The Season of Presents

I have written before of my desire to get my hands on a Pensieve, that wonderful, fantastical creation of JK Rowling characterised as the receptacle described here:

One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.

I would also find a Timeturner rather useful too, another invention of hers and one which would handily permit me to be in two places at once. Regrettably, neither of these handy items turned up for me under the Christmas tree this year.

However a few days before Christmas I got, out of the blue, an email from a German student who had worked briefly with me on her Master’s thesis nearly 10 years ago. She wrote to tell me what she had been getting up to since (at the time I had hoped she would have been able to stay to do a PhD with me, but funding did not permit) and her career was blossoming. And she also wrote to thank me for my input during the year she was in Cambridge and how that year had formed

‘the starting point of my passion for Biophysics and the knowledge acquired has been a solid foundation for the 4 major scientific projects I have been working on’.

As a Christmas present this was pretty nice. Even jaded old professors appreciate being appreciated. It is also a real boost to know that one’s actions have had lasting beneficial impact. But it is also nice that one is appreciated for more than simply one’s professional scientific activities. The email went on to say

‘I also highly appreciate your efforts to raise the visibility of women in science (and in particular in physics)– we definitely should step up and sell ourselves better. I remember that during the time I was writing the master thesis you had two kids at home. Today, I know several female PIs with two or more kids. All of you are making an extra effort to succeed in both, private life and science, and you are indeed role models for us junior researchers who aim to have a family while being recognized for our scientific achievements.’

The day I received this email I had been busy writing a talk, a quite emotional talk for me, for the conference I am going to in California next week to commemorate and celebrate the life of one of my key mentors, Ed Kramer. He died exactly a year ago (December 28th 2014). He meant a huge amount to me, as I wrote about at the time, and I have been thinking about how to put this across in a talk to show something about, not just the science I’ve done in the decades since I left his group, but the long-lasting impact his presence in my life had made. And the phrase that came to mind was he ‘treated people as people’. He took you as he found you and he worked with you to bring out the best in you. That is certainly what it felt like to me then and still does in retrospect. As I wrote to his family in the immediate aftermath of his death

‘He was a truly wonderful man who made me who I am by believing in me at a time when I didn’t believe in myself’.

One way of characterizing what I mean by ‘treating people as people’ is that he was simply interested in the science, in making sure that everyone did as well as they could without thoughts of scoring points or showing himself off to best advantage. What he wanted to come out of one’s research were the results, which excited him, and not any consequent glory; if impact factors had been invented in 1980 I’m not sure he would have worried over much about them when it came to publishing, although I may be wrong. In my case he fired me up to work as hard as he himself did (there was no doubt he was a workaholic) and it led to an impressive turn around in my publication rate, from a mere three or so papers over the first two years of postdoc-ing at Cornell under a different professor, to 16 papers over the next two. I have never got such a buzz from my research as I did during those two years, always sparked by the regular conversations we had, day in day out. (For early career researchers, do not believe one’s professor has to resemble that crusty, cynical and unsupportive professor beloved of PhD Comics.)

Thinking about how he worked, how he encouraged his research group (and drove on by example), I recall this comment from Jane Clarke, a professor in Chemistry in my university, in her interview in the university’s book ‘The Meaning of Success’ about how she felt about her own success:

‘I’ve done it in such a way that I can hold my head up and say that I never trampled on anybody’.

And that

‘I judge people based on how they behave and what they achieve scientifically – not the trappings of importance, like the size of their office’.

These remarks resonate with how Ed lived, and how I would hope that I too live. That a student who spent only a few weeks working with me ten years ago feels moved to write to tell me of her life and why her time in Cambridge made a difference to her future trajectory is a great encouragement to continue trying to follow my own mentor’s example.


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3 Responses to The Season of Presents

  1. Anon says:

    Love the notion of pensieve, thanks for reminding us of it. I’ve been blogging anon for many years and got tenure some time back and thinking about making my “pensieve” public. I agree with everything you said in this post. Also happy that I succeeded without trampling anyone though at times it felt like I was in a street fight. I have one caveat. People like Ed Kramer are few and far apart. Reading your post I felt a twinge of regret that I never encountered anyone like that. My dissertation advisor was all too willing to trample on my innovative ideas, often supporting those very same ideas in a guy. More women (and possibly men) have my experience than yours alas. The message for them is to believe in oneself.

    • Moving as I did from working with one professor to another who were totally different in attitude to their groups, I am well aware of my good fortune in ending up working with someone of Ed’s calibre. I know only too well that there are many academic jerks around.

  2. Rachel Berry says:

    I asked some folk what they thought on my post… Got these replies from 1995/1997 entry for Churchill, I asked if they’d applied because had a reputation as being state school friendly and a link to this blog, I don’t know if step is still a factor…

    The only reason I applied to Churchill was because my (state grammar) school told me they’d had success in applying to Churchill previously and I then saw that the average number of applicants per place for languages was lower than average among the colleges, so yes, from my experience, certainly self-perpetuating.

    Humph :p
    I did apply because of the stats first and foremost, but it also felt a lot less stuffy. Also, crucially, it didn’t ask for STEP – my maths teacher at the time explicitly told me he didn’t know whether he could help me prepare for it.

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