In Memoriam: W. John O'Brien, Ph.D. | UNCG Biology

In Memoriam: W. John O'Brien, Ph.D.

W. John O’Brien, aquatic ecologist and professor of biology at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, died at his home Saturday, August 15, 2009.  He was 66. The cause was pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in mid-June.  John leaves his wife, Marion; his son, Connor, and family – Beth (Calvet) and grandson Rowan, age 7; and his daughters Shay and Lia.  In memory of John, his family is creating an endowment fund at UNCG, the W. John O’Brien Award for Ecological Field Research, which will be used to assist graduate students who are conducting field-based work.  This will serve as a tribute to John’s love of the natural world and desire for students to experience and come to love and respect nature as he did. More information about the Award will be available in a few weeks, but in the meantime contributions to this fund in John’s honor can be made out to the UNCG Excellence Foundation (with a notation of John O’Brien Award) and sent to Judy Piper, UNCG Development Office, PO Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-61.

In addition to his family, John also leaves many friends, colleagues, and former students, some of whom have prepared the Biosketch that follows as a celebration of John’s life and career.  Many thanks to Val Smith, Anne Hershey, Jerry deNoyelles, and Chris Luecke, among others, for this gift to our family and to John’s academic family.

John O'Brien - A Biosketch

John O’Brien was an academic scientist and teacher with a passion for studying the ecology of freshwater zooplankton.  After an undergraduate career at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, he entered graduate school at Cornell University. Although the largest part of his graduate work was done at Cornell, he transferred to Michigan State University when his major professor, Don Hall, moved there, and it was at Michigan State that he completed his PhD degree in 1970.  His graduate research project focused on food resource and predator controls of zooplankton communities in experimental ponds.  This work resulted in seven publications that launched his career as a zooplankton ecologist, and he soon achieved a considerable international reputation in that field.  After completion of his degree, John accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, where he rose through the ranks to Professor in 1982.  While at the University of Kansas, John also served twice as Department Chair and one term as Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Public Service.  He remained at the University of Kansas until 2001, when he moved to Greensboro North Carolina to accept a position as Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Throughout his career, John divided his research energy between studying zooplankton ecology both in temperate reservoirs and in arctic lakes and ponds, and he trained students in both venues.  In Kansas, 19 graduate students - seven Ph.D. and 12 Master's students - received degrees under his direction. In North Carolina, another five students received Master's degrees and, sadly, two more will need to complete their degrees under the direction of his colleagues.

John's research in Kansas reflected its landscape:  because there were almost no natural lakes, John studied the limnology of turbid reservoirs.  His early research program at KU studied the factors limiting phytoplankton production, and led to a well-cited publication in the journal Science.  However, his focus quickly shifted to zooplankton and fish; this research attracted numerous outstanding graduate students, and led to many key publications on the ecology and feeding behavior of zooplankton and fish.

The largest portion of his research career was spent studying the zooplankton of arctic lakes and ponds in the vicinity of Toolik Lake, Alaska.  Approximately 60 of his nearly 100 journal articles and book chapters relate directly to his work there, and he edited a book volume on the limnology of Toolik Lake and surrounding lakes and ponds.  During his 34-year tenure at Toolik, he trained 2 postdocs, 15 graduate students, and mentored nearly as many undergraduates in arctic limnology.  His research at Toolik Lake focused on the predator-prey ecology of zooplankton.  With his students, he unraveled many of the secrets of “helmets and invisible armor” on the water flea Daphnia, prey selection by the large predaceous copepod Heterocope, control of pigmentation in arctic zooplankton, why moderately large zooplankton can co-exist with fish, and strategies fish use for finding and capturing prey.  John was an ardent experimentalist who delighted in devising ingenious experiments.

John was very proud of the accomplishments of his students and was keenly aware that, beyond his own research, a large part of his legacy would lie in the lives and work that his students would do when they left his lab.  Always an accomplished story-teller, his own friends and students also created many John-related stories of their own, including the notable examples recounted below.

Beginnings:  The Cornell Years.  Two boys grew up in northern New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, and attended Gettysburg College in the early 1960s.  Both were biology majors and in 1963, both took the same invertebrate zoology class from Robert Barnes.  In the fall of 1967, John O’Brien and Jerry deNoyelles had begun their PhD programs at Cornell University in different departments with different major professors, and still had not yet met.  They wound up together in a van somewhere near Ithaca, NY heading out on their first field trip for a limnology class.  "Hi, I’m John … I’m Jerry … where are you from? … where did you go to college? … really???"  By late November these two Jersey boys wound up in a boat on Cayuga Lake trying to figure out how to be aquatic ecologists, and for the first time how to be colleagues.  It would take a while to figure it all out, and many more times of working together.  “Jersey” was probably heavily discussed since they both knew that growing up in New Jersey affected one’s life in every way, but exactly how it did so would be jointly discussed for the next forty or more years!

The division of labor for these two Jersey boys began to be set that day on Cayuga Lake, but it would take years for all of the rules to be agreed upon.  John sampled first for zooplankton, collecting at just a few different depths.  Then it was Jerry’s turn to sample phytoplankton, with the other Jersey boy looking on through a crust of ice that covered his face, glasses, and every other surface.  As the bitterly wet and cold weather conditions worsened, there was progressively heated debate concerning the number of depths to be sampled.  No one remembers, or is willing to admit, exactly how many depths for phytoplankton were sampled that day.  Late in 1967, Don Hall (John’s major professor) encouraged them to work together on dissertation research involving Cornell's field station ponds, and their collaboration flourished.  But this period was also not without some debates!  Don once had to leave a graduate exam three separate times to quiet down John and Jerry, who were engaged in a heated argument about an experiment that would later generate an equally memorable incident in winter 1974 (see below).

The Kansas Years.  Both John and Jerry competed for a position on the Kansas faculty in 1970, and John won.  By 1972 John had become an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas, and Jerry was an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma, allowing their continued collaboration.  Jerry later accepted a position at KU in 1975, and the two would have offices located next to each other for the next 20 years.  John and Jerry published seven papers together from their Cornell days, one of which focused upon how algae responded to the addition of nutrients.  This was their greatest joint accomplishment, given that this paper was generated by the very experiment that created the argument broken up many years earlier by Don Hall.  An authorship debate developed, and there ensued a series of coin flips, drawings of things from hats and other containers, and finally the use of long and short straws and other elongated objects.  None worked, because with each attempt the loser would realize that the performance rules were flawed.  However, after consuming much alcohol on a cold winter night in Oklahoma in 1974, a resolution was reached:  the proposed authorship would simply be “deBrien O’Noyelles”.  On the next day they thought better of it, and in 1976 the paper was published with John as the first author.

Lynn Kring was the first graduate student to join John's research group in the early 1970s, studying the controls of feeding rate in zooplankton and later receiving a Master's degree.  At about the same time, two other young people entered John's life.  One of them, a chemistry major named Val Smith, learned about John purely by chance while receiving academic advising from John's department chair, Ken Armitage.  Ken remarked to Val that a new Assistant Professor had recently joined KU, and that he would be teaching a course in limnology in Spring 1972; Val in turn replied that this was extremely exciting because he had always been interested in caves.  Undeterred, Ken suggested that Val should still meet with John to ask about taking this class.  For the next year, Val helped John with his early laboratory work on nutrient limitation, and assisted in the field, where Val was pretty much all thumbs.  During this time Val also helped prepare reagents that were requested by John in the early years of his research program in Alaska, including an infamous shipment of Winkler reagents to John that very much went awry (but which later became a “Noatak story”, discussed later).  Also present in John's first limnology class was another undergraduate named Gary Vinyard, who soon joined the lab as John's first Ph.D. student.  Gary was an innovative and patient researcher whose work on fish orientation and feeding behavior led to six collaborative papers with John, and to innumerable, legendary stories.  Gary always held a very special place in John's heart.

John’s lab was humming in the 1970s, focusing on planktivorous fish and zooplankton.  John’s passion for science was contagious, and Gary and John's second doctoral student Ray Drenner thus often worked into the wee hours of the night.  On more than one occasion they would spend the night on the floor of the lab so that they could keep the experiments going.  John loved this productivity, and he would come in every morning to survey the newest data points.  John and Gary were particularly interested in how the reactive distance of fish to their prey changed with turbidity and light.  To perform these experiments at all possible light levels, Gary eventually had to work in virtual darkness.  When John went into the darkroom to check on him, it would first seem like total darkness.  But while John's eyes were acclimating to the ultra-dim light, he could hear a Bugs Bunny sort of sound, which was Gary eating raw carrots (allegedly to enhance his night vision).

Another humorous event occurred when John was visited by an eminent ecologist.  John brought him into the lab, and at some point the guest needed to wash his hands.  John opened the cabinet doors under the sink looking for paper towels, only to be buried in an avalanche of crushed Black Label beer cans.  He didn’t know that Gary and Ray drank beer in the lab at night, crushed the cans with their feet, and had stored more than a year’s worth under the sink.  That practice came to a swift end!

John loved playing sports.  He really enjoyed intramural football and he formed the EcoHogs (later the EcoHawks), a team composed of faculty and graduate students. In football John often served as quarterback, with Jerry nearby as his blocking back; every afternoon before a game, Ray and John would draw up trick plays.  John also joined the intramural softball team formed by his department, and the softball EcoHawks won a league championship with John playing first base and Jerry as the pitcher.  John also taught Ray how to play handball, and they developed quite a rivalry after a couple of years.  Each match was hard-fought…until the last match before Ray left KU, when John soundly trounced him; John never forgot this last handball game, and averred that he had always felt bad about how it ended (right!).  John carefully scheduled his time between these athletic events, serving as Chair of the department, and of course establishing his outstanding research career.

In the late 1970's Chris Luecke joined John's lab, where he rapidly found that John's quick wit often emerged when things in the lab were not going well.  During Chris Luecke's first summer in the lab, he, Greg Howick, and Dave Wright conducted feeding trials, with bass feeding on bluegill sunfish at extremely low light intensities.  After many days with little success in observing the bass-bluegill interactions, Greg complained to John about the problems with working at these low light levels.  John lowered his glasses so that he could stare at Greg over the top of his glasses, and then commented on the experimental setup:  "Greg, you have created a black hole where no light can fact, gravity in this black plastic room is so dense that clearly no data points can ever escape."  John went on to have many more KU graduate students, many of whom performed their research either in part or in whole with John in Alaska.

The Toolik Years.  John’s legacy in the Arctic goes well beyond the number of papers that he published. He was one of the founding members of the Toolik Lake arctic research community, and played a leadership role in lentic research there for most of his career.  In addition to the scientific productivity of that facility, he left a huge mark on its spirit, sense of community, and future promise.  He was a colleague and friend to a family of arctic researchers, who will sorely miss him.

One of the things that colleagues and students alike will remember most fondly about John O'Brien was his propensity for storytelling. He was a great storyteller, and for John, the Arctic was a perfect venue for generating fodder for stories as well as for telling them. Curiously, the material for the stories that he told most while at Toolik was collected during the summer of 1974 that he spent not at Toolik, but in the Noatak River valley. During that summer, he and a group of other scientists were funded by the National Park Service to provide an ecological assessment of the Noatak River Basin.  Although this project resulted in 2 journal articles and a book chapter, and contributed to his rapidly developing reputation as a leading zooplankton ecologist, the adventure generated tales that John would recount for the remainder of his career. At Toolik Lake, students and colleagues alike would clamor for a storytelling session like children at bedtime.  Usually, John was happy to oblige, and his effort would leave his audience holding their sides, wiping tears from their eyes, and savoring memories that will last a lifetime.  His Noatak adventure also led to his life-long love of northern ecosystems.

The stories that John told at Toolik, which were mostly about the Noatak, were not the same as those told about him. A recurring theme, passed along through generations of students, was a system for adjusting their schedules around his. With 24 hours of daylight to work with, and an iron-fast rule of John's that no matter how late you stayed up you were expected to be up for breakfast, his first generation of students came up with the following system. They would stay up all night completing their work, show up for breakfast and meet with John afterward to their assignments for the day and update him on their accomplishments, then vanish to catch up on their sleep. Amazingly, the system worked well for nearly 20 years.  He didn't find out about it until it was moot.  The last decade and a half or so of John's work at Toolik involved helicopter surveys of lakes and ponds, which required everyone to be on a “day” schedule.  John learned that the wool had been pulled over his eyes all those years during a late-night session of reminiscing about the good old days.  He took it with good humor and a wry smile.

Before the days of the helicopter, John’s work took him and his students to remote lakes and ponds, which had to be reached on foot.  Graduate students Dave Schmidt, Paul Skovorc, and Chris Luecke were the first group to do this trudging.  One year Paul Skovorc started talking up the idea of using llamas to carry everything across the tundra for these lake surveys.  John emphatically said no to this idea during the planning meetings in early spring, but Paul continued to supposedly make plans.  Once the graduate students got to Toolik, Paul wrote to John that everything was going well and they were already sampling the ponds in the area.  He closed with the line "The llamas are doing well.  They like eating cottongrass."  John went nuts when he read this back in Lawrence, frantically getting in touch with Chris to make sure this was a joke.  Chris still thinks about using llamas most every time he is trudging across the tundra with a backpack full of sampling gear. 

A favorite pastime of John's during the two and a half decades of work at Toolik was collecting Millerisms. Unfortunately, this was done at the expense of Mike Miller, a close Toolik Lake colleague and good friend, but Mike enjoyed it as much as everyone. A Millerism is a malapropism, a mixed metaphor. Mike Miller had a propensity for these, hence the term Millerism, and some were quite elaborate.  John picked up on this propensity early in their career together, and it soon became a game at Toolik to catch Mike when he misspoke. Some of the best Millerisms became incorporated into a sort of Toolik “language”.  Some of John's favorites were: "The blind leading the poor", "Barking up a dead tree", "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of hindsight", and of course "It's blueing up [the sky]". John often enjoyed a late evening discussion with Toolik colleagues which just involved retelling Millerisms.

The Greensboro years.  In January 2001, John began his tenure as a Professor in the UNCG Biology Department.  Attractive components of this move were that, in different departments at UNCG, there were Professorship opportunities for both John and his wife Marion, and there was the opportunity to be closer their roots on the east coast and to the beach, where they had been making annual pilgrimages for summer vacations.  UNCG Biology was also the home department of long-time Toolik colleague, Anne Hershey.  Anne first met John at Toolik Lake in 1979, when she was starting her Master’s thesis work there.  Although he was not her advisor, and she was not studying zooplankton, she was inspired by his experimental approach to limnology, and like everyone else then at Toolik, both intrigued and intimidated by his notoriety and his fierce competitive spirit, and was a great fan of his stories.  No one imagined then that Anne would continue working at Toolik Lake throughout her career, that they would ultimately be close collaborators, and would eventually publish 16 papers and book chapters together.  No one ever imagined that they would also become close friends and end up in the same department. Funny how life turns out.

No one imagined that pancreatic cancer would steal John’s life so early, before he had a chance to retire from UNCG to a quiet private life, but one whose adventures might still be punctuated by storytelling and reminiscing sessions with his lifelong colleagues. We will still tell those stories, laugh and cry, and celebrate his life.

Graduate students of John O’Brien at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

C. Berkeley, in progress
C. Jones, in progress
M. Burris, M.A. 2006 at UNCG. Currently a DNA Technologist with Lab Corp
V. Holland III, M.A. 2006 at UNCG. Currently Project Scientist with Environmental Services
C. Green, M.A. 2005 at UNCG. Currently a T.A. at UNCG
A. Bailey, M.A. 2004 at UNCG. Currently a part-time teacher at a community college
C. Johnson, M.A. 2004  at UNCG. Currently Ph.D. student at Utah State University

Graduate students of John O’Brien at the University of Kansas

A. Dzialowski, M.A. 2000. Assistant Professor, Oklahoma State University
N. Costa, M.A. 1997. Environmental Educator for Fond du Lac Tribe, Duluth, MN
S. Swaffar, M.A. 1995. Hazardous Waste Monitor, Kansas Department of Health and Environment
M. Downing, M.A. 1994. GIS Research position with EPA
E. Maurer, Ph.D. 1994. USDA NRI Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Kentucky
Y. Sun, Ph.D. 1994. Dental School
J. Showalter, M.A. 1991. Officer in the United States Air Force
H. Browman, Ph.D. 1989. Principal Research Scientist, Institute of Marine Research, Storeb Norway
B. Evans, Ph.D. 1986. Professor, Lake Superior State University
B. Loveless, M.S. 1985. Environmental monitoring, Kansas Power and Light
G. McCabe, M.S. 1982. Senior Scientist, EPA
C. Luecke, M.S. 1981. Professor, Utah State University
G. Howick, Ph.D. 1981. Research position with the Kansas Biological Survey
D. Wright, Ph.D. 1981. Associate Scientist, University of Minnesota
D. Schmidt, M.S. 1980. Environmental Scientist for Alyeska, Anchorage, Alaska
D. Kettle, M.S. 1978. Associate Director, Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program, University of Kansas
R. Drenner, Ph.D. 1977. Professor, Texas Christian University
G. Vinyard, Ph.D. 1976. Professor, University of Nevada at Reno (deceased)
R.L. Kring, M.S. 1974. Senior Scientist, EPA (retired)
H. Riessen, Post-doctoral student, 1982, Professor, Buffalo State University

August, 2009