Sunday, August 1, 2010

Avoiding the Expectations Trap: A Tribute to Dick Norberg

My scientific mentor, Richard (Dick) Norberg, died this spring. He provided my training as a scientist and supervised my doctoral thesis. Dick was a professor of physics at Washington University in Saint Louis for more than 50 years, and a pioneer in the field of magnetic resonance. Long before magnetic resonance (MR) became part of the medical imaging technique known as MRI, he made key discoveries and obtained insights that led to our modern understanding of the phenomena.

I worked with Dick for three years in his laboratory at Washington University. Learning to become a scientist is nothing like school would lead you to believe. Science, as it is practiced by scientists, is more of a craft than a method. Graduate training in science is akin to an apprenticeship in which an aspiring scientist learns the trade from a master craftsman. Each master has his or her own style and approach. I am often confused when my children ask me for help with their science homework because I am unfamiliar with the "scientific method" their classes teach. For an excellent article on how actual scientists conduct science see: "How Science Works." It is on a Website that provides resources for K-12 teachers to correct many misconceptions about the process of doing science.

Dick loved doing physics and remained enthusiastic and engaged until the very end of his life. I loved having him as a teacher. He expressed his usually strong opinions in ways that stayed with you forever. I can still hear his voice when I recall the many words of wisdom he imparted. Some examples of his observations and advice:

"Any academic department with the word 'science' in its name is not."

I recalled that statement with a chuckle the year after I left Washington University to do postdoctoral research at the University of Georgia. On one of my daily walks from the bus stop past the school of home economics I noticed that a new sign had gone up in front of the building that said: "School of Consumer Sciences."

"When you write a paper, always separate the data and put it first. What you say about the data might turn out to be wrong later on. But, if you did the experiment correctly the data will be true forever."

This is actually a profound insight on the nature of scientific progress that many people fail to understand, and high school science classes fail to teach. People are always quick to point out that scientific theories change and that many ideas scientists of the past believed turned out to be wrong. The implication is that nothing about science is permanent. But, nature does not change. An experiment poses a question directly to nature and the answer that comes back will always be true. All future scientific theories will still have to explain today's scientific facts.

But, the most important advice I received from Dick Norberg was on the day I left. I had completed and defended my doctoral thesis, finished up with the movers, and packed my car for the drive to my new city and job. I stopped at his office to thank him and say goodbye. His parting words were:

"Whatever you do in life, do what you enjoy. Don't do what others expect. Your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, will all have expectations. Don't give into them. Do what you most enjoy."

As time has gone on, my appreciation of this advice has grown. As a teacher for the past 16 years, I've seen many students sabotaged by expectations.

I've seen students in majors for which they have no real interest or aptitude, but their parents refuse to fund their college education unless they study something "practical." The result is students in engineering programs even though they cannot do the math and have no interest in building anything. There are also students muddling through business degrees who would be much better served in the long run with a liberal arts degree. It is actually more practical to have good grades in history major than bad grades in a business major.

I've seen students who are not mature enough to be in college but go because it is the expected next step after high school. The result is that they are wasting their time and their parent's money. Partying all night and sleeping all day can be done at a much lower cost at home than in college, and the results achieved will be the same.

I've seen exceptionally smart students who should become scientists, but their parents expect them to become medical doctors because of the prestige it will bring to the family. The result is if you ask these students why they are so passionate about medicine that they intend to devote their life to its practice, they can only express a nebulous desire to "help people." Of course, I can think of many professions that "help people" and are unrelated to medicine. If you intend to become a medical doctor you should have a real interest in medicine.

I've seen students juggle the demands of double and even triple majors so that they can pursue their interests and satisfy family expectations. The result is a great deal of stress from pursuing credentials that have little meaning in the long run. Employers care more that you have a degree with decent grades than all the majors and minors that you acquired along the way.

My own three children are all artists. I have two in college and one in high school. They are now aware enough to observe friends doing what's expected. My daughter said to me one day: "I'm so happy that you and mom support me. You don't discourage my interest in theater and force me do something else. Many of my friend's parents aren't like that."

I said: "You have to do what you enjoy the most and see where your interests and talents take you. You'll figure out how to earn a living. You can't spend your life doing what others expect."

I thought about Dick Norberg when I said that. Dick loved to teach and loved doing physics. I was one of 47 doctoral students he taught in his more than half-century as a physics professor. Had he wanted, he could have held more prestigious administrative positions at the university. But those kinds of positions would have kept him away from research and teaching.

I now realize that as a teacher he wasn't just speaking to me that day. He was speaking to my children and my students, and in the future their children and students. Teachers have the ability to speak to the future. That is what he enjoyed.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy