Last night, I had to sit in a crowded chapel, surrounded by friends, colleagues, and teachers, and listen as my PhD advisor gave a eulogy about one of his current graduate students.
I have listened to him speak at many occasions. There are the professional events, of course: meetings, seminars, dissertation defenses and the like. There are the social events: he has seen many of his lab through weddings and births. I just never imagined him presiding over a memorial. As I listened to him speak in such glowing terms about this student I was touched by how much of a measure of a persons character it is to be able to rise to such an occasion and meet it with such dignity and courage. As he shared some thoughtful stories about his student, I remembered back to my years in his lab. The traditions that have become established started with the first of us, and I was happy to know that they continue. The spaces that I walked are now occupied by a new group, yet I was among the first. The experiments that are being done now developed out of work that started when I was one of just a few in a new, small but growing research lab. For a little while last night I once again felt myself to be part of this growing yet close knit community.
When I moved on to my post doc lab, I didn't move far: across the street and up a floor. Yet, in an effort to look forward, I tried to distance myself a little from my graduate lab, and over the years that distance has seemed to grow. As I reconnected with everyone I realized that my 'distance' is only imaginary and that you never really leave. I realized that I may have moved on, but I left behind a part of me; a small legacy. I was humbled. I was proud. I was filled with nostalgia, and I was filled with a desire to work harder; to strive for greater successes.
Perhaps that is the measure of a good advisor. Even in the face of tragedy he has made me feel welcome, he has made me feel worthy, and he has motivated me to move forward. And I am reminded of why I 'do' science: to find something new, yes; to 'make the world better', yes; and to leave a little of myself behind.
Every time someone references one my publications, I know I have succeeded. And so, every time I author a paper, I will do so in honor of those who taught me. I will do do in honor of those who follow me. I will do so in memory of those who are now silent, but always present.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009