Marilyn M. Olmstead (1943-2020)
The person you knew would have the answers. The person who would help you analyse a challenging situation. The person who would recommend just the right outdoor activity to clear away that gloom. The person who gave you a home in science, encouraged you and convinced you that you belonged. That you mattered. Marilyn was all of those people, to me and many others.
It’s a warm October day in the San Francisco bay area, two weeks to the day after I was awoken at 1am to receive the most tragic of news. The words at the time seemed hydrophobic and immiscible to my sleep-sodden mind - slipping and sliding across the surface of my consciousness, but not ever soaking in. Seeking solidarity in shock, I messaged a number of my academic siblings. Joined over the various apps that have recently become our social lifelines, we muttered the same phrases of disbelief. Struggling for words, we eventually ended our calls with promises to talk again soon. I then turned to social media and swiped through photos of happy times with Marilyn, until I couldn’t see through the tears.
Over the past two weeks, the slow diffusion of acceptance has illuminated more facets of this devastating loss. Memories of past adventures together are now glazed with a somber patina. Future plans and projects glow with a diminished lustre, seemingly without hope of being blessed with Marilyn Magic. However, amongst all this grief, we humans continue to do the thing we do so well: weave our stories into a mourning tapestry, rich in memories and comfort. Marilyn’s youth as a natural scientist, examining lizards and becoming a ham radio operator at the age of 13. Marilyn’s persistence and brilliance in academia, despite its hostility towards women. Marilyn’s patience and kindness while mentoring. Pomegranate-jelly-making sessions perennially marking the arrival of autumn. Trips to Tahoe in the summer for hiking and swimming; trips to Tahoe in the winter for skiing and snowboarding. Marilyn’s dedication to international collaborations, and her love of immersive travel, where she truly stretched herself to experience a culture while expanding her collaborative family. The whirlwind experience of being at a crystallography conference with Marilyn, and feeling like you are partying with a rockstar. Nearly all of these testimonials included hypothetical questions in the vein of “How will we go on without Marilyn?” I know I felt similarly; none of us feel ready to step into such colossal shoes. Another common thread within all these stories was the incredible amount of energy that Marilyn imbued into all her interactions. A dynamic energy when the tricky structure as well as a student’s success were close at hand. A courageous energy that defied all limits and encouraged others to dream bigger. A compassionate energy when the challenges seemed insurmountable and emotion ran high.
Through all these stories, we are reminded that Marilyn believed in us. She trusted us to take the tools she gave us and go forth. When our confidence flagged, she cheered us on. When we were unsure, she helped us determine the facts of the matter and weigh them appropriately. We are now faced with this grievous time, where we are without her counsel and cheer, and are feeling adrift in this loss. May we all follow Marilyn’s encouragement, and see ourselves more as she saw us; going forward together, with courage and compassion, would certainly make her proud.
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