Friday, September 25, 2015


I'm going to interrupt my Olympic hiking posts to interject a Washington D.C. post.  Last week I traveled to D.C. to receive an early career scientist award, and several members of my supportive and loving family joined me.  It was an overwhelming experience because I kept feeling the gravity of good fortune:  to be successful, to be supported, to be alive.  Also, I had to give a 5-minute acceptance speech, and I was a bit nervous about that.  Despite the weighty emotions, it was such a wonderful experience!  My grandparents rode a subway for the first time.  My daughters visited the national monuments on the Mall.  We visited the National Zoo and caught a glimpse of the newborn panda on the PandaCam.  It was spectacular.    

Below is a copy of my speech, which can also be viewed at minute 33 by following this link.  Don't be alarmed by the login.  Just type in your info and login.    

Heather's acceptance speech:

Thank you very much, Joon.  I am so very honored to be here today accepting this award from ARS.  I am especially honored to be here among the many outstanding ARS employees who are also being honored today.  Perhaps the other honorees will resonate with the strange feeling I have of receiving an honor for what has most certainly been a team effort.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have contributed to this achievement, starting with my husband Ian and my loving and supportive family, some of whom have traveled from Iowa to be here today, including my grandparents.  Thank you for being here to share this moment with me, as you have time and again throughout my career.  My team also includes the fantastic doctors, nurses, friends, co-workers, and even acquaintances who navigated me through two diagnoses of breast cancer in the past 5 years, and whose support was critical to my survival. 

I want also to thank the wonderful support staff and scientific colleagues at my location in the beautiful Ames, Iowa who facilitate my research and outreach endeavors.  It is impossible to name all of the mentors and collaborators who are in my heart to thank, but I would like to name those whose guidance and intellect have been critical throughout my career:  Jo Handelsman, Thad Stanton, Al Klingelhutz, Shawn Bearson, Torey Looft, Karen-Cloud-Hansen, and John Bunge.  Thank you for paving the way, or for helping me to pave the way when the way could not be found. 

My scientific impacts have been in the field of microbial ecology, in particular regarding antibiotic resistance gene diversity.  You are perhaps familiar with antibiotic resistance in terms of “Superbugs”, which is a word for pathogenic bacteria that have become so resistant to antibiotics that we can no longer treat them with antibiotics.  I don’t study Superbugs, but I’m interested in the reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment, how resistance genes move among bacteria, and in alternatives to antibiotics that might prevent the emergence of new Superbugs.  My research has helped to define resistance gene diversity in both pristine and antibiotic-impacted ecosystems, from Alaska to the pig gut.  I hope that the data my collaborators and I generate will inform scientifically sound policies to reduce the risk of making more Superbugs, thus improving health and food safety.         

I’d like to conclude by making two comments to my daughters.  In high school I took an AP chemistry class taught by a first-rate teacher, Mr. Ferrell.  One day following an exam, Mr. Ferrell tried to comfort the lesser-achieving students by assuring us that we’d all hit our wall someday.  “Everyone hits their wall,” he said.  Ever since that day, I have been fearful of my wall, wondering how high it would be, how wide it would be, would it hurt when I hit it?   Daughters, I am happy to report that there are no walls, only doors, and it is up to you to walk through them.

 Second, in 2005 I was representing the Graduate Women in Science organization at the University of Wisconsin’s Committee on Women.  I was attending this committee meeting because graduate students in Madison were not entitled to maternity leave of any kind, even if it was unpaid.  I had researched several other universities who had mechanisms for maternity leave for graduate students and was presenting my case to the committee.  Afterwards the one male member of the Committee said, “Women think they can have it all!”  Daughters, I am happy to report that with the right support and some hard work, yes, you can have it all.

I am humbled by this award, and I am grateful to ARS for being a door and for being a part of my having it all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pyrites Creek

Ryan parked the car at Grave's Creek right next to his vehicle's twin: a green Subaru Outback with Washington plates.  I put on my SmartWool socks, carefully laced up my hiking boots, and settled into my pack.  At this moment when embarking on a journey, I often feel a moment's hesitation:  Did I pack enough socks?  Will the kids be okay while I'm gone?  Did I stow my keys where I'll find them again but not lose them along the way?  This time, however, was different.  This time there was no hesitation.  I knew that I had everything I needed:  my boots, my brother, and the woods.  Nothing else mattered.

Our boots crunched on the gravel behind the row of cars, then stomped over a wooden footbridge into the woods.  Into the woods.

This was the first of many creek crossings.
The path was fairly wide for the first two miles.  Too narrow for two people to walk together, but wide enough to pass oncoming hikers without difficulty.  The first two miles see many day-hikers of folks who hike in to Pony Ridge.  Pony Ridge is a beautiful place where the river has cut through the rock and a large wooden bridge carries the trail over it.  We didn't linger with the day-hikers, though.  We plunged ahead, eager to keep pounding the trail.

Soon after Pony Ridge, the trail became more narrow and less traveled.  Ryan and I spread out a little bit, each lost in our own thoughts.  We were always in each others' sight, but sometimes you don't need to talk in order to enjoy the company of another human.  Especially on the trail.  The rhythm of my own footsteps on the remote soil sent me into a meditative state.  My mind quit chewing on the various problems that had inhabited it for weeks.  I released the problems into Mother Nature's capable hands.  I just walked.
My two feet, carrying me over.

This odd little ptarmigan was hiking alongside us at one point.  I could have picked it up!  
That's a big tree!
 We reached the first backcountry campsite 6 miles from the start.  Ryan and I were both feeling great, so we decided to go another 3 miles to the next campsite at Pyrite's Creek.  I didn't know for sure if I could make it, but I thought I could.  So I did.  When we got there, Ryan gave me a big hug and said that I killed it.  I know I did.  I knew I could.  We arrived at 6:07, and his projected arrival time was 6:30.  We beat his projection by 23 minutes!  I felt rather accomplished.

I also felt rather spent.  After all, I had just hiked 9 miles, mostly uphill, with a pack.  I sat on the sandy bank while he set up the tent and filtered some water.  Soon I was feeling refreshed and able to participate in camp life.  

Ryan filtering some water for us at Pyrites Creek

Our tent, Big Agnes, at Pyrites Creek
This is most of our food in the bear can, with a view of our campsite on the banks of Pyrites Creek.

Ryan made haystacks (deconstructed tacos) for dinner.  Best meal I've ever had! 

We took shots of Herdez salsa from a can to avoid spilling any on the ground and attracting vermin.  Pass the Herdez!

After dinner we were both ready for bed, so we turned into Big Agnes.  It was still light out.  I was asleep by 8:30.

Ryan's girlfriend, A, loaned me her FitBit for our hiking trip.  Afterwards she hooked me up with the data, which shows how intense this first day of hiking was.  I walked 24,935 steps that day.  And I loved every one of them.