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Jim Fish, Renaissance Man

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on June 6, 2017

 

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Found out that Jim Fish died last evening. Collapsed up on a mountain where he’d been hiking, but I’m sure glad he was able to have that experience as one of his last.  His nephew was also with him, and they were good buddies.

Jim Fish was originally from a ranch in Texas, and loved his horses, and the outdoors. He was also a retired chemical engineer, had once worked for the Sandia National Laboratories on nuclear safety. He was concerned about the destruction possible with a core meltdown, and came up a way to reinforce nuclear plants so they wouldn’t melt into the ground, but his superiors didn’t want to implement the solution, due to cost concerns. Jim took an early retirement from the labs.

He lived in Placitas, New Mexico. After retirement, not knowing exactly what he was going to do, he one day looked around the village, and lamented the waste of fruit, like apricots, plums and peaches, that grow in profusion all over Placitas and don’t get used. He decided to try making wine from those fruits. Over the years he made wine from all the fruits that grow in this part of the country, including a few grapes, and he even made wine from cranberries he had to buy from Ocean Spray, because they sure as hell don’t grow around here. It was, as he often said, “A hobby that got out of control.” He eventually built a structure and opened a winery to share these wines with people. He never got rich. In fact, the early retirement from Sandia labs meant his retirement pay was delayed until just a few years back. Jim turned 68 a few days ago.

Jim loved to ski, and in fact, had skied this past winter, despite a bad knee resulting from an injury a little while back. He got a brace for his knee, and skied, he said, the best days he ever had in his life with that brace on. Besides writing books on hiking and the local geology, he recently self-published a book on skiing, titled Dancing The Snow, (A Guide to Skiing for Old Men). It is full of detailed descriptions of trails, techniques, tips, photos and anecdotes. He also wrote poetry all the time, and published a number of poetry books. Poetry occurred often at the winery. There were poets who came from all over as part of the Duende Poetry series, and poetry continued after that series ended. Jim also carved and polished old pieces of “found” wood into fantastic sculptures mounted on large stones and rocks. His sculptures appear all over the winery, and quite a few homes.

While the wines are numerous and often fantastic, like the Wild Cherry wine, and Chokecherry wine, and Synaesthesia – a three-grape wine – the winery hosted many events besides poetry. Belly dancing is a regular event. Food-wine-pairing dinners is another, as well as wildlife presentations, and community meetings, and political events. Placitas is a very old village, yet still very small. There is one church and one school. There are no stores or gas stations in the old village. The Spanish moved in centuries ago, but Native Americans lived there for thousands of years, growing corn, and hunting, as is evidenced by the petroglyphs: designs etched into rocks found all over Placitas, featuring corn stalks, and animals of all types, like cougars and turkeys. In the Southwestern USA, the original inhabitants are known to their modern-day descendents as the Anasazi, or “the ones who went before.” So Jim called his winery: Anasazi Fields Winery.

Jim was a friend to all he met. He encouraged young people to work at the winery, and hoped one day to turn it over to a younger group. Then he would just sit and watch and drink old wines. Jim loved his wines, and found ways to improve them using old European techniques of slow, cool, sugar-starved fermentation, without fertilizers, chemicals or preservatives. In fact, using the whole fruit as part of the fermentation, he found that the fruits’ natural preservatives and antioxidants kept the wines good for three weeks or longer after a bottle was opened! (Even longer if kept in a dark and cool place).

Some of the wines that have survived from the early days, in 1995, 1996, etc. have cellared very well, and it’s always a treat to open one of those. It is difficult to keep wines around there long, as they sell very well, even when Jim had to raise prices to keep the winery in operation. He has a special wine, that one I mentioned called Synaesthesia, that ended up selling for $125/bottle, and no matter what the price, it always sold out. Fortunately, most of the fruit wines are priced far lower than that! Sounds like Jim would have gotten rich, but there are few grapes growing here, and late frosts, birds, wasps, and even bears took their share of those. He always said that he made a grape wine just to prove to his fellow vintners that he could. In fact, using grapes from other vintners, and his own techniques, Jim was able to make those wines taste even better. He liked that a lot.

There’s so much I could tell you about Jim Fish. He was an amazing man. Much of the wine sold was sold through his personal attention to customers, and through the stories he’d tell. He loved to talk about the wines, and skiing, and trails and mountains. He loved to introduce people to the fruit wines, and see their reactions when they paired something like an old tawny-colored and intense apricot wine with venison, or salmon, or blackened tuna. I was amazed to see how much fruitier the wine seemed, and how much better meat or cheese tastes with a complementary wine.

I don’t know what will happen to the winery now. We’ve all learned a lot about winemaking, and we have a lot of stock, so I’d imagine we’ll stay in business, for now. There are around four-dozen partners who have invested time or money into the winery; perhaps they’ll want to sell it. That was always the long-range goal. It won’t be the same without Jim Fish, without that boundless enthusiasm of his, his optimism, and his stories. Perhaps, in his memory, we’ll be able to keep it going.

I met my step-daughter Maya and her friend Jennifer today near the village, at the Placitas Cafe down the road towards I-25. They both had worked at the winery, helping to bottle, label, and sell the wines. When they found out about Jim’s death, they were thrown for a loop, so they drove out there from Albuquerque. We sat for hours talking about Jim, with tears in our eyes, and sadness in our hearts. We tried to focus on Jim’s friendliness and great heart, and not be sad, but it is too soon. I can barely write about him without an overarching melancholia. I have too few friends and family that I care about so much, and losing someone like Jim is gut wrenching. You never know how much you care about someone until they’re near death or gone.

So, I keep trying to say good bye to Jim in this post, but I can hardly type. I know I’ll feel better in a while. After all, Jim Fish made me smile, and I always enjoyed making wine with him. He was passionate about his life, whether it was winemaking, hiking, camping, hunting, wood-carving, or poetry. When I found my ownself retired, divorced, and aimless, Mr. Fish added some hard work to my life, giving me a new-found appreciation for wine-making, farming, a caring kind of entrepreneurship, and friendship.

 

Posted in friends, Life, opinion, wine | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

A DNA Vignette

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on April 2, 2010

The synthesis order from Dr. Jella’s lab was taped to my lab door when I arrived, even though I was early. Science marches on, without regard for working hours.  After flicking on the lights, I dropped my lunch bag on my desk in the rear of the lab, under the sealed windows that let in light, but no air.  I turned my PC on.  I wanted a cup of coffee. I wanted to sit quietly for a few minutes, playing Solitaire.  But, I had unfinished orders from the day before, as well as these new orders.  I’d be lucky to synthesize all of ’em by days end. A long day ahead of me, probably ’till 7:00 pm.
I typed the first sequence into the machine: ACGCCCTATTACGACGAAGTTAC.  I could synthesize four pieces of DNA, or RNA simultaneously.  It would take almost four hours for the DNA Synthesizer to complete four oligonucleotides, then I could start the next four. Hopefully, they would finish in time to let me start another four before I went home. Those would run overnight.
I finished entering all the code letters for all of the syntheses, checked the level of the liquid reagents at every bottle position, and started the Pre Run.  Solenoids clicked on and off as current was applied to each one, moving a magnetic rod back and forth to allow the flow of gas or liquid for each step of the syntheses. Click, click-click, click, click-click, click, click, click, and occasionally the whoosh of gas as regulators adjusted the pressure of ultra high purity nitrogen that pushed all the liquids around.  After all the lines were purged of air and old liquids, and fresh liquid flowed from each reagent through all the lines, I started my first batch of the day.  I was happy that I’d had the machine upgraded from the original two-position one.  I’d never have been able to get this much done so quickly.  
I went for coffee, brought it back and sat idly in front of my PC.  I took a few sips while I stared out the window at a clear blue New Mexico sky, then got to work.  I entered the sequences I was making into my database, so I could keep track of them for billing purposes.  My lab was not directly funded by any grants or stipends.  I had to bill each researcher for the work I did, and then they paid me out of their grants.  It wasn’t a hard job.  The machines did most of my work, synthesizing DNA, or occasionally some RNA.  The RNA was tricky, as it required careful handling and sterile conditions.  There are enzymes that destroy DNA and RNA, but of the two, the RNA enzyme, RNAase, was the worst.  If contaminated with RNAase, the RNA I made would be useless, experiments ruined.  Time and money would be wasted.  I would lose credibility.  I was very careful in my work.
Besides the work synthesizing, I had other jobs: two of which were either synthesizing proteins or sequencing them.  In sequencing, the machine took each protein apart, one amino acid at a time and pumped it past a detector to identify it by its characteristic wavelength.  I didn’t have any orders for protein synthesis today, fortunately, because the process consumed a lot of time, and required constant monitoring. The final step in protein synthesis involved the use of a dangerous, highly corrosive acid in gaseous form: HF, or hydrogen fluoride.  HF is used to etch glass. Due to its insidious nature, it can splash undetected on your skin, and slowly eat its way to the bone. I hated working with HF.  People using it had lost arms, eyes, lungs and some had died.  I had to prepare a super cold bath of dry ice and methanol to cool the gas into liquid form for use.   When I opened the valve on the HF bottle, everything had to be ready: I wore a special apron made of acid resistant material over my lab coat, and wore similar gloves.  I had a special clear shield over my entire face, and the apparatus for using the HF gas was shielded behind a glass-sashed fume hood.  In theory, the gas flowed into my collection vial, liquefied, and cleaved my synthesized protein off of the glass beads it was attached to as part of the synthesis protocol.  Then it flowed through a trap of strong base to neutralize the acid. 
The first time I had tried the procedure, my boss at the time had worked with me. Dr. Latif was from an Arabic family, but had grown up in Trinidad, been educated in England, and had worked for the Mayo Clinic.  He was an interesting guy, full of stories about his parents and Trinidad.  Oddly enough, we were the same age, and liked the same kind of music, rock ‘n’ roll and Motown.  I needed music playing to get me through the day.  In today’s world, an iPod would have sufficed, but in those times, the music came from my radio/tape player and coworkers needed to like the same music for that to work.  Dr. Latif and I were suited up in our protective gear, and we switched on the gas.  All looked well at first.  The gas was cooling into liquid form, and flowing through the simple apparatus.  Suddenly the plastic container of strong base began to implode.  It made no sense.  We had followed all the instructions perfectly, and the pathway of gas was clear.  For some reason, it was back flushing, collapsing the trap.  We couldn’t just shut the gas off, because we feared the trap would either backflush into our protein mixture, or worse, rupture, spreading gas and caustic base all over the place.  Without losing our cool, we increased the pressure of a secondary gas, simple nitrogen that also flowed through to help keep the HF moving.  We opened the exhaust stopcock all the way. Success.  The plastic trap re-inflated.
After the experiment was over, we both let out of sighs of relief.  The danger had been very real.  We laughed too.  We were the only ones who knew the danger.  If the HF gas was released, and even if we’d gotten away safely, that floor of the building would have been in danger. Likely the entire building would have to be evacuated and sealed off.  We’d have needed a HazMat team, police and firemen.  It would have been a mess and created havoc.   We worked out our own procedure after that, and never had any further episodes.

Today, my first four oligonucleotides were finished synthesizing, and I took them off the machine; they would require a minimum of five to eight hours heating to be ready for purification next morning.  I was readying the machine for the next set of orders when Dr. Jella rushed in.  He looked anxious. He wanted to know if his DNA was ready.  I almost laughed.  Even if I had synthesized his orders first, it would still require heating and purification.   I told him that I could put his order ahead of the others I was about to start, and explained the time constraints.  He was so anxious looking that I told him that if it was for a critical experiment, and he needed it right away, I could stay late, even work all night to have it ready for him by morning.  He thought about that for a bit, but shrugged his shoulders, saying, “No, that’s alright. I can wait until tomorrow. It’s not, uh, not for anything real important.”  Turns out it was, but he didn’t want anyone to know what he was working on.
Later, I found out that reporters had been cold-calling various researchers, pumping them for information for a story.   Dr. Jella was working on the newly hot disease: hantavirus. The disease had flu-like symptoms, and people in New Mexico had died within days of showing symptoms of what everyone thought was a cold or flu.  A test for hantavirus was needed as soon as possible.  Researchers were working across the country to develop such a test.  Dr. Jella had the idea of creating a kit, using synthetic fragments of single-stranded hantavirus DNA.  If he had told me what it was for, I’d have gladly worked overnight. As it was, research is a highly competitive business.  Researchers across the country, especially at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, where also racing to develop a test. Whoever developed an effective test first would not only get recognition, but would be able to grab new research money to continue their work.  Dr. Jella didn’t want word to get out of the specifics of what he doing.  Someone else could take that information and receive the credit, not to mention future grant money to research other diseases.  Basically, his job and life’s work was on the line.   
I arrived for work an hour early next day, and purified Dr. Jella’s oligos first.  Needless to say, he was at my door soon after.  “Are they ready yet?” he asked, somewhat breathlessly, like he had run up the stairs.  I told him they were synthesized, and purified, but I would need another two hours, at least, to dry them down. A lot of water is used in the purification protocol, and I used a freeze-drying apparatus to evaporate all of the liquid. That made it easy to reconstitute the DNA to the desired concentration for experiments.  He looked very disappointed, but I promised him I’d bring the DNA to his lab as soon as it was ready.
Later, I found out that he was using the DNA I had synthesized for the hantavirus kit. It worked, and his kit is now used to detect hantavirus.  I got a mention in the paper he wrote describing the experiment.*  That was unusual. Most of the work I did went unacknowledged. Sometimes the lab itself was mentioned.  Most of the time, I went about my days synthesizing, sequencing, analyzing, purifying, and running the lab itself, buying materials, and billing the researchers. They paid me.  It was a good living.

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*(Rapid and specific detection of Sin Nombre virus antibodies in patients with hantavirus pulmonary syndrome by a strip immunoblot assay suitable for field diagnosis).

Posted in 2000s, medical, My Life, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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