It’s strange to me, the twists and turns our lives take.
I had the very good fortune of meeting you in the spring of 1995. I had just completed my UBC undergraduate degree, which was a mighty struggle for me. I was an unremarkable student for the first 2.5 years of my time at UBC, but managed to turn things around (a bit, anyway) when I started taking classes in oceanography. My thought at the time I met you was to turn my bachelors into some sort of laboratory position with a provincial or federal agency.
The truth is, I hadn’t taken a class from you while I was an undergraduate. However, I heard from another professor that you were looking for a summer research assistant to work on measuring secondary productivity on Roberts Bank.
Some lab experience, I thought: That’s just what I’d need to get a real-life lab job!
I remember walking down to your office in April of 1995, no appointment necessary, in the bowels of the Biology Building, right next to the tunnel leading into the central courtyard. I also remember explaining my circumstances to you, complete with my confession of being a lackluster student. I promised that, if you hired me, I wouldn’t let you down.
Much to my surprise, you gave me the job. Right there on the spot. I couldn’t quite believe it and, come to think of it, I still sorta’ can’t. I remember walking away from the “interview” thinking, surely, there’s some sort of trick.
I started working for you that week. The routine was simple. Three or four times per month, usually in the middle of the night, on a Coast Guard hovercraft collecting samples on Roberts Bank. And then, as many days per week as it took counting and weighing amphipods and bivalves from the hundreds of kilos of mud brought back to a wet lab upstairs.
It was the coolest job ever! I felt like a real-life scientist. I felt like I had arrived!
Later that summer, around July maybe, I heard from a friend that he was going to give you some bad news; he was going to turn down your offer to work on his Masters degree in your lab. I remember thinking to myself, maybe I could join your lab as a grad student in his place!
I’ll confess that I didn’t really know much about grad school. But someone told me that it would be easier to get that laboratory job with a provincial or federal agency if I had a Masters instead of a Bachelors. That information in hand, down I marched to your basement office once again.
When I asked about joining your lab as a Masters student, you told me you’d think about it. A few anxious days later, you agreed to take me on.
As neat as my tiny bit of bench space was in the wet lab, your main lab in the basement was amazing. It was always teeming with students, all of whom were helping one another. I still remember the faces in that lab like I was just there yesterday: Allen, Deb, Lauren, Robert, Anthony, Tony, Diana, Kedong, Ming, Nelson, Catriona, Mike, Philip, David, Joe (not me; a different one), Natalie. Shoot, people that weren’t even working with you seemed to just hang out in your lab.
Morale and camaraderie were always in abundance in your shop, thanks to the culture that you worked to cultivate. Your lab made such an impression on me, that I’ve tried to replicate the feeling I had between 1995 and 1997 in every lab I’ve run ever since.
Believe it or not, I’m a professor myself now. Had you told me when we met that it’s what I’d be doing today, I’d have thought you were crazy.
It’s still strange to me, the twists and turns that our lives take.
I know now, what I had no way of knowing then: My two years working with you, one of the most delightful and wise men I knew, and one who was willing to take a chance on an academic loser, changed my life.
In my two years working with you, you taught me everything I needed to know to build what has turned into a successful and fun career:
You taught me to let my questions guide my work.
You taught me to trust my instincts, and to trust my colleagues.
You taught me that no mistake in the lab, or in the field, was worth losing sleep over.
You taught me that the really good advisors have their students’ backs.
And, you taught me that science was secular, and that it could light the way.
When heard from your daughter that you passed away, I got up from my desk here at the University of Michigan, shut my office door, and quietly cried.
I wasn’t ready for the news, and I’m still not.
Paul, you changed my life.
And. I will never be able to thank you enough.