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Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.

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Fluoridated drinking water is not an elegant 21st-century solution

December 3, 2016

In a previous post, I explained why, overall, I approve of the anti-fluoridation movement. Now I want to address one specific aspect of this that is partly scientific but partly philosophical and aesthetic.

First, a bit of personal context. In the lab-research phase of my career, I spent about 7 years working on the development of new drugs for infectious diseases like malaria. To my great disappointment, my work did not contribute much to the fight against these diseases. However, as I worked in this sphere, I was dazzled by others’ advances, such as the following:

(1) A project led by Meg Phillips (UT-Southwestern) and Pradip Rathod (University of Washington) has intensively studied dihydrooroate dehydrogenase (DHODH), an enzyme thought to be a good malaria drug target. In other words, if a drug impairs this enzyme in malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum and related species), the parasite should die and the infected person should be cured of malaria. Over the past 15+ years, DHODH has been characterized in almost obsessive detail, enabling the design of chemicals that strongly block the Plasmodium DHODH without messing up the human DHODH or other human enzymes. A new drug based on this work, DSM265, is currently undergoing clinical trials.

DSM265
Figure (taken from Phillips et al., Science Translational Medicine 7: 296ra111, 2015) showing how the drug DSM265 nestles among specific amino acids of DHODH, thus disrupting its function.

(2) Among already-approved malaria drugs, artemisinin-related compounds are the best ones we have. However, isolating artemisinin from its natural source (the plant Artemisia annua) is costly and time-consuming. A team led by Jay Keasling developed an intricate “semi-synthetic” process, involving both genetically engineered yeast and chemical engineering technology, by which artemisinins can be made cheaply in the lab from simple starting materials.

Artemisin synthesis, part 1
Artesinin synthesis, part 2
Figures (taken from Paddon et al., Nature 496: 528-532, 2013) showing how artemisin can be synthesized in a chemical engineering lab.

To me, these projects represent the pinnacle of modern biomedical science. They were exceptionally hard, but years of relentless detail-oriented work by large groups of talented scientists — not to mention generous funding from government and nonprofit groups — led to practical advances that could save uncountable lives.

When held up against such thorough, painstaking work, the strategy of fighting tooth decay by dumping fluoride into drinking water strikes me as really lame.

For the sake of this argument, I’m not taking a stand on the strength of the evidence that fluoride reduces the formation of dental caries (cavities). Let’s assume that it does. The key point here is that according to most pro-fluoridation experts, fluoride acts topically (i.e., at the surface of teeth) rather than systemically (i.e., by passing through the blood and the rest of the body).

The Fluoride Action Network argues, “If fluoride works topically, there is no need to swallow it, and therefore no need to add it to the water supply. This is especially so when considering that (1) fluoride is not a nutrient, and (2) fluoride’s risks come from ingestion.” This reasoning really speaks to me as a scientist.

As illustrated above, we live in an age of remarkable biomedical resources. With the efforts of our best scientists, we can achieve great things like cure malaria with the best precision drugs mankind has ever known. In this can-do environment, do our most sensible and sophisticated cavity-fighting efforts really involve delivering fluoride to the wrong place in the body (the gastrointestinal tract) and hoping that the right amount of it trickles to the right place (the teeth)?

Fluoridated water’s relative safety or lack thereof is, in some ways, beside the point; it’s simply not the best option that we have. As scientifically literate, non-superstitious people, if we want fluoride to act on our teeth, we should put it on our teeth (e.g., with fluoride toothpaste), then spit it out. Period.

In closing, I want to acknowledge a counterargument to which I am sympathetic. People with limited incomes are least likely to get regular professional dental care and are also least likely to be able to afford fluoride toothpaste or be aware of its value. Shouldn’t we fluoridate water to give these vulnerable people the benefits of fluoride even if they’re not brushing regularly with fluoride toothpaste?

I think it’s a reasonable question. But if I were the mayor of a fluoridated-water town, I’d redirect all fluoridation funding into programs to aggressively distribute fluoride toothpaste to all low-income people who need it. And if I were a dentist, rather than lobbying for water fluoridation, I’d focus on this more intelligent route of fluoride delivery.

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I’m not an ecologist, but sometimes I play one on the Internet

December 2, 2016

This fall, I’ve been teaching introductory ecology & evolution labs for BBio 180 at UW-Bothell. It had been quite a while since I had worked directly with eco-evo material, so it was interesting to look at it with fresh eyes, sort of as my students were doing.

As the quarter progressed, I got the urge to contribute something to the excellent Dynamic Ecology blog run by bona fide ecologists, including my friend Jeremy Fox. So I pitched Jeremy a post on teaching with imperfect analogies, featuring eco-evo examples, which he liked and published.

With eco-evo analogies on my brain, I then started applying them to the realm of academic job searches, which led me to write another piece, which is posted below.

Ecology analogies for the academic job market

Dear Tenured People:

The academic job market continues to suck. Most of your students will be unable to land stable faculty jobs. Please discuss this fact, repeatedly, with your students and trainees. Explicitly acknowledging the extreme difficulty of getting a prized professorship is a vaccine against complacency and self-delusion, both in them and in you, the mentors who send them forth into the world. Since these discussions can be boring and/or dreary, you might consider enlivening them with the analogies below.

Sincerely,

Aging Adjunct

* * * * * * *

Analogy #1: Net reproductive rate R0

I began a recent UW-BERG seminar on job searches with an odd “hook”: a worksheet on net reproductive rate, R0, defined as the average number of female offspring produced by each female parent. (Females are the focus here because males are usually not limiting to reproduction.)

From the definition of R0, it follows that, in the absence of other changes (e.g., in lifespan), the population declines if R0 is less than 1, holds steady if R0 equals 1, and grows if R0 is greater than 1.

We can then move, as the worksheet does, to the concept of the academic reproductive rate as defined by Larson et al. (2014) and Gaffarzadegan et al. (2015). The academic R0 can be considered to be the average number of PhD students graduated by a tenure-track faculty member.

Gaffarzadegan et al. have a nice graph showing that, since 1980, the number of biology PhDs has increased dramatically while the number of tenure-track faculty positions has barely changed, causing the biologist R0 to rise from 2.4 (1980-90) to 6.3 (2010-2015).

With this additional information, discussions of academic job prospects can proceed in any of several directions. At my seminar, for example, I asked attendees to use the R0 model to make predictions about the quantity and experience of applicants for teaching-centric faculty positions. We then compared the predictions to actual job search data.

For me, those data are a mixed bag. The number of applicants per position was lower than I would have guessed. However, it is sobering that even the ad-hoc temporary openings attracted many experienced candidates.

Anyway, I find the R0 analogy useful in several ways.

(A) The R0 analogy underscores that mentors’ trainees are, in some sense, their “children,” i.e., people for whom they bear some responsibility. And that professors, departments, universities, and countries should not take on more children than they can reasonably expect to support.

(B) The rise of the biologist R0 so far above 1 is a sign that our entire training system may be fundamentally unsustainable, as argued by the scientific “dream team” of Alberts et al. (2014).

(C) The focus on a single easy-to-grasp number, R0, helps us contemplate the problems underlying it, as well as possible solutions. For instance, I said “MAY be fundamentally unsustainable” above because a high R0 would be acceptable if most PhDs used their academic training as an intentional springboard to wonderful non-academic careers. However, since most biologists would prefer to stay in academia (Sauermann & Roach 2012), a high R0 is a symptom of a serious problem. Partial solutions, then, might include training fewer PhDs and/or convincing more of us to give more serious consideration to non-academic options before we put all of our eggs in one basket.

And speaking of nascent forms of life….

Analogy #2: The soil seed bank

While I liked the R0 analogy enough to feature it in my UW-BERG seminar, I almost used an alternative analogy suggested by my colleague Cynthia Chang.

The basic idea of the soil seed bank is that soil contains deposits of seeds from many different species, any of which could potentially germinate, but few of which actually do.

So what are the implications of considering newly minted PhDs as “seeds” with potential to “germinate” into full-fledged faculty members?

Well, to start with, most seeds will not ever germinate, an obvious point also illustrated by the R0 analogy. But the soil seed bank analogy can be extended to make several related points.

(A) Germination may occur after a prolonged lag, but most seeds do lose their viability over time. People may hang on as postdocs and as adjunct faculty for quite a while, but after so many years, the odds of making the transition to full-time permanent faculty are quite low. Still, the lack of a firm “expiration date” makes it hard to know when to give up.

(B) Different conditions favor different seeds. Each species of seed has its own optimal germination conditions in terms of moisture, temperature, sunlight, etc. Which seeds actually germinate at a given time depends on local conditions at that time. Similarly, within a diverse crop of youngish biology PhDs, those whose strengths match the current needs of specific departments will be most likely to lay down roots.

(C) Seeds’ success or failure depends strongly on luck. A corollary to (B) is that, as conditions change from year to year, the species that sprout will change as well. If a fire happens to sweep through a given region, fire-resistant seeds will subsequently be favored. If instead the region happens to be hit with, say, a flood, different seeds will instead win the germination sweepstakes. The job-search parallels should be clear: whether a given candidate ultimately blossoms depends not only on their personal robustness, but whether they happen to enter the job market at a time and place that happens to favor their particular strengths.

This last point is often hard for hard-luck applicants to swallow. Words to the effect of “It’s not about you, it’s just an issue of fit,” while well-intended and true, are not necessarily comforting. Having had the persistence to come this far, we figure that if we can just hang in there, we will eventually have our day in the sun.

Indeed, some of us will ultimately be great oaks or sequoias, impressive and enduring, the giants of our fields.

For now, though, we are but tiny vessels of unrealized potential and uncertain fate, weathering harsh environments, hoping against hope for a favorable wind and a soft landing.

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Recent poems

December 1, 2016

Favorite Fiddle Tune

When the sundial’s shadow has faded from view —
When the red leaves of autumn are gone —
When your workshop is quiet, and your kitchen is, too,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

And I hasten to listen to your voice presently,
While your singing persists, loud and long,
But when the tides lift your body back out to the sea,
May your favorite fiddle tune play on!

Muggle Snuggle

No incantation keeps our stars aligned;
No wizard conjures us to share one mind.
Yet you are mine and, likewise, I am yours
As utterly as Snape was Dumbledore’s.

For Trisha, Who Is Turning 40

Is it time to retire to a spot by the fire?
Are you fed up with slogging and grinding?
Not likely, my friend! But I do spot a trend:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Be willful! Be stubborn! Be bold and unbowed!
May your path remain craggy and winding!
Your ultimate races have yet to be run;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Well, your mom was a fireball up to the end,
And of that we all need no reminding,
For her life-long momentum continues in you;
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

Yes, you’re just like her, as your dad would concur:
You’re over the hill, but still climbing.

* * * * * * *

Snape and dumbledore

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Fluoridated drinking water: public-health triumph, or force-fed meds?

November 29, 2016

In general, I trust our government. I trust it to use my taxes wisely, protect the less fortunate among us, and enact policies based on sound research and reasoning.

If scientists from the government tell me that the scientific consensus is such-and-such, I generally believe them. Sample topics: climate change, vaccines, evolution.

Thus, when I heard that citizens’ groups were opposing the fluoridation of public drinking water, in contrast to the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I was initially skeptical. It sounded like a variation on the tragically misguided “vaccines are dangerous” movement.

But now that I’ve done some more reading and thinking about fluoridation, I think the anti-government fringe groups might be right!

Admittedly, a few hours of reading does not make me an expert on fluoridation. (So far, I’ve looked at the websites of the American Dental Association [ADA], CDC, Fluoride Action Network [FAN], and Rutland Fluoride Action, and followed links from these sites to other files such as the National Research Council’s 2006 report on fluoride in drinking water.) But, as someone with a Ph.D. in Physiology & Biophysics plus 14 years of postdoctoral research and teaching experience, I am qualified to comment on the issue.

It’s a challenging issue to tackle because there is a huge body of research on the biological effects of fluoride, which the two sides filter quite differently. For example, a thorough 2015 meta-analysis of the issue conducted by the independent, rigorous Cochrane Database group is touted by the FAN as showing “no valid evidence exists to prove fluoridation works,” while the ADA and CDC complain that the Cochrane analysis excluded valid studies that indicate benefits of fluoridation.

It’s hard for a neutral, semi-informed observer to know what to make of such debates.

Still, amidst the fog of disputed data and accusations of bias, the anti-fluoridation crowd does have a simple argument that I find compelling. Here it is:

1. Fluoride is a drug, not a nutrient.

2. Mass-administering a drug to entire communities, without individuals’ consent, can only be justified if we are extremely confident that the benefits-to-risks ratio is extremely high.

3. The available evidence does not warrant such extreme confidence.

Of these, claim #1 may be the most contentious. The ADA seems to disagree, as its 5 Reasons Why Fluoride in Water is Good for Communities include “It’s natural.”

“Fluoride is naturally present in groundwater and the oceans,” the ADA reassures us. Well, yes — but so is uranium-238. Should we be adding that to our water too?

The ADA continues, “[Fluoridation of water is] similar to fortifying other foods and beverages, like fortifying salt with iodine, milk with vitamin D, orange juice with calcium and bread with folic acid.”

The FAN rebuts this effectively.

It is now well established that fluoride is not an essential nutrient. This means that no human disease -– including tooth decay -– will result from a “deficiency” of fluoride. Fluoridating water supplies is therefore different than adding iodine to salt. Unlike fluoride, iodine is an essential nutrient (the body needs iodine to ensure the proper functioning of the thyroid gland). No such necessity exists for fluoride.

If fluoride is not a nutrient, then what is it? I find the FAN’s stance completely reasonable:

All water treatment chemicals, with the exception of fluoride, are added to make drinking water safe and pleasant to consume. Fluoride is the only chemical added to treat people who consume the water, rather than the water itself. Fluoridating water supplies can thus fairly be described as a form of mass medication, which is why most European countries have rejected the practice.

This classification of fluoride as a drug is consistent with official definitions from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

People usually are prescribed specific dosages of drugs according to their age, weight, medical history, etc. For fluoride in water, however, doses will vary wildly, not based on individuals’ “needs,” but based on how thirsty they are. It’s a bit unsettling, at the least.

Claim #2 concerns informed consent. I have some relevant professional experience, having conducted laboratory research and educational research that required approval from my university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) as well as the consent of the research subjects themselves.

It’s a lot of tedious paperwork. In my own proposals, for example, I’ve spent many paragraphs explaining why students will not be harmed if they anonymously complete a survey, and guaranteeing that the students can nonetheless skip the survey, without being punished, if they have any objections to it. Still, I’m grateful that my institution has a serious review process that reflects its firm commitment to respecting individuals’ autonomy. This respect is a bedrock value of civilized society in general, and infringements upon it must be well-justified.

So is it OK to force-feed a drug to populations at haphazard levels related to individuals’ thirst? Sure — but only if the drug has obvious, important benefits and is extremely safe.

So — claim #3 — what does the evidence look like for benefits and risks?

Regarding benefits, the above-mentioned Cochrane study basically says that there IS evidence that fluoridated water reduces tooth decay, but that this evidence is not nearly as strong as we would like.

Regarding risks, the above-mentioned NRC report devotes over 200 pages to reviewing fluoride’s effects on the musculoskeletal, reproductive, nervous, endocrine, digestive, renal, and immune systems. For most of these systems, the NRC concluded that more research was needed, which is not particularly helpful because scientists always say that about everything (thus justifying our existence).

Still, based on data showing that high fluoride levels can compromise teeth and bones, the NRC concluded that the Maximum Level Contaminant Goal (MLCG) be altered downward from the previously established standard of 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L). More recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has lowered its recommended level of fluoride in the water to 0.7 mg/L (down from a previous recommended range of 0.7-1.2 mg/L). These changes can be taken as an acknowledgment by experts that greater caution regarding fluoride exposure is warranted. Throw in some journal articles and government grant proposals that have made it through the peer review process, and you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to think that mass fluoridation has been enacted prematurely.

In a subsequent post, I will address the issue of “topical” versus “systemic” delivery of fluoride.

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Why I’m with her: domestic bliss edition

November 14, 2016

When I titled a recent blog post “Why I’m with her,” my wife, Leila, was mock-disappointed to discover that it was about my fondness for Hillary Clinton.

Now that the election is over … I’m going to tell a story about another remarkable woman to whom I am not married. But we’ll get to Leila soon.

It was January of 1996, I think, in the office shared by the new physiology and neurobiology Ph.D. students. Room H210, for you UW Health Sciences building insiders, or “the dungeon,” as we referred to it at the time. We were back from Christmas break, swapping vacation stories. My friend Elena mentioned that, back at home in Ohio, she had enjoyed catching up on her sleep, but that one morning she had been awakened too early by a bunch of noise coming from the kitchen. As she told it, she groggily staggered out of bed to find out what was going on. But nothing was going on! It was just her parents, animatedly squawking and cackling, as if still in their first days of courtship.

To a first approximation, that is what my ideal marriage looks like. I want to be in a relationship where the conversation flows easily about everything: serious things, funny things, important things, trivial things — everything that both of us care about.

Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize that at the time, and went on to marry someone whose many virtues did NOT include a predilection for endless talking. But after getting divorced, I thought back to Elena’s story, and — to quickly summarize several months of awkwardly re-entering the dating scene — I found a new partner who, above all, makes me talk, makes me listen, makes me think, and makes me laugh, over and over and over. Leila, the perfect embodiment of the “yes, and…” rule.

Some day, when our son is home during a college vacation, he will grumpily awaken to find that we’re still at it.

Pickering Barn gazebo
Revisiting the Pickering Barn in Issaquah, the site of our wedding two years earlier.

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Crosscurrents of Heredity

November 13, 2016

Although my son does not especially remind me of myself, my dad does. The “My Track Record” blog as a whole is somewhat reminiscent of his weekly newspaper column from the 1980s; moreover, some of my entries seem to unintentionally recreate specific columns. For example, after posting my own musings on heredity, I checked the archives and found the following.

Crosscurrents of Heredity

By Jack Crowther

[from the Rutland Herald — September 18, 1988]

My first cousin once removed out in Guthrie, Okla., thinks my son looks like my father when he was a boy. Even though she’s only seen our son in a picture, I take her impression seriously. She knew my father as a boy, and I never met the old man until later.

I mention my cousin’s impression because it differs from my own feeling that the boy favors my wife’s side of the family. Of course, these varied perceptions are common. People pick up on different looks and traits and decide that young people take after one relative or another.

Living close to the offspring and knowing both sides of the family tree, parents can see the crosscurrents of heredity mingling in the children and in ourselves.

For example, my wife and son bite their tongues during periods of mental concentration, a trait that is traceable to her father. Biting your tongue is not something you do naturally, and to me it always seemed like a step toward cannibalism. I’m happy to chalk that one up to her side.

Sometimes the similarities between one family member and another don’t last. Our daughter started out looking a lot like my sister but then began wearing aqua. That caused a sea change in her appearance and wiped out any resemblance.

I find traits in myself reflecting my mother and father. Between my father’s hard logic and my mother’s empathy, I swing like a chimp. I ape one parent, then another, sometimes both at once. At times, I hang above the tangled jungle of life for days trying to figure out which way to go.

My wife is a worrier like her mother. And she’s thrifty like her father. Needless to say, she worries about money. It’s a dubious inheritance.

It’s easy to spot some of my wife’s and my habits and attitudes in the children. Our daughter is quick and intuitive, our son deliberate and logical, differences mirrored in my wife and me. Arguments around here are a circus of contrasting styles — like Mike Tyson going up against a voodoo priest. But that’s what makes families interesting.

Ironically, the ways in which the children resemble us parents aren’t necessarily their most endearing qualities. Some traits of the children that vex me are my own qualities.

The children, in turn, are surely vexed by parental habits they judge can only have come from outer space. For now they can’t say much, or we’ll put them to work cleaning the baseboard registers with cotton swabs.

But in our inevitable dotages certain of our traits will become exaggerated, and our children will grow bolder. They’ll quietly complain to each other that we drive them up the wall with this fixation or that nervous habit or some other quirk of character.

Even now, looking inward, I wince to see traits that one day will harden and make me an odd duck. And yet, if we look closely at our children, we can see the seeds of their own idiosyncrasies. They may be entering the years of cool judgment of their elders, but they will be judged in turn.

The circle of life turns a full 360 degrees, and some day our children will have assembled their own resumes of whims and kinks. Hardly anyone who takes the full course in life gets through with a rating of “normal.” There are simply too many frogs in the gene pool, and each of us gets a few of them. Or maybe some of the frogs hop aboard as we pass through the low marshes of life. You tell me.

Another perplexing thing about this subject is the tendency of children to defy their parents’ examples, however excellent. Actually, I find their independence reassuring.

First, it relieves us of some responsibility. Second, it makes the topnotch moms and dads look a little more ordinary.

If a child grows up into a ne’er-do-well, we can always say to ourselves, “Well! They didn’t get that from us. We did our part. The kid must be a throwback to someone in the Oklahoma clan.”

And on the occasions when our children rise above us in merit, we can salve our egos by saying: “Okay, they succeeded where we didn’t, but they couldn’t have done it without our help. The talent was there in us, lying dormant. We passed it on and nursed it to full flower.”

We can also enjoy the times when we realize that no, our children will never be as good as we are at certain things, like juggling or tree recognition. It’s easy to be generous in those cases. We can say, “That’s OK, kids, we’re a tough act to follow.”

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My odd son

November 12, 2016

Obviously, there is no single gene “for” math aptitude or punctuality or interest in rainforests. But if Mom and Dad both exhibit a certain trait, shouldn’t the apple fall relatively close to the tree?

That’s what I used to think. Then I became a father.

Two of my defining interests throughout my life, evident from an early age, have been creative writing and competitive sports. My son Phil, now 10, is almost completely indifferent to both.

Here’s me at age 8 or 9, writing about baseball, my favorite sport at the time, while vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Marathon base ball poem

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the fun,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit a home run.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and steal a base,
c’mon, c’mon, let me see that happy face.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and catch ’em all.

C’mon, c’mon, even if your average is low,
c’mon, work hard, and you can be a pro.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit that ball,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and hit it over the wall.

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon leap high in the air,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon ‘n catch that ball, it’s fair.

C’mon, c’mon, throw the ball up high,
c’mon, c’mon, throw it way up in the sky.

C’mon, c’mon, throw it right into his glove,
C’mon, baseball, I’m in love!

C’mon, c’mon, c’mon enjoy the game,
c’mon, c’mon, c’mon and be elected to the Hall Of Fame.

While it’s not the work of a young Tennyson, some craftsmanship is evident, for example, in the commitment to the “c’mon, c’mon” cadence and the clean end rhymes. I proudly shared the poem with Grandma Nancy and relished her rave review.

In contrast, here is Phil writing about a summer camping trip that he basically enjoyed:

First we drove to the place. Then we ate lunch. Then we hiked. Then we set up camp. Then we ate dinner. Then we slept. Then we ate breakfast. Then we hiked. Then we drove to lunch. Then we drove home.

When asked to provide more detail about some part of the trip, Phil offered this:

After we set up the camp Leila set up the stove named the dragon fly. Then Leila made macaroni. And we ate it. Then she made a rice dish we ate it. finally we had roasted marshmallows for dessert.

Notice the apparent lack of interest in telling the story with any humor, any intrigue, or any flair whatsoever. Which is fine — LOTS of people find writing more tedious than enjoyable. And Phil is creative in other ways (especially with Legos). Still, I would have expected him to inherit some smidgen of my wordsmithing tendencies.

Likewise, we differ greatly in our attitude toward sports, as encapsulated in this photo from last Sunday’s PNTF cross-country meet (courtesy of Win Van Pelt):

PNTF 2016

Dad kicks fiercely toward the finish while Sonny Boy (in hat) looks away, uninterested.

Again, it’s fine that he is not (currently) a jock — just surprising to me.

Of course, we do have a few things in common: a love of soft blankets and sweat pants, for example. And similar views on Donald Trump.

That’s right — the man who has fractured the country into bitter factions has brought my son and me closer together.

Here’s Phil reacting to Donald Trump during the first presidential debate: “It seems like the only thing that he cares about is money.”

Weeks later, here he is, trying to explain Trump’s plan to make America great again: “It seems like Trump wants to repair America … by bombing it.”

And here’s his response to a classmate’s claim that Trump will do some good things, like lowering taxes: “His tax cuts are for rich people. What about an African family working the entire day for 20 dollars?”

Preach on, Brother Phil!

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Respecting veterans … and Trump supporters

November 10, 2016

As a young man, when it came to military issues, I was kind of a jerk.

As I finished up high school, my Vietnam-veteran dad suggested that I consider Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs as a way of defraying the enormous cost of college.

I almost snorted with derision. Why would I, a deep-thinking scholar at the top of my class, immerse myself in the dirty work of defending the United States? It wasn’t just that I personally was uninterested in military service; I couldn’t imagine why anyone like me would want to do anything like that.

Twenty-something years later, I can see that I dismissed my dad’s idea prematurely because I had never thought carefully about the people who do serve: what motivates them, what they get out of it, why they take pride in their service.

And why didn’t I do that thinking?

I avoided the whole topic because I didn’t want to deal with three highly disturbing facets: (1) death, (2) the cowardice of fearing death, and (3) killing other people.

Unfortunately, my “solution” of not ever thinking about the military – besides criticizing it, as a whole, for being too aggressive – left me without any understanding of how this enormously important branch of government operates, or much appreciation of the debt we owe to our veterans.

Eventually, another high school/college transition proved pivotal — that of my cousin Paul, who entered the United States Naval Academy in 2005.

Paul didn’t fit my military stereotype at all. He’s an extremely smart guy, not especially macho, and not a fan of overly simplistic “good-versus-evil” narratives. He could do anything he wanted to, more or less. Why would a guy like him voluntarily join the Navy? Apparently there was much more to his seemingly bizarre choice than I could fathom. Subsequent conversations with Paul and his parents proved illuminating.

Even today, I remain relatively ignorant of military matters. But now, at least, I try to be less patronizing and more respectful of those who have put their lives on the line for the sake of our country.

Tomorrow -– Friday, November 11th -– is Veterans Day. It’s a great day to honor my dad, Paul, my cousin-in-law Marc, my ex-cousin-in-law Mark, and all those who have served.

They and I are not as different as I once thought.

I’m very sorry that it took me so long to recognize this.

1964_dad_vietnam_cropped
[Jack Crowther (far right) in Vietnam, 1965 or ’66.]

These reflections come at a time when I’m again inclined to dismiss or ignore another huge group of people who seem utterly alien to me -– in this case, the supporters of Donald Trump.

I consider Trump to be the worst presidential candidate I’ve ever encountered. But just as I shouldn’t have minimized all soldiers based on Dick Cheney’s flawed ideology and bad decisions, I shouldn’t assume that Trump’s supporters are all guilty of Trump’s sins. I don’t know what they all thought they were voting for, but it wasn’t necessarily misogyny or racism.

In September, at the Puyallup Fair, a nice old lady wearing a Trump/Pence button held my place in line while I went off to check on something. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about her presidential choice. I was afraid of what her reasons might be.

I must do better. Without condoning hatred or violence, I must talk with Trump voters as the equals that they are. I must overcome the snobbery, cowardice, and fatigue that lurk in my heart.

As has been said many times in many ways, we generally can’t fundamentally change others -– but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to change ourselves.

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An open letter to my students (revised)

November 9, 2016

Dear students:

As I write this, it appears that the United States has elected Donald Trump as its next president. Many of you undoubtedly have strong feelings about this outcome. But are those feelings relevant to our study of biology? Yes, they are. Therefore let me make the following two points.

First, this election did an amazingly good job of segregating us into rival camps of people who cannot even begin to imagine how the other side feels. It is easy to dismiss people for supporting a candidate who seems completely abhorrent. Yet all of us — Trump-haters and Clinton-haters alike — must continue to work together in lecture and in lab. It won’t be easy, but we must do our very best.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rhetoric of this campaign may have felt threatening to some of you, especially those who have experienced discrimination or harassment in the past. You may be worried about your future under a president whose attitude toward traditionally marginalized groups has seemed at best insensitive and at worst downright hostile.

I fervently hope that any such worries will not derail your studies here at UW-Bothell. Please be assured that you are welcome here -– all of you. We, the faculty and staff who teach you and support you, want you to succeed -– all of you. Your lives matter to us. Your futures matter to us.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that people learn the most in circumstances when they are uprooted, made to feel uncomfortable, challenged with seemingly impossible tasks. Thus, we cannot protect you from all discomfort. A university is not simply a gigantic “safe space” for self-affirmation. But it IS a space where you have mentors, friends, and allies to help you get focused, get tough, and get things done. So: please, please, please continue to ask for help when you need it. We want to help, and we WILL help -– no matter who’s in the White House.

I’ll see you in class.

–Dr. Crowther

[Update: Danny Caballero, a physics professor at Michigan State University, has written a good letter in a somewhat similar spirit.]