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 groß").  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 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.

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