How on Earth Did I Get Here?

Tom Schofield

Dr. Tom Schofield

I highly recommend an article I just read in Nature by Thomas M. Schofield., which describes his journey into being a scientist and, in the process makes an excellent point about the nature of science and determining what is true.  Go ahead and take a few minutes and read it.  I’ll wait.

Back?  Great article, isn’t it?  Very tragically, Dr. Schofield died in an accident in 2010, however, if this little essay were his sole contribution to science, he had and his family has every reason to be proud.  Like him, I firmly hold to the view that science is not the search for truth, but rather the search for an improved, albeit still flawed, understanding and description of the world around us.  I often tell newcomers to the laboratory that, if their goal is the search for an ultimate truth, they would do better to enroll in the seminary down the street.

His essay also got me to thinking about my own journey into science, which, like Dr. Schofield, was in no way, direct.  I was one of those irritating whiners in high school that was good enough in both the humanities and the sciences that my big complaint was that I couldn’t make up my mind in which direction to turn my genius.  I enrolled in college as a dual major in medieval history and mathematics. The medieval history major held up even through the Dooms of Ine, one of the earliest compilations of English law by the king of Wessex (Ine) in 694 CE.  I managed to hang in there despite the fact that Ine spent a great deal of time detailing the number of pence that were due to a lord for hacking off various bits of one of his serfs.

I hit the wall in mathematics at differential equations.  This was probably because of my difficulty grasping  the subject.  However, the fact that the professor teaching it was so socially shy and awkward that he never once faced the class, but instead stood facing the blackboard from about a foot away, speaking very softly and covering the board in equations for an entire semester probably didn’t help matters much.  Along the way, I also took a smattering of courses because they caught my interest, such as Epic Poetry (actually, pretty cool), Attic Greek (a very bad idea) and Intro to Neuroscience, which I enjoyed.

However, halfway through college, my grades were an apparently random assortment, ranging from A’s to C’s with a few lower grades thrown in if the subject really bored me.  I still had no clue or long-term goal, although I tended to fall back, when pressed, on the idea of following my dad into psychiatry.  Since I was attending a rather expensive school with no financial aid, it was strongly suggested by my parents that I take a little time off to find myself.  And yes, that is a very sanitized version of the rather loud and acrimonious conversation that actually took place.

Since I wanted to demonstrate my independence, I began looking around for a job.  At various points, I guided tours at a restored textile mill, shipped junk jewelry to characters with names like Uncle Zud, managed a Domino’s Pizza and finally returned to my hometown to be near my (long-suffering) girlfriend who eventually became my (long-suffering) wife.  At loose ends in Pittsburgh in the 1980’s, I applied for a job in rehabilitation counseling for mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed adults.

This was at the height of a mental health movement call, “deinstitutionalization” which was based on the perfectly logical notion that most people who were intellectually slow or emotionally impaired could be treated  effectively in local community mental health treatment facilities.  Indeed, rather than treating anyone, these  large state mental hospitals served mostly as warehouses for people that polite society didn’t want to have to see.

I was hired, as much because I volunteered as for any other obvious qualifications.  However, since I had a background in psychology (I had, after all, taken a course called, “neuroscience”), I was assigned to work primarily with clients who had significant mental illness.

That was probably the toughest, most exasperating, exhausting job that I’ve ever done.  I had clients who threatened to kill the paper boy because he always delivered the paper late.  I had clients who announced to me, “Satan spoke to me, last night.”  (To which I could only think to reply, “And how is Mrs. Satan?”).  I learned that when you have inadvertently cornered a paranoid schizophrenic, even if you can hold his wrists to keep him from hitting you, he can still kick the hell out of your legs.

What sent me back to school was my client, Joe.  Joe had been raised in a deeply religious family.  He was not retarded, his mother told me, he was one of, “G-d’s angels”.  That meant that, in exchange for being slow to learn, he wasn’t subject to those sordid human sins like greed or envy or, G-d-forbid, lust.  The problem was, he was thirty and, in fact, like any thirty year old man, he thought about sex.  And had erections.  And wanted to do something about that.  But, he was a virtuous guy.  Sex without marriage wasn’t an option.  However, he was six and a half feet tall, weighed over 250 pounds and, when his emotions got too much for him, could (and did) throw 36 inch (diagonal) television sets through windows.  And threaten delinquent paper boys.

So when, in a therapy session, a certified “therapist” told Joe that he needed to, “Think nice thoughts”, I blew a small fuse.  That’s when I knew I had to go back to school, get my bachelor’s degree and go to graduate school.  I certainly couldn’t do worse than telling a client desperately trying to repress being human to think nice thoughts.

So back to school I went.  I was going to finish my bachelor’s degree, go to medical school and then do a residency in psychiatry.  I was going to offer better therapy than to think nice thoughts.  Fortunately, I had a very hard-nosed advisor, Dr. Ed Stricker, who pointed out to me that my rather patchy academic record might get in the way of medical school without some remedial work.  More importantly, he pointed out that it might also signal that I didn’t really want to go to medical school.  I had, truly, never thought about it that way.

At the same time, I had the opportunity to spend some time in a real research laboratory with completely committed graduate students.  By the end of the first year back in school I began to see research as an achievable goal.  It didn’t hurt that at about the same time, my dad, the psychiatrist, pointed out to me that the independence and freedom of thought that I anticipated from a career in psychiatry was rapidly evaporating in the era of pharmacotherapy and managed care.  As an aside, having taught in a department of psychiatry for twenty years, I can see that he was right.

So, in 1982, I began applying to the relatively few graduate programs in neuroscience that were available.  Luckily for me, I do well on standardized tests.  So, I was recruited to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because, as the associate director of the program, Dr. Dick King, said, he wanted to see what someone with Graduate Record Exam scores as high as mine and a GPA that barely reached 3.0 could do.

I still thank Dr. King, for the chance.  I hope I did as well as he thought I might.  But, whether I did or didn’t, I will always be grateful for the life experiences and key people, like Ed Stricker, Dick King and my dad, who helped me find my way to a career of trying to make our understanding of the natural world a little less wrong.


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