By Stephen Dewhurst, PhD, Chairman of Microbiology and Immunology, and Vice Dean for Research, University of Rochester
One of my least favorite things in life is to talk about myself – or worse yet to act like I have some special insight or wisdom that anyone would give two cents (or less) about. Its partly my upbringing – I’m English, and we just don’t go in for the self-promotional thing – and its partly my personality.
So when one of my colleagues asked to write about myself, I agreed only with considerable reluctance. She asked me to write about several things related to my career: What do I do all day? Why am I qualified to do what I do? What aspects do I love most about my job? I’ve decided to answer the last question, and let the others slide. If you don’t love your job, then your qualifications aren’t terribly important. So what is it that gets me out of bed in the morning?
One incredibly important part of the answer would be something that a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison told me over 10 years ago. He told me how lucky he felt to get to work with young people, and how “youth begets youth”. What he meant by that was: (i) young people attract other young people into a research lab (or any other setting) and (ii) young people bring new ideas, energy, enthusiasm and a sense of the possible – which rubs off on older folks (like faculty) and keeps them young. I’ve never forgotten what he said because its true and because with every year that goes by, I realize what a privilege it is. There are few other professions where one of main formal expectations of the job is that you will teach and mentor the next generation of people in your field. Every year, a new group of really smart, curious and enthusiastic young scientists show up in my professional life – and I get to work with them.
I also love that I am continuously learning and spending time with really smart people – even if that means that I also get to spend a good deal of time feeling that I’m the designated dummy in the room.
There are many other things I love about my job. At the top of the list: the intellectual freedom that comes with being in academia. It has allowed me to do the things that have interested me – or that were important to me – and to get paid for it. There’s also the opportunity to discover new things, and (I hope) to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives (as a scientist) and in peoples’ careers (as a mentor).
Thinking about what I love about my job brings me to the question of personal values. A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times that talked about developing a “personal mission statement“. I found the title rather off-putting – it sounds so self-important and corporate – but I read on anyway, and was glad that I did. Buried in the article were some questions that should be at the heart of any career decision. They all have to do with values – and include things like the following: “how do you want to be remembered?”, “how do you want people to describe you?”, “who or what matters most to you?”, and “how would you define success in your life?”.
Over the summer, my daughter and I went to Amsterdam and we visited the Van Gogh museum. His was one of the most incandescent – and saddest – of human lives, and he was filled with the desire to be of service to others. But that desire was often unfulfilled because of his own poverty and circumstances, leading him to ask: “how can I be useful, of what service can I be?” I tend to think at least a part of the despair he felt towards the end of his life was wrapped up in the dissatisfaction he felt in the answer to that question. So one of the things for which I am most thankful is that my job frequently gives me the chance to be of service and to do work that feels useful.
At the same time, I have been very fortunate to have had mentors who genuinely cared about me as a person, who asked hard questions and taught sometimes painful lessons along the way, and who opened doors for me. One of the most important was Barbara Iglewski – my boss and department chair for almost 20 years. Almost 10 years ago, she suggested that I think about the position of Senior Associate Dean for Basic Science here at the UR Medical Center, and told me that she thought I’d be good at it. It had never even crossed my mind. And it certainly had never crossed my mind that I would be any good at it. But I have a lot of respect for Barbara’s judgment – so I told her I would think about it. Which I did.
Very soon after I started in that job, I remember feeling that I had made a terrible mistake. That I was totally out my depth and really not cut out for administration. It helped a lot that others like Peter Robinson (Chief Operating Officer of the Medical Center), Marjorie Hunter (our former head of Technology Transfer) and Gail Norris (the University’s General Counsel) told me that I would do fine – and helped build up my self-confidence. I suspect that they had their doubts too, but they very kindly pretended otherwise and said only positive things. I also remember telling the Dean that I would work hard and that I would make myself fully available to him and to the faculty. But I couldn’t promise to be the smartest or most insightful person in the room. What I could promise was to be a good listener, a team builder, and someone who was comfortable leading both from in front and from behind (i.e., getting out of the way when necessary – and being a cheer leader for other people with good ideas).
One of my other biggest “gulp” moments came on the day – early on in my administrative position – when the then-Dean gave me a gift. It was a tie, and there was no doubt about his underlying message: that it was time for me to “dress up” and start looking like a proper member of the university administration. That goes back to one of the other things I love about my job. I don’t have to wear a suit and tie every day. It’s just not me. Happily, over time people in our administration have come to know me better and to know that I will show up looking like a fashion crime much of the time – and they’re OK with it. So I’ve not had to change my day-to-day dress code, even if I do occasionally have to wear fancy dress for certain events (jacket, tie, nice pants, etc).
I hope that I never stop feeling grateful and surprised to have the job that I do.