I remember a conversation I had in high school with a girl who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a scientist. She said she would rather do something that involved working with people. I had many opportunities to remember that conversation during my scientific career, and thought of it every time it was once again proven to me that a life in science involves working (and dealing and talking and cooperating, and struggling) with people far more than most careers.
This tends to be especially true during that mid-career phase when a rising scientist has had some degree of success, is spending a lot less time in the lab, and a lot more time supervising grad students, post docs and technicians, going to meetings and conferences, arranging collaborations, and trying to raise one’s standing in the community. Specific goals, such as gaining tenure and promotions, getting grant support, having papers published and receiving invitations to speak at symposia, all involve a huge degree of engagement with peers, supervisors, supporters, and a whole host of other scientists. At this stage, the phrase “It’s who you know, more than what you know” begins to take center stage in the aspiring scientist’s mind.
I was smack in the middle of that scientific version of social climbing when I was invited to be a member of the program committee for the annual conference of a very large scientific research organization. I was thrilled to accept. Scanning through the list of names of other members of the committee, I recognized more than half of them. A few I already knew, more I had heard of, and would love to get to know. The rest were in other fields, but all were at least at my level of accomplishment, and most were much higher.
This conference was a chance for me to meet and try to impress some bigwigs who might act as a reference for my upcoming tenure application. The first event of the conference that I had high hopes for was a dinner for the entire program committee on the evening before the conference was to start. I entered the large hall a bit early (a mistake I have made many times) and sat at a table. Soon, crowds of people began filing in, and I could see many of the people I was hoping to meet, as well as the few I already knew. None of them came to my table.
Before long everyone was seated at other tables. Several people had eventually come to my table, starting with an older, dowdy looking woman, who I assumed was somebody’s wife. She asked me if she might sit down, and mentioned that some others might join her. I almost said no, in my vain hope that some of the people I was interested in might still join me. But instead a group of grad students who didn’t even belong at this exclusive dinner for committee members sat down, and before I could protest at their presence, one of them said they had been invited to this high level gathering by their advisor. Some other nondescript men and women of various ages and appearances came over, including a man dressed with a clerical collar, who I thought had wandered into the wrong ballroom.
Soon the waiters began distributing the appetizer course, and everyone got silent. The man in the collar said “If I may…” and began to recite what I could only imagine was grace. I was at that time still a fervent atheist, and had never actually experienced anyone saying grace in real life, but I had seen it done in films. I was shocked and horrified. This was a scientific conference for God’s sake (no pun intended). Who were these people?
Some of them bowed their heads during the brief prayer, and then resumed talking and eating. Recovering from my shock, I looked around the room to see if there were any free spaces at nearby tables. There were none I could see, and I slipped into a funk, cursing my luck for having ended up at a table of losers. As I was brooding, the Asian fellow on my left introduced himself and held out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Ray Hong” he said. I shook his hand and said the first thing that came to my mind “Oh, you have the same name as the guy from Yale who just published that paper in Nature on…” and at that moment my eye caught sight of his nametag that read “Raymond Hong. Yale”. I looked up at his face. He smiled. “Yup, that’s me”. I gulped. This guy had just published a breathtaking piece of work that would revolutionize several fields of research related to my own. I was stunned. I introduced myself and he smiled and asked me how I knew Margaret. I was about to ask him who Margaret was, when we were distracted by the chair of our committee, several tables over who asked for attention and proceeded to make an announcement that I could not concentrate on. When he finished, Ray was talking to the woman on his other side, and I heard one of the grad students say “Here comes Art”. I looked over and saw a distinguished looking gray-haired man approaching our table. I had seen his photo on the cover of a major publication recently. I asked one of the students “Is that Sir Arthur Bonneville?”
“Yes” she said, “He’s our advisor”. He was also a world famous researcher who had come to Harvard from Oxford and was rumored to be in line for a Nobel. I felt myself starting to sweat. He came over to the table and walked straight over to the older woman who was beaming at him. “Maybe he’s the husband” I thought. But no. When close enough he held out his hand and said in a perfect British accent, “Margaret, how lovely to see you”. I could only think “Who the hell is Margaret” and put my question into words to the same grad student.
She looked at me with an air of amusement. “Margaret Hutchinson” was her answer. I felt the room starting to spin, and took a deep breath. Margaret Hutchinson was the previous year winner of the Nobel for Medicine and Physiology.
As the evening continued, and I learned more about my dinner companions, it dawned on me that the only loser at that table was me.
Scientists like to say that no matter how much we know, we are still always students trying to learn the secrets of nature. I learned a lot that day, and I learned even more about that day when a decade or more later I read the Gospels for the first time. And just yesterday, I read aloud as the Liturgist at our church the Gospel of Luke 14:7-14. Where Jesus says “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place.” At that table, there several people far more distinguished than I, and the lesson of that passage was one I have already learned from direct experience.
Jesus Christ, who I had finally came to believe was the incarnation of the Lord God, creator of everything, sat down to eat with illiterate fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, losers all, who ended up changing the world and the lives of all who know Him. Even me, the biggest loser of them all.