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Genetic Linkage

In Praise of Mentors

In Praise of Mentors

I found him on Linked In, an unusual but familiar name among the many that the networking website had somehow deduced I should connect to. Elof Carlson, a blast from my past.

Back in fall 1975, when I was at SUNY Stony Brook, he taught Bio 101, and enlisted senior biology majors as his teaching assistants. Dr. Carlson, author of 14 books and a beloved teacher of many, was the first person to teach me how to teach.

We linked in. I learned that he had moved from Long Island back to Indiana University in Bloomington, where he had earned his PhD at famed geneticist Hermann Muller’s lab bench – as had I! When I mentioned my upcoming talk at the University of Southern Indiana, he and his wife made the 3-hour trek. He sat beaming in the second row, and I was thrilled to introduce him as the person who taught me to teach, and grew even more so when he called my presentation “masterful.”

Two weeks earlier, I saw another mentor for the first time in many years, perhaps the most important in my life – Thom Kaufman. I was his very first graduate student, at IU, just a semester after TAing for Dr. Carlson. Thom's turf included the famous Muller lab bench where, for four years, I mutated, sorted, and scrutinized many millions of fruit flies. I re-met him at the annual Drosophila meetings in Chicago in early March, where I was writing news releases for the Genetics Society of America.

Thom taught us grad students how to teach by throwing us in. He’d go off on a trip and give us his notebooks, saying “Here. Do it,” and we’d find ourselves in front of a room of 100 freshmen. We could do it, because we’d watched him. He also taught us how to write scientific papers and grants. Once, just to see if he was paying attention, I wrote some steamy “fly porn” and inserted it into a paper destined for the prestigious journal Genetics. Yes, he found it. (I’ll send it to anyone who asks. My book editor nicely requested that I take it down from my “selected works.” It is, in an entomological sense, obscene.)

My mentors before college and grad school were perhaps even more influential, since I ended up being a writer for regular folk. So thank you Mrs. Wernick, who was fresh out of college when she taught me nearly all I know about writing, in the 10th grade at James Madison high school in Brooklyn, and Mr. Zevin, for having us read and analyze a book a week, and write an essay a night, all through senior year. That prepared me for the overnight deadlines I face now writing for Medscape Today.

And so to all my mentors and the many uncelebrated others who teach, here’s my proposal: you should each make as much as the highest paid celebrities. You deserve it!
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