(Originally published in the defunct "Citizens of Science" blog)
My favorite quote of the young 21st century is from Bruce Springsteen, who, when recently asked how he channeled his anxiety about getting on stage into his spectacular performances replied: “Your desperation has to be greater than your fear.” And THAT, my friends, is also the best explanation you will ever hear about why I--and probably you reading this--went into a career in science. Many of you reading this will be young, but if you’ve defended your Ph.D., you’ve been on that stage. You’ve felt that stage fright. You’ve had that gut churn that tells you that maybe you’re not good enough, or smart enough, or you’re outclassed. Maybe this was a complete mistake. Maybe you should have done something easier. I mean, what’s the point really? Why put yourself through this torture?
The answer is that our desperation was greater than our fear.
I was born in 1965 and reared in North Mississippi. My Dad had grown up in that same area in the 1940s. His family was poor like you see in old movies, with an outhouse that used mail order catalogs for toilet paper, and him lugging buckets of water from the nearby spring. My Mom wasn’t much better off. She walked miles to school and back every day. Desperation was their everyday lives.
As I grew a little older, Mom and Dad both had secured steady work, and we escaped from the poverty that surrounded us and became a solidly blue-collar middle class family. We never forgot that poverty always lurked right around the corner. I had to get up on Saturday mornings and work in the family garden all day. I would help can and preserve the food that we harvested. When I was very young, our pantry was always full of Mason jars full of preserved foods that we had produced ourselves. There was nary a store brand among them. There was desperation in that pantry.
My mother was a third grade teacher in Iuka, Mississippi, and so I learned to read at a very early age. My parents were also able to buy a television, which received exactly two channels: an ABC station and an NBC station. It was an epic time to be growing up as an American kid. From 1969-1972, the US had six moon landings, all of which received extensive television coverage. I watched every second of the broadcasts with fascination. At night, I would go outside and stare up at the moon in the sky overhead. I was desperate to get up there with them.
Because we couldn’t get a CBS station, it wasn’t until 1972 that I discovered “Star Trek” reruns. I would walk to my grandmother’s trailer and she would make an after-school snack, and I’d watch “Star Trek.” Because I wanted desperately to be on the Enterprise, and to explore strange, new worlds, I excelled in my math and science classes in school, graduating as salutatorian of our small high school class. I thought that was my ticket to the stars, and in a way I was right about that.
I arrived as a freshman at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1982. I began in the pre-med program, because that’s what all the smart kids were supposed to do. But a funny thing happened in organic chemistry; I discovered I liked it better than anything I had ever done, and I was pretty good at it. All those years of desperation growing up instilled in me a blue-collar work ethic that I applied to my STEM classes as an undergraduate, and then to my graduate-level chemistry classes when I made the leap to the Ph.D. program. I was desperate to graduate and get a job as a scientist. But that didn’t quite turn out like I thought it would.
When I received my Ph.D. in 1990, the Cold War had just ended, and Mr. Gorbachev was tearing down the Berlin Wall. The unanticipated consequence of the Wall coming down was a flood of Eastern European scientists into the US, leading to what was known then as “the glut.” It was just as hard then--if not harder--to find a permanent position as a scientist as it is today. I did post-doctoral positions at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany; at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis; and at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. I was desperate to find a permanent position somewhere, but it was very difficult. I almost gave up on a career as a scientist, but then I caught a break. As Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”
While I was at the Naval Research Laboratory in DC, through an acquaintance I met Eric Rowinsky, M.D., who was then at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Eric was being hired as the clinical director at the Institute for Drug Development at the San Antonio Cancer Institute’s Cancer Therapy and Research Center. To my surprise, he asked me to join him in his move because of my work on cancer drugs at St. Jude. At my first faculty position in San Antonio, I had the opportunity to work with some of the greats in cancer drug development and cancer treatment. I worked with fierce desperation to develop treatments for one of the most dreaded diseases. Ironically, this work led to me being hired away by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine back in Baltimore as an Assistant Professor of Oncology in 2000. In 2003, Ole Miss came calling, and I came full circle: I have been at the University of Mississippi for 14 years, and am Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
In 2015-16, the Biophysical Society sponsored me as their very first AAAS Science & Technology Congressional Fellow. I worked in the Washington, DC office of Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09; Memphis), who is a great champion of biomedical research. I handled his healthcare policy portfolio, and friends, it is a terrifying experience to see healthcare in the US from the top down. I worked with fevered desperation to help Congressman Cohen’s constituents get the satisfaction they deserved from conflicts with the federal government. What I also learned was that in most every instance, the constituent was correct and the government was wrong. I also learned that I was good at being in a Congressional office, the first non-science job I had since pumping gas back in high school.
So what does all of this have to do with Bruce Springsteen’s quote?
The answer is that along this path through life that I’ve been on, I’ve been terribly afraid.
When I was a kid, I was afraid that I might not do well in school classes that everyone told me were “hard.” When I got to college, my pre-med advisor told me not to switch to the chemistry program because it might lower my GPA, which I was afraid would not let me attend medical school. When I got to graduate school, I was afraid I’d never pass advanced chemistry courses. When I graduated with my Ph.D., I was afraid I was a joke, coming from a school in Mississippi. When I was doing numerous post-docs, I was afraid I’d never find a permanent job. When I was hired in San Antonio and then at Johns Hopkins, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to rise to the level of those there. When I returned to Ole Miss, I was afraid that I would not get tenure. And when I was a Congressional Fellow, I was afraid I would fail at that job and embarrass myself, the Biophysical Society, and the AAAS.
But I did it all anyway. Because my desperation has always been greater than my fear. And if you’re reading this blog, I bet yours is too.
I am running for Congress in 2018 in the first congressional district of Mississippi. The President’s proposed budget for 2017-18 would gut the R&D efforts of the US, and put scientists in the worst situation they’ve been in during modern history. It would decimate the economy of Mississippi. And, I want to go back to Washington to again work on the healthcare mess we have in the US. North Mississippi needs better representation, and I can do that. I can help build the economy of the 21st century that’s needed in Mississippi and the US.
Out on the campaign trail, I am often asked this about my decision to run: “aren’t you afraid of what this will do to the scientific career that you’ve built over the last 27 years?” And I always smile and answer: Yes I am.