Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Microbial Holidays!

It's been a semester with a veritable roller coaster of ups and downs, both personal and professional.  But honestly, I am more lucky than not.  I hope that each of you can say the same.

I'm in the process of writing two posts about my wonderful Microbiology students this past Fall semester (wait until you see their "creative extra credit" assignments!), but I am (as usual) behind schedule.

Since it is Christmas Eve as I write this post from an airport, in between several flights to visit faraway family, may I offer every one of you my best wishes for a Merry Microbial Holiday season?

Many, many thanks to my lovely and talented and brilliant wife Dr. Jennifer Jean Quinn for putting this video together a couple of years ago from a series of photos I took.  Of course I have bioluminescent ornaments for my "Microbial Luxmas Tree™"!

More later!  I cannot wait to learn about what new and exciting microbial discoveries await in the New Year!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Another Sad Passing of a Microbial Hero™----RIP the Late, Great Abigail Salyers...

My colleague Jonathan Eisen, on Twitter, has often referred to people in microbiology whom he admires as "Microbial Heroes." I think he should trademark that label!  I have known many people whom I consider to be a Microbial Hero™(and yes, Jon, there needs to be a T-shirt made listing them all!).  But it is very sad to see any of these people---some of whom make seminal contributions to the field of microbiology, others whom are inspirational teachers and mentors, and some of whom are both---pass away.

The poet Rilke wrote, long ago, that "death is large" (it's better in German:  "Der Tod ist groƟ").  Some people begin to experience the losses that death brings at an early age.  For others, it is a sobering and sad characteristic of growing older.  It can be personal, as happened with my mother last year, or friends over the years.  Or it can be someone famous and influential to one's field of study, as the loss of the late, great Carl Woese last year.  Definitely a Microbial Hero™, and then some. 

And it can be a beloved teacher and mentor, someone who had a genuine and deep impact on one's life.  Thus, I was deeply saddened by the recent death of Abigail Salyers.  She too is a Microbial Hero™ of mine, and one whom I will never forget.

I have loved microbes since college (well, before college, actually).  And after I left biotech and returned to academia, I was lucky enough as a somewhat well-aged assistant professor to take the Marine Biological Laboratory's "Microbial Diversity" course at Woods Hole Massachusetts, in the summer of 1996.  It was taught by Abigail, and the great Edward Leadbetter (yet another Microbial Hero™ who has been very influential in my life).  Here is a photograph of that course, taken way back in 1996 (I'm in the top row, second from the right...as the saying goes, time doesn't fly; it flees!).

Anyway, the Microbial Diversity course literally changed my intellectual life---both in the lecture hall and in my undergraduate based laboratory.  I cannot easily or completely express how everything changed inside my head regarding Matters Microbial. And I have Ed---and Abigail---to thank.  Truly Microbial Heroes™, and not just to me.

I don't feel quite right singing all of Abigail's praises, since my knowledge of her life was limited.  Trained originally as an atomic physicist, Abigail then moved into microbiology (and the genetics of microbes living within the colon, as she un-embarrassedly and humorously insisted on telling people).  From there she published a remarkable body of research, several books, and influenced many, many scientists and students (including yours truly).  Abigail was even a past President of the American Society for Microbiology

I found Abigail to be a whirlwind of ideas, irreverent humor, and practicality. I would emphasize her humanity about all things (which makes sense when you read about her early life, as I hope you will).  For example, when my first academic job, um, did not work out, Abigail offered to help me out financially.  This was remarkable, since I had taken the Diversity course with her, and stayed in touch via e-mail---but I was not a student of her, nor what I thought of as a close friend.  But, as she put it to me in an e-mail, we were colleagues, and colleagues were in the business of supporting one another.  Abigail was one of the people who seemed as pleased (or more so) as I was when I finally earned tenure.  

On a more personal note, two of my former undergraduate researchers, Robert Jeters and Jillian Waters, earned their PhDs with Abigail.  I didn't worry a bit when they chose her lab; I knew that they would receive the training, mentoring, and support any PhD student requires.

In any event, many others who knew Abigail better than I did have written about her eloquently elsewhere. The great Elio Schaechter of "Small Things Considered" did a nice remembrance here, for example.  There is also a truly wonderful "must listen to" interview with Abigail here, that showcases the depth, breadth, and humanity of this remarkable and much-missed woman.  

In the aftermath of Abigail's death, I read the following poem written by the husband of one of her technicians and colleagues, Nadia Shoemaker.  The acrostic says it all about Abigail Salyers, far more elegantly than I can.  

While I took the Microbial Diversity course in 1996, I had the chance to share several meals with Abigail. During that time, she and I discussed how bacteria and archaea "don't get no respect" (to borrow from the great Rodney Dangerfield) in the public eye, and even among many biology majors.  If you don't believe me, ask students to write down the first thing that pops into their heads when you say the word "bacteria."  

Anyway, Abigail and I decided that microbes needed a motto, even a PR strategy.  So she and I came up with the first serious pro-microbiology slogan I ever used in the classroom, as you can see below (thanks to my artistic mathematician wife Jennifer Quinn for the original artwork, quite a few years ago!).

Abigail and I even came up with an alternative motto:  "FREE THE ORGANELLES!"  Abigail liked this slogan campaign (and was polite about my other approaches toward pro-microbe PR over the years).   

To be sure, Norm Pace and many other microbiologists encourage the abolition of the term "prokaryote" as can be seen here (I actually put on a debate in my microbiology classroom each year on this topic, in deference to Norm Pace's ideas).  Fair enough. Attractive alliteration aside, "PROKARYOTIC PRIDE" will always remind me of the person I used to call "Hurricane Abigail."

Abigail Salyers entered my life like a hurricane in Woods Hole, causing a storm of new ideas and paradigm shifts to enter my teaching and research.  I owe her a great deal, and I can only try to repay that debt forward.

One final note.  My personal style tends toward the, ahem, flamboyant during job interviews and in the classroom.  My PhD advisor urged me several times to "dial it down" when I was out for job interviews, and a very trusted colleague told me several times to be "less Markish."  Ouch.

I mentioned this to Abigail during my last job search, eight years ago.  She was pleasant as always, but a bit impatient with me.  "Be who you are, not someone you aren't," she commanded me. "Imagine if you pretended to be someone you weren't? What an awful way to spend your life!" Then, echoing the great R.P. Feynman, she asked "What do you care what other people think? Do what you think is right.  Stick to your guns."

What if I was too unusual?, I asked her.

Abigail replied with an impolite word.  "Then those are places you would never be happy," she insisted.  "Own who you are, and use it to do the best job you can."

I have tried, Abigail, and will continue to do so.  I will continue to use the advice you gave me, and the example you have been, to help others and improve my craft.  Rest in peace.

Readers, I was lucky:  I enjoyed the privilege of having Abigail Salyers as an instructor, and a mentor.  I miss her already.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rules for Academics (and "Martin's Laws of Research"!)

Over the years, I have made an embarrassingly large number of mistakes as I progressed through academia.  Some are normal mistakes, and others are quite cringe-worthy.  Gulp.

Don't get me wrong:  I did manage to get to where I wanted to be in academia, but it was a near thing, and took me a couple of attempts (I am not cueing the Violins of Infinite Sadness™; I am delighted to be here and grateful for the combination of fate and good luck that put me here).  In most cases, my problems were entirely due to my own choices. Okay, maybe it was a 50-50 split, but I do not wish to avoid my own responsibility for my, um, non-strategic and decidedly non-optimal decisions.  One of the things I try very hard to teach my students is the concept of ownership; it's critical in life, and took me a long time and much pain to learn.  

I don't have a time machine to go fix anything I did or did not do in the past, but I have learned a few hard-won lessons during my veering ride to where I currently sit with tenure at a small liberal arts institution. Thus, I have some "rules for research" I would like to share.  In addition, I also have some information from a former colleague of my wife Jennifer Quinn's at the University of Washington-Tacoma that I would like to share.  This is the kind of thing that all of my research students have heard repeatedly, of course, but I would like to share these thoughts with any readers of this blog.

The rules are not necessarily complete, nor do they necessarily apply to everyone reading this blog post.  One size emphatically does not fit all (boy, is that ever a rule for life)!  Still, I think it is important for any academic to think about these rules, and maybe to pass them along to other academics or folks considering a career in academia. 

First, some genuine wisdom from my wife's former colleague at the University of Washington-Tacoma (Beth Rushing, former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, currently Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at St. Mary's College of Maryland).

"Five Things I Wished I Had Known When I Was Beginning as a Faculty Member" 
1. There is a hierarchy among faculty members. Respect it.
2. You can be friendly with students, but they are not your friends.
3. Sometimes you have to say "no," close the office door, and/or work at home.
4. Everyone's job is important. Be nice to the staff in your program.
5. Your job is not your life.

These rules are perceptive and painfully true. Rule #2 in particular always cuts me to the quick. It is true that some students can become friends, but not initially.  It's a power differential issue, essentially.

And I am continually surprised by the number of academics who don't "get" Rule #4.  We are all supposed to be on the same team. Over and over again, I have seen academics seemingly look for things to fight about with colleagues and staff, which I guess take me back to Rule #1.  I think Marcus Aurelius had the best response to this issue:  "The best revenge is not to be like your enemy." Too often, we become the very things we claim to detest!

If I were to add anything to this list it would be simple: stand by your ideals in a calm fashion. We all have trouble with disagreements; learning how to be civil about dissent is an important and very useful skill.  It is also a rare skill in most human interactions!  I highly recommend this book for folks in academia.  It has a jarring title, but there is a great deal of truth in it, and it is very much worth reading.

From my perspective, there is a difference between honesty and tactlessness; many people confuse the two.  In addition, rudeness is not the same thing as strength, nor bravery.

Anyway, I like Dr. Rushing's rules.  According to my wife, they were taped to Dr. Rushing's office door while she was teaching and being an administrator at UW-Tacoma.

Me?  I have a few rules I have learned as I worked my way through academia.  Here they are.

"Martin's Rules of Research" 
Rule #1: There is one ego per lab (and it's not yours). 
Rule #2: Research projects sometimes appear to actively resist investigation (I take it a little personally).
Rule #3: Never forget that there is a "re" in the word "research." If you cannot repeat the experiment, it isn't science.
I teach all of my undergraduate research students these (and other) rules, and have some of them on plaques posted in my little laboratory.

For example, I have this famous quote up---it's very important for the most jaded among us to remember.

Absolutely.  That is what is so very cool and frustrating about science, in my opinion.  No other job is like it.

My Rule #1 is a maxim that few undergraduates "get," but it is painfully clear to anyone who has worked on a PhD.  Again, I cringe when I think about my own experiences, and that particular rule.  But sometimes the most painful rules are the ones that have the greatest influence on a person's development.  Still:  ouch. Needless to say, I do not have a plaque with that lesson posted!

Most of us doing research can appreciate Rule #2.  One can get very paranoid about this while working long hours at the bench.  I know I have, and only grudgingly have relaxed about such things. The little plaque under my sign is a gift from a former student of mine, Robert Jeters.  I used to put it outside of my laboratory, but people kept taking it.  So perhaps I now mean it is safer inside my lab than outside! 

Rule #3 is so very important, in my opinion.  I well remember a student in my lab many years ago excitedly telling me that she had a great result from an enzyme assay.  "Great!" I replied.  "Now it is time to repeat the experiment twice more."   The student looked confused. Years later as a postdoc, we had dinner and laughed about that incident.  The scientific method is both simple and unforgiving; at its heart is the necessity that others must be able to repeat your work!

This reminds me of the great Tiffany Ard's poster showing how toddlers inherently understand the scientific method and hypothesis testing.  I have her humorous poster depicting this set of cosmic truths up in my lab, in fact.

Honestly, I feed fairly low in the Trophic Web of Science. But I have watched many of my former undergraduate research students become wonderful scientists, and I hope that some of what I have tried to teach them has stuck with them, made them smile, and hopefully become part of their own world view and laboratory.

My rules are all based on painful lessons in my own life. Everyone is different, of course. You know the saying: your mileage may vary!

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Microbial Halloween---2013!

Hallowe'en remains my favorite holiday.  And microbiology is my favorite intellectual topic, as you might have guessed by now.  So like a candy bar that combines two wonderful flavors in a unique way (time for a flashback video!), I have long had a reputation of hybridizing my interests in microbiology with my love of the macabre holiday. You can see my oh-so-right monomania in some of these bioluminescent photographs below (images painted using a liquid culture of luminous bacteria).

This is how I feel about microbiology in general.  No surprise.

And how I feel about the holiday, of course:

I even have gone so far as to illuminate some holiday appropriate items (including the sublime Edgar Allan Poe) with bacterial bioluminescence.

Even some, ahem, self portraiture.  This is easy enough to do, even with an iPhone camera:

And one can get a bit more involved with use of the camera, as in this "lux portrait" from a few years ago (a student with true photographic skills took this one, not me!):

Or one can even take advantage of pumpkins, Petri dishes, and my beloved luminous microbes.

Heck, my wife "painted" my portrait with bioluminescent bacteria last year, as you can see:

But even without bioluminescence, I love Hallowe'en...and "GiantMicrobes":

And I am not the only microbiology professor who has this fixation on the Hallowe'en season AND microbiology!

Phil Mixter, of Washington State University, has long used a "costumed crusader" approach to teaching aspects of microbiology (check out this remarkable video), and has even coauthored a paper on using this kind of "edutainment" approach in teaching!

My guess is that my own students are relieved not to see me show up in costume in class (right, micronauts?).  By the way, I have also seen Phil appear as "Neutrophil" (apologies for the pun).  Note also my friend and colleague Andrea Rediske (who writes with Kelly Cowan on their fine blog) as "Sally Mona."  Again, apologies for the puns. That's what we scientists do, far too often.

Another colleague, Ruth Gyure of Western Connecticut State University, has had a lot of fun with Hallowe'en Hijinks™ over the years.  But this October, she did a wonderful "spooky" turn as a spectral "White Plague" in her class that day...representing tuberculosis!

I wish I had a movie of her creative performance---imagine that eerie costumed form slowly striding into a darkened room, while students are viewing a video clip about the White Plague!  Truly creepy! Bravo!

And for Hallowe'en, I can't really leave out my friend and colleague, Tara Smith.  Tara is an epidemiologist and microbiologist at Kent State University in Ohio (she also writes a fine and insightful blog at Aetiology).  Tara has had a long running interest in the Hallowe'en appropriate topic of zombies, and has written several wonderful blog entries on this subject here, here, and here.  Brrr! I have never understood why the Hollywood people just don't hire her when they make zombie movies.  "Walking Dead" fans, Tara has some great insights for you.

With all of that,  it's really no surprise that I would really encourage some aspects of the season to appear in my Fall semester Microbiology course at the University of Puget Sound. It can be a triumphant cry of microbial supremacy in the course. 

Sometimes, it can be about artistically using bioluminescent bacteria in a darkened room as a group.

But other times, it can be about having lecture and discussion on Hallowe'en day itself, and celebrating appropriately! 

First, a former student offered to make "microbially themed" cookies based on this post (Petri dish cookies), and this other post (gel electrophoresis cookies).

And, in celebration, I offered my students some extra credit pointage for appearing in class wearing a "microbially-relevant" costume.  Here they are as a group.

Wow!  That made me feel pretty good.  I think that the students are starting to "get" Microbial Pride™!  Let's run through the costumes and what they depict, shall we?  Most students seemed okay with me taking photos, so here we go.

This costume had a double duty to it:  a sheep for some other party (I didn't ask for details), but with some added commensal rumen microbes (though we know more about the bovine symbiosis) for class that day, including Methanosarcina and Butyrivibrio.

Wow!  A microbiological incubator complete with door, and a Petri dish shirt?  Creative!

Here is a nod to Lynn Margulis and the endosymbiotic theory of cellular evolution:  enslaving bacteria (which we now call mitochondria and chloroplasts) to allow modern eukaryotic cells!

Though it may appear that this student was lacking a costume, I quite disagree:  she is covered in layers of mask-wearing microbes that are too small to observe with this camera!

Here is an innovative (and electrically powered) illustration of the symbiosis between Vibrio fischeri and the Hawai'ian Bobtailed Squid, Euprymna scolopes.

No microbiology course is complete without a biofilm here or there.

Here we have a unique depiction of the pink pigmented facultative methylotrophs that are often found on the surfaces of plant leaves.

Again, no microbiology course is quite complete without a depiction of "streaking"---complete with an inoculating loop!

Sometimes students have their interests piqued by things presented in class other than more "classic" curricular topics.  Because of the season, I recently showed the video in this link, depicting "zombie bacteria" that can move after they are dead (because of the lysed mycoplasma's motility machinery powered by exogenous ATP). This student was inspired by that video and link to create his own version of their "skeleton-motility system."

It is true that bacteriophages are everywhere.  Even at my Microbial Hallowe'en party

It's not every day that you get see a very, very large Petri dish, and observe the "blue/white" screening that takes place in many cloning experiments.

On the right, a swab (which we used in class to learn more about the microbes living in our water bottles).  On the left, an artistic interpretation of Deinococcus radiodurans, repairing its DNA. The green outfit?  A nod to the Incredible Hulk, due to gamma radiation (more about that at the end of this post)!

It's nice to see a non-pathogenic strain of Staphyloccus aureus around the classroom.

On the left, a trichome of a cyanobacterium, complete with heterocyst and annotated by various nitrogen-related activities.  On the right, Pseudomonas syringae forming sharp ice crystals via ice nucleation protein.

And here is something quite unique:  a living microscope, complete with a rotating nosepiece of objectives. Who knew that microscopy could be so personal?

I missed two costumes that you can see in the group photograph:  a nice T-shirt emblazoned with the "actin rockets" of Listeria, and a very red smoking jacket and hat that were intended to remind us all of the prodigiosin pigment molecule made by Serratia marcescens.  

Let me add one interesting thing, to finish out this long post celebrating Hallowe'en and microbiology.  

As I have had my students experiment with using Twitter as an educational tool, we came across a person posting on Twitter as "Micro_Hulk."  Here is a close up of the person's page.  

I have no idea who this person actually is, though they have posted things with which I wholeheartedly agree:

And the person has made efforts to encourage my class for exams:

But who is Micro_Hulk?  Truly, I do not know the answer to this mystery.  A close up of Micro_Hulk's avatar doesn't really give any clues, to be honest.

So I had to come up with some insights of my own, since I didn't make or wear a costume this year.  Thus, in honor of MicroHulk, here are my artistic depictions of this tiny powerhouse!  You have to love the Petri dish courtesy of Michele Banks of artologica, and the microbes courtesy of, well, Giant Microbes.

Or perhaps this is a better depiction?  After all, it has the (in)famous Honeybadger involved, along with more shout-outs to microbiology.

We may never get the answer to this mystery. 

In all it was a lovely---and microbially relevant---Hallowe'en!  My thanks to my creative and positive students in this course.  I hope you all enjoyed the "classroom party" as much as I did!

Best wishes to all.  May you get more treats than tricks!

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Bittersweet Anniversary

It has been quite a while since I blogged, which is my fault entirely. Most people know the famous quote of John Lennon's:  "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."  Part of the delay is due to getting my microbiology class together, which I am teaching on a Tuesday - Thursday schedule (plus my Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday laboratory sessions).  It's exhilarating to have more time for student input, discussion, and questions...but there is less material that I can shoehorn into each lecture.  Balance and my course goals become paramount.  So far, so good.  But it is definitely different from what I have done before.

I do want to write about the course, as well as other Matters Microbial™, and I will.

Even so, how lovely to see that I now have over 30,000 views in a bit over one year of blogging.  There are lots and lots of bloggers who pile up better statistics than I have.  But I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who do care to read what I write here, and I will continue to write about microbiology, education, and life (such as it is) in academia.  Many thanks to the people who do read this blog.

But today is a complicated day for me.  It is the first anniversary of my mother's death from complications associated with ovarian cancer.  I have written about my mother's struggles with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer here and here.  I have discussed a bit about my father's adjustment to life without my mother (as he negotiated his own very serious health issues) here.

The poet Rilke wrote that "Death is Large" (it is far more lyrical in his native German, as seen here).  But it remains true.  And everyone has complications, ups and downs, and the like in their family associations.  Everyone has things of which they are proud in their associations with others, and things of which they are, um, not so proud.  I'm decidedly no exception.

Do you know the Robert Frost quote about family?  It always made my mother chuckle at the dark humor:  "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

The issue with the death of someone you know well (family or otherwise) is that you can't ever talk with them again---or the conversation is a bit one-sided at the very least.  You can't get questions that have vexed you answered.  You can't tell that person what you liked about their relationship with you, nor what you decidedly didn't like.  You cannot express gratitude or resentment. Your relationship with them is no longer "the present" or a bit of "the future;" your relationship has become "the past," like an emotional fossil deep in the strata that make up your life.

Death is indeed large.  And it leaves a very, very big hole in all concerned. 

At the same time, we go on.  We try to remember good times, and minimize (or at least temper) the bad.  My goal is to remember my mother with a smile, not with sadness.  Yes, there is much I did not know about my mother (she was intensely private), but there were many, many good things about my mother that I did know.  That is what should matter, I think.

So, with that in mind, some thoughts about my mother, Wanda Jean Martin (born Wanda Jean Burton), on the anniversary of her passing.  Here is a photograph of her (and my father, my sons Anson and Zachary, and yours truly) taken during the last time she felt pretty good, during a family visit for Thanksgiving 2011.

I thought it would be interesting to have my wife Jenny Quinn, and my sons Anson and Zachary, state a remembrance of my mother on this anniversary of her death.  Zachary has told me that he was worried he would forget about people, and I told him that the best way to remember was to write your memories down, and tell the storires to others. That way, the people you are missing live in, in the memories of others.

My wife Jenny Quinn writes:
Wanda would never fail to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. One particular birthday, she tried so hard to make it special for me. She got Mark to find out about the traditions in my own family and worked to reproduce them at her home. In particular, she made spaghetti and meatballs for dinner followed by my favorite---strawberry shortcake. In her unassuming  way, she explained that the shortcake recipe was new to her so she wasn't sure how well it would turn out.  What a treat it was to have shortcakes from scratch. I had only ever used Bisquick before. I'm not sure she believed the praise. She never did. The celebration ended with a rousing game of UNO as was common in our early visits down south. While the boys and I trash talked through "reverse" and "pick 4" cards, Wanda attracted no attention and quietly crushed us all.  

Here is a photograph of Jenny hugging my mother goodbye, the last time they were together (again, Thanksgiving in 2011).

All of what Jenny wrote made me smile.  My mother was indeed "psychologically Amish" and would never, ever brag.  She was always nervous around my very accomplished wife, but came to see that Jenny was a wonderful wife to yours truly, and a great mother to Anson and Zachary...as well as being a professor of mathematics, book author, and administrator. 

Oh, and the bit about UNO?  Absolutely true.  Mom would quietly clean our clocks, stingingly.  She would smile sweetly afterwards, and insist she was "just lucky," but between those humble ears was a pretty impressive computer.  Trust me on that.

My oldest son Anson wrote:
My best memory of a grandma Wanda (affectionately known as "G-ma") was during the time I last saw her, at brunch at BJ's in California. She was very nice to everyone and always told and retold those hilarious stories.  She retold the story about missing Dad when he went away to college because the house was too quiet. So Dad came home with a pan and spoon and started banging them together. She was always very nice to me and I am glad of that.
Here is a photograph of my mother chatting with Anson during that brunch.

It's not a perfect photo, no, but the conditions in the restaurant were not great (pretty dimly lit).  I love how I caught Anson and my mother laughing.  My mother hated her photograph taken, but I loved to see her laugh.  So here she is, laughing (and maybe over the story Anson told about the time I was walking around the house, banging on a pot with a big spoon, when she complained it was too quiet).  

My youngest son Zachary wrote this:

My favorite and sadly my only recent memory of Grandma Wanda is when I read "The Three Little Snow Bears" by Jan Brett to her when I was in second grade. I felt very proud reading that book to her. That day I didn't want to leave Grandma and Grandpa's house. That was about three years ago.

Now, I swear to you all, I didn't try to get any of my family to bring up specific issues.  But I have to tell you that I was a little surprised by Zachary's memory.  Because here is the incident that he describes, taken at that time.

If you look carefully, you can see that Zachary is indeed reading "The Three Snow Bears" to my mother.  I'm glad it had such an impression on Zachary.  My mother would be pleased.

And what about me?  What stories can I tell?  Oh, there are so many.  There are the stories that my father likes to tell about my mother and I, from when I was young.  Like the time, as a toddler, I was fixated on a small cold sore my mother had on her lip..and while she was napping, I snatched it off her face!

That's a funny memory, but I wouldn't necessary call it happy. More painful, maybe.

My mother loved to read, and she loved children.  I think she had a lovely voice, and I was always sorry I couldn't get her to record books on tape. 

All of my life, my mother encouraged me to read, and talked with me about books.  I well remember talking about Shakespeare with her in high school, and how she claimed not to be "smart enough" to understand Shakespeare (see that psychological Amishness?).  Yet I found some Shakespeare on her side table a couple of weeks later.  She enjoyed reading biographies, especially those that chronicled how people overcome difficulties; she found such tales inspirational.

For my mother, learning was paramount.  Oh, I don't mean getting a particular degree.  I distinctly remember, each and every month, going over "It Pays To Increase Your Word Power" from "Readers' Digest" with her.  It was my mother who first turned me loose in our little district library, and introduced me to the "children's librarian" Mrs. Kugler.  There I found a universe to explore, far away from the challenges of the schoolyard and trying to win peer approval.  I had Shakespeare, Huxley, Orwell, Poe, Twain, Heinlein, Dumas, Asimov, and Lawrence as my friends!  I thank my mother for that.

My mother had had a lot of sadness in her life.  I think it was with her almost always.  So it became my goal to make her laugh.  So when Zachary tries to make us all laugh here in Tacoma, I see echoes...even when Zachary (like me, when I was a child) would sometimes take it too far in pursuit of a laugh.  My mother's greatest fear was that her children would not find some form of job security...but also, she feared that we might become arrogant.  So I was taught to be humble and not to take credit where it was not due.  Perhaps too much so?  If so, it is a small sin a world of braggarts!

I do know how happy she was when I finally managed to earn tenure.  She actually cried and couldn't find the words.

As a child, I remember my mother making a special batch of cookies.  They were frosted, and sprinkled, and were generally the Cibola of Confections.  So when I came home from school, I ate one (and I was not supposed to).  I rearranged the cookies to minimize the appearance of having taken one.  Then I had two more, again rearranging the cookies.  Finally, I threw caution to the wind and ate them all (I was roughly Anson's age, with the same unfortunate appetite).  When my mother came home from work, I admitted what I had done.

"But why?" she asked me.  "Why eat them all, when you weren't supposed to touch any?"

I shrugged.  "I had one, Mom," I replied. "And they were just too good for me to stop."

She just shook her head.  And smiled, even though she didn't want to do so.

I have many more stories, happy memories, of life with and around my mother.  There were some times we did not get along, and many, many more times that we did.  But we never did not love one another.  And the Robert Frost quote is apt:  the family home is the one place you can rely on, no matter what.  Family is the most important thing, both of my parents insisted, as I grew up.  

I think the story about my mother that most resonates with me on this day is the arc that she followed dealing with her cancer.  I swore to her that I would be her advocate, and that I would never push her toward anything she did not wish to do in that journey.  So I spent a lot of time with my mother explaining cancer.  Explaining chemotherapy. Explaining the medical profession.  And I believe we became closer as a result of it.

I remember how frightened my mother was, with the initial (and quite dire) diagnosis.  I would get off the telephone with her, after hearing her fears and thoughts on her life, and just shake.  But I had to be strong, because my mother had been strong for me many times. 

As I have related from last year's post, I was there the night before she passed away.  We had a chance to talk a bit, that night, and I treasure those memories.  At the end of her life, my mother told me that she wasn't afraid.  "I'm tired of hurting," she told me.  "I'm not afraid any more."  She pat my hand, and said "Be a good boy," and then caught herself.  "No," she went on.  "Be a good man." 

My mother was in and out of things that last evening, due to the morphine that the hospice nurses were giving.  But there was something of the mother who raised me still there.  Most people don't know this, but mother had a droll and wicked sense of humor. Like all truly precious things, you had to pay attention to see it.

There wasn't much to say or do, that last sad and scary night.  My mother could not use the bathroom without the help of a hospice nurse (she continued to be mortified by this, and the pain that came along with it).  So my mother kept saying that she needed to use the bathroom.  I stroked her arm, and told her that she needed to wait until the hospice nurse arrived.  My father, ever the man of action, was pacing back and forth.  

"What's the matter?" I asked him.

"I need to find the notebook, and I don't know where it is," he muttered, referring to the notebook that listed my mother's morphine dose history.

My mother stirred.  "Oh, I know where that is," she murmured in a sleepy voice.

"Where?" asked my father.

"I'll tell you if you let me use the bathroom," she replied, turned her head toward me, and slowly winked.  

My mother, Wanda Jean Martin, died a year ago today, on October 7th, 2012. Though I am relieved that she is no longer in pain, I miss her very much. Thank you for reading about my mother.

And be sure---certain---that you tell the people you love and value how you feel about them.  Don't delay.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Preaching the Microbial Gospel!

Classes begin next Tuesday...gulp! Still, I am very much looking forward to working with a new crop of students, and promoting my (only half humorous) concept of "microbial supremacy."  At that link, you can even read how I came to be called a "microbial supremacist," if you like.  My response?

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (http://kaitlinreiss.com/)
I have long had this attitude.  I loved microbiology as an undergraduate at UCLA (Syd Rittenberg, William Romig, and Gary Wilcox had a huge impact on my early education into Matters Microbial™), and enjoyed working with "undomesticated" microbes as a PhD student, postdoc, and in the biotech industry. 

But I believe my "Saul of Tarsus" moment regarding microbiology occurred when I took the famous Microbial Diversity course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts right after I returned to academia from biotech.  A wonderful history of this course, and its role in the careers of many microbiologists can be found here, authored by the great Ralph Wolfe.  

My instructors in 1996 (wow!) were the inimitable, wise, eloquent (and occasionally outrageous) Edward Leadbetter and Abigail Salyers.  To get a good sense of Abigail's disarming and subversive humor, listen to this.  And getting ahead of the game, even in (semi)-retirement, Ed was recently honored by the American Society for Microbiology with the D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award for this coming year.

To say that it was an inspirational experience with inspirational instructors would be a vast understatement. Ed and Abigail changed the way I looked at microbiology, period.  And forever. Plus they both stayed in touch with me after that course, mentoring and guiding me as an, ahem, slightly older student.

It was in collaboration with Abigail that my first "microbial motto" was born:

Courtesy of my wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, and her creative efforts.
I still love the expression "Prokaryotic Pride," though the work of Norman Pace and others has suggested that the "P-word" be expunged from microbiology.  Regardless of that debate, I think we could all agree that "First Evolved, Last Extinct" is accurate! I later came up with an alternative motto:  "Free the Organelles!" because of the simple fact that both mitochondria and chloroplasts were originally bacteria (alpha proteobacter relatives of modern Rickettsia and cyanobacteria, respectively), cruelly enslaved by primitive eukaryotes!

During my first stint at teaching and doing research at an undergraduate institution, a remarkable student named Rachel Hendrickson (now a dentist in Southern California) came up with an image to represent my perceived role in the microbiology classroom:

Many thanks to Rachel Hendrickson for making this design as a surprise for me, during a very rough time!
Again with the "P-word," but I truly am passionate on the subject. Even monomaniacal. 

Thus,  I am set to begin my proselytizing yet again on the topic of microbial supremacy in the classroom, starting next week. So much to tell them, and so little time...  This semester, I am teaching on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule, so there should be more time for student discussion and interaction. I cannot wait!  

In fact, I am fortunate enough to have been asked to give a talk (part of the Daedalus Society here on campus) on this topic to faculty, staff, alumni, and other interested people, in late September.  I have already received some good natured (I hope) ribbing on the invitation that was sent out a few days ago:

Artwork by the talented Kaitlin Reiss (http://kaitlinreiss.com/)
Now, I will do the best I can to promote microbial appreciation and literacy.  I doubt I can match the job of so many other engaging proponents of Matters Microbial™, such as the one and only Jon Eisen:

That said, whether or not I throw plush giant microbes out into the audience, I will have a good time.  And I will promote the One True Microbial Faith! I hope the audience likes it.

And my students, as well.