By David Fay
Story 1 – From the early 1980s
At some point in my late teens, I got it into my head that I wanted to be a veterinarian. Basically, I liked dogs—this was about as deep as my thinking went at the time. Still, I was unsure about my plan, so I took a break from college after two relatively uninspired years to work fulltime for a veterinarian. I ended up in Chelsea, MA, a Boston neighborhood, which at the time was still many years away from anything approaching gentrification. This alone was an educational experience. Although I showed some aptitude as a dog/cat phlebotomist, my favorite place was in the dingy closet-sized laboratory where I did various in-house tests for heartworms, white-blood-cell counts, and fecal parasites. I also started making slides from biopsies to see if I could predict the pathology reports before they came in. But it wasn’t until a visiting young veterinarian named Ellen said something unexpected to me one day that I even considered another career track. She said, “David, you’re not going to be a veterinarian. You’re going to be a scientist.” Of course, it took me a while (several years ultimately) to fully embrace this idea. Sometimes others can see us far more clearly than we see ourselves, but we get there eventually.
Story 2 – From the mid 80s
It was the spring of 1986, and I had a bad haircut. Cultural sophisticates these days might describe it as an “eighties mullet”, and its only mitigating quality was that nearly every other male resident of Somerville Massachusetts seemed to have one. That semester, much to my surprise, I was doing quite well in my organic chemistry class. The professor was a dapper, pedantic, and excitable older gentleman named Professor Georgian, whose most notable feature to the eyes of an undergraduate was his extensive bowtie collection. One day, after handing back our exams, he proceeded to chase me down a hall and two flights of stairs, to the entrance of the Chemistry building. I had initially failed to hear his shrill calls of “young man!”, and when it finally dawned on me that I was being pursued, my heart sank a bit; what good reason would any professor have to chase a student out of a building? Was he about to read me the riot act for my habitual lack of attention in class? Did he think I had cheated on an exam? I could tell right away that he had something on his mind. He began to make small talk. What was my name again? Where was I from? Finally, when I thought he was through with me, he came to the point of our exchange. “Get a haircut!” he instructed and promptly trotted back up the stairs and into the building.
I was perplexed. Walking back to my apartment, I happened to run into my upstairs neighbor who was a chemistry graduate student—a friendly round-faced guy with a beard and glasses who didn’t change his t-shirt very often. I recounted the event and awaited an explanation. “He likes you!” was the unexpected answer. That was of course a possibility that had not occurred to me. However, with a bit of explanation, I realized its truth. I was doing well in his class, and he had taken an interest in me. He had also correctly observed the state of my hair to be abysmal. Nothing could be simpler, or more flattering, really. The very idea that this erudite professor would even notice me, let alone see enough potential in me to encourage a trip to the barber, had me somewhat giddy for days.
As professors, I think it’s easy for us to forget the power that our words and actions can have on our students. Telling that ambivalent pre-med student to get a haircut could, of all things, plunge them into a lifetime of academics.
Story 3 – Also from the mid 80s
As an undergraduate, my favorite place to study was the chemistry library. I liked the comforting solidity of the stacks containing old bound journals and textbooks. And it was quiet and tranquil. Also, my friend Lang, an MS student in computer science, worked the desk most evenings. So around 10 PM I’d take a break, drink a Coke in the stairwell with Lang, eat some candy, and smoke a cigarette or two while discussing the state of the Celtics (yes, different times). One afternoon, while studying at an open table in the library, I observed a middle-aged man working something out on paper. I could see that he was drawing out a series of chemical reactions, chasing electrons around his molecular diagrams. What struck me as odd was that I was doing the exact same thing. I didn’t recognize him, so he wasn’t a member of the department. Still, he didn’t look destitute. In fact, he looked quite respectable. It occurred to me then that what I had considered to be a kind of “game” was, in fact, a legitimate profession—a game I could continue to play, apparently, while getting paid to do it. For some reason this was a revelation. Later it would occur to me that the people I was most drawn to in college were almost all practicing scientists. And it didn’t generally matter much how old they were or where they came from, there was just something that clicked. It seemed I had found my tribe.
Story 4 – From the mid 90s
Like many young scientists, after getting my PhD, I was actively questioning my ability and drive to continue along the path of academic science. Nevertheless, I thought a change of field and scenery would do me good, so I switched from yeast to worms and went to Boulder, CO to work with Bill Wood. To secure a stable position in Bill’s lab, I was applying for postdoctoral grants, initially assuming that my resumé and carefully written proposals would be sufficient to guarantee a fellowship. But even though I was enjoying worms and my science was going well, the grants just didn’t happen.
After submitting my third NIH proposal, I had a discussion with Bill, who suggested that I come up with a contingency plan in case my latest grant wasn’t funded. Specifically, Bill suggested moving across the hall to work with Min Han, who had recently gotten major funding (HHMI). At the time I was earning my keep in large part by serving as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate developmental biology course, which was not something I had envisioned as part of my postdoctoral duties. Still, I was hesitant as I didn’t know Min well and wasn’t sure if we would be compatible. We began what would become a series of conversations, and eventually I became convinced that working for Min would be the best option if my latest NIH proposal fell through.
Though I was certain I had written my strongest proposal yet, it ended up getting the lowest score out of all of my submissions. I was rather devastated. Soon after getting the bad news, and in something of a daze, I approached Min in the hallway and told him that my grant wasn’t funded. To this day, recalling Min’s response still brings a smile to my face. Min perked right up, smiled broadly, and said, “GREAT!”. It was not the reaction I was expecting. It was, at least by conventional standards, not even an appropriate response! But it turned out that this was the exact right response to make me feel better about myself and the situation. It was obvious that Min really wanted me in his lab. He saw something in me that my grant reviewers had not. And his delight at landing me was 100% genuine. I felt better instantly. In reflecting, I realize that the type of praise that’s the most meaningful and that keeps you going in times of doubt is when it’s not even intended as praise. It’s just a genuine indication of your worth from someone you respect. It’s like for just a second, you see yourself through their eyes, and you think, “I guess I’m not half bad!”
My work in Min’s lab truly set the stage for the rest of my career. And working in Boulder, CO made me realize the importance the surrounding environment has on my happiness and led to my taking a faculty job just 2 hours to the north. Ironically, I did get my postdoc grant from the NIH on my next (fourth) try. When the program officer called me in the lab, the first words out of my mouth were, “I guess I’ll have to stop bad-mouthing the NIH now.” The official at the other end laughed and said, “Don’t worry. Everyone does it!”
Epilogue – Why I’ve stayed with it
No doubt there are people who never lose the faith—people who maintain a heartfelt conviction that they’re in the right place and the right career. And that sounds authentically great. Unfortunately, it’s not me. At various stages I’ve questioned my decision to become a scientist, to remain in academics, and even to stay at Wyoming. Here are the reasons I’ve stayed the course. (1) I’ve never come up with something else that I’d truly rather do. (2) I still love figuring stuff out! (3) I deeply appreciate my interactions with other scientists and having many scientists as friends. (4) I’ve been hopelessly spoiled by the freedom of academia, and I don’t like the idea of having a boss or being told what to do. I work hard, but it’s mostly on my own terms. In fact, I am writing this very sentence in my office because I get to choose what I call work. (5) I like being around young people and helping them along their varied paths. And my age and experience are of value to them. (6) I have job security and I’m paid reasonably—at least these were both true by the time I became a professor. (7) For whatever reasons, I guess I’ve needed or craved the kind of personal validation that one gets from being accepted as a “member of the club”. Meaning that some of the people I respect as scientists seem to respect me back. Call it insecurity, or imposter syndrome, or just being human. But I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that some level of personal and professional acceptance wasn’t part of the equation, although that’s never been the main thing. But having to prove something to yourself and “the world” isn’t a sin or a weakness. (8) Along these lines, I’m reasonably driven and competitive. Again, not a sin or maybe even a surprise, though I feel some embarrassment admitting this. And this career has provided me with plenty of opportunities to test myself on the field of play! (9) Why Wyoming? Everything is a balance. In the end, it’s worked out well enough and was a good choice for me and my family. No place or life is perfect. (10) I’ll just come out and say this. I think I’m overall good at my job. Not every aspect, but enough of it to feel of value. And that job has changed over the years, providing me with different but often satisfying challenges. (11) I’ll say this one more time—I really love being around scientists!