Saturday, May 13, 2006

an inspiring day

In the morning listened to Prof. Nicanor Tiongson give his commencement speech to South and Southeast Asian studies. His speech reaffirmed alot of things that had been in my mind regarding culture and the transformative power that each of us has regarding culture. He also redefined in my mind what a color blind society would truly look like. And that by reaffirming the humanity that is found in each of our ethnic cultures that we could truly build a color blind society. Although he spoke specifically about Filipinos the speech transcended the many cultures represented there. To know history not simply to say that "this is the way things should be" but to know history in order to map out the future. It was a surprising speech actually from someone who documented Philippine tradition with his work at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on the Encyclopedia of Philippine Cultlure. Tradition, he said, is good, but it is also tradition that holds us back.

Later in the afternoon, I got another treat in helping, who my hubby calls, "a rockstar in science." Hubby spent 5 minutes outside his door sweating bullets before finally getting the nerve to have him sign a magazine that had him on the cover several years ago. Here's another hint, there's a building named after him on campus and he was editor-in-chief of Science magazine for 10 year. His late wife was also a science prof at Berkeley. The main science library is named after her. He and his wife were a tour de force at Berkeley eventually spearheading the initiative to transform how science departments in Berkeley were structured. He's not a man who sits on his laurels, yet no one would blame him for sitting on all the laurels he already has.

His work transformed what we knew in how enzymes work. Before we didn't know how enzymes could affect some cells and not others. He figured out that there is a lock and key mechanism. An enzyme has a specific shape that only binds to a specific receptor which then creates the chain reaction. This idea opened up a whole new way of understanding the body and the reactions that occur in it on a daily basis.

Later on, when his memory started failing, he decided to go into neurobiology and understanding memory and in particular Alzheimer's. Now when a named scientist "switches" topics, people wonder who the hell does he think he is. But he did it and he is doing it. And by simply coming into the field from a different angle he is transforming the way we had been looking for answers.

And the other thing I knew about him going in was that according to my coworker he's the sweetest old man.

So I went to his office today and asked him about the problems he was having with his computer and walked him through things and explained why he needed to do things like updates and anti-virus scans and that maybe he could ask his tech support about doing backups. Because frankly, I knew he wasn't going to be the kind of man who was going to run his software updates because you tell him he has to, he has to know a bit of why it's a good thing. It was funny, because he said to me several times, "I don't know what's going on, I'm not that smart." Which I'm sure would bemuse quite a few scientists. After the hour and a half, he said that he felt like he was going to have a great weekend now that he understands a bit more on how his computer works. He really didn't like to bother anyone with these silly kinds of problems. At one point, he said, "you notice alot of things about computers." To which I answered "and I'm sure you notice alot more things in science than I'll ever see." Then when he went to check on the lab, "maybe after this you can help me solve some biochemical questions." "That might take me a bit longer", I quipped. And yes, it's true, he's the sweetest old man.

What I learned from him: So here's this man who must be in his mid-80s by now, professor emeritus, winner of many accolades. Hell, he had gotten a major award that day. Yet here he is in the lab, continuing to mentor other scientists and trying to solve biochemical problems. Who has had an ability in his life to continue to improve upon the day before, to not settle for what he's done, but to look for something new, that next "ah-ha" as Tuhan would put it. He wasn't a man afraid to step out of the box. And yet, for all his greatness, I had also met a very humble and simple man, who doesn't really want to bother anyone with his troubles, who knows when he doesn't know something and knows that he doesn't have to know everything. A man who has pictures of his late wife and their large family on his wall.

Oh and I also learned that aspirin causes birth defects in rabbits, which is a test that the FDA uses to determine if a drug is safe for approval. If aspirin had been introduced today it would have failed FDA approval. Aspirin is on a special FDA exception list called, "GRAS" - Generally Recognized As Safe which includes other things like Saccharin that had been in such widespread and long term use and hasn't caused any kind of epidemic that the FDA figures they could let it slide.

When I left his office, I shook his hand, left him my card and told him that if he has any other questions, he can call me. Of course, he replied, if you don't hear from me then it's perfectly fine. I walked away thinking, "I wanna be like him!" Well, maybe not in the "rockstar of science" category, but more in the way in which he approached life and the work that he has done. Down-to-earth, simple, humble, generous, personable, passionate and not afraid to create the change that is necessary to move into the future. If I were to quote another Professor Emeritus I know, Prof K would be an example of having those "shining eyes."

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