impressions

ADVICE FOR POTENTIAL GRADUATE STUDENTS

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We currently have room in the lab for more graduate students.

But before you apply to this lab or any other, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be realistic about graduate school. Graduate school in biology is not a sure path to success. Many students assume that they will eventually get a job just like their advisor’s. However, the average professor at a research university has three students at a time for about 5 years each. So, over a career of 30 years, this professor has about 18 students. Since the total number of positions has been pretty constant, these 18 people are competing for one spot. So go to grad school assuming that you might not end up at a research university, but instead a teaching college, or a government or industry job. All of these are great jobs, but it’s important to think of all this before you go to school.

Second, choose your advisor wisely. Not only does this person potentially have total control over your graduate career for five or more years, but he/she will also be writing recommendation letters for you for another 5-10 years after that. Also, your advisor will shadow you for the rest of your life. People will always think of you as so-and-so’s student and assume that you two are somewhat alike. Finally, in many ways you will turn into your advisor. Advisors teach very little, but instead provide a role model. Consciously and unconsciously, you will imitate your advisor. You may find this hard to believe now, but fifteen years from now, when you find yourself lining up the tools in your lab cabinets just like your advisor did, you’ll see. My student Alison once said that choosing an advisor is like choosing a spouse after one date. Find out all you can on this date.

Finally, have your fun now. Five years is a long time when you are 23 years old. By the end of graduate school, you will be older, slower, and possibly married and/or a parent. So if you always wanted to walk across Nepal, do it now. Also, do not go to a high-powered lab that you hate assuming that this will promise you long-term happiness. Deferred gratification has its limits. Do something that you have passion for, work in a lab you like, in a place you like, before life starts throwing its many curve balls. Your career will mostly take care of itself, but you can’t get your youth back.

If, after reading this, you want to apply to this lab, we would love to hear from you.

- – -

This piece was originally published at the SCQ in 2008

About Sönke Johnsen

"Sönke Johnsen is deep-sea biologist and visual ecologist at Duke University and still can't believe that his background in math, art, and writing got him a paying job, let alone one that lets him go down in submarines. In his spare time, he takes pictures (see here) and works with his daughter to unlock new levels on Mariokart Wii."

I’M STILL PROUD EVERY TIME I TIE MY SHOES

By | archive, impressions

Scientific inquiry can be driven by a variety of motives. Certainly the quest to cure cancer can be a matter of wanting to simply help, but even anger, frustration, or grief can be involved. Recently, I saw a news story of a researcher who forged results for new cures, exposing patients to dangerous treatments for his own pride or vanity. And here, scientists sometimes seek recognition, or positions of power. In academia, jobs are won and lost based on the progress of scientific research. That is motivation enough for some.

But in the ideal world, scientific inquiry would be driven by just that: inquiry. We ask questions because we are curious to know the answer.

Not long ago, there was a count-down, accurate supposedly to the second, to the landing of Curiosity on Mars. The name, suggested by a sixth grader as part of the “Name NASA’s Next Mars Rover” contest, is apt. Even before it reached the red planet, the rover was gathering data to help scientists learn about the tribulations faced by physical objects in outer space. Curiosity was equipped to detect solar radiation, to give details about how well (or not) the walls of the space capsule protect from cosmic radiation that would be potentially damaging to humans. I imagine how its sensors must have struggled as solar radiation went berserk in the last few weeks of its flight. The rover, now landed, is an unmanned laboratory trying to learn whether the planet’s surface could support life, or if it has. We have nearly succeeded in making a car curious about the existence of life on another planet.

And after this landing? I don’t know. The public’s attention has turned, once again, to its old curiosity about what lies beyond the solar system, and Voyager 1 has finally, after 36 years, reached that enigmatic threshold where the sun’s influence has faded. And now we are all the more curious, now that the answer seems somehow closer to our grasp. We are all the more curious about what lies beyond our immediate reality; and the physical beyond that we have so far only accessed, via what that outside sends to us through photons and neutrinos and other waves and particles.

Yet, in the case of space exploration, the motive for science was, in the most realistic terms, war. It was a matter of vanity on an international scale. But curiosity, long before human beings set foot on the moon, long before NASA was developed, had people wondering what the moon is made of, how far away it is, whether anything could live there, and much more. I recently read H.G. Wells’s First Man in the Moon, and I was blown away by his satirical solution to the unanswerable. And as for Mars, its periodic retrograde motion was one of the great quandaries when philosophers were trying to model the solar system. Speculation about life on the red planet has frequently run rampant. When we cannot know the answer, it seems that we try very hard to make one up.

People have lived their lives on that curiosity, eating and breathing it. Certainly there has been prestige and recognition for some scientists who have sought answers in space, but Copernicus and Galileo also found persecution when they pursued science. What can be strong enough to warrant house arrest? What can be the purpose of billions of dollars, only to burn up in Venus’s atmosphere? If not curing cancer or defeating the Soviets? Curiosity.

On a physiological level, individuals may be curious because they seek the reward of learning. Certainly that’s what drives learning in young children. Areas of the brain experience the sensation of being rewarded when curiosity leads to new information. The rush of a new discovery is substantial, proportionate perhaps to how curious you were to begin with. If you spend a long time seeking an answer, if you allow curiosity to carry you into your imagination, if you struggle and devote yourself completely to finding an answer, then the brain’s delight must be overwhelming. Think of a child who is rewarded by finally mastering the tying of her shoes, her cries of delight and pride, of success and discovery. How many times should I multiply that for setting foot on the moon? Mars? Reaching beyond the sun’s all-powerful gravity?

About Natalie Cunningham

Natalie Cunningham works in the science of writing and the art of archaeoastronomy. She lives in Ohio but thinks about Utah.

WHO’S THE CUTEST RATTLESNAKE?

By | archive, impressions

After passing me a beer from the fridge, Kimberly led me to the snakes, which were contained in forty-gallon Rubbermaid bins in her living room. I sat down while she shifted the bins to clear a place on her floor where she and her colleague Jayme could work. As soon as she moved the bin, a warning rattled from within it. That sound could strike fear through any heart, and to calm mine, I took a long swig of my beer. Despite this initial reaction, which I have no doubt evolved to experience, when Kimberly—Dr. Kimberly Andrews, who works for the University of Georgia at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and is dear friend of mine—called to tell me she had caught a mother eastern diamondback rattlesnake and seven babies and asked me if I wanted to come see them, I was at her door less than an hour later.

She and Jayme Waldron, a biologist from the University of South Carolina, transported the snakes from Kimberly’s Palmetto Bluff field site in southeastern South Carolina to her home inside the bins; mom in one, babies in the other. As part of a study she’s been working on since 2007, Kimberly is tracking twelve other eastern diamondback rattlesnakes on Palmetto Bluff, a piece of forested maritime property that is being developed into an upscale golfing and resort neighborhood for millionaires. Using a long metal hook, Kimberly lifted a tiny rattlesnake out of the bin and carefully placed it inside her venomous snake squeeze box. The box was constructed from wooden boards, each side three feet long and about a foot high, like a small empty sandbox. Once placed, the tiny snake slid along the wall of the box and considered the side with a few tongue flicks. The diamond pattern along the serpent’s back and the broad heart-shaped head were perfect miniatures of what this snake had the biological potential to become: the largest rattlesnake in the world.

Next Kimberly lowered a square piece of clear plexiglass with a tall handle affixed to the center inside the wooden box. The plexiglass fit tightly into place inside the box, gently smashing the snake’s long body and pinning the animal in place. Then she used a green dry-erase marker to trace the snake from tip to tip onto the plexiglass. Underneath the clear cover, the snake flexed a muscle near its head and sent a ripple of contractions down the length of its body like a slinky, trying unsuccessfully to move. Having traced the length, Kimberly moved her long blond ponytail to her opposite shoulder, lifted the plexiglass, and passed it to Jayme. Freed from the squeeze, the snake’s body regained its tube shape, and the little guy coiled up and wagged its tail in the species’ signature warning move. Only his tail, consisting of a single round button, was too little to make any noise.

“Oh, I’m so scared,” Jayme said in a high-pitched voice usually reserved for dogs and children. She followed the green marker line on the plexiglass with a flexible measuring tape to determine the length of the snake was eight and a half inches long. These were brand-new babies. So cute, the two women agreed.

Few people would address this particular snake species with such tenderness, considering the Eastern Diamondback’s reputation as a big, bad viper. When striking, through needle-like fangs, they release powerful hemotoxin venom that kills the snakes’ prey before they swallow it whole; people, too large to eat, are bitten only in defense. Far more people die each year from dog bites, but a diamondback rattlesnake bite can be fatal, which is why people perceive this snake as such a threat.

However, Eastern diamondbacks aren’t aggressive; they only bite when they don’t have any other choice and they prefer to avoid people altogether. Kimberly has told me that when people discover rattlesnakes on their property, the snakes often leave and never return because they recognize our presence is not safe for them, almost as if they’ve been busted doing something they’re not supposed to do. Despite their seeming respect for people, rattlesnakes have long been one of those animals that humans indiscriminately kill. Homeowners chop them in half with shovels. Construction crews run them over on site. And the snakes’ large size—males can grow to be six feet long and twelve pounds heavy—has made them a prime target for rattlesnake roundups, where snakes are hunted and killed for sport. This, scientists fear, is why the Eastern Diamondback seems to be less and less common: humans have killed them all.

Despite the evolutionary fear I felt when I heard the mom’s rattle from within the bin and the deadly potential I knew the snakes possessed, I had to admit, these little guys were cute. Kimberly and Jayme were excited to collect the serpent family, a rare find even for people who intentionally search out the vipers. Rattlesnake eggs develop and hatch inside the mother’s body and so she gives birth to live young. Once they’re born, rattlesnakes may only stay with their mother for a few hours before venturing out on their own. Of course the scientists had to catch the snakes and keep them long enough to collect data, and when they started hooking them, Kimberly said, the little ones curled up on their mother’s head for protection.

Humans may have to start protecting the Eastern diamondback too. For a long time, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and other groups have been pressuring one of the largest rattlesnake roundups, which has been held for forty-five years in Claxton, Georgia, to stop slaughtering the snakes. This past spring, the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup was transformed into a wildlife festival where snakes were celebrated instead of hunted and killed. And earlier this year a group of scientists and environmental groups petitioned to have the Eastern Diamondback listed on the federal endangered species list. This petition only starts the process of protecting this species with the highest and most powerful environmental law. But doing so would not only protect a beautiful animal that plays a critical ecological role in southeastern America’s coastal forests, it would protect the forests themselves and force people to see the rattlesnake as something that deserves more than our complete disdain.

To get all the data they wanted, Kimberly had to handle the snake, and to safely do so, she needed to get the business end into a clear plastic tube that would hold the animal still and prevent it from striking. Baby rattlesnakes are known for being deadlier than adults, though not because the venom is stronger. They can’t control the amount of venom they release when they bite. An adult might be more conservative and reserve its venom for when it’s feeding and dry bite when striking in defense, while a neophyte might release it all whether it needs to or not. Kimberly put the tube in the snake’s face and tried to encourage it to enter the clear tunnel by touching its tail end with another tube.

“Come on,” she coaxed. It investigated the tube, but over and over again, the snake averted her attempts. Watching her handle the snake, so new and unaware of what its life would entail, I thought about what might happen to it after she returned it to its home the following day. Aside from the challenge of finding enough food to survive, this snake would face construction equipment—Palmetto Bluff is a developing neighborhood—and later, after the streets are paved and the houses built, it would face homeowners who can’t help but hate snakes. And it became so obvious in the presence of this creature, which I could only describe as curious and gentle, that the same level of care in handling that the scientists used could so easily translate to care in living for the rest of us humans. As vulnerable as people feel in a rattlesnake’s presence, it seems that if they can learn to avoid us, we should be able to respect and avoid the rattlesnakes, which are far more vulnerable in the human world.

After a few minutes and plenty of encouragement, the snake finally ventured far enough into the tube, about half its body length, that Kimberly could pick it up. Gripping the snake where its back end emerged from the plastic, Kimberly inserted a thin metal probe into the snake’s cloaca to determine the sex—it was a boy, she knew, because of the presence of two roundish organs called hemipenes. Then she measured the length of the tail rattle with the measuring tape, used a medical cauterizing tool to brand the snake as number one, and dropped him into a white fabric bag. She hooked the bag, made of a thin parachute material, to a scale and weighed the snake. At forty grams, he weighed only as much as the empty bag. Then she placed him back in the bin with the others and hooked her next victim. She repeated the process until she’d measured and prodded all seven little snakes; they were done before my beer. When she’d returned the last snake to the bin, she snapped the lid closed and said in a motherly tone, “Now don’t escape and kill us in the night.”

About Melinda Copp

Melinda Copp is a writer based in Bluffton, South Carolina, with an MFA in creative writing from Goucher College. She blogs over at melindacopp.wordpress.com/

HOW TO THINK ABOUT ETERNITY

By | archive, creative, impressions

Thinking about eternity is not simply an esoteric mental exercise. It’s a cure for boredom, a panacea for the trivial, a respite from the mundane. And it’s the sort of thinking best done on your own. If you say to your spouse, “Let’s stay in tonight and bat around the notion of eternity,” chances are that he or she will look at you blankly and reply, “I was hoping it would never come to this.”

Approach it calmly – there’s no need to work yourself up into a lather by drinking turpentine and spitting fire. But be careful. Intellectual escapades like this are deceptively difficult and it’s easy to blow a synapse, or worse.

Witness the man of stone. It takes an eternity for his eyes to blink even once. He stares at the sun, the moon, and the stars as they pass by turns overhead. One day he crumbles and only a pile of rubble remains. He wasn’t cut out for the eternal.

To avoid such a fate, you should first distinguish between eternity and time. Note, however, that it’s easy to bogged down in the vagaries of time, which are considerable.

In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo famously confessed, What then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.

Best ask someone else then.

Like a geologist, who will show you that time is stratified into layers like the pages of a book. Or a paleontologist. He or she will hand you a fossil trilobite and describe it as an icon of time past. Astronomers will point to different stars that are billions of years old. Meanwhile, children will tell you their ages to the nearest half year and poets will lament its passing.

Time’s passing is a great enigma for science and you may be interested to know that some physicists will tell you that both past and future are fixed and time is laid out in its entirety in a timescape, akin to a landscape. There, all past and future events are laid out together. No special moment is singled out as the present because there’s no known mechanism to convert future events into present then past events. This is why the universe often fails to wish you a happy birthday.

Here is where a little Plato comes in handy. He described time as an imperfect moving image of eternity which remains forever at one. We don’t know what he means either. Perhaps each moment of your life is a frame of a film strip illuminated by the brilliance of the eternity’s lamp? Try that on your mental trapeze.

Whether time passes or is simply an illusion, an appreciation of its fleeting nature could help in pondering eternity. You can start by thinking about things that are ephemeral. Some examples will help.

Shooting stars are ephemeral, as are summer thunderstorms, rainbows and haloes around the sun. Unfortunately, the full moon is ephemeral too, even though its glistening light seems to hold everything still as a stone. You can’t step in the same river twice, so the river is definitely ephemeral. Blossoms and leaves also come and go.

But don’t get carried away. Some things that appear ephemeral are actually eternal. Listen to Basho:

Old pond:
frog jumps in,
sound of water.

The frog jumped in three centuries ago and today the sound waves of that tiny splash continue to ripple. But look, there is the frog again on the lily pad, waiting to jump. Now it’s on a log. In it goes, head first, legs last, another splash. Now it’s back on a lily pad, spying a bug on the surface of the old pond. Once more it lunges in to the sound of water.

Once you see the frog, you know that it exists in a timeless space, in the old pond of your mind, always waiting, always ready to jump, always jumping and splashing into a vast silence that erupts briefly before resettling into soundlessness. When you can imagine moments like this standing still forever, and repeating forever, you are starting to get the hang of eternity.

Remember the Little Prince, his sheep and his flower? They are eternal.

On the other hand, according to Magritte, eternity is a cylindrical block of butter with a spatula in it, on a pedestal for all to see, between the bronze heads of the suffering Christ and the scowling Dante. If you stare long enough at the painting, the butter will begin to melt before your eyes.

Or look at Giacometti’s walking figures. Corroded as if baked too long in time’s oven, do they stride from the present into the future, gazing blankly ahead, or from one eternity to another?

Or read some Emily Dickinson. She often sailed to eternity and back in a single line of verse.

Why not take a trip to Paris and admire all the pairs of lovers lolling on the bridges or spoon feeding each other crème glacée in the cafés? Rather than smashing their heads together in a fit of jealousy, pose yourself a philosophical question: What are they doing? Aren’t they trying to suspend time and glimpse eternity? Extend your stay and see if you can become one of them. The crème glacée will do you good.

Alternatively, if you want to think about eternity as a duration, you could think about the spacecraft, Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and now leaving the solar system at a speed of sixty thousand kilometers per hour. Forty thousand years from now it will drift past another star, AC +79 3888, seventy-fifth on the list of nearest stars to Earth, though it won’t come within shouting distance of any of that star’s putative planets. In two hundred and ninety six thousand years, its sister ship, Voyager 2, will drift past Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Go ahead. Think about the sparseness of space, think about two hundred and ninety six thousand years and you’ll get a hint at why Pascal shuddered “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

Treat it all more circumspectly, then, and mull over this quote by Thomas Browne, “The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the equinox?”

Despite that teaser, it may be hard to improve upon the wisdom of the shepherd boy in the tale by the Brothers Grimm. In response to the king’s question, “How many seconds of time are there in eternity?” the boy describes a mountain in Lower Pomerania two and a half miles tall and just as wide and deep, and he says, “Every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” Continue in this vein and try to convince yourself that the number of years between here and eternity exceeds the number of grains of sand in all the beaches and deserts of the world, the number of stars in all the galaxies and even the number of particles in the known universe.

But you should be aware that some people, like Dostoyevsky, weren’t impressed with such efforts to create an abyss out of time. We always imagine eternity as something beyond conception, he said, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and all that? Book one for the summer and see if he was right.

Even the Buddha wasn’t sure that it was possible for such thoughts to get anywhere. “Our theories of the eternal,” he’s reputed to have said, “are as valuable as those of a chick that has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.”

Don’t let that deter you. According to cosmologists, the universe had a beginning, so it is not eternal. One day, long after the man of stone has crumbled, the stars will blink out, and, thanks to dark energy, the mysterious force that’s driving the universe apart, eventually all the other galaxies will be pushed away too far for us to see them. After the bird saws off a couple of seconds of eternity, there won’t be much left in the cosmos except for black holes.

This kind of thinking might depress you, but take heart. In the 1980’s, physicists tried to find out if the proton, the elementary particle that makes up all normal matter, including you, me and crème glacée, might one day decay. Having found no evidence, physicists now think protons are eternal. So, after your mental trapeze artist has dismounted and you have exhausted your experiment with eternity, and your experiment with life, your protons will go on living.

About Daniel Hudon

Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, teaches writing, math, physics and astronomy in Boston. He has published a chapbook, Evidence for Rainfall (Pen and Anvil Press), a popular nonfiction book, The Bluffer’s Guide to the Cosmos (Oval Books) and has a travel manuscript, Traveling into Now, that is looking for a home. He has work coming up or appearing in The Chatttahoochee Review, {Ex}tinguished and {Ex}tinct: An Anthology of Things that No Longer {Ex}ist, Written River and The Little Patuxent Review. He blogs about environmental topics at econowblog.blogspot.com and some of his writing links can be found at people.bu.edu/hudon.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT JOHN MICHAEL GRIFFIN, JR.

By | archive, commentary, impressions

- FROM THE ARCHIVES -

wtcgriff.jpg

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

In fact, late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. Truth is, John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

It is also 10 years ago, that Griff died an engineer and a hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and generosity formed not only a cornerstone of the scientific life I have today, but resonates in the person and father I have become as well.

At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school, in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation. Excelling and throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was revered. That’s probably where my nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically, was not compatible with self-defense during high school gym class.

So, it was sometime in junior year, when scoundrels had me cornered and slammed against the wall, books thrown down the hallway, that a simple gesture saved me. John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

John and I were soccer fans. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket, I could afford a season’s pass to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogićević;, and, of course, Brazil’s Pelé.

John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets (three rows behind me) through some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork like myself would be cool enough to come to soccer games alone – my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football on TV. But we Jersey boys did love soccer, even though we were at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, when crowds would reach 50,000 – 75,000 strong.

John had a gift to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn.

John was a physical caricature, handsome but goofy, self-effacing but self-confident, and possessed of a clever and caustic wit, which he carried into professional life and fatherhood. No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines.

Now, my memories of John seem half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan. Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he, himself, was destined to become an engineering geek. As well as the hero, protecting the lives of others in a very real way.

On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the book 102 Minutes by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

Both men perished soon after in the tower’s collapse.

John’s wife, June, the former June Maarleveld and sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in New York Times, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, `Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

It’s unfortunate but leaving New Jersey and running on the tenure-track treadmill in a biomedical career caused me to lose track of a great many friends, and in some ways, to stop appreciating life even. Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3000 other families deal with the most public of tragedies that came to roost among those at the start or in the prime of their adult lives.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero five years ago for the first time since the attacks. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there was already some small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on placards commemorating those who died there. And I so dearly wish that I had attended our high school reunion to thank John for his friendship during my formative years.

Instead, I keep a makeshift memorial to him, constructed at my old lab, that now sits outside my office and greets me every day. I also keep some other reminders: John’s picture, a photo of the Waldwick, NJ, memorial to John and all the firefighters who perished, a personal note from June with some of the best marital advice I’ve ever received, among others.

Some great minds have said that facing death often gives people the license to finally live their lives.

I am fortunate to have been touched by a soul who needed no such reminder.

About davidjknoll

David J. Kroll, PhD is an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, of pharmacotherapy and medical journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is a President’s Teaching Scholar of the University of Colorado. He enjoys each of these titles because none of the aforementioned institutions actually pays him a dime. He notes that fully half of his finest trainees have been Canadian women. Despite his love for Canada, David currently swelters in Durham, NC, with his wife, Heather S Shaw, MD, and their daughter, Phoebe Talbot Kroll.