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Thank you, Neerja

Neerja Hajela has worked with me for over 22 years as a technician and lab manager. She is extremely skillful, diligent, organized, and dedicated in her work. On top of all that, she is a wonderfully kind and warm person. Now, this is her last week before she retires.

It’s impossible to put into words all that Neerja has done for me, for everyone in the lab, for the LTEE, and for my collaborators. But let me mention a few of the things she has done.

By keeping the lab running in a smooth and orderly fashion, Neerja has enabled me to spend more of my time thinking about science, writing papers, giving talks, etc., etc. We scientists sometimes complain that we have too much to do, and so we joke that we want to clone ourselves. Well, I’ve done better—I’ve had Neerja.

Those of us with labs know that our institutions take laboratory safety very seriously, as well they should. Neerja runs such a tight ship that, on many occasions after inspecting our lab, the safety officers have made comments to the effect that they wish all labs were as neat, clean, organized, and safety-conscious as ours.

One of the challenges of the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) with E. coli is freezer management. We now have over 30 years of samples, spread over half a dozen freezers, which provide a record of past evolution. Neerja has overseen this ever-growing collection with extraordinary care and dedication. The samples provide critical backups that allow us to restart the LTEE from a recent milestone when mishaps occur, and they provide unique research materials such as when new technologies emerge. A case in point: Michael Desai wrote me a few years ago with a request. In essence, he wanted all of the LTEE samples for metagenomic sequencing. All of them—from each population and every generation with saved samples. Since I started the LTEE in 1988, we’ve always saved duplicate samples, with one of them being a backup to be opened only in an emergency. I could send Michael the backups, perhaps, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. So I decided we should make additional sets by going into the ~1500 key samples spread over several freezers; taking a subsample of each and culturing it to produce a larger sample; splitting the new culture into ten sub-cultures; and freezing those to provide a new set for Michael as well as other sets for collaborators and institutions. It took Neerja many months to accomplish all of this, but as always, she did it with great skill and care. (Oh, and you can read about the results of Michael’s request here.)

Last, but surely not least, Neerja has done more of the daily transfers of the LTEE than anyone else. She performed her first LTEE transfer on February 5, 1996, and since then she has done well over 4,200 daily transfers. (Thanks to Zachary Blount, who went through the LTEE lab notebooks for its 30th birthday.) And when Neerja hasn’t done the transfers herself, she has organized who else is responsible for each and every day’s transfers.

Thank you, Neerja, for all that you have done for me, for everyone in the lab, for the LTEE, and for science. Everyone in the lab joins me in wishing you and Ravindra all the very best in your retirement and new home!

 

Neerja Hajela 13-Mar-2017[Neerja Hajela]

Neerja doing transfers 30-July-2018[Here’s Neerja doing yesterday’s LTEE transfer]

Neerja pointing to entries from 1996 & 2018[Neerja pointing at two of her LTEE entries: her first transfer on February 5, 1996, and the one from yesterday July 30, 2018. The lab notebooks in the background record the daily transfers since she joined the lab.]

Neerja's first LTEE entry from 1996[Close-up of Neerja’s first entry.]

LTEE protocol[Neerja’s protocols for the LTEE, mounted in the lab, so nobody makes a mistake]

Neerja enforcing discipline[And in case that doesn’t work, here’s Neerja enforcing lab discipline]

LTEE transfer board[The LTEE transfer board from earlier this year]

Tanush tower 2017[Horsing around Tanush’s plate tower]

Neerja in lab, May 2017[Neerja making copies of freezer samples]

Neerja and Rich[Neerja and me]

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Today is the 29th birthday of the long-term evolution experiment (LTEE). As I wrote on Twitter: “May the cells live long & prosper, both in & out of the -80C freezers.” I hope they—and the rest of the world—will be evolving and improving long after I’m gone.

Anyhow, after my tweet, Luis Zaman asked for a picture of me on my own 29th birthday. (I started the LTEE when I was 31.) Alas, I don’t have one. But I’ve found some pictures from around that time—including just before and after I moved to UC-Irvine to start my first faculty position, and over the next few years up to about the time I started the LTEE.

Summer, 1985: This photo is from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I did my postdoc with the amazing Bruce Levin, who hosted a goodbye party for us. From left to right: Ralph Evans, a brilliant graduate student and dear friend, who died tragically just a few years later of brain cancer. My beautiful wife, Madeleine. Our one-year-old daughter Shoshannah, being held by forever-young Bruce. Yours truly, holding our three-year-old son Daniel. And Miriam Levin, an art historian.

amherst-goodbye-party-summer-1985

October, 1985: Shoshannah on my shoulders at the San Diego Zoo, a few months after we moved to Irvine.

october-1985-san-diego-zoo-with-shosh

March, 1986: First-year faculty member burning the midnight oil in our Las Lomas apartment at UCI. Working on a paper? Or getting ready to teach 700 students the next day? (Two sections of Ecology, a required course for Bio Sci majors, with an hour to recuperate in between. It was well worth it, though, because one of the students in one of the many quarters I taught that course was the great Mike Travisano.)

march-1986-working-late

October, 1986: Moving up in the world, we bought a new house on Mendel Court in University Hills. My parents visited, and that’s my mother, Jean, a poet who loved science.

october-1986-mendel-court-with-mom

March, 1987: The great Lin Chao came for a visit. We grew pea plants on the trellis below the number 6—after all, it was 6 Mendel Court.

march-1987-with-lin-chao

June, 1987: One of the fun events at UCI was Desert X (for extravaganza), hosted by Dick MacMillan, the chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, on his property near Joshua Tree National Park. With Madeleine, who is “holding” our Number 3.

june-1987-desert-x-with-m

June, 1987: Working Xtra hard at Desert X with close friend and colleague Al Bennett.

june-1987-desert-x-with-al

September, 1987: With an already smiling one-month-old Natalie.

sept-1987-with-natalie

January, 1989: Time for some snuggles. Meanwhile, the LTEE is not quite a year old.

jan-1989-with-3-kiddos

The title of this post is a song by Fairport Convention, with the hauntingly beautiful voice of the late, great Sandy Denny. You should listen to it.

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Privilege

At my 60th birthday party this summer, I made a few remarks about how fortunate I have been in my life:

Born to parents who nurtured me.

Born into a nation that values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Born at a time and in a part of the world where science and public health greatly improved my chances of survival and good health. (Living to age 60 was once a rarity, and it still is in much of the world.)

Fortunate to have had a superb education, and to have met so many wonderful people along the way, including my wife.

Lucky to have three talented, interesting, and kind children, two loving and good sons-in-law, and now two healthy grandkids.

Fortunate to have a career where I get to study how the world works, and where I get to work with incredibly talented and motivated students and colleagues.

Today I was reminded of another aspect of privilege:

Privilege is getting to vote with no long lines and without intimidation. I was privileged today. I wish all Americans had that privilege.

It’s something we should all embrace.  Working to deny citizens their right to vote is wrong. It also threatens all of us today and future generations, and the freedoms and privileges that we sometimes take for granted.

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A Life Well Lived, Part II

This second tribute to my father was written by my son Daniel, who gave me permission to post it here.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

My dear Grandpa Gerry died yesterday at 91, at home near Seattle with Grandma Ann and three of my aunts by his side. He had a sharp and curious mind undimmed by age, and a kind and sympathetic ear despite his deafness. He enjoyed many years of good health, and I particularly remember his smile after he kept pace with my father during a long walk up a sand dune, in his late 70s.

Grandpa was born and raised in Washington, DC at a time when slabs of ice were delivered in horse-drawn carts, and kids could freely roam the White House grounds and all the embassies, sneak up into the Capitol dome, and surreptitiously feed bubblegum to monkeys through the bars at the National Zoo. I hope the statute of limitations on that particular incident has run out.

As a cryptographer in WW2, Grandpa encoded messages with geared machines weighing hundreds of pounds, surrounded by walls lined with dynamite, yet he also lived long enough to get the hang of touchscreens, to print out this XKCD cartoon and tape it to the side of his iMac, and most importantly to Skype with his great-grandchildren. He got a DNA profile done, and seemed kinda bummed to find out that he was probably not descended from Genghis Khan. In his career as a sociologist he studied religion and technology and critiqued totalitarian governments (topics as important as ever today), wrote several books, and figured out how to edit his own Wikipedia page. I remember more than once in recent years when I stayed up late talking about my life and work at Intel with Grandpa, only to find that he had woken up before me the next morning, brimming with new questions and ideas.

He was an old dog still learning new tricks. On October 30 we went to his favorite restaurant. I drove, but Grandpa pointed out all the shortcuts in the dark. When the waitress came by to take our drink orders, I expected he’d get his usual deer-in-the-headlights look and blurt out “Bud Light,” at which point I’d protest and order him something more interesting. But this time was different. Without missing a beat, Grandpa set down his menu, asked for a Mac and Jack Amber Ale, and turned to me silently with a twinkle in his eye.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

My son Daniel, me, and my father Gerry in 2012

My son Daniel, me, and my father Gerry in 2012

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A Life Well Lived

My father died peacefully at his home near Seattle this morning, before dawn, at 91 years of age. Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski, Jr. was born (1924) and raised in Washington, DC. His father went by Gerhard, and my father went by “Gerry” (pronounced like Gary) his whole life. My father did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University, with his undergraduate years interrupted by three years of service with the US Army Air Forces during World War II, most of which was spent in England as a cryptographer at a joint USAAF-RAF airbase.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1950, my father joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, where he rose through the faculty ranks. In 1963, he moved to the University of North Carolina, where he was Alumni Distinguished Professor and served as department chair for several years. He retired in 1992. He wrote several important books including “The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion’s Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life” (1961), “Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification” (1966), “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications” (2005), and “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology” (1970), now in its 12th edition (2014). He served as vice president of the American Sociological Association, and as president of the Southern Sociological Society. His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.

In 1948, my father married my mother, the former Jean Cappelmann, a poet, and they had 4 children. They were active together in working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. They were married for 45 years before my mother passed away in 1994. In 1996, my father married the former Ann Blalock, who was a close family friend and whose late husband Hubert “Tad” Blalock, had been a colleague of my father’s at both the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

After moving to the Seattle area, my father enjoyed visiting northwest sites and cities including the Olympic National Park, Mount Baker, Portland (where my son lives), and Victoria; cheering on the Seahawks and Mariners; watching the ships on the Puget Sound; and talking with his children and grandchildren, always full of questions and ideas about technology and life.

My father was beloved by family and friends for his storytelling and humor – who can forget the story about the time he and a childhood friend gave their chewing gum to monkeys at the National Zoo? – as well as his deep knowledge of and appreciation for human history.

My father was fortunate to have lived a good and full life for 91 years, and I was very lucky to have him for almost six decades. I was also lucky to spend Thanksgiving with him, and we had the chance to share many stories that spanned his life—from baseball trivia to meeting his newest great-grandson in my father’s first-ever Skype.

Dad and Me on Dad's 90th

My father and me on his 90th birthday

ADDITION 1: Click here for a picture of my father from his days at UNC.

ADDITION 2: My son Daniel wrote a wonderful tribute to his Grandpa here.

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A Wild Weekend

My wife Madeleine and I had a wild Memorial-day weekend.

Late Saturday afternoon, a dog found a baby squirrel, perhaps 5 or 6 weeks old, and chased it through our fence. The poor squirrel appeared to be in shock—its back was wet; it had probably been mouthed by the dog—but otherwise unharmed. We tried putting the baby squirrel on a protected tree branch in hopes that its mother would come and rescue it, but that did not happen and it did not budge … and nighttime was approaching.

So we brought the squirrel inside, and placed him in a secure container with rags to keep warm overnight. We hoped he would survive.

Indeed, the next morning, little “Nutcase” was dry and warm and, while still scared, on close inspection he seemed healthy and acting much stronger. You can see me holding him in the picture below.

On Sunday, we found a local wildlife rescue shelter that already had 20 other baby squirrels. There’s evidently been a bumper crop of the little fellas this year. Rearing them with others of their species, and with appropriate food and shelter, gives the foundlings a better chance of surviving when they are released back into the wild. Good luck, little Nutcase!

That wasn’t the end, though, of our wild weekend. On Monday, as Madeleine helped our daughter clean a garden shed, they disturbed a mother deer mouse living in a lawn-care bag with seven nursing pups.

The bag had been moved outside the shed before the mice were discovered. Mama mouse ran and, along with one of the pups, she hid right next to the bag inside a dense roll of wire fencing, the type used to protect young trees from browsing deer. But mama mouse did not abandon her pups!

We moved the other six pups and the nesting material into a more suitable container back inside the shed. We also carried the roll of wire fencing, along with mama mouse and that one pup, back into the shed. The next challenge—and it took us a couple of hours—was to coax mama mouse and that pup out of the fencing and into the container with the other six pups.

Success! Mama mouse was reunited with all her babies, and she promptly set out to nurse them. We gave her some bits of fruit and nuts, and a jar lid with water, to help her get over her stress and back to her work raising her family.

It’s amazing how invested one gets in helping wildlife survive, especially after meeting them “in person.”

REL and Nutcase, May 2015

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Thirty Years

No, the LTEE did not suddenly jump forward by almost 3 years. That milestone will be reached on February 24, 2018.

Next Friday is the end of the semester at MSU and, for me, it will mark 30 years that I’ve been on the faculty: six at UC-Irvine, and 24 here at MSU. (I also taught for one semester at Dartmouth as a sabbatical replacement, while I was doing a postdoc at UMass.)

Holy cow: 30 years. Where did all that time go?

Well, a lot of it was spent advising, supervising, and mentoring graduate students. And those have been some of the most interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding professional experiences that I can imagine.

In fact, this afternoon Caroline Turner defended her dissertation – congratulations Dr. Turner! Her dissertation is titled “Experimental evolution and ecological consequences: new niches and changing stoichiometry.” It contains four fascinating and meaty chapters, two on the interplay between evolutionary and ecological processes in the LTEE population that evolved the ability to grow on citrate, and two on evolved changes in the elemental stoichiometry of bacterial cells over experimental time scales.

Caroline is the 20th student to complete her Ph.D. with me serving as the advisor or co-advisor. Here they all are, with links to their professional pages or related sites.

  1. Felisa Smith, Ph.D. in 1991 from UC-Irvine.
  2. John Mittler, Ph.D. in 1992 from UC-Irvine.
  3. Mike Travisano, Ph.D. in 1993 from MSU.
  4. Paul Turner, Ph.D. in 1995 from MSU.
  5. Greg Velicer, Ph.D. in 1997 from MSU.
  6. Brendan Bohannan, Ph.D. in 1997 from MSU.
  7. Phil Gerrish, Ph.D. in 1998 from MSU.
  8. Farida Vasi, Ph.D. in 2000 from MSU.
  9. Vaughn Cooper, Ph.D. in 2000 from MSU.
  10. Danny Rozen, Ph.D. in 2000 from MSU.
  11. Kristina Hillesland, Ph.D. in 2004 from MSU.
  12. Elizabeth Ostrowski, Ph.D. in 2005 from MSU.
  13. Bob Woods, Ph.D. in 2005 from MSU.
  14. Dule Misevic, Ph.D. in 2006 from MSU.
  15. Gabe Yedid, Ph.D. in 2007 from MSU.
  16. Sean Sleight, Ph.D. in 2007 from MSU.
  17. Zack Blount, Ph.D. in 2011 from MSU.
  18. Justin Meyer, Ph.D. in 2012 from MSU.
  19. Luis Zaman, Ph.D. in 2014 from MSU. (Charles Ofria was the primary advisor.)
  20. Caroline Turner, Ph.D. in 2015 from MSU.

There are also 8 doctoral students at various stages currently in my group at MSU including Brian Wade (Ph.D. candidate), Mike Wiser (Ph.D. candidate), Rohan Maddamsetti (Ph.D. candidate), Alita Burmeister (Ph.D. candidate), Elizabeth Baird, Jay Bundy, Nkrumah Grant, and Kyle Card.

My own advisor – the late, great Nelson Hairston, Sr. – said that he expected his graduate students to shed sweat and maybe even occasional tears, but not blood. I would imagine the same has been true for my students.

Thirty years, holy cow. Time flies when you’re working hard and having fun!

Added November 4, 2015:  And now #21 in my 31st year, as  Mike Wiser successfully defended his dissertation today!

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