A Story About Perseverance – Inspiration From My Old Professor

Names and details in this blog post have been altered to protect the privacy of its subjects.

I met my old professor, Dr. Perez, for lunch recently.  We have kept in touch for many years since she taught me during my undergraduate studies, and she has been a good friend and mentor.  We had not seen each other for a few years, but we have been in regular contact over phone and email, exchanging stories, updates, photos of her grandchildren, frustrations, thrills, and perspectives.  It was nice to see her again.

I told her about the accomplishments and the struggles in my early career as a statistician so far.  I am generally satisfied with how I have performed since my entry into the statistics profession, but there are many skills that I don’t have or need to improve upon.  I want to learn distributed computing and become better at programming in Python, SQL, and Hadoop – skills that are highly in demand in my industry but not taught during my statistics education.  I want to be better at communicating about statistics to non-statisticians – not only helping them to understand difficult concepts, but persuading them to follow my guidance when I know that I am right.  I sometimes even struggle with seemingly basic questions that require much thinking and research on my part to answer.  While all of these are likely common weaknesses that many young statisticians understandably have, they contribute to my feeling of incompetence on occasion  – and it’s not pleasant to perform below my, my colleagues’, or my industry’s expectations for myself.

Dr. Perez listened and provided helpful observations and advice.  While I am working hard and focusing on my specific problems at the moment, she gave me a broader, more long-term perspective about how best to overcome these struggles, and I really appreciated it.  Beyond this, however, she told me a story about a professor of our mutual acquaintance that stunned and saddened me, yet motivated me to continue to work harder.

I took a course under Dr. Baker’s instruction many years ago, when she was new to the university and still establishing her research program in nuclear chemistry.  She was young, smart, and eager to work hard in both research and teaching, but was not very clear in her lectures.  Although I struggled to understand her in class, her concern for her students’ learning was sincere and evident in her office hours.  She also had difficulty projecting her voice to the large classroom of over 400 students, even with the microphone, and many students would disrespectfully chat and talk over her lectures.  It was incredibly difficult for her and the rest of us who tried to listen to her attentively.

Dr. Perez taught the same course many times; being easy-going and revered among students for her outstanding teaching ability, she provided a lot of encouragement and advice for Dr. Baker.  Dr. Perez had told me about Dr. Baker’s progress from time to time over the years;  she recognized Dr. Baker’s weakenesses, but was very impressed by her work ethic and dedication to improve her teaching ability in subsequent teaching assignments.  (Research-oriented universities put little to no weight on teaching when evaluating a professor’s performance, so it’s a rather thankless task, especially when teaching basic chemistry to over 400 first-year students.)

I had heard about all of these struggles over the years from Dr. Perez, but, during our recent lunch, I was aghast to learn that Dr. Baker actually suffers from a chronic liver disorder.  This disorder causes frequent fatigue and is responsible for her lack of energy and ability to project her voice.  Adding insult to injury, several disgruntled students harassed Dr. Baker by writing obscene messages on her car window and vandalizing her car tires.

She managed her condition for many years with a disciplined diet and moderate but regular exercise, but, recently, it deteriorated so badly that she needed a liver transplant.  The surgery did not proceed smoothly, and there were some bad complications; she suffered a lot of physical pain and mental anguish for a long time in an intensive care unit.  After a gruelling recovery and trying to begin her new life with her new liver, her doctors realized that the immunosuppressive drugs were not working perfectly, and her body was still not fully accepting the liver.  She could not eat and exercise as she wanted to, and this prolonged her discomfort.

Dr. Perez has been visiting Dr. Baker and keeping in touch with her steadily.  During her most recent visit, she seemed to be a lot better and have finally overcome her complications.  She is on a medical leave from her professorship and needs to stay home to recover for the short-term future, but her prognosis is cautiously positive.  I wrote to Dr. Baker to wish a smooth recovery shortly after I heard about this story, and she responded gratefully and seemed to be doing well.

I actively participated in academic research during my university career, so I know how hard and competitive the academic world can be for professors.  Furthermore, nuclear chemistry is not a widely practiced field; many chemistry departments have few or even no nuclear chemists, so conducting research in nuclear chemistry in a university can be lonely.  Most chemistry professors work in organic, inorganic, and analytical chemistry, so few would understand Dr. Baker’s work when evaluating her performance, which can work against her favour; her medical leave certainly doesn’t help her progress with generating publications in top-notch journals, which she is definitely capable of doing.

I admire her perseverance in sustaining her commitment to her professorship amidst all of this struggle for all of these years – and it certainly gives me a good perspective about the challenges that I face in my career right now.  I may not be entirely satisfied with myself, but my challenges are far less insurmountable and far more nourishing to overcome.  Dr. Baker’s story reminds me that I am fortunate to have the struggles that I am facing right now, because they are actually opportunities for growth.  I have the basic foundations – good health, a quiet and clean home, adequate food, warm clothes, a wealth of education, and an abundance of work experience – to build a successful career that is intellectually and professionally rewarding.  What I need now – and what I needed to overcome any past challenge – is perseverance, the kind that my old professor quietly practices to reach her goals and inspire me to reach mine.

One Response to A Story About Perseverance – Inspiration From My Old Professor

  1. mielniczuk says:

    Thank you for sharing the inspiration and for keeping a true perspective.

Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated!

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