A bit more: science purity, business and legacies

Let’s expand on the previous post just a tad… Over the past two weeks or so I’ve been laser focused on four things. 1) Getting out a slew of grant applications. 2) Getting out industry collaboration proposals. 3) Dealing with horrible pain in my lower left leg. 4) Reading horrible economic news and hoping that talk of federal investment are going to turn into more than just talk. Why?

1 and 2) I have an opportunity to bring in a very talented individual but I don’t have any more money to allocate to salaries. This means I need to bring in some money now, or miss a big chance. Ordinarily I might ask the Dept Chair to spot me for a bit; however, we have a state mandated hiring freeze and we’re trying to hold onto the jobs that we have as the state continues to threaten big budget cuts.
3) My lower back is a disaster right now. When I’m doing 1 and 2 I can forget about. When I’m not doing 1 & 2 and if I’m not looking at fresh data, I’m in pain. NSAIDs don’t work. Opioids make me sleep. When I sleep I can’t work on 1 & 2.
4) See 1 & 2. Also see 3, which gets better with dreams of massive federal investment and worse with sky is falling RGE Monitor posts.

Then comes last night, Dec 1, 2008.

A call from Mom after Mom should be asleep is always a bad thing. Mom calls past her bedtime. Mom sounds sad. Mom tells her son that one of his oldest friends (we met when we were 7) died two days ago but she was found on Monday morning. She apparently fell down the stairs and suffered a head trauma. She was getting ready to go out with friends, who got worried and eventually went with police to her condo. She was smart, healthy and had a whole life in front of her. She died because she lost her balance in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her parents, whom I know so well that I can see in my imagination as if they are standing in front of me at this very instant are absolutely crushed. How could they not be?

And I think to myself today, after some shock fades away, what am I really doing here in this career that I have chosen? What would I think about all this time doing 1, 2 and 4 if my untimely trip and fall came tomorrow?

Back when I was a young scientist it was all about the purity of the science. Pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Then, as I became an applied scientist (at least that is the way I think of it) it became all about helping the patients and improving human health. Both of those goals are still deeply important to me but something funny happened when I first hired someone and some sort of clarity came into my head today that I haven’t quite noticed before.

Let’s go back to number 3 (the pain in my leg). It so happens that this is what I have and it is also what I do (remember I’m a pain researcher). There is some terribly complicated process happening in some injured nerves that is driving me slowly to the brink. I’m trying to understand it and trying to treat it in the lab (I chose this path of research before I became a patient). I have much hope we will make advances. I have little hope that I will find a magic bullet. This does not bother me.

Thinking more locally, and in relation to 1, 2 and 4, I am quite sure that I have some level of control over the opportunity to create at least one job in the near future and maintain some other jobs for the bright people in the lab for the foreseeable future. I am also learning, as I continue with steps 1 and 2, that I am quite happy to begin to think about my own career more in terms of its impact on the economic opportunity that may arise for people that I work with based on my efforts in these areas. I am also quite pleased to begin to think of myself as a piece of the puzzle in terms of item number 4 (the creation of a new economy). Bikemonkey wrote several posts during the later phases of the election about responsibility and what he was going to do about it. I was also thinking about that during those times and have continued to think about it until now. I think I have a firm grasp on what I think I can do about it now…

So here we have a bit of evolution in legacy building, from wanting to pursue science for the sake of knowledge to wanting to alleviate suffering to hoping to be a part of the rebirth of a sustainable economy by creating and maintaining a few jobs right in front of me that might eventually blossom into a series of successful careers. I may never fix my aching leg even if I dedicate every waking moment to it. However, with a bit of cooperation from the feds and a little personal creativity, I am quite sure I can create a few jobs and foster a few careers.

I know why my passed on friend was going out with friends last Sat night. Her facebook page says that she’d just gotten off the unemployment line (her former firm collapsed) and found a new job. It is a tragic end, but a tragic end to a good life. A good life that I hope I am able to remember for many years to come. A good life that I may one day recall to a group of people when I reflect on what shaped how I think about my profession and how I think about my place in it.

15 responses to “A bit more: science purity, business and legacies

  1. What a dreadful ending. We think of dizziness or falls as being the boogeyman of the elderly, and it’s easy to forget that they’re equal opportunity. Very sorry about your friend’s death.

    And as someone in distraction-level discomfort right now due to the follicles, I hear you on the difficulty of doing science under bodily objection.

  2. Condolences on your loss my friend. Sorry to hear the news.

  3. Pingback: but…but….science is different! « Sun Dappled Forest

  4. such a great emotional post!
    thanks for sharing with us, I feel the same way of personal evolution:

    “Pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Then, as I became an applied scientist (at least that is the way I think of it) it became all about helping the patients and improving human health.

    opportunity to create at least one job in the near future and maintain some other jobs for the bright people”


  5. JP: I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Sad news indeed.

  6. Oh Juniorprof-

    I’m so, so sorry. I suppose events like these make us remember to make sure we really live every day- and not put things off continuously until tomorrow.

  7. Condolences about your friend. One of those fluke accidents that shouldn’t happen. But it’s motivating to see that in all that tragedy there is added energy to your work which may trickle down to some new careers for talented people and exciting new discoveries that could potentially make millions of pain sufferers have a better quality of life. I think that a major sign of true success in life is to be able to see some good in the bad things that happen.

  8. JP,
    My condolences.
    Also, both tremendous posts. I have comments that I may expand on later but the gist of it is that I agree. I don’t understand why the areas of purity of science and pursuing it in a commercial realm with the goal of bettering the human condition are viewed as mutually exclusive in the first place.

  9. Pingback: Finding Inspiration « JUNIORPROF

  10. That truly sucks JP. I have yet to have such an incident of losing a contemporary. I am not looking forward to it.

    Re Pain: If you remember, at SFN, I had a major hip trauma that very day. I did something I usually shun: I went to a chiro. I now want to have his illegitimate chiro baby. Impinging spinal referred nerve pain sucks huge donkey balls, and he shaved those balls down sumthin fierce!

    If you havent done it, try it.

    Dr. F

  11. Having already had lumbar surgery, I’m a bit reluctant to go the chiro route, although I know many others like you and me who swear by it. I think I am going to give acupuncture a shot. At least I might relax for awhile.

    And thanks to all of you for the condolences.

  12. wow, i’m sorry about your friend. there’s nothing like a significant change affecting your life to make you go back and re-evaluate your positions.

    you wouldn’t believe how many people i meet that deal with some kind of lumbar pain. it gets in your mind and it drills holes in your concentration and your sanity. imo chiro is a crapshoot at best.

  13. JP,
    For what it is worth, I can vouch for the utility of chiro in some instances. I take many of their broader claims with a pinch of salt, but have come to see that they can help enormously in a ‘body tuning’ mode— especially when it comes to joints. Proper alignment seems to dramatically improve the efficacy of ibuprofen for me! Doesn’t mean I stop going to my regular MD though.

  14. Pingback: Zerhouni considers his time at NIH in Nature « JUNIORPROF

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