Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Value of a Job

I am a professor. My faculty is unionized. We are on strike. We may settle tonight.

As a scientist, I could have made a salary two or three times more if I had gone into industry instead of academia. Instead, I chose to have intellectual freedom, control over what I do, the joy of basic research, and the personal rewards of opening young minds to the wonders of the natural world.

To get here I went to college at 17, worked as a technician for some years, went to graduate school for five years, earning two Masters and my PhD, and worked as a post-doc for four years. I had five first author papers in and four more that I was a middle author, all published in excellent peer reviewed journals. I applied for and was awarded grant money, I worked 60+ hours a week for years and years. I had student loans, which I have since paid off. I finally got my first real job at the age of 38. It was hard, wonderful, but hard.

Now I have tenure, and I am an Associate Professor. Somehow I am making over $15,000 less than average for a Professor of my rank at a public institution. My University’s contract offer, though better than the original one, will not keep up with inflation. So, in three more years, I can expect to be farther behind the average.

My country’s President doesn’t seem to care in any material way about higher education. My State governor has shifted money away from higher education to give tax breaks to businesses. My University, all my state’s universities, lost millions of dollars in funding over the last few years, in spite of increasing enrollment. My University is to get another 1.5 million dollar cut this year. Apparently universities are now less valuable than they used to be in our politicians eyes.

I was hired to teach two courses a term and run a research lab, training undergrads and grad students to do independent research. Now I teach three to four classes a term and still try to run a laboratory. I do not get paid to run my lab in the summer, but if I am not there my students flounder, needing advice and support. In lectures I teach over 500 students every year in non-majors biology, fundamentals of molecular and cellular biology, genetics, and virology. Fortunately I am single and can devote more of my life to my work than most of my colleagues can reasonably be expected to.

On the other hand, I get paid a reasonable middle class salary. I am not in dire need. In this inexpensive community paying my bills is easy on what I earn. I do not want a Hummer, my Honda is fine, I do not need a mansion, my house is in a lovely location, I do not need to go on cruises or buy designer clothes or go to Spas. I could use a maid and a guy to mow the lawn, but if my house gets particularly messy late in the term, or my shaggy lawn with dandelions irritate my neighbors it is not terribly important.

My problem is that I think that a Professor should be worth more. Are we not valuable? We have worked long and hard to get where we are. We try to better the lives of hundreds of people every year. Should we not be even more valuable as society becomes more and more advanced in technology, as health care becomes more complex?

Why do CEOs, and University Presidents, get big pay and benefit increases, why do businessmen, money managers, lawyers and marketers make so very much money. Why are their skills so much more valued than mine?

And, why is my value decreasing?

I do not yet know which way I will vote. I do not want to hurt my students. I do not want to feel trampled because of that.

The park 100-200 meters from my house

The Forest and the Trees

Across from my house is a forested park. It is a lovely watershed over 12 miles long, preserved. There are conifers that keep their somber green year round, hardwoods that will turn glorious shades of gold and red soon, ferns, wildflowers, rocks tumbling down to streams that feed into a large creek, a rocky gorge, a waterfall, an old mill restored and running.

I do not walk in it enough, though I drive through it almost every day to go to work. This summer I have had houseguests, so have been in it hiking up to the Mill, touring it, watching the great water wheel, and back more than once. It is a lovely 2 hour hike there, tour, and back on the opposite side.

Each tall tree has its roots in the soil. Tiny tubes made of cellulose run from root tip to the crowns of the tall trees. Cellulose is a polymer of sugar. The tiny sugar molecules linked together interact with water molecules in short lived electrical interactions lasting a millionth of a second. The water molecules bind to each other the same way. This causes the water to stick to itself, beading on leaves and spider webs, allowing water striders to skitter over the surface. It also causes the water to adhere to itself and the cellulose in an endlessly changing way. Water is used by the tissues of the tree, and evaporates from the leaves, constantly replaced through the tubes. These simple transitory, weak electrical forces are stronger than gravity, pulling water from roots to tree top with no pumping.

Each leaf has pigments that absorbed the energy from sunlight. Captured photons knock electrons from one place to another, powering the production of high energy molecules, splitting water to produce oxygen. The leaves have pores that release that oxygen. That is how our air has the oxygen that we need to breathe. Those pores also take in carbon dioxide, and with the high energy molecules form sugars. Those sugars make the cellulose, and also the sugars in sugar cane, and fruits, and grains, on which all animals, including us, depend.

The water of the creeks comes from rain, water precipitating out of moist warm air rising into colder air that cannot hold so much moisture. Running down into streams and creeks the force and chemical properties of the water cuts through layers of rock laid down in the distant geological past, scraped by glaciers, tilted by the motions of the great plates pushing against each other on the surface of the earth.

At the Mill the great water wheel turns in a dim cool interior. A small stream of water diverted from the top of the waterfall weights one side of the wheel, causing a steady motion in the massive wheel. Gears turn, transferring that power to a drive shaft that can be engaged to turn grind stones, power a sifter, clean energy from a waterfall.

I will not, now, discuss the biology behind the changing color of leaves in the fall, nor the little ecosystem of birds, mammals, insects and plants, or the gorgeous crystal symmetry of snowflakes in winter.

In the park, the angled layers of rock are cut and tumbled into a gorge, the water ripples and flows at the bottom, trees tower overhead, sunlight filters down from a blue sky with white puffy clouds, a great blue heron is poised by a pool, waiting in stillness.

All those amazing things together make such loveliness. It is so wonderful to stand in it surrounded by the beauty of the sight and sound and knowledge of it vibrating in one-ness.

A whole.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Almost Dreaming

I slide in and out of sleep easily. I have sat in seminars when very short of sleep, slipping in and out of dreams. I used to puzzle over the earlier scientific statements that dreams come in REM sleep, which takes hours to achieve. I wanted to call up sleep researchers and ask them how I slipped in and out of dreams so easily. If I am tired enough I do not even need to close my eyes.

My dreams are full color and all five senses are fully engaged. I have spent some time in some dreams trying to determine if I was dreaming. In one dream a cat’s tail had fallen off and was lying on the floor wiggling like a lizard’s tail. I was appalled. I worried about how to reattach it. I thought it must be a dream. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life. I sat on top of my made bed with my cat and her tail, trying to come up with a way to figure out if it was a dream, or whether I should call the veterinarian. Eventually I forced my eyes open in bed and sighed with relief that it was indeed a dream.

Sometimes my mind starts manufacturing the imagery before I am entirely asleep.

That was the case last night. It was very late. I was comfortably curled in bed. My mind generated a city as seen from a commuter train perhaps. Buildings passed in the light of early evening. I looked at them as they passed, still awake, marveling at my brain’s ingenuity. I tried to get the passage to slow, so I could see more detail, wondering how precise and complete my mind was making them. The image generating part of my brain would not comply. I caught the details of old brick here, a sinuous curve to the alignment of vertical windows from floor to floor there, the aged wood and paint of a tenement window frame farther on. Twenty story buildings rose from a background of three to five story buildings. The outlines were clear. I was looking at the backs not the fronts. The buildings were primarily brick, in various hues and ages. Some were wood and not holding up so well with age.

It was not yet a dream, there was no plot, no people, no odd dream changes. I simply watched in some amazement as the buildings passed by.

Eventually I slid fully into sleep. I do not know what I dreamed of.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

An Experiment

I am a scientist. I run a small research lab that works on some specific DNA in yeast. I have undergraduates and Masters students doing research in my lab. I also teach at my University, typically three classes a term. My research students also take classes, so none of us have the kind of dedicated time to do science that I was used to as a graduate student and a post-doc. I do not have the time to monitor my researchers as closely as might be ideal, and only going to Masters, as soon as a student is trained they are moving on.

I was on a half sabbatical in England two years ago. To both my pleasure and dismay, I accomplished more in 5 months by myself there than all my students combined over 9 years here. Part of that is due to facilities, part due to training, and part to having or not having intellectual colleagues to help with ideas and trouble-shooting.

Nonetheless, this afternoon I am happy.

I have a grad student who has taken rather longer than usual to complete her Master's research. Part of that is due to have two babies while in grad school. Having babies and being a parent tending them will slow down other aspects of life, as it should. Fortunately there is little time pressure on how long you take. But part was a series of technical problems. My student was a good student, but I did not always have the time to supervise her as closely as might be ideal. Sometimes she didn’t do every control she needed, other times she might slip up on a technique I could have caught if I had been paying closer attention.

Finally she had made it through all her earlier technical problems and had successfully made all the genetic changes necessary for her actual experiment. This was not trivial, creating the right cells to compare with normal ones. She did the experiment (involving mating and inheritance patterns) on the cells without the genetic changes. Then did the experiment with the altered cells and suddenly the experiment failed. There were no mated cells. She had not used the original strains for her controls as she should have. Nonetheless, something was very wrong. She repeated it a couple of times, still without t the controls unfortunately, and the experiment simply did not work. My fear was that there was something wrong with the strains she had laboriously created over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, my student's husband needed to move on to his fellowship, and she HAD done a lot of work. So I told her to go and write her thesis. Even though we did not have the answer, she had done enough work for a Masters.

Over the Spring and first part of summer I had undergrads in my lab learning about research. I taught them how to grow the cells, isolate DNA and had them check the altered strains step by step. Everything we checked was working, yet the experiment still failed. It was as if something was killing the cells.

At the end of the term I looked hard at the sterilized filters in the container we put them in to be sterilized we were using.

They looked wrong.

No one knew exactly what they were and where they came from.

I became suspicious that they were a filter type that binds permanently to proteins. Cells would never be released to grow. I was particularly suspicious when I could not find the right filters in their original boxes anywhere in the lab, though there was several containers of the wrong ones (unsterilized).

So I ordered the right filters. I started growing the cells, made sure they were up to growing fast and healthy. Then put in a 14 hour day last Wednesday repeating the experiment, with lots of controls.

It Worked! There are plenty of mated cells that grew into colonies. Now over the next few days, I will grow the colonies up, then isolate their DNA, then cut it, separate it by size on a gel, make some radioactive probes, and see if their inheritance pattern has changed. Finally I can analyze them and find out the answer to the original question.

The grad student says that yes, at the beginning she used filters I had prepared, then she ran out and sterilized the next batch herself. She asked me about the filters, I told her where to find them, and did not think to double check to make sure we hadn’t accumulated the wrong variety. If only I had noticed the filters looking wrong a year ago.