Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion - Part 7

This is the final installment of this story. If you'd like to read it from the beginning, you can start here and move through the links to this one.

Sung was not in the hallway when the committee left the room, and he was not in the Men's Room where Carl stopped on the way back to his office. Carl was almost relieved that Sung was not waiting in the office when he got there, because he really didn't want to face the student. Carl was annoyed by the prospect of having to spend another year or more working with Sung on a Master's thesis, checking on him constantly to be certain that he was performing adequate controls, organizing his data, correcting the grammar and sentence structure of his thesis, and then having to sit through a thesis defense with the very real possibility that Sung would perform as miserably on that examination as he had done on this one.

Carl stayed in his office late that evening, as usual. He tried to dissociate himself from his student's failure by working on a theoretical paper that was his secret pride and that had been put aside during Sung's exam preparation. The sun had set and the office window that looked out on the silent, surrounding darkness mirrored Carl's silent, intense activity at his desk, cluttered with references and old notes for the paper.

Caught in thought, he glanced up at the blackened window and saw an image there—surreal—as if standing suspended in mid-air, three stories above the ground. Carl wheeled around in his chair. He faced a figure standing, feet on the floor, in the fully lighted room.

"Sung!" Carl exclaimed with a start. "When did you come in? How long have you been standing there ?"

Sung didn't answer. He stood motionless, his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the floor. He glanced up at Carl for a moment, then lowered his eyes and focused on a spot near Carl's feet. Sung stood there impassively; his face, uncharacteristically elongate for an Asian, was expressionless. His eyebrows extended across his forehead in two straight ridges and his mouth was set in a straight, firm line, parallel to the brows. The flesh around his eyes seemed puffy and, despite high cheekbones, his eyes had darkened circles under them. Sung seemed suddenly strange to Carl, very strange, as if he were someone Carl had never met before, as if the scientist were seeing the student for the first time.

"We have to talk about your exam, today," said Carl, bringing up the subject neither he nor Sung wanted to talk about. "You know you did very poorly on the exam."

"Questions not good. You do not advise me correctly on questions," retorted Sung with a slightly belligerent tone.

"Well, there's no way to know for sure what people are going to ask," said Carl defensively. "You just have to be prepared and then think on your feet. You are going to have to learn how to think on your feet."

"When will I take next examination?"

"You won't. You failed the exam, but you're lucky the committee didn't just decide to fail you outright. They recommended that you be allowed to finish at the Master's level."

"But I want to take Doctor's degree."

"I know that, but you flunked the examination. You'll have to settle for a Master's degree. Even that won't necessarily be easy."

"If I take Master's degree, then I must take Doctor's degree again. How long to do that?"

"Sung, you don't have that option. Not in this department, at least. You were recommended for a terminal Master's degree and that's final."

"You give me bad advice," said Sung with a tone more hostile than Carl had heard him use before.

With that, Sung moved slightly backwards and pulled one hand out of his pocket. In the hand was a gun.

"Sung, for God's sake!"

Carl was paralyzed. His mind whirled back over all his interactions with this student, trying to find a key, a clue, that might have allowed him to foresee such a catastrophic eventuality. Nothing. He came up with only a series of missed communica­tions, but nothing that could have presaged this. What signs had he missed that could have warned him of this danger? The man was clearly mad. Why had he not seen that?  What about his own future?  What about his theory of hydrophobic interactions that was to be his lasting contribution to an understanding of organic macromolecules? What about his wife and their two-year-old son? What about his parents who expected so much of him? What about those childhood playmates who had once taunted him, to whom he had intended to prove himself undeniably superior?  How had his pursuit of truth betrayed him so utterly? How was it possible for reality to be so irrational?

"No, Sung, please."

Sung stood there, still, as if eternal. Then Carl heard a click, followed quickly by a crack of the gun that echoed blackly, a split second later, in his skull.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 6

This is the penultimate installment of this series. The first installment can be read here.

"Harry, would you like to continue the questioning," asked Carl of Dr. Stillwell, who was seated to the left of Dr. Munster.

"Yes, thank you, Carl." Then, turning to the student, Dr. Stillwell asked, "Mr. Park, as a Pathologist, I’m always interested in the contribution of basic research to an understanding of human disease. What relevance might your research project have to the diagnosis, prognosis or management of human disease--for example, neoplasia?"

The question was a fair one, even an easy one, and there were a couple of fairly obvious answers to it. Carl looked expectantly at Sung. Whether Sung Lee Park was still in a state of shock from his prior embarrassment, whether he did not understand the question and did not dare risk having it clarified, whether he was no longer willing to commit himself on any issue, whether he had decided that all was lost and had given up—whatever the reason, Sung glanced quickly toward Dr. Stillwell, looked back up at the wall and mumbled in a low tone, "I don't know."

"Well then, why the hell are you doing it," boomed Stillwell. Then, with a shrug, he muttered, "I pass."

The exam was by this time clearly an irredeemable disaster, but for some reason, all present felt compelled to carry out the structure of the examination format like a mindless minuet. Or perhaps no one knew what to do to prevent its inexorable progression. Like machines, around the conference table, each professor asked his prepared questions and, like a robot, swaying slightly back and forth, his arms crossed over his chest, Sung responded either monosyllabically or else said, "I don't know." Only once did he begin a sentence in response to one of the questions, but then stopped in confusion and neither finished the sentence nor offered any other answer or explanation.

Dr. Vanadian, when his turn came, declined to question the hapless candidate. When the prescribed ordeal was finished, Carl asked Sung to leave the room, scarcely looking at him as he walked out. The examination had lasted just less than one hour.

The first to speak, after Sung was out the door, was Dr. Davidson. "That was the worst exam I have ever attended!"

Carl had been mortified by his student's performance, and his chairman's pointed comment made it that much more excruciating.

"The boy was obviously suffering from panic," offered Vanadian, who spoke with an accent, although his grammar and syntax were flawless.

"Nonetheless, he can't be passed if he can't answer a few simple questions," put in Munster, with a tone of sarcasm.

Carl did not feel like defending his student and wouldn't have known how, had he been so inclined. He said, "The issue we have to decide today is whether he should be failed outright or be allowed to retake the examination."

"I really wonder if he is Ph.D. material," mused Dr. Bock, echoing Carl's previously expressed fears.

"I've sometimes worried about that, myself," agreed Carl.

"He's been here almost too long to flunk him out just like that, without recourse," said Dr. Karesh.

"Would it be possible to recommend that he pursue the Master's degree rather than the Ph.D.?" asked Vanadian.

"We could," said Carl, then added, "It would take at least another year's work to tie up loose ends and write the thesis."

"It would be only fair to give him that option at least," said Karesh.

"Well, all right, how many are in favor of giving Sung the option of pursuing a Master's degree?" asked Carl.

Drs. Vanadian and Karesh raised their hands.

"How many are in favor of failing him outright?"

Dr. Munster raised his hand.

"Harry, do you wish to vote?" Carl asked Dr. Stillwell.

"No," came the reply.

"Then I will tell him that he has failed his Ph.D. comprehensives, but that he does have the option of finishing a Master's degree if he chooses to," said Carl by way of summary and conclusion.

With that, the august group rose from their chairs around the conference table and recessed from the room:  all silent, all engaged in private analyses and justifica­tions. Carl felt an especially heavy mental and emotional burden, a major component of which was resentment against this student with whom he had spent so much time, in whom he had invested so much effort, and who had performed so poorly—who had, in fact, never seemed to understand the WHY of anything.

For the final installment of this story, click here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 5

Sung did a good job on his oral presentation of the thesis project; Carl's coaching had been taken seriously. The presentation was organized in a logical and obvious fashion. Sung stood confidently and enunciated slowly and carefully. The questioning began relatively benignly; Dr. Karesh asked about the turnover time of the tumor line that Sung was using, which led to more general questions on cell cycle kinetics and how cell cycle data were obtained and analyzed. Next came a question on the antigenicity of the tumor line and whether or not it secreted substantial amounts of antigen into the culture medium. Carl had forseen these questions and Sung was prepared to answer them. In fact, he was so well prepared that his answers sounded as if he were reading them from notes. Carl wondered, absently, whether Sung had taken the questions Carl had given him, written out answers to them, and memorized the written answers.
Then Dr. Munster asked, "Why are you using the B-14 tumor line for your studies?"

Sung looked baffled, glanced around at Carl, then said, "I use B-14 tumor line in laboratory."

"Yes, but why do you use it," pursued Munster.

"It is tumor line," answered Sung.

Carl could not refrain from responding. "Otto, it's a fast-growing tumor line that can be made to slow and differentiate by a variety of agents. It's an ideal tumor line for his problem."

Munster turned in his chair. "It's not your exam, Carl." He then looked back at Sung. "How long have you been working with this cell line?"

"Two year," came the reply.

"And after two years, you still don't know the plural of year?" enunciated Munster with Germanic precision.

Sung was baffled, not knowing whether that had been a question, nor whether he was expected to answer it. "Two yearrss," he said with effort, the "r" and "s" sounds rolling in awkward succession off his stiffened tongue and out his pursed lips.

"In the two years that you've been working with it, has the cell line changed?" continued Munster.

"No," said Sung Lee

With Sung's definite "NO." Carl knew that the difficult questioning was about to begin, and he felt a sense of helplessness as he foresaw Sung sinking deeper and deeper into a quicksand of inadequate answers resulting from his failure to perceive the intent behind a question.

"How do you know the cell line hasn't changed?" pursued Munster.

"It has same antigen," responded Sung, ready with an answer and regaining a bit of confidence.

"Is surface antigenicity the only criterion for identifying a cell type? Could there be antigens on the cell surface now that weren't there two years ago and that you haven't assayed for? What about other criteria for identification? Have you karyotyped the line recently? Have you checked metabolic pathways?"

After this barrage of questions, Sung hesitated a moment and finally said, "No." Another hesitation. He glanced at the blank projector screen, then at the blackboard, began walking toward it, stopped, and then turned back toward the expectant faces before him. He moved his mouth a bit as if intending to say something but, apparently thinking better of it, remained silent. He put his hands on the podium and a blank expression came over his face as he stared over the heads of the examiners.

"No?  No, what," queried Munster incredulously. "Have you not checked metabolic pathways? Did you not do karyotyping? Do you not know whether or not your cell line has changed?"

"No," responded Sung, still staring at the back wall of the conference room, his face reddening.

"I have no further questions for the time being," said Munster, turning to Carl.

For the next installment, click here.