Sunday, December 2, 2012


From TING AND I: A Memoir...


In 1975 I answered an ad in a scientific publication for the position of assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. The ad almost seemed written for me. Each of the requirements I met or exceeded, so I applied. I interviewed. I waited. I was not chosen. Rather, a graduate student, Dave, already in the Department, who was just finishing his Sc.D. there, was chosen instead.

Dave’s credentials were solid, but not as good as mine. Something was fishy. This came to the attention of one of the professors who had served on my Ph.D. dissertation committee, and he raised enough of a stink that I was offered a similar position, created out of the blue. Not an optimal situation for me; but it was Harvard, we could live in downtown Boston, money was not in short supply, and it might work out. I started in early 1976 with a standard five-year appointment. A decision on tenure would have been due in 1985-86.

Lessons: “It’s not what you know, but whom you know … and who knows you.”

In early 1980 a committee was convened to consider my promotion to associate professor and the granting of another five-year term. I was in good shape: I had published a lot, taught a lot, brought in a grant or two, ran an environmental health management program with the department chairman. One member of the committee, despite my having submitted reams of supporting materials, wanted more. I told the committee they had gotten all I was going to provide. I prevailed. In July 1980 I was re-appointed for another five-year term, promoted to associate professor.

After I had joined the department, I found a group of generally nice people who were not, however, near the tops of their professions, despite the Harvard connection. It would be unkind of me to elaborate further.

Unkind, perhaps, but it is too tempting not to do a bit of commenting. We’ll skip over the married faculty members who had affairs with their students. We’ll mention only in passing that the faculty member I thought least worthy of it was eventually given a tenured full professorship, on the basis of his ability to raise money from Washington, D. C., for research projects in line with the political goals of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. He was said to spend more time away from Harvard than back at school, no doubt an overstatement suggested by the truth. Two more-talented faculty members were denied tenure and moved on. For myself, I saw the handwriting on the wall: fat chance.

I had no love for the Environmental Protection Agency, and that came to be reciprocated. Funded by an EPA project grant, my doctoral student, John Evans, studied the sources of airborne dust throughout the U.S. and found that open sources, such as roads (especially unpaved ones), quarries and the like, emitted much more dust than did the smokestack industries that were EPA’s preferred targets. They did not want to hear it.

On a second project of mine funded by the EPA (my division at the School of Public Health was the Department of Environmental Health Sciences), I received a call near the end of our work telling me that I was to make a co-author out of my “project officer,” who, as was customary, contributed nearly nothing to the scientific value of the project. The word had come down from the caller’s boss that the EPA was to burnish its “scientific reputation,” for many of them a contradiction in terms. The simple way to raise their stature was to tell their grantees to add some EPA names to their papers as authors. I told him that authorship indicated and required scientific, not financial, contribution to the work and that I would not do it. He replied that this would be the last such grant I would get from the EPA. We hung up. Down the hall, a senior professor, full, tenured, the whole works, gave in to a similar call. Not impressive.

“Who pays the piper calls the tune,” but we don’t all march to it.

Boston’s Back Bay

Partly because the issue of compulsory school busing for racial integration was roiling Boston, C and I got a bargain on a floor-through apartment on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, a mile away from the School of Public Health, to which I walked most days. Because of C’s trust fund money, we were able to pay for the condo in cash. The other floors were occupied by substantially older folk, who had earned their money, rather than inheriting it; but we all got along, and I was chosen and served on the condo board for some time.

C and I could walk almost anywhere in Boston, and we ate out almost every night. Nothing fancy, perhaps Chinese or Mexican or standard American food, but pleasant, and a time to chat and to walk. The grassy mall along “Mass. Ave.,” the Esplanade along the Charles River, the park and the swan boats in Boston Common, the European look and feel of Beacon Hill–all were very nice.

Since we had no children, we did not have to worry about how to find schools for them. Finding parking was biggest challenge. We had one space, for the BMW, behind our condominium building. The other car, the Buick, had to be parked on the street. Knowing the timing of the parking regulations and utilizing their alternate-side-of-the-street nature, we were able to surmount this obstacle. No need, as the wit said, to buy an “already parked” car. Once one unparked, one did have to cope with Boston drivers, who rarely met a traffic rule they respected.

The Back Bay adjoins the Charles River, where I took up sailing with the Harvard / M.I.T. Yacht Club. The “yachts” were actually tiny sailboats, lots of fun. I enjoyed sailing until I nearly got killed, which cured me: The wind shifted. The boat tipped over. I was thrown into the water. The boom came crashing down close to my head. If it had hit me, I might have been killed by concussion or by drowning. Enough sailing. Flying was next. What could happen to you flying?

I started to learn how to fly a single-engine Cessna 172, as did C. It was very exciting to be high in the air and know you could come plummeting down if you screwed up, though the instructor would probably prevent that. Some beautiful views were viewed, and the whole process was not as hard as I feared. C’s affair with the flying instructor and our subsequent separation brought flying to an end for me. Exciting, expensive, and a bit scary.

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