Lakes and leaves – spending time in the Twin Cities

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting many of the ‘great’ cities in the USA: New York, Washington DC, St Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago (most recently). But the city (or should I say cities) I have visited most over the years are the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in the heart of Minnesota.

And for good reason. First, when I was traveling to the USA in the early 1990s, the international airport in the Twin Cities (MSP) was the hub for Northwest Airlines (now absorbed into Delta), and was the most convenient way for travel from Manila in the Philippines into the USA.

Since September 2008, however, St Paul has been home to our elder daughter Hannah. After completing two years of her 3-year psychology and anthropology degree at Swansea University in the UK, she asked us if she could transfer to Macalester College in St Paul, a highly-respected—but small (maybe 2000 undergraduates)—private liberal arts college that counts former US Vice President Walter Mondale and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan among its notable alumni. The most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize for an original novel in the English language is Macalester professor Marlon James.

So, over the years we have visited many times and come to know and appreciate the Twin Cities, although St Paul is the half of this metropolitan duo that we know much better. There’s a vibrant community, and the cities have something for everyone. It’s pretty laid back, but I guess you could say that about Minnesotans in general. Maybe that’s why I like Minnesota so much.

Among the things I like are the breakfast diners (I like the Grandview Grill on Grand Ave, just below Macalester), some of the best ice cream I’ve tasted anywhere at Izzy’s on Marshall Ave, and only St Paul can boast the Fitzgerald Theater, home of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

But what sets the Twin Cities apart, for me at least, are the numerous lakes dotted around the Minneapolis side, and the tree-lined avenues everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to imagine cities that are more leady. And taking into account that Minneapolis-St Paul was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River, and on the ‘edge of the prairie’, the amount of tree planting over a century or more is implrsssive. Certainly the avenues are lined with some of the most impressive specimens I’ve seen anywhere, often up to 100 feet tall.

In the (speeded) video clip below, our recent return flight to Amsterdam took off from Runway 30L to the northwest, climbing over the Tangletown and Linden Hills districts of Minneapolis, over Lakes Harriet and Calhoun, before turning right, and heading northeast over the Mississippi just north of downtown Minneapolis, and continuing over the norther suburbs of St Paul.

There are some pretty fancy properties around the two lakes, but you can’t see them for the trees. It would be the same if you landed from the west or took off to the east and had a view over St Paul, which lies on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Trees everywhere. And of course north of the Twin Cities, the landscape is dotted with lakes large and small. Not for nothing is Minnesota known as the state of the Thousand Lakes.

Hannah and her family live between the Macalester-Groveland and Highland districts of St Paul, just three blocks from the mighty Mississippi. Steph and I have mostly visited during the spring or summer months, so we get to see everywhere at its best in terms of flowering and in leaf. And this is what so impresses us as we take our daily constitutional down to the bank of the Mississippi and along boulevards lined with the most impressive trees. And of course there are some very fancy properties along there as well.

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The view from the Ford Parkway bridge crossing over the Mississippi River, and looking north towards the Marshall Avenue bridge. Hannah lives just three blocks east of the river.

But having so many tall trees so close to residences has its drawbacks as well, as we saw in June 2013 after a short-lived but rather violent storm passed through (tornadoes are not unknown, but infrequent). Just close to where Hannah lives several large trees had been brought down, and fortunately the damage to houses was much less than we first feared.

Now although we’ve visited mainly in the summer months as I mentioned, we did spend one Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. And what a baptism of cold it was. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such cold. And don’t forget we had left the tropical weather behind having just flown in from the Philippines! Nevertheless it was fun, and once suitable wrapped up against the cold we did get out and about on foot to savour the experience.

One interesting comparison we were able to make this September was when we walked from Hannah’s home to Minnehaha Park, just under two miles away. There is an impressive waterfall, which we have now seen in two contrasting seasons.

One of our favorite places to visit is Como Park, where there’s a small zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. The conservatory is most exquisitely planted all year round. On a cold day in December it was a wonderful place to get out of the cold, and escape from the grey-out of a cold Minnesota day. But the conservatory was the location where Hannah and Michael were married in May 2006. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it had recently been planted with summer bedding plants. What a delight!

There’s also one aspect of walking around the Mississippi River area that we appreciate. It’s both human and dog friendly, because there are strict ordinances restricting the length of dog leashes.

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Little Big Man – Tom Clemeno (1956-2015)

20100220041-001One of my former staff at IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) passed away last week. Tom Clemeno had been an employee of IRRI for many years, working his way up to Senior Manager of the institute’s Experiment Station (ES). Diagnosed with a lymphoma in 2013, Tom fought the disease with courage but it became clear in recent weeks that he could not win this last battle.

It is a sign of the affection in which he was held by friends and former colleagues that there has been an enormous outpouring of sympathy on his Facebook page and those of his immediate family.

Tom’s role in GRC in the 90s
Tom must have been a Research Assistant in GRC when I joined IRRI in July 1991. He was one of at least two staff handling field operations: rice germplasm multiplication, rejuvenation, and characterization. Once I’d made a thorough review of the genebank operations, I separated germplasm multiplication/rejuvenation and germplasm characterization as distinct activities, and we determined the level of field support needed to carry out each of these functions efficiently. I asked Tom to take charge of germplasm characterization, while his colleague Ato Reaño was put in charge of the germplasm multiplication and rejuvenation operations.

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GRC field staff measuring various morphological traits of conserved rice varieties during the annual germplasm characterization cycle, on the IRRI Experiment Station.

Towards the end of the 1990s I was approached by the then head of the ES because he wanted to recruit Tom as his 2-I-C. In those days there was a pretty strange job transfer protocol in place at IRRI. An employee was allowed to move across to a new position in another department only with the approval of his/her current head of department. A head could effectively block someone’s career, and unfortunately that did happen from time-to-time. As Tom related in a short memoir that he wrote not long before he passed away, he came to see me full of trepidation. He did acknowledge that while I was quite strict, I did listen to my staff. Anyway, I told him that if he wanted to move to the Experiment Station, and if he felt it was an appropriate move for him to progress his career, then the decision was his, not mine. We arrived at an accommodation with the head of the ES to allow Tom to complete some important germplasm characterization activities he was involved with, and so Tom moved on from GRC. He eventually left IRRI in 2010 to manage a 200 ha rice farm in Malaysia, but did return to the institute three years later as a consultant in the plant breeding group.

Tom and CIEM
While Tom was on my staff in the early 1990s, there had been considerable staff unrest at IRRI. I don’t remember all the background after so many years. But Tom played an important role for several years as the local staff chair of the Committee of IRRI Employees and Management (CIEM). I think Tom was a born politician, and had a pivotal role in negotiating an outcome to the unrest that was best for everyone. He certainly had the gift of the gab! But these CIEM responsibilities increasingly took him away from his GRC ones. And that was not a sustainable position to be in. His colleagues would have to cover for him when he was called away frequently—and often unexpectedly—to a meeting with senior management.

20100211026So we agreed among ourselves to effectively allow Tom a three-year ‘leave of absence’ from GRC, and we re-organized the field operations with Ato taking on an enhanced role (that he has maintained to this day). I do believe that the support of Tom’s GRC colleagues, particularly Ato, should also be recognized during this important phase in IRRI’s history. After three years, we asked Tom to return full-time to GRC, but not long after, as I mentioned earlier, he was recruited to the Experiment Station.

Participating in groundbreaking research
But while Tom was managing the germplasm characterization activities in the early 90s, we had begun a research project (with my former colleagues at The University of Birmingham and at the John Innes Centre, and funded by the British government through DfID) to determine how molecular markers could be applied to the study of genetic diversity in a rice germplasm collection. We used rather crude molecular markers by today’s standards. These were so-called RAPD (Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA) markers, and we wanted to determine if there might be an association between these markers with ten quantitative traits: culm number, culm length (cm), culm diameter (mm), grain length (mm), grain width (mm), leaf length (cm), leaf width (cm), days to 50 per cent flowering, panicle length (cm) and seedling height (cm). I asked Tom to take charge of the important field experiment that was planted between November 1993 and May 1994. Without hesitation I can say that Tom conducted this field trial with great care and generated valuable data. In fact, they were so good that not only were we able to correlate (or ‘associate’) markers with these morphological traits, but were able to predict the performance of rice germplasm growing in the field at Los Baños. A paper was finally published in the international journal Heredity in 1996, and Tom was included as one of the authors, and rightly so, for his contribution to the research. This paper was one of the first, if indeed the first, rice research paper to definitely demonstrate the link between molecular markers and phenotype in a sub-discipline now known as ‘association genetics’. We also believe it’s one of the first papers for any plant species. Click on the image below to read the paper.

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Committed friends
It was very sad to see Tom’s decline over recent months, which I did through various posts on his and others Facebook pages, most often in connection with his beloved and very active Rotary Club of West Bay membership, of which he was Charter President. I think the last time I met Tom in person must have been in August 2014 when I visited IRRI in connection with the 4th International Rice Congress. He seemed his usual robust, and substantial self. Tom was rather short in stature, and we always had a teasing joke between the two of us about that. But that belied a BIG heart.

Another Tom characteristic was his (almost) ubiquitous hat. Everywhere! Here is a photo of Tom (wearing his signature titfer) among GRC friends during a lunch we shared at Tagaytay in late February 2010 shortly before I retired from IRRI, and probably not long before he headed to Malaysia.

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Tom Clemeno with current and former GRC colleagues. Sitting, L to R: Steph Jackson, Vangi Guevarra, Zeny Federico, Sylvia Arellano, Adel Alcantara. Standing, L to R: Tom Clemeno, Soccie Almazan, Andong Bernardo, Myrna Oliva, Ato Reaño, Tessie Santos, Nelia Resurreccion, son and daughter of Adel.

Tom, you will be missed. But your memory will linger on in the hearts and minds of your IRRI friends and former colleagues.

My sincere condolences to Tom’s wife Jovith, and his three children Jaicee, Teejay, and J2.