The Path 11/1/22

Memories with Richard Bleil

The paper that I submitted for the American Chemical Society national meeting was a mathematical model of protein folding.  It was based on the work of a biochemist which I modified slightly.  I was never particularly proud of the work since it wasn’t terribly original, but it was a modification, and besides, this is how science works.  One person published their work, and others verify it. 

To submit a paper to these conferences have three different potential outcomes.  Obviously, it can be rejected out of hand.  This is honestly what I expected, but I submitted.  The kind of “runner-up” prize is to be invited to the poster session.  There are far too many submissions to give everybody a talk, so those who don’t quite measure up put together, quite literally, a poster.  The poster is posted outside of the lecture rooms, and the poster presenter basically has to stand there to answer questions from viewers. 

My submission resulted in an invitation to give an actual presentation.  This completely blew my mind, but there I was, standing in front of a room full of my colleagues discussing a self-avoiding random-walk two-dimensional model to simulate protein folding.  I never really saw much value in it, but apparently the organizers of the conference did.  And I wasn’t terribly comfortable.  It was my first (and would be    my last) professional conference presentation.  But I managed to get through it, but didn’t really think much would come from it save people thinking to themselves that this kid really doesn’t belong here.  Of course, they’re all too polite to actually say anything like that, so I was safe.  Ish.  Sort of.

What did happen, however, was completely unexpected.  After my presentation, I was wondering around the posters wondering to myself why I wasn’t there when two elderly men excitedly approached me.  We cordially introduced ourselves to each other.  As it turns out, they worked at Polaroid labs.  Do you wear polarized sunglasses?  Yeah, they did that.  They held the patent (along with the company, of course) and were wanting to retire.  As such, they were seeking somebody to bring to the lab to train and replace them, and they thought they had found their candidate in me.

In my book of regrets, this is a big one.  Not that they offered me the job (they did seem eager to do so, however), but they invited me to the Polaroid labs to discuss the possibility with me.  Unfortunately, my heart was set on academia (which in retrospect seemed like a foolish career path for me personally), so I turned them down.  I don’t regret not working for Polaroid, but in turning down their offer.  Who knows?  I may have enjoyed working there immensely, and had I done so my life certainly would have turned out very differently.

My friend at the Drive-In is in her senior year and has her heart set on chemical engineering in college.  I’ve been discussing a lot of things with her: chemistry, life, just things in general.  I don’t want to convince her to do chemistry instead of chemical engineering, but I want her to be informed.  She had heard the phrase “chemical engineering” somewhere but doesn’t really know what that entails so we’ve been discussing those differences.  Had I gone to work for Polaroid, I would have been working as a chemical engineer (and would have a ton of money by now, and not one but several ex-wives).  What I suggested to her is to look for jobs as if she has these degrees.  With modern job search engines it’s an easy thing to do, and as she’s looking, I suggested she ask several questions.  What do these jobs (chemist, chemical engineer or other) entail?  What are the job descriptions?  Would she enjoy them not for a few weeks, but for a thirty- or forty-year career?  Who abundant are the jobs and where are they located?  What degrees (bachelors, masters, or doctorate) are they seeking?

Sometimes, like today, I stop to think about this path I overlooked.  Would I have enjoyed it?  If I could have stepped into their shoes, had my own and relatively independent well-funded lab, it certainly would have been a very different life than what I led.  But my greatest regret was just not even considering it.  I was young and foolish, and I hope I can steer my new and very young and innocent friend not into any particular direction in her career, but towards informed decisions.  Maybe, if I can do that, I still have purpose.

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