Centennial Story 55: Frieda B. Taub (staff, faculty, emerita): 1959–present

Although I am not an “alum” in the sense of having been a matriculated student at Fisheries, my time at UW has nevertheless been a major learning experience!

I was introduced to science through the Newark Museum (Newark, NJ) starting at age 4; by age 7, I knew I wanted to be scientist, probably a biologist, maybe a chemist. Of the children in the Newark Museum Nature Clubs with me, at least three of us did PhD degrees on salamanders. The Newark Museum had a major impact on our lives. I majored in both Biology and Chemistry at Newark College of Arts and Sciences (a small, commuter branch of Rutgers University), graduating in 3.5 years in 1955. I did my graduate work at the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, “The Men’s Campus,” although there were other women in the Graduate School program, earning my master’s in 1957 and my PhD in 1959 from the Zoology Department.

Frieda in 1960 with Tilapia as potential astronaut food
Frieda in 1960 with Tilapia as potential astronaut food

I recall with fondness my interview with Richard Van Cleve, dean of the College of Fisheries, arranged by Zoology Professor Richard Snyder, in autumn 1959. I had recently completed my PhD, and Professor Snyder did salamander research at UW. Dean Van Cleve learned of my previous work on Tilapia (an unsuccessful summer student project) and suggested that I interview with Drs. Sparks and Liston, who were involved with a project to grow fish (Tilapia) on human fecal material for feeding future astronauts (funds and fecal matter supplied by Boeing). I was very interested in the concept of closed ecological systems because my research on salamanders had been so open and frustrating, and the concept of the “ecosystem” was then new and exciting. An ecosystem needed to have boundaries and measurable inputs and outputs, exactly what my salamander research lacked. There was interest in biological life support systems for space habitations that would mimic earth’s elemental recycling. Dean Van Cleve warned them that I would never leave if they hired me (and he was right). I started as a part-time fisheries biologist (which didn’t require a college degree). I was paid less than I had been as a graduate teaching assistant at Rutgers, but I was happy to work on this project and to be associated with the UW. This position allowed me to use the UW library, where I had been denied access without a UW affiliation, and the Seattle Library didn’t have the journals I needed to publish my graduate work.

To truly experience what it was like to be a woman professional then, one needs to see the movie “The Notorious RBG” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice, who received her law degree from Columbia in 1959, the same year I received my PhD). Most professional organizations at that time only hired women to be secretaries, laboratory technicians, or possibly, librarians. Women with advanced degrees were viewed with suspicion! The only woman that I knew on the UW faculty was Dixie Lee Ray (Zoology), and although a fine teacher, she was controversial.

Dr. Melvin Dollar was active on the Boeing project; he became my mentor and taught me to write fundable proposals, and in 1961, he was PI and I was co-PI on a grant on the nutritional quality of algae and its effect on grazer populations. I became a member of the research faculty as an instructor as a result of being a co-PI. Dean Van Cleve allowed me to submit a grant to NASA as a PI even though research faculty members were not allowed to be PIs at that time. Grant and Contract Services, seeing his signature, allowed it to be submitted, and the proposal was funded. I became a research assistant professor in 1962. Dr. Dollar was an important mentor for me, involving me in his research on trout liver tumors and improving my writing and research skills (and I learned that being a PhD didn’t mean I knew it all). After he left, Dr. John Liston became my mentor and supported my eventual promotion to research associate professor in 1966 and to full professor in 1971.

Initially, the Boeing project focused on fish growth, in theory supported by an aquatic food chain of feces (via microbial action to dissolved inorganics) to algae, to Daphnia, to fish, but the fish were smarter and ate the freeze-dried fecal material directly (which looked like commercial pet fish food). Along the way, I was taught to culture algae—because I killed numerous young fish by trying to randomize them for experiments in (unknown to me) toxic plastic medicine cups. This project introduced me to aquatic food chain dynamics. For several years, my research interests were focused on algal chemical composition and its impacts on grazers, both as potential single-cell protein sources and as ecological phytoplankton–grazer interactions. My research grew to developing model ecosystems: open to the atmosphere, but with all organisms known, including the bacteria (gnotobiotic ecosystems). The research then moved from batch to continuous cultures that lent themselves to mathematical models, developed beyond my modelling capabilities by Daniel McKenzie (PhD, 1975). The continuous cultures of algae also were applied to producing shellfish food, via Sea Grant funding. The Western Coniferous Biome of the International Biological Program gave me an opportunity to experience middle management of “big” research and mathematical modelling during 1969–1974, which introduced me to more sophisticated modelling and modellers. I edited a book, Lakes and Reservoirs (1984), part of the series of Ecosystems of the World!

In 1976, I was asked if I could develop synthetic communities of organisms to display the effects of test chemicals, such that the communities could be replicated in different laboratories, and provide similar results. This work led to the “Standardized Aquatic Microcosm,” (ASTM E1366), which has been re-balloted every five years and continues to be active. Along with the development of the biological ecosystems, US EPA funded mathematical models by Gordon Swartzman and his student Kenneth Rose (PhD, 1985).

Subsequent research included developing fish habitats for space research for NASA—the challenge being to keep a group of fish in a small container for 100 days without changing the water. As is often the case, NASA funded two groups to work independently; the other group proved it couldn’t be done (in a clean beaker), and we did it by using a complex aquatic food chain. I spent two summers at NASA’s Ames Research Center studying protozoa, rotifers, and brine shrimp as “instant fish food” for baby fish, given their goal to have three generations of fish born at null gravity and the need of baby zebrafish to have live food after hatching. Our laboratory also tested a “cell culture unit” for NASA using Euglena as the test organism. The purpose of the project was to find all the ways the equipment could fail, and we made it work, so our contract was terminated earlier than those testing other organisms. Ultimately, the project was cancelled, and the private sector has now developed multiple cell culture units.

Although I was a research faculty member, I also had the opportunity to teach: initially in 1961, Zoology 118 Physiology (non-major) at UW’s Continuing Education (night school), when a graduate student who was scheduled to teach it got a fellowship, and later, I taught “Space Biology: Sealed Life Support Systems” (1961–1969), also as part of the Continuing Education program. When I became a member of the teaching faculty, Dean Van Cleve asked me to teach about water pollution (another long story), as well as aquatic food chains, and I was delighted to do so. So, for many years, I taught Aquatic Food Chain Ecology (Fish 459), Community Responses to Toxic Chemicals (Fish 527), and Biological Problems of Water Pollution (Fish/Civil Engineering 430/431) along with a few other courses from time to time.

From 1971 to 1973, I was chair of the UW Affirmative Action Committee. With the help of Dean Doug Chapman, I conducted an Affirmative Action Report in 1973. All 23 fisheries biologists were men; of the other non-academic staff, 50% of the 39 females earned less than or equal to the lowest paid of the 19 males although their qualifications were greater. Of the graduate students, there were 66 males, 50% of whom were supported and 14 females, 14% of whom were supported. At one time, I was on at least 18 school committees (because suddenly every committee needed a woman, and I was the only women faculty member in Fisheries and most academic units had no women faculty). Eventually, I received a letter from Dean Douglas Chapman saying that I only had to serve on committees of my choice—an envy of other faculty members.

When I retired in 2000, I felt I should exercise other options for research besides those that were funded by outside agencies. Since being “theoretically retired,” I have focused on my  closed ecological systems research, developing the methods that allow algae, grazers, and associated undefined microorganisms to maintain active populations for weeks or months, while in some cases, recording O2, pH (and calculated CO2), pressure, etc. every five minutes. I have two research objectives: 1) to better understand the metabolism (O2 and CO2 dynamics) and relate these laboratory findings to natural ecosystems, and 2) to publish on the techniques by which students can use closed ecological systems for self-designed experiments that have a reasonable chance for success. The hardest part is getting students to equate a canning jar incubated with a lights on/off pattern with the Earth’s biosphere, although both have similar element cycles.

I married Jack H. Taub during spring break in 1954, during my junior year—three of my faculty members insisted on interviewing him—faculty took “in loco parentis” very seriously in those days! They worried that they had not seen me dating him at the School’s Friday night dances where they were chaperones. (Jack was a sailor stationed in Boston at the time, so we dated only Saturdays and Sundays.) He was discharged from the Navy in 1955, and we headed for married-student housing at Rutgers. Jack finished his undergraduate degree in mathematics and did some graduate work developing Rutgers’ new computer (IBM 650) while I did my graduate studies. After my PhD degree ceremony in 1959, we headed out for Seattle, where Jack had accepted a position as a systems analyst at Boeing. He later worked for the U.S. Navy doing statistics and quality control at Keyport, Washington, retiring as head of their Math Sciences unit. Our children, Beth 1965, Alex 1968, and Gordon 1971, completed our family. Unfortunately, Jack died in 2016; we had been married 62 years. Currently, I am fortunate to have our 3 children and 3 grandchildren living in Washington State.


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