Sunday, April 11, 2021

The year of living pandemically


Even dogs (like Stella) did not enjoy social distancing

Scientific laboratories around the globe were put on standby or shut down completely over a year ago in response to the pandemic. In my particular field—stable isotope geochemistry—the instruments we use to make our measurements need consistent, constant attention and maintenance to have them work properly. On an international listserve with about 4,000 of us isotope geochemists, we chronicled the effects that the COVID virus had on our work. Fortunately most of those instruments, stable isotope ratio mass spectrometers, have been turned back on. Only a few balky instruments have refused to return to service. [Some of us think our “machines” have secret souls or personalities that can be overtaken by Lab Gremlins when they’ve been neglected.] The pandemic’s toll on the people in my discipline has been more problematic.


Former lab assistant graduated on FB

Not only did lab work stop, but those engaged in active fieldwork were recalled back home with whole programs being cancelled or delayed. Isotope camps were cancelled. Seminars moved online to Zoom formats. Conferences were held virtually.  Classes moved online, which both students and professors found less than satisfactory. Important graduation ceremonies were held online. People in science, like the general population, were kept from face-to-face conversations and exchange of ideas. Jobs disappeared. New faculty searches were postponed. A whole crop of newly minted PhDs with postdoc experience was unable to enter permanent positions. Untenured faculty, often women or people of color with small children, were stuck taking care of family obligations rather than cementing their careers.


Even folks who self identify as introverts, originally quite content with isolation from other people, began to hunger for real human interaction. One of my friends noted, “I’m even starting to ask all sorts of people I never thought about how they’re doing and what they’re up to!”


For my husband Chris and me, the pandemic was subtle with respect to limiting our ability to travel and get around in the world. As ALS progresses, I am not able to get on an airplane or stay at a hotel without hauling a fleet of accessibility equipment, so we were used to having people come to visit us. Folks have come from all over to spend 3 or 4 days with us, enjoying meals, watching the wildlife on our country property, telling stories, and talking about our lives. That largely stopped when the pandemic started.


Fortunately for us, our adult children Dana and Evan developed procedures to still visit and provide some respite for Chris’s daily care he gives me. Both of them self-isolated before visiting, took a COVID test just before traveling, and masked up while here. But during the crazy time of Thanksgiving when the virus exploded in California, they stayed away. The small turkey Chris and I roasted seemingly lasted forever.


My family was affected in even larger ways. Evan’s nursing program, a 2-year fast track to a B.S. in Nursing, was put on hold with clinical studies cancelled or re-imagined. He took a 1-month job at an Amazon fulfillment center seeing what “the rest of the world” does for a living. His wife Meghan continued her nursing work at a hospital taking on the risks of infection. Their seemingly happy marriage disintegrated, much to the surprise of all who knew them.  COVID-19 was a factor. 


Evan and Stella, the dog, a new life awaits



My 94-year old mother was seriously walloped by the pandemic as well. A year ago when the shutdown started, her blooming dementia prevented her from understanding why she couldn’t go outside her apartment. She didn’t recognize masked-up caregivers, who looked more like bandits than people sent to help her. We had to put her in a nursing home. Her first few months there were spent in isolation with depression and anger.

Fortunately for my mother, that home closed and she ended up moving into a home that specializes in care for people suffering from dementia, an all too common terminal illness. It wasn’t long, however, that COVID-19 swept through and infected 42 out of 45 residents, my mother being one of them. Florence Fogel has survived heart attack, stroke, and cancer, and she beat this virus, although she is awfully thin and even less of her funny personality is left.


Fortunately for my daughter, Dana met a young man via online dating about a year ago. They developed a relationship during this weird time and to our joy have announced their engagement! Her fiancé George has accompanied Dana to our mountain foothill home several times getting acquainted with bonfires, log splitting, and American cooking. A wedding is planned for next year when all have had the time to be vaccinated and get this year behind us. Miraculously, Dana has managed to keep working full time with the Garden School Foundation teaching gardening and healthy eating to elementary school-aged students.


Dana and George in their new apartment

Fortunately for all of us, enter the vaccines! After months of worrying that COVID would take me out rather than the ALS that I’ve been living with, Chris and I were able to get our first shot. I cried in relief when we learned that we’d be given our first dose. Now, three weeks after our 2nd dose, we’re safe. People of all ages I’ve talked to are suddenly aware how stressed they’d been before they received their first shot. The side effects of the vaccine were mild for me, and really nothing compared to my daily challenges.


The opening of life is just being realized. Even the introverts are getting excited about moving around in society again. The joy of hugs and kisses cannot be overstated.


Ying (R) and Laurie Graham repairing a pump

Folks in my lab are now vaccinated. I’ve saved up some funds to extend the positions of a couple key people. Academic coordinator Ying Lin analyzes the thousands of samples that come into our lab every year. She used up all of her “COVID hours” in spring last year, at home with her three young children. The stable isotope lab is, relatively speaking, quiet and orderly. Ying gets the work done. Postdoc Kaycee Morra is getting publications ready for submission and has managed to forge ahead with new isotope techniques to analyze intramolecular isotopes in amino acids. They’ll both have a few extra months to hope that the job market or the University is able to pull out of the slump it’s in.


Fortunately for me, people are now used to Zoom. I’m able to manage things from my wheelchair, on my desk, looking out on wildflowers blooming rather than schlepping onto the campus. Although not ideal, the pandemic has made it acceptable (rather than a Pain in the rear end) to participate remotely. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to give seminars without traveling. 


Evan's friend Sarah, me and Chris--2nd dose!



From Fred Longstaffe at The University of Western Ontario in Canada:


Dear Marilyn,


You succeeded in one hour in covering all the isotopic and life messages that I struggle to deliver in 35 lectures in my fourth year isotope class (gave lecture 33 of 35 earlier today!). You have shown our students how isotopy, the earth system and life can and should fit together!!


We touch on your career and scientific discoveries in my class - you clearly inspire students, especially women.  Today, they had that inspiration reinforced ten-fold. And I am certain that your rules at the end of what it takes to be successful (including NOT working with “sphincter muscles”), and how to go about shaping a path in science and life, will give a great many of these students the confidence and motivation to push forward into areas where no isotopist has gone before.


Thank you so very much for your presentation today - it has been the capstone seminar in so many ways.




I’m hoping that practice will remain acceptable so that I can continue to engage in doing what I love the most—interacting with all sorts of people, talking about new ideas, planning projects, and yes, wondering how all of my friends are doing.

Sea Ranch, CA, where we have a 2nd home: A relief to see the ocean again!



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...