Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and the loss of youth

As soon as I heard the awful news last night, I texted my cousin Alex, "Robin Williams. Fuck."
Almost immediately, I got the reply, "Noooooo!"
"Yep. Suicide"

We grew up with Robin Williams, guest appearances on Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, The Tonight Show, The World According to Garp, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet's Society, Comic Relief. He was our funny man. Alex and I loved The World According to Garp. It's a damn fine movie. But now the funny guy of our childhood is gone. Taken by the awful disease of depression.

This morning, Bryan Ferry's version of Bob Dylan's Dream played on my iPod. As I listened to the lyrics and thought about Robin Williams, I thought about my friends.

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn 
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside 
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one 
As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split 
How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again 
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
 As I thought about the words to that song and the friends I shared adolescence with, I thought about all those times we hung out together in the parking lot of a donut shop at 2 a.m. arguing about stars and whether time really existed. I suppose when you're a teenager, it's not so hard to think time doesn't exist. It seems like all you have is time, even though it's rushing past you so fast you don't even know it. And then your friends are mostly gone - off to college, off to start families, moving away to start their own lives. You walk into the room and hear that one of the constants in your youth has died and you realize that the time you have is precious. It hits you that the best thing that you can do with that little time you have is to cherish those around you, those childhood friends you share things with that you share with no others. Because some of them might well be gone too soon, too. One of mine already is.

If we could simply sit in that parking lot (room) again, we'd raise a toast to Robin Williams, and to each other. I'd gladly give ten thousand dollars at the drop of hat, if we could only do that.

Here's to us, Alex, Bud, Terri, Mel, Mickey Piggy, Ron, Mr. S., Larry, Jackie.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

What becomes of a life?

Perhaps its the intersection of a personal existential crisis and parenting a teenager and preteen that prompts me to articulate the question of what becomes of a life. To borrow from the Jimmy Ruffin hit, What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted:
As I walk this land of broken dreams,
I have visions of many things.

I know I've got to find,
Some kind of peace of mind.
Help me..
Recent events have made me rethink many of the things I thought to be true about my own path. Things that seemed imminent and certain are no longer so. Pathways and passions that were converging seem now nothing more than an oasis. Changing the world and giving a voice to the voiceless just around the corner. It's possible those things are still within reach, but on a different path. Events still to be determined. Complicating the picture is the reinvigoration of a previous passion - one in which I excelled, but with a path just as uncertain. I think, therefore I am, is not enough, but for now it must be.

As I think about where I've been and where I might be going, I can't help but think about my children and what their paths might be. At this point, the world is indeed their oyster. And yet, as I think about how they will soon be off into the world mostly on their own, I can't help but be scared about that prospect. My fear has very little to do with them but more to do with my ability to properly prepare them to be successful.

I suppose the world is changing no more rapidly now than when I was a teenager. My current awareness makes it seem so. I don't recall thinking much about my own future outside of going to medical school and becoming the world's preeminent cardio-thoracic surgeon. So much for the best laid plans of mice and men. I see the same sort of future thinking in my kids and can't help but think it's my responsibility to prepare them for the time when the best laid plans go awry. They are both incredibly talented and intelligent. They both have designs on what they want to do in the world, reserving the right to change their young minds, of course.

I worry most about how to prepare them to take on a world that we can't yet envision. The cost of a college education is becoming such that it is reasonable to question the value. What kind of life can you have coming out of college $100,000 or more in debt with a career that might not pay that much over a several years? What if their talents and passion lead them to career that innovation makes obsolete by the time they start out on their own? How do I help them see the value in their strengths that don't currently fit with their passion? It's easy to say, "do what you love," or "follow your passion," but it seems reasonable that their are limits to that for those who weren't born on 3rd base or didn't win the lottery (we weren't).

Part of my current job involves counseling my team on career development and I've become excellent at it. It's mostly not difficult with people who are already in a career. I have a more difficult time figuring out my own path. I know what I would tell one of my team in my position, but it seems harder for me to do it myself. It's even more difficult for me to figure out what best to tell my children. It's quite scary thinking that I could steer them wrong and cause them to live a less than fulfilling life. I don't know what the answer is. For now I suppose it is best to continue to create an environment where their intellect and talent can shine and hopefully have the foresight to help them find a direction that will be satisfying for them.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of those in a similar position or those who have already been down this path.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

No Corporate Shill

I'm a scientist at Monsanto. One of the common criticisms leveled at me and my colleagues is that we are biased because we work for a corporation. Aside from despots and dictators, nothing pisses me off more than someone implying that I tossed out all of my scientific training and integrity the minute I walked into the doors of Monsanto. Those accusations do nothing more than show the complete lack of understanding of scientific training by the accuser. As a scientist, you are trained to go where the data take you and no scientist with any morals would create, alter, ignore, nor falsify data in support of a pet idea. Never in my seventeen years at Monsanto has anyone told me what my experiments should show or what my data should mean.

I was directly exposed to scientific misconduct in the early days of my scientific career - as a graduate student. My first project in grad school was working on the inhibition of an enzyme used by HIV to replicate. Our lab was collaborating with another laboratory at Rice University to test some compounds that made up a large natural product that showed the ability to inhibit the AIDS virus. Our initial results were promising and we expanded our screening to similar compounds. Somewhere along the way, the assay became highly variable and I spent several months troubleshooting. After months with lack of progress, I shelved the project and moved on to another one.

 Fast forward three years. I was nearing graduation and had already arranged for my postdoctoral fellowship. One morning I walked into the lab and found a manuscript on my desk. The subject of the paper was the project I had first worked on. As I read through the paper, I quickly realized that all of my negative or contradictory data were ignored to make a promising conclusion about a promising new treatment route for HIV. I approached my adviser and told him that we couldn't publish the paper because he had ignored all of the negative data in writing it. He said he only ignored data that could  be rationally explained away. Having been the only student to work on this project, I knew this not to be the case. The next day before he left for a two week vacation, he left the manuscript on my desk again. The paper had three different title pages - one with my name first, one with my adviser's name first and my name second, and one without my name. I was instructed to choose which title page and mail the manuscript. I was also told that if I did not include my name on the paper, I would not get my PhD.

I went to the member of my graduate committee that helped with that project and told him what was going on. He instructed me to approach the chair of the department, who was also a member of my committee and explain the situation to him. The chairman told me not to send the paper and that as a committee we would go over all of my data and decide how to proceed. When my adviser came back my committee met. It was quickly determined that the paper was not suitable for publication and that my other project was suitable for graduation. I started my postdoc a couple of months later and graduated that fall. My adviser did not receive tenure and left research the following year.

I don't really think that I did anything extraordinary by standing up for sound science. I look around at my colleagues, many of whom I've worked with for years, and I know without a doubt none of them would compromise their science at the orders of anyone. I also know without a doubt that no one would ever ask me to make my data say anything other than what they say. As I reflect on those late days of graduate school, I'm thankful I had that experience and that it has given me a heightened sense of rigor when performing experiments or interpreting data.