Sunday, November 11, 2012

IN LOVE AT CORNELL, Destinations in Flux

From Ting and I: A Memoir...
Destinations in Flux

When Tina and I met, I was pre-physicist, if there had been such a designation. Actually, I was in the “B” physics option, for those who might not be intending to go on to physics in graduate school. I wasn’t certain. The Soviet satellite Sputnik had launched in 1957, and the nation was hot for science. It looked like a way to get an interesting white-collar job, indoor work with no heavy lifting. I did not want to have the money worries my family had during my early years. My freshman year advisor, eventually a Nobel laureate, had little interest in my plans, whatever they were. It may have been clear even then that I would not be a physics superstar, but well-above-average was still achievable.

After a poor start, I got better grades and eventually graduated cum laude in physics, not spectacular but not chopped liver, either. By my junior year, I had obtained a much better part-time job, minding and “tuning up” the atom-smashing cyclotron overnight on Saturdays (and some other hours). I watched an oscilloscope, with its faint, dancing lines, and twiddled with any of a dozen or so knobs and switches to keep this beam of charged particles at a high current.

Often, however, one needed only make sure the current stayed between certain limits, and the job was about as taxing as babysitting a sleeping child. That left lots of time to study my Chinese, memorizing those little characters and practicing the words with the different tones. Many a Sunday morning, after my shift was over, Tina and I would eat breakfast together in Noyes Lodge overlooking the lake.

Tina’s pre-med coursework went well until she came to the dissection laboratory, probably in comparative anatomy. The cat saturated with formaldehyde was her Waterloo. She was often tired, too, and may even then have been showing early signs of her (as-yet undiagnosed) multiple sclerosis. At that point Tina’s sister, Irene, was studying dentistry (and eventually, orthodontia). Their parents had high expectations for the children, including Tina, but Tina herself was not really committed to medicine. That semester, she switched to Asian Studies, in which she graduated With Distinction three years later.

Tina’s parents would ultimately get their M.D. child in their youngest, Gene. He had no trouble with Brown University, Rochester School of Medicine, and whatever extra hurdles he needed to jump to become the rheumatologist he is today. He married a smart and career-oriented Caucasian girl, Christin Carter, whom he met at Brown. They now live in Ann Arbor, where he has his medical practice, and where Christy is a professor in the physiology department at the University of Michigan, as well as the associate director of a biomedical research center focusing on diabetes.

To brag a bit about my own family: Nick graduated in civil engineering from Cornell and has become one of the vice presidents of a major engineering firm. Diana became a nurse, worked a variety of jobs, and subsequently has cared for my mother at home. Cliff obtained an M.S. in biology, then to law school for a J.D., and on to become a finance manager at a car dealership in California. Chris majored in chemistry, earning his B.S. from Clemson and his M.S. and Ph.D. at Stanford. Chris is now Senior Director of Chemistry for the TB Alliance in New York City, a nonprofit research-management organization dedicated to fighting drug-resistant tuberculosis with the help of money from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among others.

In both families, Su and Cooper, the apples had not fallen far from the trees. Our parents were all college educated, at a time when such attainments were much rarer than they are today. Both families prized intelligence and education, and it showed.

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