Archive for the ‘Eulogies’ Category


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

July 14, 2019


image taken from

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.)



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.


[image from UW Dept. of Radiology website]


Roger Ebert and the art of grading

January 30, 2014

I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but I miss him.

From about 2003 until his death last April, I faithfully read his reviews of every movie I saw, plus many more.

Why was I so interested in Roger’s opinions? He was smart and funny, but there was more to it than that.

Last month I belatedly recognized another aspect of Roger’s appeal while reading The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj advise against grading students’ essays right away. Instead, they counsel, “First sit back and read through each paper receptively, letting it communicate whatever it is trying to say.”

This is how Roger treated movies: as works to be experienced first and critiqued second. In his memoir, Life Itself, he says that he learned this from Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

To be this open-minded is admirable. To stay this open-minded after having literally viewed thousands of films would be almost miraculous.

Roger became the Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967. Here he is in 2007, reviewing Alvin and the Chipmunks:

The most astonishing sight in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not three singing chipmunks. No, it’s a surprise saved for the closing titles, where we see the covers of all the Alvin & company albums and CDs. I lost track after 10. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would want to listen to one whole album of those squeaky little voices, let alone 10.

Sure, the chipmunks are an easy target. But my point is that Roger stayed through the closing credits, still curious about what might come next and still capable of being surprised.

His review continues:

…Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, who accidentally brings them home in a basket of muffins, discovers they can talk and is soon shouting “Alvin!” at the top of his lungs, as Chipmunk lore requires that he must.

David Cross plays Ian, the hustling tour promoter who signs them up and takes them on the road, where they burn out and he suggests they start syncing with dubbed voices. Now we’re getting into Alice in Wonderland territory, because of course they are dubbed voices in the first place. Indeed the metaphysics of dubbing dubbed chipmunks who exist in the real world as animated representations of real chipmunks is … how did this sentence begin?

That said, whatever it was, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is about as good as a movie with these characters can probably be, and I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this movie. I am even sure some readers will throw it up to me like I liked the “Garfield” movie better. Yes, but Garfield didn’t sing, and he was dubbed by Bill Murray. My duty as a reporter is to inform you that the chipmunks are sorta cute, that Jason Lee and David Cross manfully play roles that require them, as actors, to relate with empty space that would later be filled with CGI, and that at some level, the movie may even be doing something satirical about rock stars and the hype machine.

Does he sound annoyed that he had to sit through this two-star kids’ flick? Not really. He came, he saw, and he noticed some things that amused him and some things that he could grudgingly admire. It’s a privilege to get paid to watch and judge movies, good and bad, and Roger enjoyed it until the very end.

Getting paid to read and evaluate student writing is also a privilege of sorts. If decades pass and I become an old man and I’m still doing it, I hope to be doing it with the patience and good humor of Roger Ebert.


Remembering Wayne E. Crill

September 23, 2012

When I entered the Ph.D. program in Physiology & Biophysics (“PBio”) at the University of Washington in 1995, the department chair was a physician-scientist named Wayne Crill.

My interactions with Wayne were sporadic, so I only have a few enduring memories of him:

(1) He looked and spoke a bit like The Godfather.

(2) He was supportive of various grad student initiatives, such as our push for a department-sponsored Career Day and our proposal to determine our own representation on faculty committees.

(3) When I first visited UW, he said, without particular fanfare or emphasis, “We [the PBio faculty] really treasure our graduate students.”

“We really treasure our graduate students” — what a sentence! So concise, yet so unabashedly heartfelt!

At a memorial gathering last Wednesday, Wayne’s friends and family shared additional memories.

His daughter Jennifer noted that he was unusual in regularly employing the word “flabbergasted.”

Colleague Mike Shadlen recalled that Wayne would often introduce new topics with the phrase, “As you may or may not know…” — a phrase described by Mike as “so empty and tautological,” yet followed by incisive and fair-minded summaries of difficult issues.

And then there was the sign in the Wordeman lab: “WWWD?” What Would Wayne Do?

I was unaware of these things until they were mentioned at the memorial, but one other tribute did spur a flash of recognition.

PBio used to have (and perhaps still has) a departmental brochure that, along with the usual information about research areas, program requirements, etc., included several faculty essays on the nature of science. Wayne’s contribution was called, “Why I Hang My Shingle in Physiology and Biophysics.” On Wednesday his daughter Betsy read from it:

I am here totally by accident. My path was governed by Brownian motion with a nudge from common sense. This is probably incomprehensible to most people who plan their lives in great detail. I was just lucky that I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do.

It’s hard to imagine a much better epitaph than that.

Wayne E. Crill, 1935-2012
(image taken from UW PBio website)


George Kosaly and the social side of science

June 21, 2010

Our lab is currently abuzz with World Cup soccer highlights. We even have an office pool. But whenever I’m inclined to dismiss my colleagues’ discussions as silly or excessive, I think of George Kosaly.

Between 2005 and 2007, I worked with George on the mathematical modeling of methylotrophic metabolism. This work was eventually published as part our Journal of Bacteriology paper Formate as the main branch point for methylotrophic metabolism in Methylobacterium extorquens AM1.

George, a sharp and dedicated scientist, taught me a lot about the interplay of mathematical modeling and experimentation. What I remember best about our conversations, though, is George’s advocacy of science as a fundamentally social pursuit. This stance is, in part, simply a pragmatic one: modelers and experimentalists need to talk to each other so that each group is informed by what the other is doing. But there’s more to it than that. Working with smart, likable colleagues is enlightening and fun, so you put more of yourself into it, and better results emerge. Even in science.

My work with George was itself an example of this. George, a professor of mechanical engineering, was in the process of retiring and knew relatively little biology, so it didn’t necessarily make sense for me to invest a lot of effort in developing a collaboration with him. Yet I found him charming, and our meetings eventually became quite productive. He taught me about modeling, and I taught him about biology, which he approached with the wonder and curiosity of a gifted child. The above-mentioned study that emerged from this exchange, though imperfect, is the best one I’ve ever done, and it happened in large part because we enjoyed each other’s company. The social aspect of the work was central to it, not ancillary.

George died last June at the age of 75, but at least a few bits of his wisdom live on in my brain. Although I don’t share my coworkers’ enthusiasm for the World Cup, I’m glad they can get excited about it together. Who knows what new scientific insights might emerge from this sports-induced bonding?

George Kosaly, circa 1980 - photo from UW Dept. of Mechanical Engineering


New Year’s resolution: remember Scott Becker

January 8, 2008

Scott Becker died of liver cancer in September. I went to a memorial service for him and cried a lot — not so much for my personal loss, but for the world’s loss. He was that special: an unusually eloquent speaker and writer whose actions fully embodied his words.

Before his life ended, Scott was completing a dissertation on Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. This was not to be an esoteric academic exercise but rather a basis for catalyzing practical, fundamental changes in church communities. As Scott explained in his blog, “I hope to help Evangelical pastors teach their congregations how to ground social and political commitments in basic biblical affirmations concerning Christ’s life, teachings, crucifixion and resurrection, so that they might promote such kingdom values as economic justice, interethnic reconciliation, nonviolence and care for creation.”

Scott was fond of paradoxes. I think the scholar in him enjoyed attempting to make sense of seemingly nonsensical circumstances, and the teacher in him enjoyed challenging others with problems lacking simple, pat answers. It was said at his memorial service that he enjoyed teaching the Book of Ecclesiastes precisely because it’s so confusing.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that I remember Scott’s personality as a paradox in and of itself. He was uncompromising and unapologetic in his beliefs and principles, yet unfailingly kind and generous to those who did not share them. When I asked him to officiate my (nonreligious) wedding ceremony, he politely declined because he did Christian weddings, period, and that’s not what I wanted. Yet again and again he found the time to talk with me — someone to whom he had no professional obligation whatsoever — about religion, its intersection with politics, and life in general. His faith in Christ was absolute, yet it was a faith that encouraged him to respect and enjoy the company of nonbelievers like me.

In a world of people divided by differences large and small, real and imagined, Scott’s example is a good one to remember. May we carry it in our hearts this year and beyond.

George Scott Becker


Saying goodbye to Hodge

January 24, 2007

Williams College, my alma mater, lost one of its most distinguished alumni and emeritus faculty earlier this month when J. Hodge Markgraf ’52 succumbed to an apparent heart attack.

I’m not really qualified to comment on Hodge’s research output. He authored papers like Substituent effects on 15N and 13C NMR chemical shifts of 3-phenylisoxazoles: a theoretical and spectroscopic study, and when I see a title like that, I don’t bother continuing on to the Abstract. I knew Hodge as the guy who taught me Organic Chemistry in the spring of 1995. He had a child’s enthusiasm and an expert’s knowledge, and both traits were frequently evident in the off-the-wall things he said during lecture and lab. I enjoyed these spontaneous outbursts so much that I collected many of them in a Hodge quote board.

In rereading these quotes, I’m struck once again by how effortlessly and how passionately Hodge connected chemistry with sports, music, cooking, geography, etc. Just listen to him weigh in on labs that are set up ahead of time versus labs requiring that you do everything yourself:

It’s like a Duncan Hines cake mix. You bring it home, mix it up, and by gosh you’ve got muffins. And they’re the same muffins you got last week and the same muffins you get next week. And some people call that cooking! But scratch is always better. Scratch is always better.

Last week, as a small nod to the bow tie-wearing professor, I made a dinner featuring farfalle, the bow tie-shaped pasta. Many would consider this a ridiculous tribute, but somehow I think that Hodge, the master of surprising juxtapositions, would have approved.