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.

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