The Wilson Story

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Radiation, Biometry, and Ecology -

    After my abrupt departure from Hercules I needed a job quickly.  My friends at Hercules (subcontractors from 3M) suggested that I apply to work at 3M.  I was inclined to try and complete my masters degree in genetics, so I contacted my friends at the  University of Utah. Tony Brooks and Gail Pollock suggested that I contact Dr. Robert C. Pendleton in Radiation Health, because he had a big grant and could possibly use me.  I had taken many of the Radiation courses ( Radiation biology, Radioisotopes methodology, and Radiation genetics). I went to visit and was offered a job working for 30 hr/week as a statistician/laboratory assistant. This was a neat job opportunity, because I could work on my degree. Dr. Pendleton was a very bright person.  He had earned his degree at Utah with Dr.Walter P. Cottam.  He was married to Angus Woodbury’s daughter. Thus, he had linkage to two of the greatest ecologist in Utah History.

    My first assignment was to develop materials to present the results of the studies in progress.  This was a well designed study which made the analysis straight forward.  It was quite a change from what one normally encounters in biology at that time.  Dr. Pendleton had chosen dairy farms throughout the state of Utah to measure radioactive fallout and determine its movement in the biosphere.  The first examination was to analyze the levels of radio active nucleotides 137Cs(Cesium) and 89Sr(Strontium) as a function of time.  I then constructed a series of graphs containing the levels of 137Cs in milk as a function of time.  The first set of graphics were constructed to allow a comparison; wet versus dry farms. There was a very significant difference with wet having higher levels than drier farms. The second important point of the graphics was the bimodal peaks of radioactivity. There was a spring peak followed by a second peak in the fall. The spring peak was explained as new fall out from testing in Nevada.  The second peak resulted when animals were transferred to feed grown during the spring. The 137Cs was always analyzed first and 89Sr was second.  Radioactive 137Cs was a gamma emitter and was much easier to determined than the beta activity of 89Sr which required digestion of samples to count and more sophisticated equipment. Strontium levels were determined off campus and were costly and therefore limited in number. Similar graphics were constructed using the strontium data. 

     The second aspect of the research was to follow the movement of radioactive nuclides through the ecosystem.  Basically we found that 137Cs was concentrated by the ecosystem where as 89Sr is selected against.  At each trophic level the concentration of 137Cs is tripled. If you measure the level in plants and herbivores you find that the concentration in the herbivore is close to close to 3 times the level in the plants.  If you find a carnivore and determine the level of flesh being consumed you see that the level is tripled again.  I presented a paper for the lab at the Utah Academy on the concentration of cougar - deer system.  In analysis of three mountain lions and 20 plus deer.  The mountain lions had about three times the body burden(curies/kg) of the deer. I then reanalyzed the data from the classical studies on reindeer and wolves and found similar results. The take home lesson is that this tripling occurs at each trophic level transition, thus in time of fall out you should eat stored food (produced before the atomic event) and then food from lower trophic levels, possibly from dry land vs aquatic systems. 

    As a fun part of the study we collected milk monthly or twice monthly from many farms throughout Utah. We visited farms from Cache Valley in the North to  Loa and Bicknell in the South. On one trip with Dr. Pendleton we got to a farm just after the milk truck had taken all of the milk, thus we had to wait for the evening milking. We pulled over at Piute reservoir to wait.  I was studying Odum’s Ecology book for class, while Dr. Pendleton went fishing down stream from the dam. He claimed to be a great fisherman and then proceeded to prove it. He started by asking what the fish were biting and everyone told him that nothing was biting. He found a place that was free and soon started catching fish. Everyone followed and soon he had to move to a new area leaving the group drowning worms i.e. no fish.  He then went to a new area and repeated the the same thing over.  After a couple more moves he decided it was time to move along.  He caught fish and no one else. This common problem of arriving just after the milk truck arrived was a good opportunity to explore the surrounding area. Once in late summer we just missed the milk truck in Cache Valley, so Max Stewart took me fishing. The water was clear and you could watch the fish eat all of the salmon egg chums and leave the single one with a hook.  Later I was telling Kate about our little fishing trip.  She asked where where we fishing, and I answered some small creek and I didn’t think it had a name.  Max interrupted and informed her that it was the Bear River the third largest in Utah. Well it sure didn’t look like a river to me.

    I really enjoyed the work and moved on when I received an NDEA fellowship. Then one day when the department was explaining that using NIH training grant funds I would be teaching a summer course in computers and biology. An objection was lodged by none other that Dr. Robert C Pendleton.  It seems that the graphics that I had prepared over 2 years ago had turned up missing.  He was sure that I had stolen them and because of that I should not be allowed to teach. This is one of the greatest trials in my life. Prof. Kim Newby was assigned to evaluate the questions. Many months later I was having a conversation in the lab with Dr. Newby. He stated that he had come to Utah with just a masters degree and he considered that the time I had spent in the department was about the same a his masters degree. He thought I should teach the course. That was the end of the challenge and I knew and accepted it. Nothing else was ever said about the challenge.

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