Monday, November 23, 2009

Loss of a mentor

My PhD advisor passed away last weekend. He had been fighting with prostate cancer for about six years. When prostate cancer is caught early, it is relatively curable--unfortunately, his wasn't found until after it had already invaded his bones and lymphatic system. He pushed through all of his treatments with such enthusiasm: as a cancer researcher, he got involved in a bunch of experimental things and was so interested in all of it. Just a month ago, I was in touch with him over email and he said they'd pretty much run the gamut of options both traditional and experimental, and there wasn't much left to try. He was still upbeat about it, but the writing was pretty clearly on the wall and he was getting more and more worn out by the amount of steroids he needed to take to keep everything up and running.

Even with all of the six years of preparation, his death was sudden. He fell down at home and just didn't make it through. In a lot of ways, it is almost a good thing: it saved him the disappointment of waiting and watching more attempts at treatment fail, and for himself and his family the horrible experience of how cancer grinds people down until there is nothing left.

He did so much for me--he personally is the reason I am where I am today with the life I have now. He offered me a place in his group, an American student brought into a program in the UK and provided with full funding, even though I didn't have the 4.0 from Harvard and the fancy pedigree. The three-year PhD timing meant that I was in the right place at the right time to apply for my postdoctoral position, which ended up changing my career goals and potential immensely for the more ambitious. Even though our funding was extremely meager at the time, after he heard me joking to some labmates that I was back to eating rice and frozen vegetables halfway through the month because I had run out of money for groceries, he then magicked up an extra 60 pounds a month for me (~$100) so I could afford to do enough shopping.

I am very grateful for the path he helped me set for myself to becoming independent and ready for this job/life combination. He was traditionally British, conservative with praise and fairly reserved in general, so although I knew he was pleased with my results and he always wrote positive rec letters for me, it was difficult to read what he really thought. One of my former labmates had dinner with him and his wife a couple of weeks ago, and shared with me that he talked a good deal about how proud he was of me and how well I am doing, and that I turned out to be one of his best students in his 30+ year career. It means a lot to know that this dry, quiet Englishman thought a little bit superlatively of me after all.

13 comments:

Candid Engineer said...

Arlenna- So sorry for your loss. Wonderful that you could have such a person in your life.

Comrade Physioprof said...

What a lovely tribute. I am sorry for this loss.

biochem belle said...

I am sorry for the loss. Thank you for sharing this. It is a wonderful way to honor your mentor.

Odyssey said...

My condolences.

Professor in Training said...

I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Take comfort in the knowledge that you had touched his life in a manner similar to the effect he had on yours and that his legacy will live on through you and your achievements.

EcoGeoFemme said...

So sorry for your loss.

chall said...

So sorry for your loss. Its very well written and he comes to life in the text.

My own mentor told me this summer he had cancer and got surgery and is not yet out of the woods. It's hard for me to phantom since to me he is young.....

(my wv is wings, seems fitting to the occasion)

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I'm sorry for your loss, as well as the loss to science of a dedicated researcher and wonderful mentor.

drdrA said...

I'm so sorry. We all have these special people in our lives who quietly help us and cheer for us. Losing one is so difficult.

Anonymous said...

Arlenna,

May his sould rest in peace!

You should contribute your part to advance the research on cancer. If you are already working on cancer, that is great way of paying him off. If not starting a research project on cancer related topic is a good idea. What a nasty disease?
How many loved ones are lost to it?

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I'm sorry Arlenna. He sounds like a wonderful mentor.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I'm sorry Arlenna....it sounds like your advisor was a wonderful person.

Amelie said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful mentor.