This week I attended the annual Society for Neuroscience conference. Cruising through the endless poster sessions and presentations triggered a story buried in the latent neurons within my cortex, an old story from my days (years, actually) in graduate school.
Although the vast majority of graduate education is experiential (read: fucking up things in a lab and then learning from these mistakes), we did have to take a number of courses in order to check the boxes for graduation. I generally took the easiest possible classes, those requiring an absolute minimum of effort. My reasoning was (and is) that coursework distracted me from hands-on research, thereby delaying the granting of a degree and increasing the amount of time I spent living hand-to-mouth.
Avoiding shitty classes was a problem in my department. The neuroscience department at the University of Florida had an onerous set of required courses, something like three or four semesters of hardcore neuroscience (with plenty of tests), all overseen by a woman who had the reputation of being something of a slave driver. Obviously, I was highly motivated to avoid this massive time suck.
Fortunately, I was able to find a loophole in the system. To make a long story short, I essentially pretended to be part of the department of cell biology to the neuroscience administration and vice versa. Mommy never talked to daddy, so it worked fairly well (until they closed the loophole. RIP loophole). Cross-registering also opened up a number of no-brainer courses throughout the college of medicine, where it was possible to show up once a week, maintain respiration for 60 minutes while occasionally mumbling something semi-coherent and receive an 'A' for your efforts. Take it from me and my barely coherent blog, graduating Summa Cum Laude means NOTHING in grad school.
But there were only a limited number of courses in the biology of underwater basket weaving and, in my third year of school, I found myself one course shy of the number needed to graduate. As I perused the course catalog, guilt overcame me. I was aware that I was rather (possibly severely) lacking in clasroom instruction on the finer aspects of neuroscience. In an attempt to rectify this somewhat, I broke my own rule - I signed up for a course that involved the brain.
I forget the exact name of the class, but it dealt heavily in the theory and practice of electrophysiology. For those not familiar, electrophysiology is the very, very specialized branch of neuroscience aimed at the studying how neurons transmit, store and receive information by parsing apart the myriad ion channels, neurotransmitters and synapse types which regulate the 100 billion or so neurons of the brain. All of this requires a nuanced understanding of byzantine cause-and-effect biology wrapped up in the same principles you hated with a passion when you took the second semester of pre-med physics.
In practice, electrophysiologists use fine probes made of borosilicate to painstakingly poke at the cellular membrances of individual brain cells and record the changes in membrane potential and depolarization. Between the vast amount of specific information needed to understand the theory and technical specifications of the process and the acumen required to operate the machinery, electrophys folks tend to be one-trick ponies (but the trick they do is pretty nifty).
I have respect for electrophysiologists' skills, but they can be... unique. Ephys tends to attract engineer-types who stumble into neuroscience, who are further bent by thirty years of working in a Faraday cage. It's the sort of person who, due to their intellectual gifts and wonky personal affect, could only survive in the environment provided by academia.
Knowing all of these things, I nevertheless signed up for the course. I told myself that electrophysiology was interlaced with almost every branch of neuroscience, and it would undoubtedly better me as a scientist if I had at least a basic understanding of what was happening at a physiological level.
Flash forward two weeks and it's the first day of school. I arrive to find an empty room and am just about to leave when the course director, Dr, Roger Papke (click that link if you want to see what a typical ephys guy looks like. I mean, I thought that was George RR Martin for a second), walks in. Roger* immediately drops a huge bomb on me - it seems that I'm the only student registered for the class.
Alarm bells are going off in my head as he delivers this news. No students = death trap. The word that tends to get around when a particular course (or professor) has a reputation of being particularly shitty or difficult hadn't reached me, evidently. As I debate whether I have the balls to walk out on a tenured faculty member, Roger explains his plan for the semester - he was going to beef up the class with a few postdocs and grad students from friendly labs so I wouldn't feel so lonely. Then, after surrounding me with subject matter experts, we would meet several times a week to discuss the basics - and then advanced topics - within the field of ion channel biology. Of course, since I was the only student taking the course for a grade it would fall to me to present at the majority of these sessions, once a week at a minimum. Oh, and there would also be three tests and a term paper at the end on a mutually selected topic.
I was almost smiling as he said this, thinking that Roger was joking. There was no way he could seriously expect this much from someone who wasn't going to be an actual electro-jock. As he proceeded with his deadpan recitation of what was expected of me, my grin slowly faded as I realized that he was dead fucking serious.
I left the class in a bit of a fugue state. This was the most demanding course I'd ever heard of - meeting twice a week with a bunch of e-phys nuts appealed roughly as much as having my scrotal hairs plucked one by one.
The second class torched the final tatters of my resolve to better myself. Papke's gang virgorously shredded my laborious analysis of NMDA receptor contribution to long term potentiation and its effect on spatial memory formation and maintenance. As they argued over L-type and N-type calcium channels, I rehearsed my arguments for a reduced workload.
Fortunately, Papke dumped the only reason I'd need right into my lap when he revealed he was receiving a teaching bonus from the University in exchange for teaching a course this year. Meaning he was getting paid extra to flog yours truly. Meaning that if I dropped the course, he would lose thousands of dollars. My heart sang.
I approached Papke and, as respectfully as possible (let's call it 'medium respectful'), mentioned that the workload for this course seemed a bit much. I inquired as to whether we could work out a modified curriculum, maybe a single paper or journal article review session. It was a low opening offer, but this was definitely a negotiation.
Papke shook his head. It wouldn't be as beneficial, he claimed. For my development as an electrophysiologist.
I pointed out that I wasn't an electrophysiologist and never would be. Hell would freeze over before I patched an active neuron. My argument fell on deaf ears; no love from Roger was forthcoming.
Fine - I'd had enough guff from a man with no leverage. The next day, I wrote Roger an email in which I not-very-subtly reminded him that this class (and, vis-a-vis, his bonus) would no longer exist if I walked.
Roger got exactly 0% of the hint. He wrote back to inform me that there was no way I would receive credit for the class without completing the full course requirements. Then he shifted from stick to carrot, assuring me that he would be there to personally guide me through the ins and outs of intracellular neurochemical communication. He said this last bit softly, almost tenderly, as a much older man might promise to teach a young boy about love.
Driven by self-interest (and a little bit of fear), I pressed the launch button and dropped the class.
One could reasonably infer from all of this that Roger was a highly principled man who couldn't be swayed to compromise his rigorous standards for a shortcut-taking slacker like me, even with the prospective loss of income. Perhaps he understood what I was getting at perfectly well and simply didn't give a shit.
Neither turned out to be the case. Papke took my withdrawal (and subsequent dissolution of the course) badly, very badly. He wrote me several times, claiming that dropping the course would do irrepairable damage to my career (present day Noah here: nah). He went to my faculty mentor and asked him to pressure me to re-enroll (said mentor promptly forgot the request, brought it up in passing later). Roger even, for reasons I never understood, pressured other members of his lab to contact me and make entreatiest on his behalf. Finally, in a last desperate missive, he again revealed his secret, the loss of his precious teaching bonus if the course were to dissolve. I wrote back a succinct reply saying that the juice wasn't worth the squeeze.
Roger refused to capitulate on his massive work demands. I responded by signing up for a snoozefest on the biochemical basis of apoptosis taught by an Asian faculty member who pronounced it Aye-POH-toshshis(!).
For the weeks after, I pondered over the questions brought up. Did Roger torpedo his own course just to prove a student couldn't push him around by threatening to fuck with his money or was he really that clueless? Clearly, he cared deeply about the class, but no man craves grading papers; if it wasn't the cash, what was he possibly getting from the course? Or was his obstinance based on some sort of principle, an embued need to teach "his way"? And finally, if he really cared about educating, didn't he realize he was driving people away by dint of his policies?
With no answers forthcoming, I moved on with my life. Or so I thought; three days ago I was strolling aimlessly through the sea of conference posters when I spotted Papke sitting in front of a poster of his lab's work, maxin' and relaxin'. Same Roger, different year. For a moment, I imagined approaching him and asking all the questions I'd pondered as a student. In my fantasy, I'd pry into the onionlike layers that were this man and wrest forth the eccentric motivations that fueled his bizarre behaviors. Then I realized it was lunchtime and I have an expense account that wasn't going to deplete itself.
Sharp-eyed readers will (accurately) note that I have zero graduate level courses in neurobiology. This is absolutely correct - despite having a PhD in neuroscience, I have taken zero advanced classes on the subject (and only one as an undergraduate). I am... either oddly proud of this or too stupid to know not to advertise my ignorance?
*The title of this post is a play on the documentary Roger and Me, which got Michael Moore famous. I recommend it.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.