Once again, Ronald S. Oremland sat down for the #FEMSmicroBlog facing his keyboard screen and searching his cranium for meaningful words and bon mots. After nearly 50 years of research and discoveries with a smelly gas, he published the personal retrospective “Got acetylene: a personal research retrospective” in FEMS Microbes about a scooped project. In this #TheCulturePlate post, Ron talks about his motivation for writing this retrospective review. He provides words of wisdom and humour to inspire and encourage young scientists and convinces policymakers that his long years of research have a practical utility.
Why I wanted to write the retrospective piece
My motivations were simple……. I was bored out of my skull.
The global Covid-19 pandemic shut down along with some personal medical headwinds have conspired to keep me mostly at home. I was already retired (“emeritus”) and had no longer an active research program. While my wife Fran took to painting pretty watercolours when she felt the need to be creative, I have turned (metaphorically) to the “pen” as a release.
An active research career with an enthusiastic team to guide meant unexpected and exciting discoveries cropping up quite often. This contrasts a lot with the tedium of being abruptly “led out to pasture”. It is quite a different venue to accustom oneself to after the 45+ years of active engagement, even if it is inevitable.
So, aside from the few residual research papers still flowing with me as a co-author, I have taken to writing specific research retrospectives as a kind of scattered, piecemeal memoir, published as book chapters and articles in journals like FEMS. Because the editors allow me considerable freedom, I often employ humour to make my points, so they are quite fun to write.
Also, these articles come out far better than any attempts to engage in the messy business of watercolours.
What the next generation can learn from this piece
Inspiring the younger and emerging generation of scientists needs a lot of humour as well. By recounting anecdotes from my career, I want to guide these folks and give them a chuckle, but also an idea of how to conduct themselves in their emerging careers.
I want to guide the next generation of scientists and give them a chuckle, but also an idea of how to conduct themselves in their emerging careers.
Pretty much all of the scientific “literature” is recounted as the most boring and dry presentation imaginable of “just the facts, ma’am” as Sgt. Friday of the old TV series “Dragnet” would say. It is a practical necessity, but total snore.
There are only a few venues where a grad student or postdoc could pick up on the human factors of research, the personal interactions, the excitement of discovery, the disappointment of being “scooped”, hints on leadership, and the necessity of thinking “outside the box”.
It is primarily for these reasons I was inspired to write my retrospective.
What society can learn from my research
Which use could my research into a smelly gas have on enacting laws, prohibitions, and injunctions concerning microbial ecology?
This is a tough one. I want to say that there are no facets of this work that involve “policymakers”.
However, there are important points here for administrators and those who oversee research programs. It must be remembered that a creative discovery is a key aspect of this endeavour, and that leadership by micromanagement that intentionally snuffs this out is a disastrous mistake.
We did not know at the outset that our work on acetylene fermentation could have implications for the possibility of extraterrestrial life. And we didn’t even consider the possible course for the remediation of toxic chlorinated alkenes in subsurface aquifers.
Indeed, I would have been hard-pressed at the outset to come up with these as rationales for continued investigation. But keeping the work going as a small, productive side effort was a key aspect of an enlightened administrative aegis that allowed my career to blossom.
And after all is said and done, it was a lot of fun too!
- Read the retrospective “Got Acetylene: A personal research retrospective” published in FEMS Microbe by Oremland (2021).
- Read on the #FEMSmicroBlog: Successful collaborations enable us to delve into new realms of research.
Ron Oremland grew up by the ocean in Brooklyn, New York, near Coney Island. He graduated with a degree in biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and attended University of Miami for graduate school in oceanography, but this was interrupted by military service in the U.S. Navy and served as a ship’s diving and salvage officer. After release from active duty, he returned to the University of Miami and was awarded his PhD in 1976, and then ventured west to California for a postdoc at NASA Ames Research Center. In 1977, he joined the U.S. Geological Survey, working there for 42 years until his retirement in 2019. He is now an emeritus senior scientist.
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