Friday, September 26, 2014

My First Radio Interview About Teaching and Microbial Supremacy!

I am thankful for any readers of this blog, but have always wanted to reach out more, to discuss Microbial Supremacy, Overwhelming Microbial Goodness (OMG), and Matters Microbial in general.  Someday, I would like to write a book.  Any guesses as to the title I am thinking of? Pretty obvious, really.

On campus, I am thought to be a little monomaniacal on the subject  (okay, a lot; guilty as charged).  But it was a fairly local phenomenon, with job interviews in the old days, a campus talk, and few presentations to interested parents.  Once I was able to do a little preaching of the One True Microbial Faith at the American Society of Microbiology General Meeting in San Francisco...but that was sadly a few years ago now.

Recently I was asked to be interviewed by the great folks at People Behind the Science.  Dr. Marie McNeely had a very nice discussion with me in late July, and that interview appears here. Here is another link:

I had a lot of fun, and readers will hear some stories I have related on this blog, such as how I became dubbed a "Microbial Supremacist," and my Richard Feynman story about how to find the right direction to pursue in science.

In all, I was able to talk a little bit about my history, about teaching, about science, and other things about which I am quite passionate. Many students I see are willing to "settle," not strive; I hope to encourage them to have a farther intellectual reach, and a richer life. 

People Behind the Science is a great podcast, with some truly fabulous interviews (I will not judge my own effectiveness). Scientists from everywhere in science talk about what motivates and excites them; their enthusiasm is concrete and memorable, in podcast after podcast.  

I highly recommend you take a listen---it's free!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Sometimes It Takes a Death to Teach Me About the Depths of Others...

I just received some sad news, so here is a short post to express how I feel about it.  As the poem by Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk through This April's Day,"  goes:

"Time is the fire in which we burn..."

But it goes on to add:

"Time is the school in which we learn...."

While I was in graduate school, one of the professors I saw around the building was Dr. Robert Schimke. He liked to tease and carry on, and I admit I didn't know him all that well. I kept my head low much of the time, and he was nothing if not outspoken.  So I sort of kept out of his way.  My 20s were a complicated time for me, and I often look back and wince. To those of you who knew me then, I can only say, "I'm sorry."  And I did eventually grow up (taking us back to the Delmore Schwartz poem).

Here is a photograph of the Bob Schimke I well remember from Stanford.


But here----is Bob Schimke the artist.

And I never knew about that aspect of his life.  I shake my head at that.

Anyway,  Bob Schimke married someone I quite adored, Dr.Patricia Jones (who was unfailingly kind and supportive toward me during my rather embarrassing "in my twenties" struggles in Palo Alto). So there had to be so very much that was good and wonderful about him, because of the undeniable good taste, ready humor,  and overall disposition of Pat Jones.

Robert Schimke, I have just heard, passed away. And in trying to learn more about him, I discovered quite a bit I did not know.  I didn't know those things while I was at Stanford, and I didn't know those things afterwards.  These were my losses, as it happens. I had heard Bob Schimke had had a serious accident, but didn't know how bad it was. It turns out that the accident was quite severe, but he used his situation in a positive way, making wonderful art. 

Read about it here, from 2012.  There is a great gallery of his art here at his Stanford website,  as well.  I kind of agree with what Bob Schimke said about the art of Jackson Pollock in his interview:   Bob's own work looks just about as good as Pollock's to me, too!  See what I mean?

And look at his stylist range in these two pieces (all images from his art website, here).

The first link above in the ASBMB Today piece is a wonderful interview and essay, and well worth your time to consider. What would you do, if you had to do something else than science? Or was it that Bob Schimke truly burned to be an artist all these years? But he did both, and was impressive in both areas.

How I wished I had known. I would have praised his artwork (not that the Bob Schimke I knew would care about praise, let alone praise from me!), and tried to purchase some of his work---because it is admirable art. Such depths to the man, and I never knew. It is true I have not been back to Stanford since I earned my PhD (I'm always a little embarrassed to be among the wonderful and accomplished people there, truth be told), but that isn't an excuse.  

The essay linked, and the artwork, remain a reminder.  We need remember that all of us have depths and talents that may not be apparent to people who don't take the time to really look---as I didn't look. 

So take a moment, and get to know the people around you. Look what I missed!  What other hidden talents and beautiful souls exist all around us, as we bumble our way through everyday life.  We should all take a deep breath, and really look at each other.  All of us have value, and admirable talents.

Some more than others, of course.  Rest in peace, Bob Schimke, and many condolences to his friends and family, in particular Pat Jones.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Catching Up, Part I: Meeting with Former Research Students at ASM in Boston in May.

You know, I keep meaning to post more often.  Then, as John Lennon famously observed, "Life is what happens when you are busy making plans."  So I am trying to post in a more regular fashion. Lots and lots to do, as is true for most of us; life is a juggling act. 

I have two courses this Fall semester:  one is my normal and much beloved Microbiology course (which I continue to want to call "Microbial Diversity," since I only get the one chance to promote Microbial Supremacy™ to students) for juniors and seniors, and a freshman "writing seminar" on Symbiosis and Parasitism (yes, the latter is part of the conceptual Venn diagram of the former, but many students don't yet know that).  So I expect to write quite a bit about these two courses as they unfold with the awesomosity I expect from our students here in Tacoma!

In the meantime, here is a post I meant to write a while back---I have such pride in my former research students, and I enjoy watching them develop their careers and lives.  I shine by their reflected glory!  

Anyway,  I was VERY happy that six of my former undergraduate students had the time to visit with me at the American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Boston, last May.  I took them all out to dinner in Boston, and it was truly great to put them all at the same table, ranging across a lot of years, to swap stories and successes and challenges.  I have seldom felt prouder of my students, and more humbled by what I do for a living.

Here is the lineup:

From left to right, here are the former students, and what they are currently doing now.

  • Sarah Studer (Class of 2003, Occidental College).
  • Paula Welander (Class of 1998, Occidental College).
  • Desiree Baron (Class of 2001, Occidental College).
  • Andrew Collins (Class of 2007, University of Puget Sound) 
  • Morgan Giese (Class of 2014, University of Puget Sound) 
  • Kim Dill-McFarland (Class of 2011, University of Puget Sound)

Here is what each of them are currently up to:

Sarah is a science policy fellow in DOE's Fuel Cell Technologies Office, in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (formal title:  EERE Postdoctoral Fellow). She provides expertise for biological hydrogen production projects in her division.  Sarah earned her PhD with my friend and MicrobialHero™ Ned Ruby at the University of Wisconsin Madison.  

Paula is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Earth System Science (and by courtesy, in Biology) at Stanford University. Her research team studies the biosynthesis and function(s) of molecular fossils (biomarkers) in bacteria. Paula earned her PhD with my colleague Bill Metcalf at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and did postdoctoral work with Dianne Newman at MIT (now back at Caltech).  Here is Paula's laboratory website.

Desiree is a Research Associate for Daryl Bosco at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, studying the interface between cell biology and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She earned her PhD with Kent Hill at UCLA, followed by postdoctoral work with Stephen Doxsey.  

Andrew is a fresh new postdoctoral fellow at the Forsyth Institute in Boston.  He will be working with Floyd Dewhirst, Gary Borisy, and Anne Tanner, studying the uncultured and unknown microbiota of the human mouth.  He earned his PhD with my friend Spencer Nyholm at the University of Connecticut Storrs.

Morgan is a fabulous worker looking for a biotech position in the Seattle area at present. Whoever hires her will be lucky indeed. Incidentally, here is a photograph of Morgan at her poster during the General Meeting.  I received some great reports about her professionalism while people chatted with her about her research...and I was not surprised.

Kim is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, working on her PhD with Garret Suen.  Kim has worked on the microbiomes of a number of biological systems with Garret, ranging from hibernating squirrels to sloths (I'm told) to dairy cows.  

The dinner was a lot of fun, of course.  I had T-shirts made for my students (and it was hard to fit everyone into the photo, as you will see!), and gave everyone appropriate magnets to commemorate the event.  Here is the magnet.

I think the "Bdello Bdinner" is funny.  Adding "Bdoston" to may be over the top.  Oh, well.

This is the best I could get for a group shot in the T-shirts.  The restaurant was crowded.

Since Kim was left out of that shot, here is another photograph of her in her T-shirt. Please notice the FABULOUS mini-microfuge tube earrings.  They fluoresce under UV light, by the way.  Kim is stylish that way.

Embarassingly, I messed up some of the graduation dates on their T-shirts.  Sigh. Though I am often (as my father would put it) "a day late and a dollar short," my heart is in the right place.  Gulp!

A wonderful evening was had, and I am grateful to each and every one of these scientists for making some time to visit with me and bring me up to date.

By the way, I was delighted beyond words that two of my former undergraduate research students, Kim Dill-McFarland (mentioned above) and Jillian Waters (Class of 2008, University of Puget Sound) were at the most recent International Society for Microbial Ecology meetings in Seoul, Korea later last summer.  Here is the "twitter proof" that they were there together (courtesy of the very kind Kim).

After leaving the University of Puget Sound, Jill Waters earned her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (I have sent four undergraduate students there for PhDs so far!) with the late, great, Abigail Salyers (one of my professors at the Woods Hole Microbial Diversity Course, and a true MicrobialHero™ of mine), and is currently working on a postdoc with the quite fabulous Ruth Ley at Cornell.  Jill always wanted to be (her words) a "poop scientist."  

She is living the dream!

Anyway, there are lots and lots of days where I feel overwhelmed, buried, unsuccessful...fill in the negative blank.  But then I look at these great success stories.  While I think each and every one of them has earned every bit of their accomplishments through their brilliance and hard work, I like to think I had a bit of influence here and there.  Their reflected glory feels pretty nice.

It makes my workdays feel worthwhile, I must tell you.

Next year's ASM General Meeting is in New Orleans.  Perhaps there will be another Bdello Bdinner there, as well.  I certainly hope so!

I'm proud of you all!