Throwback Thursday, starring a couple of photosynthesis researchers

"Yes, Nicole, I know what you did there."

I don’t play Throwback Thursday often, but apparently, when I do, Nicole supplies me with the picture.

The woman on the left, Elizabeth Gross, is the reason I have a PhD. In her role as chair of the Biophysics Program at Ohio State, she took a chance on a punk from Rose-Hulman who bugged the mess out of her (and even drove to Columbus on something of a lark on a Saturday to see what was there, and what could have been a 30-minute interview-type thing turned into a 3-hour conversation), and then, the moment the words “Brownian dynamics” were mentioned in casual conversation, bugged her some more during his first year until she let him into the lab, with no funding and a wild concept of a project. And patiently, through every conceivable TA appointment imaginable while the research was going on, she kept letting me bug her, and even started to bug me back a bit as she got seriously interested in the modeling herself. We worked out how plastocyanin and cytochrome f get together to do electron transfer, basically by taking every computer package written to model proteins and other macromolecules and forcing them to do what WE wanted to do, whether that was what they were designed to do or not. She had that “feeling for the organism” that Barbara McClintock wrote about – she understood how chloroplasts worked, and had a gut feeling for how proteins did chemistry, and 99% of the time, she was right.

And that’s before we get into her metaphors that were simply brain-bending. Those who live in tin houses should not throw can openers, though, so I won’t touch that with a 12-foot Norweigan.

The woman on the right, Nicole Vanderbush, was in my first group of students at Shorter. She was loudmouthed, obnoxious, kind of a punk herself – and insanely passionate about whatever she was passionate about at the moment. I have no idea what drew her to me, and I honestly wonder why I had confidence in her in those first days myself. All I know is, I have never had a student trust me so much, and who latched on to an idea so tightly. She took that very same Brownian dynamics problem and ran with it, got interested enough in the proteins to turn out a research project that could actually be presented somewhere (the only student I’ve ever had to take those steps, and I’ve been at this now for nearly a decade and a half), and landed at an REU at the University of Arkansas – as fate would have it, working for Dr. Gross’ first grad student, Dan Davis. That REU turned into her own PhD project, and Nicole became a better experimentalist than I could have ever dreamed of being. Now she’s at Shorter – and carries the title of Assistant Professor, the thought of which blows my mind daily.

The place where they are standing is the office space at Ohio State where I spent the better part of six years of my life. It is, I believe, cleaner in this picture than it ever was when I studied there.

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that there is not a picture of these two women, together with me. They represent two of the most important stages of my life.

And yes, if you knew these sweet people’s personalities, it is thoroughly appropriate that Nicole has broken out the bunny ears on Liz, and Liz just keeps grinning as if to say “yes, Nicole, I know what you did there.”


One other thing that it’s important to note.

These two, the two most important people in my career in science, are both women.

There are not many guys who can say that bit.

It is a bit of a quirk of fate (or providence?), when you think about it. The right person to guide me through the PhD, and the right first student for me to start through that path.

I don’t know what to make of that, except that I’ve found myself uncommonly sensitive to issues of women’s success in science, in the physical sciences especially, over the course of my life. It registered very early on that there were many people who had talents who simply let those talents go because there wasn’t someone there who would affirm those talents, and who would talk about the path to doing science as a profession being available to them.

Part of the conflict within me over the current state of academia, the current dearth of jobs out there for people with PhD’s even in the sciences, is that we still need to address the gender imbalance in those professions, and take maximum advantage of the talent available, instead of losing people on the path. That needs to happen even as the jobs available is dwindling and the political will to support academic science goes from slim to none.

I’ve become very passionate about health professions advising, because that’s another way to nurture those talents and put them to good societal use, and the jobs are there for those who complete those paths successfully (even as those paths involve residencies and other sorts of credentialing hoops). But that’s not a substitute for our best thinkers applying their thinking to basic science problems, trusting that the benefits to them personally will prove over the long run to be benefits to society as a whole. And it’s not a substitute for ensuring that our best thinkers are a diverse group, with diverse experiences that turn into diverse means of solving big problems.

I have no answers, but I have a set of values that I find important, and I have a host of people in my life who have informed those values. And at key points along that path, those people have been women.

I am incredibly, incredibly grateful for what I’ve inherited, and I need to be a good steward of that inheritance.

This is why I do what I do.

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