h1

The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.
h1

A chip off the old block?

August 20, 2019

SCHOOL RULES AT HOME
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald
October 21, 1990

Living with an elementary school teacher means:

Being asked, out of the blue, questions like, “Do we have any green cardboard?” or, “Where can I find a picture of a wheat field?” Questions cooked up overnight or hatched during housework, when her mind was still in school. Questions like, “What’s that stuff from whales that’s used in perfume — amber what?”

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to know the names and quirks of 15 or 20 children whom you have never met, including several with the same names.

It means differentiating between the two Chads and among Sara, Sara, and Sarah using only context clues. Obviously, Chad-who-never-finishes could not be the same Chad who wrote the wonderful seven-page story about his pet duck.

Obviously.

Living with an elementary school teacher means learning a dictionary of educational terms, all of which have different meanings than those encountered in normal conversation. Terms like “chapter.” For example:
Q. “What does she teach?”
A. “Chapter.”
Q. “What?”
A. “She’s the chapter teacher.”
Q. “What chapter does she teach, and what book are we talking about?”
A. “No, no. She’s the teacher for the Chapter I program. You know that.”

Of course.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to understand, without reference to an interpreter or glossary, terms like: Title I, basal, whole language, conference (as a verb), in-service (as an adjective), heterogeneous groups, self-contained classroom and cooperative learning.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being asked to color in 17 mimeographed turkeys while watching your favorite television program. This is impossible to do, but don’t expect sympathy. She would do it herself but she’s coloring 17 Pilgrims.

Living with a teacher means finding folders, boxes and stacks of learning materials all over the house. It means posters and charts suspended from hangers in closets.

It means learning that every scrap of paper worth saving is worth laminating to protect it from flood, smudge, slush, tearing, fraying and wrinkling. It means learning that a teacher’s greatest joy in life is in pulling out from a household cranny a fully prepared unit on dinosaurs.

Living with an elementary school teacher means appreciating the many kinds of meetings that one profession can generate. There are team meetings, faculty meetings and staffings, all different. There are parent conferences, district-wide meetings, curriculum meetings, committee meetings and level meetings.

If you wonder why the teacher in your family is not promptly home at the end of a school day, she is probably in a meeting. Missing at breakfast? It must be a before-school meeting. Gone after supper? A night meeting.

Living with an elementary school teacher means seeing her off to an endless progression of workshops and courses. They represent an ongoing quest to surround and contain the world of learning, not just what to teach but when and how to teach it.

Living with an elementary school teacher means literary discussions based on leading books of the day; books like “Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Forget the New York Times best seller list. It’s not relevant to grade school.

Living with a teacher also means learning that, for many reasons, some children will not fulfill the bright promise of youth. But it also means celebrating small triumphs just often enough to nourish optimism. It means rediscovering weekly and monthly and yearly a child’s capacity for growth.

Finally, living with a teacher means a vicarious enjoyment, tinged with envy, of school vacations. It means a chance, several times a year, to witness enormous relief, tempered by the knowledge that school, like the seasons, will come again.

h1

…And my other Ph.D. adviser, Martin J. Kushmerick

July 14, 2019

MJKPhoto

image taken from http://depts.washington.edu/tcmi/

In my haste to note the passing of Kevin Conley, my primary graduate school adviser, I failed to mention a sad coincidence, which is that my OTHER graduate school adviser had just died eight days earlier.

Marty Kushmerick was, in a word, brilliant.  He knew a lot about a lot of things; breadth and depth coexisted happily in his brain.  Though his field was muscle biology, he taught himself way more thermodynamics, mathematical modeling, and nuclear physics than the average muscle biologist (e.g., me) could ever dream of. This allowed him to ask all sorts of scientific questions and collaborate with all sorts of people, who found his brilliance both charming and useful.

Kevin was one such person.

Two of Kevin’s greatest studies (Conley et al. 1997 and 1998) dismantled the prevailing model of the control of glycolysis in skeletal muscle. These studies were based on the fact that glycolysis produces lactic acid, which lowers the pH, which can be measured with 31P NMR spectroscopy, our lab’s primary technique at the time. However, it’s awfully hard to calculate precise RATES of glycolysis, as Kevin needed to do. I don’t think Kevin could have navigated the arcane details of proton stoichiometry on his own; fortunately, he had Marty to do the math (Kushmerick 1997) and thus provide the foundation for his own work.

While Kevin and Marty had distinct strengths and personalities, they shared a sincere and profound enthusiasm for the day-to-day work of scientific research. This was obvious to all who knew them.  They were visibly excited when they found an insightful paper in the literature or thought of a new experiment to try. It was fun to be in their lab in the late ’90s and early ’00s in part because THEY were having fun.

Fifteen-plus years later, it’s hard for me to conjure up that atmosphere, to remember what it felt like. This song helps, though. (Marty makes a cameo at 2:33.)

 

h1

My Ph.D. adviser, Kevin E. Conley

July 1, 2019

Last night I received the news that my Ph.D. adviser had just died of cancer.

For me, this was one of those moments of asking myself, “Did I ever thank this person adequately for what they did for me?”

Kevin and I had a complicated relationship. As a scientist and as a mentor, he had his share of blind spots, and as a graduate student, I had numerous deficiencies of my own.  What is indisputable is that he took his advising role very seriously, and gave it his full attention, and did everything he could to help me along my path, which he accepted as different from his own.  He treated me, above all else, with kindness and generosity.

Technically, I had two graduate advisers: Kevin and Marty Kushmerick. Kevin did almost all of the actual advising, but he knew that it was useful for me to be associated with Marty, a more senior and more famous scientist. Thus, at conferences and such, I would always say, “I work with Kevin and Marty.” Kevin never objected to this, though he surely deserved more credit than that.

In the winter and spring of 2000, my work was not going well, and Kevin and I were finding it hard to have productive discussions. I suggested that I spend the summer at a high-altitude training study that had accepted me as a research subject. A greedier adviser would have stopped me from going — shouldn’t I be in the lab, generating more data for him? But Kevin, to his great credit, let me go.  I had an experience that was useful scientifically (I got to see first-hand how complex human studies are conducted), and that also helped reset our relationship. When I returned, we were able to communicate with less frustration.

A final act of selflessness on Kevin’s part came when I was wrapping up my dissertation. There was one chapter that he found unconvincing (for reasons that I never really understood). He was not willing to have the paper published with his name on it; however, he did let me publish it. If this seems like a no-brainer, it wasn’t; research leaders are often VERY conservative and controlling about the papers that come out of their labs.

The above examples stick out in my mind, yet they fail to capture what might have been most important of all, which was simply that Kevin allowed me to barge into his office and ask for help whenever I wanted. This wasn’t necessarily an efficient arrangement for getting work done or helping me become more resourceful and independent, but it certainly indicated the extent of Kevin’s commitment to me.

Years after I left the lab, I wrote an odd little parody of the classic Bob Dylan song Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.  The lyrics were, most directly, about the frustrations of doing research. But the subtext of “Knockin’ On Kevin’s Door” was that, as an often-rudderless graduate student, I was very fortunate to have an adviser who was always, always, always willing to make time for me.

I should have told him this more directly, with more explicit gratitude.

I hope he got the message anyway.

Kevin_Conley_1

[image from UW Dept. of Radiology website]

h1

Thud!

June 5, 2019

So, on the one hand, life is great. My wife is great… The kids are great… I have a great job that allows me to pursue my passion of forever reinventing the wheel (where the wheel, in this case, is the undergraduate anatomy & physiology curriculum).

On the other hand, work has been all-consuming. I’ve been sleeping way too little and not exercising at all.

This morning, while running to catch the bus, I tripped and fell, scraping my left elbow and right knee, and ripping a giant hole in my pants.

Running used to be something that I did a lot of on a daily basis for fitness and for pleasure. Now, if I break into a run for 50 yards, I injure myself and destroy my clothing.

I’ve got to get back on track.

h1

Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

May 30, 2019

As of tomorrow, my parents will have been married for 50 years! I hesitate to say “celebrating” 50 years because, at the moment, they’re mostly working hard on moving from their current home to a new place across town. But, anyway … 50 years! In recognition of this milestone, I am posting a relevant column — one of my all-time favorites — by my dad.

******

THE MARITAL SHIP SAILS ON
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald, April 1, 1984

Contemplating the approach of our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife observed, “I think it’s pewter.” A pause. “I don’t like pewter. You can’t put it in the dishwasher.”

Such is the state of our marriage after a decade and a half. Sentiment hamstrung by convenience, tradition clobbered by practicality, symbolism outlawed by appliance manuals. Yet it survives.

In fact, the 15th anniversary isn’t pewter at all. It’s watches. But watches don’t go in the dishwasher either, so the point still applies. If it’s not dishwasher-safe, she has no use for it. I count myself and the children as exceptions to this standard, though a “dishwasher safe” label might improve our standing.

How to summarize those 15 years and the preceding courtship? Certain cycles have repeated themselves, as they do in the dishwasher. The quiet purposefulness of the fill cycle, the turbulence of the scrubbing, the fresh prospects of the rinse and the warm glow of the drying. It’s all there.

We met in the summer of 1967 at a public sailing club in Boston. They taught sailing and let out boats not far from the band shell on the Charles River. After you learned to sail, you taught the beginners. This offered a good opportunity for a chap to impress a young lady by showing off the arcane skills and colorful language of the skipper.

“Belay that purse,” I’d say with the authority of one who had battled wind and wave from Cape Horn to the Sea of Okhotsk.

My wife wasn’t the only female companion to sail with me on the Charles. Another possible romance had foundered when the boat had capsized. In some waters, tipping over might be as much fun as sailing, but not on the Charles. It’s too much of a working river, carries too much Bay State waste to be a swimmer’s place. An unplanned dunking was more taint than treat for my crew, and I never saw the girl again.

But I fared better with my future bride. We kept upright and avoided the treacherous Storrow Memorial Embankment.  Out of gratitude for her survival or interest, or both, she invited me over for stew.

The rest is history, though largely unrecorded until now.

I was new to the ways of love and underwent the usual bizarre changes in behavior. I made a cake and shared it with her. An ingenuous little pastry, it was yellow, one layer high and without frosting. But she loved me for it.

Well, at least she didn’t laugh.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly in front of me.

Another time, I made dinner, served wine, and put on a tablecloth. Photographic evidence proves she was still smiling after the meal. She believes that I made spaghetti with store-bought sauce. That I could have pulled off such a culinary feat stretches credulity, but she’s not one to exaggerate.

Our courtship had its ups and downs. I moved to Vermont. On weekends she’d come up or I’d go down to Boston. Once we broke up for a couple of weeks. It was my doing, but I must not have liked it much. I broke down and called her up. After that things settled down a bit.

These things tend to reach a point of decision, and they did with us. I proposed. She accepted. Our parents accepted. Her church accepted. The Chicago city clerk accepted.

On a late spring day in 1969, the awesome ship of matrimony slid down the ways in a Chicago suburb and set its course, cheered by a waving throng and tacitly admonished as well: beware the conjugal straits; tempt not the storms of estrangement.

The crew of two somehow thought they could handle it. Why, they’d sailed the Charles River, hadn’t they?

 

h1

When is it fun to be married to a biostatistician?

April 27, 2019

Always, if that biostatistician is Leila. But especially during scenes like the following….

It’s dinner time for 7-month-old Ben, and two types of orange mush are on the menu: sweet potatoes and peaches.

Ben likes the peaches much better because they are sweeter, but Leila is trying to get him to eat both.

With a twinkle in her eye, she says, “This calls for … randomization!” And proceeds accordingly.

h1

A moment of pure joy

April 24, 2019

In recent years I’ve become less and less sure of how I want to use this blog. In part, I’ve become a bit more humble about the value of my opinions. For example, I have lots of things to say about Trump, but I don’t have any relevant expertise (besides a Ph.D., which reflects training in BS detection…), and my previous political posts have changed approximately zero minds, so what’s the point?  In addition, I’ve become increasingly cautious about sharing stories that are not entirely my own. My 12-year-old son may deserve more anonymity than I have given him up to this point, for example.

So my main options going forward are what? Endless navel-gazing, or complete silence? I’m not sure. For now, I thought I would share a moment that continues to make me smile a full day after it happened.

I’ve been getting a bit of media attention lately regarding my use of music to teach biology. Yesterday it was KOMO-4’s turn to visit my classes and interview me. I wanted to give them a good show, so I wrote a new version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” about the cross-bridges between actin and myosin inside muscle cells:

X-bridges

It’s a vocally demanding song, and not one especially suited to my plain, nasal voice, so I was nervous about singing it. As I began, I noticed that my nervousness had moved up my vocal range by at least a whole step; the low notes now felt REALLY low, and were hard to deliver with any volume.

The silver lining, though, was that the high notes were now easier to reach. As I neared the end of the song, I wondered whether I should abandon my original play-it-safe ending and go for the high note — the G above middle C that Barry Manilow hits in his version. Now almost delirious with adrenaline, I decided to go for it. Here is what happened next (via low-quality audio; the critical note comes about 33 seconds in):

 

So, yes, I hit the note, and the students clapped, and I felt GREAT.

It was partly an ego thing, of course: I had done something that was sort of impressive, and I received recognition for that. But it felt like something more than a personal triumph. It felt like a moment of artistic beauty — created by me, yes, but also Paul Simon, who wrote a beautiful song, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it so well, and Barry Manilow, who provided the dramatic ending, and Ameritz Karaoke, who created a superb backing track, and KOMO-4, whose interest prompted me to do this song, and Andrea Brown, who wrote the Everett Herald article that got KOMO-4 interested, and Jenny Marin, who wrote the EvCC press release that got Andrea Brown interested, and my coauthors Sarah Ward, Becca Price, and Katie Davis, who helped me write the journal article that led to the press release … and my students, whose interest made the performance meaningful.

It was beautiful, and I got to be a part of it, and that was totally exhilarating!

When can I do something like that again?

h1

A tiny rebellion

December 7, 2018

Sam, now 22 months old, is becoming really playful, with an exaggerated har-har-har laugh to match. But he is also becoming willfully defiant.

These days, when I give him his nightly bath, he takes a cup and scoops up some bathwater and dumps it on the bathroom floor. I tell him, “No.” He does it again. I take the cup away. And then he takes his toothbrush, dunks it in the bathwater, and sticks it out over the floor, transferring a drop or two of water in the process, while gently cooing, “Noooo.”

Unwilling to laugh or cry, I just shake my head — my usual compromise.

h1

My dream about Brett Kavanaugh

October 7, 2018

I just awoke from a dream that featured two surprises relating to Brett Kavanaugh, the just-confirmed Supreme Court justice.

The first surprise was that I got a letter from him in the mail — a form letter, but a letter nonetheless.

“Dear Greg,” it began (in the manner of form letters generated by programs smart enough to fill in the names of individual recipients).  “Every year, millions of Americans are victims of sexual assault or related offenses. If you have been a victim — either recently or not so recently — I want you to know that you are not alone, and I hope that the enclosed ‘survivor’s kit’ will provide helpful support as you move forward with your life.  If this kit is not relevant or useful to you, please consider passing it on to someone else. Sincerely, Brett M. Kavanaugh.”

The second surprise was that, within minutes of receiving this letter and opening it and reading it, I noticed Justice Kavanaugh, wearing his black judicial robes, emerging from a guest bathroom of my home. (In the dream, I was living in a one-story mansion with hardwood floors and featuring an enormous living room with a grand piano. It somewhat resembled the residence of my late Grandmother Jane.)

I walked across the enormous living room to greet him. “Hey, Judge,” I said. “I just received your letter.” He nodded.

“You know,” I continued, “I opposed your nomination to the Supreme Court. But I was moved by this letter, even though I myself have never been assaulted.”

“One of my big fears about you,” I said, “is that you aren’t necessarily looking out for people who lead lives less privileged than yours — people who’ve been marginalized and victimized by racism, sexism, and other toxic attitudes and institutional biases. But this letter gives me hope that these people are on your radar after all, and that you will use your power to ensure justice for ALL.”

He drew in a big breath, preparing to speak. And then I woke up.

NOTE: I am reporting this dream as I experienced it because I found it interesting. The dream should not be construed as an argument for or against Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, or as anything other than a flight of fancy.