The cairn as a symbol of mentorship

In the spirit of my previous blog on self-promotion, I forge on.


Sometime this spring, I was nominated for a national award known as the Thomas Maciag Award, a National Institutes of Health sponsored award for a scientist who embodies the spirit of the late Thomas Maciag, an outstanding scientist, mentor and also a renowned artist.

Nominees for this award were selected from 23 states and Puerto Rico–states considered to be under-represented in NIH-supported funding–not because the research is under par, but mostly due to demographics. For example, Nebraska has a population of under 2 million, a smaller community to serve in health and welfare, and therefore a smaller than average medical school by US standards.

In any case, I was honored to be nominated, and delighted to receive an e-mail one morning from the awards committee notifying me that I had made it to the final 5, and that the final selection would be done following an hour-long tele-interview with the committee, probing my ability to impart my philosophy of mentoring and my eloquence in public speaking in addition to my scientific achievements.

As I tend to be generally an organized and curious person, I read all about the life of Thomas Maciag, and was especially pleased to learn that on top of his scientific achievements, he was also a first rate painter, whose images graced galleries, museums, and even the cover of EMBO Journal. I prepared as best as I could for the phone conference, but I much prefer in-person meetings (or e-mails), as I hate talking on the phone, and sometimes fear that my artillery-career-impacted hearing puts me at a disadvantage. I am beginning to realize how much I lip read while listening to someone speak.

Needless to say, I was delighted to hear back from the committee several weeks later that I had actually been selected as the winner, and would have to fly out to DC to present a seminar and receive the award. And so I did.

Of course, being an informal guy who doesn’t didn’t own a suit, I had to drag my 14 year old daughter out to a clothing store to help me through this painful period. My greatest fear at the award ceremony was that I wouldn’t be able to tie that noose properly around my neck. But I did.


The beautiful piece of modern art that I was awarded (and arrived recently in the post) is called Cairns, and was created by glass artist named Melanie Guernsey-Leppla. Why would a cairn be given to a mentor-scientist?

First, I should mention that although in the UK the word cairn is probably widely known, there was a good deal of surprise that I knew the meaning of the word. But after all, I spent a good month or so “bagging munros” in the Scottish highlands (including ole Ben Nevis), and hiking in the Lake District almost 20 years ago, so it’s hard not to know and appreciate cairns.

For those who might not be familiar with the word, it literally means a pile of stones that serves as a marker for travelers. In both the UK and India and Tibet, these are used to mark summits and guide hikers. In the little note that I received with the award it is written: “These cairns, born in heat and light, represent accomplishments, knowledge and experience gained, difficulties overcome, sanctuary and guidance for pathways yet to be traveled.”

I am humbled and honored by this description.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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14 Responses to The cairn as a symbol of mentorship

  1. Here in the UK, Cairn Research are a company who make microscope imaging stuff. I would say this, as they’re friends of mine going back two decades to before the company existed, but they are by a long distance the best such outfit I have ever dealt with in terms of customer service. Indeed, no other supplier of microscopy stuff I’ve had dealings with is even in the same ballpark. Which is why we’ve always gone back to them the next time we need something.

    Many congrats on the award, Steve. You do look properly ‘US PI’ in that ensemble…! Were there some Brooks Bros loafers out of shot as well?

    Like the art, too.

  2. jimspice says:

    A cairn is a terrier. A pile of rocks that servers as a marker is an inukshuk. Everyone knows THAT.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      My apologies for not mentioning the idea of the cairn in other cultures. Aside from the Inuit, even Scandinavians reportedly used cairns to signal to ships at sea.

      • jimspice says:

        I was, of course, joshing. Congrats on the award. Hey, it’s no fish-net stocking lamp, but…

  3. Amit says:

    Steve I’m really happy that you were the one who was finally selected for this prestigious award because I think no one deserves this better than you….
    Best wishes,
    Amit (Mahak)

  4. cromercrox says:

    Congratulations Steve! That sculpture is intriguing. Reminds me of the paintings of Joan Miró. As a scientist, I am unhappy about pictures of unusual things unless they have scale bars. So how big is it? Who created it? And do you think the granite plinth really works?

    • Austin says:

      Yep, definitely a touch of Miró in there.

      It looks quite substantial in the pic, though I guess that could be a trick of perspective. Hand luggage or checked baggage??!

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks C and A: the creator is an artist named Melanie Guernsey-Leppla, and the size is about 2 feet tall (barring the plinth). The big red piece is hollow glass, so it’s not too heavy. The plinth, on the other hand, weighs in like an brick outhouse. In fact, at the ceremony after my seminar, the award committee chief originally tried to lift the WHOLE thing, including the plinth, to hand it over–he soon decided he didn’t want a hernia and passed over only the sculpture itself.

    Fortunately, they packed everything really well and shipped it to me. There was no way I could fly home with it.

  6. I also thought of the Inukshuk when I saw your award… it has the additional connotation of being something designed to let others know that you’ve passed this place, which resonates mentorship aspect nicely, I think.

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:


  8. Will says:

    Your daughter helped you pick out a fine suit. It’s pretty sharp.

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