12 Jun 2018

How my father shaped my career before and after his death

A Father's Day reflection

Father’s Day is this Sunday. For me, this holiday usually comes and goes without much thought. I don’t have kids. My mother isn’t married to some man I have to call a step-father. My father died at the age of 57 on October 6, 2007, two days before my 25 birthday. That means its been 9 years since I last called or visited my dad to wish Happy Father’s Day. I don’t usually get too sentimental around this holiday, but this week I stumbled upon some Mike Eisen tweets about his father’s death, and I’ve been working to organize meetings that are very friendly to scientists with children, and now I can’t stop thinking about how my father’s life and death have impacted my career.

This is not a biography of my father, nor is it a complete summary of how his life has impacted me, but it does touch upon how his profession and personal life affected some decisions I made regarding my education and research topics.

Rudy Martin Harris (RMH, same initials as me) started working at LeTourneau, Inc as a mechanical engineer immediately after graduating from college, and he worked right up until a few weeks before he died from a 5 month battle with skin cancer. LeTourneau manufactured “earthmoving equipment” like offshore drilling rigs and the biggest bulldozers you’ve ever seen, but my dad worked with computers to automate the manufacturing process. I think at one point there were 5 computers in our “patio room” (a patio that he converted into a 2nd living room pretty much all by himself). My father was a self-proclaimed workaholic; he’d spend all day at the office and then get back to work tinkering with computers til late at night. Eventually, he moved up the ladder to Vice President of Manufacturing, so he spent less time hacking away at computers and more time flying around to visit other manufacturing plants. I never wanted to explicitly follow in my father’s footsteps, but I do remember thinking that it would be really cool to work my way from an entry-level position all the way to the top to the President’s office.

The few times I visited my father at work, the only females I encountered were secretaries. I don’t know if anyone every explicitly said it, but I assumed engineering was a man’s job and that females weren’t allowed. I remember being shocked during my first semester of college to meet female students that that were enrolled in the aerospace and petroleum engineering programs. I was like, “how did you know that was a thing?” Sometimes I wonder where I would be now if my dad had gotten me a summer internship at his company or encouraged me to study engineering. Even though he didn’t groom to follow in his footsteps, I think I inherited his intellectual acumen, his desire for everything to be well organized and efficient, and his half introvert/half extrovert personality. I think I would have made a good engineer, but I’m finding awesome ways to apply those traits to scientific and social problems, so no hard feelings.

There was a time, however, that I did harbour very negative feelings toward my father. Over Christmas break when I was 14, my mom and dad got in the only fight I’m aware of them ever having, and he moved out. I was crushed. I didn’t understand how my father could leave me to go live with some other woman who was raising her grandchildren because her own kids were too incompetent to be good parents. At that age, I didn’t really understand what an affair was, but I hated the fact that he was spending his time and money on someone’s else kids rather than spending them on me. At first, I lashed out by not speaking to my father for a whole year. He would come to my volleyball games and take we water skiing on the weekend, but I literally would not utter a single word to him. I must have been insufferable. I eventually started talking to my dad again, but it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I would say we had a decent relationship. I graduate in 4.5 years and then spent a semester TAing. The day I was moving out of my apartment to go live abroad for a year, my dad called to say he had really aggressive skin cancer and that had spread throughout all nearly all his major organs. I went to see him once a month for the next 5 month, and he looked as if he aged 10 years between every visit.

A lot of doctors (PhDs and MDs) get involved with cancer research after a loved one dies of cancer. Not me. I had no desire to be an MD, and I was set on being a scientist. While living in Costa Rica, I learned how to collect marine samples by SCUBA diving and got pretty good a culturing marine microbes and extracting their DNA. I was looking for a research tech job when I found a position in a lab that was using DNA microarrays to study parental behavior and mating behavior. I was like, “This is a thing?!” I was definitely intrigued by the possibility of understanding what makes some individual good dads and faithful partners whereas others not so much, so I joined the lab. I learned a lot about how different levels of molecules like dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin, and testosterone in the brain can influence how decision making and social behaviors. It was all pretty fascinating and enlightening for a while, but I eventually got bored reading about the same genes, brain regions, evolutionary theories, nasals sprays that influence social behavior. More importantly, I felt like I learned enough about the biological forces that may have shaped my father’s personal life that I no longer need to devote my professional life to understanding the future, not the past.

If you are looking for other science-themed Father’s Day related reads, Titus Brown, Mike Eisen, and Jonathan Eisen have all blogged about the life and death of their father and how it impacted their careers. Titus’s father was a well-known physicist who died in 2013 after failing to recover from an illness. Gerry Brown mentored over 100 graduate students! Who knows if Titus will officially mentor that many (he’s only at 10), but he has unofficially mentored hundreds through his Data Intensive Biology Summer Institute. Mike and Jonathan’s father, a respected scientist at NIH, took his own life in 1987. Mike writes about how he will never stop trying to figure responded the stress of work with suicide, and I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t explain why he is often very critical of the NIH. To honor their father, Jonathan went on a mission to make all their father’s paper publicly available. On a lighter note, Jeremy Fox compared his own work ethic to that of his father and paternal grandfather who owned a local grocery store in a small town.

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