Why do you want to get sputum all over yourself?

1986-7 was a time of transition. I was 26 years old, had been a saddle maker and caretaker on a ranch for the past 5 years, was happily married, had my first daughter and another on the way, and had dropped out of college (twice).

Me riding Logan (with my saddle!) shortly before leaving Santa Fe.

Me riding Logan (with my saddle!) shortly before leaving Santa Fe.

In retrospect it doesn’t seem as obvious, but at the time I realized that the most obvious next step was to go to medical school. After all, I had already been certified to give IVs through emergency medical technician training as a member of the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department. Trust me, it all made sense…

One problem was that I already knew that I hated chemistry, having had a few bad starts in that subject. That is why I chose Fine Arts as a major when I joined University of Utah to complete my premed requirements.

Self portrait that was used to make a huge drawing in Art School using regular shapes. (I can't find an image of the drawing...)

Self portrait that was used to make a huge drawing in Art School using regular shapes. (I can’t find an image of the drawing…)

The school that I dropped out of (twice) was St. John’s College, a small liberal arts college in Santa Fe, NM (with a sister campus in Annapolis, MD). At St. John’s, all students cover the same “great books” curriculum. Classes are small (~15 or so students and a “tutor”, the St. John’s term for Professor), there are no exams, there are no grades, and everybody is expected to participate in a round table discussion about the subject. The first year is Euclid’s Elements (my favorite math class ever), Ancient Greek, Science (e.g. Lavoisier for chemistry), and Seminar (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Greek plays).

Despite the evidence of my (spotty) track record, I loved St. John’s. It remains the best educational experience that I’ve ever had. At the time, however, the pull of saddle making and building a house in the woods was just too strong…

So when I enrolled in General Chemistry at the University of Utah in a class with 500+ students in the year off between my first and second years at St. John’s (pre saddles, pre marriage, pre kids, …), I had a miserable experience. I’m not even sure how I made it through that class, but the low “C” that I received reinforced to me that chemistry was not for me.

I’m not really sure what changed when I tried again in 1986. I was completely confident, despite the fact that I had dropped out of St. John’s (twice), almost failed chemistry once, and had declared myself a Fine Arts major.

Gas Trap for Artist, a conceptual piece that I made for the student Art show. The calculations at the bottom determined the quantity of gas that I would produce if I were combusted. I then calculated the pressure needed to keep the gas contained in the volume of the aluminum cube. Not everyone liked it as much as I did...

Gas Trap for Artist, a conceptual piece that I made for the student Art show. The calculations at the bottom determined the quantity of gas that I would produce if I were combusted. I then calculated the pressure needed to keep the gas contained in the volume of the aluminum cube. Not everyone liked it as much as I did…

Then I had my first transformative experience. Dr. David Grant was my professor for second semester General Chemistry. The first semester had been a replay of what I had experienced before, but I worked hard and didn’t worry about the format of the class, and I got an “A” this time. However, compared to St. John’s it was an unpleasant learning experience for me: large lectures with published lecture notes that had missing key words to be filled in by students to keep them from falling asleep.

Dr. Grant was different. During his first lecture, a concerned student raised his hand to ask where he was in the published lecture notes. He seemed to be off script. Dr. Grant answered that he had never heard of these, and when he looked at a copy that he got from one of the students, he said that we could toss them in the trash. Other students were horrified, but I could hardly contain my excitement!

I was completely fascinated by Dr. Grant, who was teaching us that mole fractions were nothing more complicated than mixing fruit salad: “…if you have a recipe that serves 10 people and calls for 1 cantaloupe, 4 apples, 2 bananas, a pound of grapes, and half a watermelon, how many apples do you need to feed 20?” He would pose this question to the students who were nervously trying to find where he was in the published lecture notes, and if they couldn’t answer, he would ask if they had another skill such as music (those were the good old days…).  Not long after the fruit salad, he asked how many of us knew calculus, because it was much easier to explain something with calculus than the way it was given in the book. Only small handful (regretfully not me!) raised their hands, and Dr. Grant told the rest of us that we should sue our high schools.

For the first time in my life, I could see myself as a scientist.

I met with Dr. Grant several times that semester. He would ask what I had been doing with my life, and from then on he always referred to my past as “growing tulips somewhere”. One time he asked what I planned on doing next, and I told him that I was planning on going to medical school. He asked why I would want to spend all my time around sick people getting sputum all over myself and added as a contrast that chemistry was a great profession. That was a real turning point for me.

It turns out that Dr. Grant was not only an outstanding and inspirational teacher, but he was also one of the pioneers and giants in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance, a technique I had never heard of when I took his class. I ended up earning my PhD in this field and do it to this day. It is amazing the influence that Dr. Grant has had on this field. I would see him almost every year at the ENC, our annual international meeting. He would always ask about my family and tell someone about my time growing tulips or something. He died this year, about 2 days before I was scheduled to give a talk at the ENC. As it turns out, I was speaking about a fancy new way we had developed using a technique that he had started, and I added a short dedication to him. I was barely able to get through it without choking up.

4 responses

  1. Haha, you guys are funny! I just found your blog and read your whole story. So cool! I wish there was more! So…you went from leather…to a Chemistry Professor? And you didn’t even like Chemistry? Or whatever it is you do? Amazing! So cool! Thanks for sharing a bit of your life, it was very interesting to read about!! 🙂

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