1. NAI Central Remembers Barry

    The staff of NAI Central has been mourning Barry Blumberg’s death and at the same time celebrating his life and what he meant to us—as a leader and as a friend. The day after Barry died, a group from Ames gathered for lunch and then walked around Shoreline Park, a lovely place on San Francisco Bay close to Ames that Barry loved and where many of us had walked with him. We have been remembering the early days of the NAI and how Barry shaped the Institute, laying the groundwork for what it has become. Most of all, we remember his gentle, soulful character, his love of people, places, the Earth, family, adventure, and life.

    Barry took the reins of NAI leadership as its founding director in 1999. At the time, although the NAI had moved from concept to reality, the challenge of raising the fledgling Institute into maturity remained. The idea that scientists, by accepting awards to perform research within the framework of the NAI, had also accepted a call to action as a member of a larger, emerging community was new to many. An essential challenge that lay before Barry as NAI Director was how to create just enough structure to form a strong community while also allowing creativity to flourish.

    {{ 6 class=“article” width=“150” }}

    We think that leadership decisions during the early years of the NAI must have been shaped by Barry’s own experience in conducting the research that led to his Nobel Prize. He liked to recall how, as a young scientist, management allowed him the academic freedom to pursue his goals—even if they didn’t always quite understand what he was doing! As he wrote in his book The Hunt for a Killer Virus: Hepatitis B, “The process of our research was indirect, winding through circuitous paths, ideas, places, and involving many people, but it had a curious order, vector, and a satisfactory outcome.” Barry didn’t expect the NAI science teams to do exactly what they said they would do in their research proposals, believing this to be an artificial constraint on creativity. He told them to “go ahead and do what you think you should do” and pledged his support. He strove to have science and scientists lead the way.

    With respect to the membership of the NAI (a big topic of discussion in those days), he essentially said to the PI’s, “You tell us who’s on your team and that’s who will be in the Institute.” This science-based rather than funding-based definition lives on today, with one important outcome being the inclusion of many students and postdocs under the NAI umbrella.

    Realizing that research started today would be carried on by future generations, Barry was passionate in his support for young scientists. He took the time to talk with young people in depth about their ideas and aspirations as scientists and citizens. In conversation, his genuine interest shone through, instantly putting people at ease. He established the priority within NAI to support students and create opportunities for their voices to be heard, a priority that still lives on today. Combining his passions for field work and for encouraging the next generation, Barry established the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology, a partnership between NAI and the American Philosophical Society to promote and support astrobiological field studies by students and postdocs. To date, NAI has supported over fifty young scholars in their field work at exotic locations around the globe, from South Africa to Chile to Australia.

    Barry recognized that field work was an excellent catalyst for collaboration. He felt that lasting relationships were formed when people got out of their offices and labs and into the field for a week or two of working and living side by side. He was an enthusiastic participant in field expeditions during his term as NAI Director, visiting Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, Baja California’s microbial mats, and donning a hardhat, coveralls, boots, and an oxygen tank (not to mention overcoming claustrophobia) for a trip into the Iron Mountain mine near Redding, California with a team that was studying extremophiles. He loved not only the science and adventure of traveling to far-flung places, but also savored the friendships, the camaraderie, and the food that field work entailed. He exclaimed about a favorite restaurant in Baja, “The margaritas were really good!”

    Barry also appreciated that in order for astrobiology to realize its full potential, ensuring the authentic involvement of faculty and students at Minority Institutions (MI) is critical. Barry envisioned MI faculty interacting with NAI scientists, initiating research collaborations which would persist and evolve over time. Thus was born the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) program in 2002, which is still going strong today.

    Barry was ahead of his time in recognizing the value of social media for scientific collaboration. Long before Facebook went online, Barry insisted on the development of a “photo directory” of people across the Institute that would include their affiliations, projects, publications, and pictures. At some of the earliest NAI Central general meetings, booths were set up to capture photos of scientists for inclusion in the directory. In later years, he became a strong advocate for citizen science projects.

    Most of all, we remember Barry’s gentle demeanor as our Director and as our friend, advisor, and supporter in the years since. We remember his sense of humor and the environment of trust he created as we worked together to define and refine what a virtual institute should be. Through the ups and downs of those early years, none of us remember a time when he lost his temper or made us feel small or inadequate if we struggled or stumbled. We never heard him speak badly of anyone. We felt safe to talk with him freely of our ideas and we felt empowered by him. In the later years, we remember his tireless advocacy for astrobiology and the NAI, and his invaluable guidance toward what was possible.

    As we reminisced about Barry this week, someone recalled that he often used the phrase “Press on!” As we think of his life, and his death—which happened in the midst of a conference where he was engaged in the work he loved—we can think of no better phrase to describe the path we walked with Barry, and what we must now do to honor him. We will press on.

    Related article: In Memoriam: Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg 1925 – 2011