot to button it up! How did you manage years ago with two kids?”


After a long field season in Northern Australia in 2002, we stayed at a small town before heading out of the country. We’d been taking “care” of several students and people who were new to the idea and practice of field work. We needed a break.


We slipped out—unbeknownst to the students—to a local pub. Guys in Australia can be rough, especially since we were in a place where diamond miners came into town after a month with a bunch of other roughnecks. Bev and I had a beer or two then decided to put a quarter on the pool table and challenge local guys. We kept winning games and ran the table until the bar was closing. When asked what our names were, we made up names—I was Mercedes. In my estimation, the menfolk were interested in Beverly. As the bar shut its doors, the two of us sat outside at a table finishing our beers. Two guys that we’d clobbered in pool sat down with us, and after a short period asked, “Do you fancy a root?” We had no idea what that meant, however, eventually they let us know, and we politely, but firmly, said, “NO!” We all laughed and that was the end of it. A funny memory.



Now the Chair of her department, Bev’s two kids are grown, her hair is nearly white, and she’s become a spokesperson for Blue Carbon and Climate Change in her state (Bev in the news).


Most impressive is her track record in mentoring undergrads in independent research projects. In fact, one of her protégés, Kelton McMahon, did his first isotope work in Bev’s isotope lab at Bates. [I served on Kelton’s PhD committee at Woods Hole. He now has his own isotope lab at the University of Rhode Island.] Having a full isotope lab at a small college is something that Beverly pioneered—way back when only big research universities did isotope studies. For those who follow in her footsteps of pioneering stable isotope biogeochemistry in undergraduate institutions, Beverly continues to serve as a star lighting the way (Bev at Bates).


In Mariposa, 2020

Last year just before the pandemic kept us all locked down, Beverly and husband Matt came to Mariposa for a visit. Bev had ordered lobsters flown in from Maine that she boiled up for us to devour. We told old isotope “stories” including her interaction with rotting noodles**[see the end of this blog]. What struck me the most was how nearly 30 years had flown by. We were in many ways no longer professor and student, yet in some ways that timeless relationship still had meaning.


SECOND: Roxane Bowden, another seemingly ordinary gal, has also done remarkable things. After nearly electrocuting her on the TCEA during a job interview, we worked together for 5-6 years until her husband Pete, a colonel in the US Army and a physician, moved them to North Carolina. Roxane, since marrying Pete in Kansas years ago, has assembled her patchwork career as an Army Wife.


Army Wives live at the mercy of their husbands’ postings. Roxane and Pete moved from Kansas to North Carolina to Washington DC to North Carolina and now to Germany. Imagine joining a new isotope lab every few years! And mastering a whole new set of instruments, a new way of doing things, and a new supervisor. Long term mass spectrometer lab managers often stay in one place or work with one principal investigator—think Tosh Mayeda working with Bob Clayton or many others on the Isogeochem list.


(L-R): Derek, Pete Bowden, Dave, Roxane Bowden, Verena, Natalie, 2012

Born and raised as a Canadian Newfounlander, Roxane has a droll sense of humor, a high degree of orderliness, emotional intelligence, and a complete-and-finish attitude. Compare this to my random order and high-school grade sense of humor and you’ve got a working relationship. We often tag teamed students and postdocs who were navigating the job market, proposal writing, personal challenges, or analytical problems. We figured out how to work with Martian meteorites to measure minute fragments of organic carbon in these rare samples. I waved my arms, came up with ideas: Roxane carried them out in a regimented way. It worked.


Steve Squyres, Roxane, Mihaela, Svalbard 2010

During her time as a lab manager, Roxane was a coauthor on multiple Science and other papers because her work enabled the research to go smoothly. As a bit of a reward, she joined us for fieldwork in Svalbard and accompanied a group of Geophysical Lab women to Naples to collect samples from a deep drill core into a volcanic hot spot. At the Carnegie, she became famous for her Lunch Club meals, in particular her St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage. Her Christmas parties were elegant, the house decorated just so and adorned with two Siamese cats.


After I moved to California and she to North Carolina, I wondered would I ever see her again? Is the relationship of a lab manager-supervisor one that survives the test of time? I was heartened when she and Pete came out to Riverside in 2018 for a week-long visit. At that time, she was working for Chris Osburn figuring out a Tic-Toc analyzer for organic and inorganic dissolved carbon. A fussy instrument that required constant babying. She commuted long hours from their home near Fort Bragg to the North Carolina State campus in Raleigh.


Chris, Roxane, Pete, me, Joshua Tree NP, 2018

Just as she grew comfortable with the new job, the Army Wife was called on to move again—this time to Europe in Germany, far from any isotope geochemistry lab. What did she do? She’s volunteering for a 40-hour per week “job” with the American Red Cross earning her the award of Volunteer of the Year.


This is what remarkable women do.


The tour of duty will end some day from Germany and Roxane, now a US citizen, will return to the States. If you are lucky and looking for a top-flight lab manager, perhaps Roxane will re-settle near you!


Remarkable Women in the Isotope Queen Blog


Susan Ziegler (estuaries!)

Carmen Aguilar (Loves the sea)

Noreen Tuross (Isotope Contessa)

Kate Freeman (Isotopes of excellence)

Anat Shahar (lucky seven)

Valery Terwilliger (don't let her go)

Carolin Frank (tough gal)

Liane Benning and Pamela Conrad (babes of science)

Maxine Singer (full measures)

Fran Kasen (funny lawyer)

Metoo (when will it end?)

My cooking for science (lunch club)

Barbara Fogel Lis (my sister)

Margie Imlay (knew all the secrets)



** Bev’s noodle story: (noodles.)

Jeff Silfer, me, Bev, 1994


“Another postdoc had a scare on that same mass spectrometer with its frightening mercury pistons. She had been working in Australia and had put some plants into plastic bags while they were still fresh. Long story short, the plants molded by the time they came to the lab. Were they any good for isotope analysis? A resourceful person, the postdoc decided to conduct an experiment with molded Ramen noodles that one of my other colleagues left in a bowl in my office sink. She knew the noodles would have very little nitrogen in them, so she weighed out more than twice the normal amount. When she put the noodle sample into the mercury-piston glass vacuum line, her heart leapt! The mercury piston shot down perilously bubbling out the bottom. Turns out she had produced a substantial amount of carbon monoxide from all those carbon-rich noodles. Fortunately, nothing was broken.”

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...