A Long Path


Hi! My name is Chris Curran, and I'm sorry, I don't have the syllabus. I can't help you decide which vendor to choose. And I don't have a penny in grant money.

My gray hair may have fooled you for a minute, but I'm not the principal investigator. I'm the lowest of the low--a part-time, first-year graduate student in the University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health. And the gray hair's for real: I'm 45 years old.

Why am I pursuing a Ph.D. in science so late in life? I've been asked that question so many times over the last 2 years I ought to have a good answer by now. But I'm still not sure I do.

Was it my desire to teach full time after more than a decade in the classroom as an adjunct? Was it the opportunity to get more out of my education than a good recipe for apple pie? (More on that in a moment. ...) Or was it finally getting the chance to experiment and explore and discover without driving my mom nuts?

That's it! I need to go home again, back to Cleveland, back to mom and dad, and back to my earliest experimental days. Then I might be able to properly explain my "sudden" need to become the Grandma Moses of Science.

I grew up under the influence of space-race television. Watching fellow Ohioan John Glenn soar into orbit, I ran outside expecting to catch a glimpse of his Friendship 7 capsule. Hey, I was only four! What did I know? I also believed those ads that promised "better living through chemistry." Growing up hooked on science, it was only a matter of time before I was overcome by the temptation to run my own experiments.

There in our bathroom stood two economy-sized bottles of mouthwash. Lavoris, with its spicy cinnamon taste, kept your breath smelling sweet without nauseating your stomach. Then there was Micrin, one of the first products advertised to kill germs and keep your teeth and gums strong and healthy. But Micrin tasted terrible. My 7-year-old mind quickly developed a working hypothesis: mix the two and you'll get the best of both worlds. I went right to work in my makeshift lab and proudly showed the results to Mom, who had a very different reaction. She dumped the purplish gray liquid down the sink and gave me a stern lecture about wasting money. So much for my first attempt at impressing the reviewers!

Fortunately, my dad was always around to laugh at my experimental mishaps. One day my older brother, sister, and I were playing chemist in the laundry room tubs when we discovered a truly amazing fact: When you mix vinegar and baking soda, it can pop the cork right off your test tube. Science was loud, ergo, science was cool! Again, I ran proudly to mom and dad to share our exciting discovery. Mom was sure we were about to blow up the house. Dad laughed and laughed ... and laughed. Whew! Maybe I could be a scientist after all. I just needed to find the right mentor. Dad loved science as much as I did and even bought me my first microscope, but I needed someone trained in science to guide my way at this point.

Mrs. Polzner came around at just the right time. She taught science in my grade school from 3rd grade to 8th grade. I was fortunate, in a strange sort of way, that women were strongly discouraged from pursuing scientific research careers when she was in school, because the result was that science fanatics like Mrs. Polzner ended up teaching science to young students instead. With carte blanche to experiment and the first big batch of science-education funding pouring into schools (thank you, space race!), I could test and mix and discover to my heart's content. My favorite project, though, was the chicken skeleton.

With a green light from Mrs. Polzner, I was off and stumbling. How do you get the brains out of a chicken without bashing in the skull? Where can you find real chicken legs? And how am I going to neatly connect up all those ribs with only hours to spare before the big Science Fair? I got the answers and a big, proud smile from Mrs. Polzner to boot! Make your mentor happy. Another key lesson was complete.

Success seemed inevitable. Or so it seemed. I left the comfy confines of parochial school and Mrs. Polzner, then hit the brown brick wall of Shore Junior High School and a 9th-grade counselor who didn't believe I was prepared for the rigors of honors science and math. "No, Chris. You would have to take Algebra I in summer school, and that's too difficult." I went with the backup plan: General Science. "No, Chris. That would be too easy for a bright student like you!"

My bullhead gene, which really comes in handy sometimes, kicked in when she tried to put me in sewing class. I stood my ground and opted for cooking instead. Mixing and measuring wasn't that far removed from chemistry, and Miss Quinn knew how to make sure you followed a protocol. She just retold her favorite story about the students who used 1/4 cup of salt instead of a 1/4 teaspoon in their chocolate chip cookies. They had to eat every last one or get an "F" on the assignment. We stayed on her good side, and the funding came pouring into the "lab." She let us turn up the heat with flaming cherries jubilee, beef bourguignonne, and yes ... I got a fabulous recipe for apple pie that is still in use each and every Thanksgiving. Thank you, Miss Quinn.

But my hunger for science was not fulfilled in high school, and I had to wait for college to really wreak havoc in a lab again. I went to Ohio University as a journalism major and chose biological sciences as my specialty. If I couldn't work full-time in the lab, at least I could write about those who did. I got my start at WOUB-TV, the local public station, where I produced 5-minute science features for the 10 o'clock news. I investigated the local mental health center, traveled behind the high-security barriers of the university's linear accelerator, and found out what fun it can be to devote your entire scientific career to the study of spiders.

Even as a journalism major, I managed to make my mark on science. Back in 1978, my class was the first undergraduate genetics class to use E. coli in addition to Drosophila, so we were promised that any mutants we developed would bear our name. Forget basic replica plating. We used HUNDREDS of toothpicks to painstakingly transfer bacteria from plate to plate. But in the end ... I did it! I got my mutant! I also got a copy of my karyotype which hangs on my office wall as the ultimate self-portrait. Not bad for undergrad, but not quite a science degree either.

My first real science degree had to wait. Family first at that point in my life. Three daughters later, it was time to go back to school. I was working as a science writer for the University of Cincinnati (UC) and two out of three girls were in school. It sounded so appealing: We could study together at the kitchen table the way my siblings and I used to do. The youngest was only three, but she was readily amused by the colorful drawings on what she called "the nucleus book." Okay, she didn't get to hear Dr. Seuss every night, but I got to study biochemistry and molecular biology while she curled up in my arms and struggled to pronounce "endoplasmic reticulum" and "Golgi bodies." I'll never forget those "bedtime stories," although I'm sure she would gladly forget my singing the "alpha-keto-glutarate" song to her while trying to memorize the details of the TCA cycle.

In 1992, I got my master's degree in biological sciences under Professor Jodi Shann and the opportunity to teach part-time in Evening College at UC. It was the most frightening thing I'd ever done professionally. Of course I wanted more. So, I tried ... and tried ... and tried. Ten years later, it was clear I would continue to be shut out of full-time faculty positions until I earned a Ph.D. But where would I find a mentor at this stage of the game? I've written about UC scientists since 1988 ... think, Chris, think! Who would give you a chance?

The answer: Dr. Daniel Nebert in the department of environmental health. I interviewed him when he won the university's top research award and was so fascinated by the work in his genetics lab I found the nerve to ask him how he chose his graduate students. He told me he didn't go looking for them. They all found him. In late 2001, I sent him an e-mail explaining my plight and asking for advice. He responded at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. Perfect! Here was someone who not only understood what I wanted and needed; he kept the same strange hours I did.

So here I am, struggling through the first-year courses all over again, wrestling mice, and praying the PCR results won't be all empty lanes. This summer the big shift takes place: I go full-time in the lab, for the duration.

Have I figured out yet why I'm doing this? Yes. I've always had the desire. I just needed to find the time, the courage, and the right lab. Besides, mom's still in Cleveland--too far away to stop me now!

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