Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Why doesn't he walk away?"

(Circled in yellow is where the physics post-doc mentioned in this entry took his leap. In the red circle is the lab where the Japanese post-doc tried to go on a rampage.)

The conversation described in this entry took place at Dabney Hall, shown above. When I was in grad school at NCSU, Dabney Hall was where the chemistry research labs were located. Now, I think some of the research has relocated to the newer labs over at the Centennial Campus a few miles away. The Centennial Campus is an industry-academic alliance where the two groups form a synergy in a cooperative effort to advance research in the sciences and engineering.

The stories generated by that building could probably fill a book. I’ve already told the story of the explosion in my hood which happened a few weeks before I started using it. Another news worthy event was the suicide attempt by a Chinese physics post-doc while I was at NCSU. I was writing my thesis at the time which meant my lab work was finished, and I wasn’t in the building at the time the incident took place. Post-doc-ing can be very strenuous. These people are essentially indentured servants to their academic advisors; the advisors hold all the power and they know it often pushing their researchers to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. To say this postdoc was stressed is obvious, but I didn’t know the details of this man’s relationship with his academic advisor. The local news covered this story of this poor bastard who saw no way out of whatever troubled him. Sometimes postdocs don’t turn their rage inward like this guy but instead lash out and try to kill fellow research group members. It should be noted that the chemistry building is joined at the hip with the physics building. It was at the top floor of the physics building at the breezeway adjoining the chemistry building where the postdoc took this fateful leap. This was about a six floor jump. The first thing I thought when I heard this news was ‘why didn’t he go to the top floor of Dabney Hall, which is two stories taller than the physics building?” The postdoc survived the fall. Some of my students who were in one of the sections of organic labs I was teaching said the bone was sticking out of his leg, there was blood on the ground and the guy was yelling. Whatever problems this man had must have seemed trivial to what he was going to face from that moment on.

There was another story about a guy on the same floor as me but he was in the chemistry department. He was a Japanese post-doc. I didn’t like the guy. He seemed like an asshole. It turns out my hunch about him was dead-on accurate. One day he was stalking around the lab with a 5lb hammer in his hand looking for a graduate student who he accused of sabotaging his experiments, one of the worst things one can accuse a fellow scientist of. (The only other thing that is worse is plagiarism.) He didn’t find her that day, but he did encounter another post-doc. When asked what he was doing, the Japanese post-doc said he was going to kill the graduate student, who just happened to be the intervening post-doc’s fiancĂ©. The Japanese guy was out of his gord. He went on to say that when he was done w/ the graduate student, he was going to kill the other post-doc. Even though this event didn’t make the news, the campus police did arrive and escort the man off campus. Fortunately no one was hurt. The academic advisor was out of town, but when he returned to campus later, the Japanese guy was not only relieved of his position, but he was deported as well, and the little bastard was never to be heard from again.

Dabney Hall wasn’t a place of joy, especially for a graduate student or of course a post-doc. Not all days were bad or miserable but not too many were happy either. I did like to talk a lot to anyone who would listen to me. Maybe I would have been a better graduate student, especially as far as success in chemistry is defined, if I had not talked as much and kept my head down and did my work. One of the conversations I remember in Dabney Hall was with a fellow graduate student in the Comins group. I particularly liked talking to foreign students. I am not a well traveled man, but speaking to someone at length about his/her country is a good way to learn about a different world and culture. In this particular conversation, I was telling Yu-mei about Father. I told her how he was a stray and how he came and went as he pleased. We didn’t tie him up on a leash nor could a fence keep him in. She seemed puzzled about Father’s behavior. “Why doesn’t he walk away?” she asked. I guess in her culture, the concept of loving a dog like it was a child was a little odd to her. I guess she also assumed that every dog yearns to be free, and if given the chance to make a break, the dog would do so. Father had all the chances in the world to walk away from us and never return. However, Father always came home. Some cynics will say that he only stayed for the free meals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Father loved being part of the group, our family. He loved playing with us out front and by the pool. He also loved going nighty with my mom, Abby and Andy at night. If all we were to him was a meal ticket, he would not have exuded so much joy and happiness when he was around us. Our relationship with Father was conditional. We had to give him more freedom and liberties than a typical pet. He had known another world and for him to fully transition to a ‘house-pet’ status was not possible. We gave him space and freedom, but he always came back.

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