Monday, September 2, 2013

Deconstructing "A Scientist's Conclusion."

This is for Desi, who wanted to know what really happened. Otherwise, I doubt I’d write this-reality-to-fiction synopsis of “A Scientist’s Conclusion.” I began this commentary  back in May, but summer got in the way of finishing it.  (The story begins here in case you want to read it through before reading this.) Anyway, here's the story of the story.

Many years ago, when I was doing a post-doctoral stint (those two years were the nadir of my life), I happened upon a newspaper story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a Chinese graduate student in the biomedical sciences who shot his advisor. I no longer remember the details of the story, but I do remember thinking, “One day I want to write a story about a graduate student who kills his advisor.” That probably reflected the grimness of my life at the time.  I thought I should be able to depict the difficulty, the poverty, the isolation, the confusion, the demands, as well as the indifference verging on contempt suffered by many graduate students in the sciences, who endure a slave-like existence, living in fear that all their work may be in vain, knowing that half the students in the program never obtain the sought-after degree – flunking out or becoming too dispirited to continue.
I didn’t write the story then, and I later moved, got a decent job in a good lab, worked hard, published, and eventually became a graduate advisor in my own right. My first graduate student was a hand-me-down (as in the story) who had not performed well on his oral exam in another department and had been denied further study there. However, he was rescued by a faculty member in my department, who shortly thereafter took a job elsewhere and who begged me to take on this student. And yes, he was Chinese and had language difficulties.
I worked very hard with him. I mean, VERY hard. You have no idea how hard. And yes, we had difficulty with communication and with the very idea of what it means to do science. We did, indeed,  have an issue once with the idea of experimental controls. We were picking out photos for his dissertation, and we couldn’t find a good photo to illustrate a particular cell type in control animals. He showed me a photo that looked pretty good, but when I found out it had actually come from an experimental animal, I exploded. [Of such actions is scientific fraud born (and believe me, there’s enough of that out there already).] He somehow seemed unable to understand why that was taboo or why I was so upset. He later told a fellow student that I had "blown him up” (meaning, I had blown up at him).
When the time for his dissertation defense approached, as we were working on his presentation, he happened to mention that one of his fellow countryman had killed his advisor when he didn’t pass his defense. I viewed that as something of a veiled threat. However, he did all right on the defense (as a colleague said, “That was C…’s finest hour.”), and he obtained the Ph.D. Whew.
So I decided to write the story from a faculty advisor's point of view, but I also wanted to make the student seem sympathetic. The student in the story became Korean, which was odd because later (after retirement), I spent two years in Korea. Of course, in the story nobody wins. But I wanted to tell the story anyway.