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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
New York NY USA

Brian Krueger is the owner, creator and coder of LabSpaces by night and Next Generation Sequencer by day. He is currently the Director of Genomic Analysis and Technical Operations for the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. In his blog you will find articles about technology, molecular biology, and editorial comments on the current state of science on the internet.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

In a recent episode of the new TV show, Happy Endings (Episode on HuLu), one of the characters, Dave, gets super excited when he runs into and reconnects with his favorite high school teacher.  The only problem is that the teacher turns out to be an alcoholic douche, but Dave spends the entire episode fawning over the guy until he realizes that the teacher is just an underachieving loser who is trying to bed his friend Penny.

The nostalgic undertones of this show got me thinking about my favorite high school teachers.  It should be no surprise that my favorite teachers are my science teachers.  Many of them helped inspire me to pursue a career in science.  I'm not sure if I should thank them or hate them for that.

Regardless, my senior year of high school was exciting because I was taking a bunch of really cool AP science classes.  At the time, my favorite teacher award was a dead heat between my AP bio teacher and my AP physics teacher.  The physics guy was new to the school.  It was either his first or second year there.  I really liked his teaching style.  He forced us to think about the problems he gave us and always answered our questions with questions to try to get us to come up with the solutions on our own.  I stayed after class a lot to work on problems or get extra help.  We'd talk about normal guy stuff and I thought of him as both a teacher and a friend.

We'd had about half a year of classes and college application time was rolling around.  I asked all of my favorite teachers to write a letter of recommendation, and of course phyics teacher was one of them that I was most excited about.  The only problem was that he took his time writing the letter.  I asked him for weeks if he had finished it and he kept saying he was still writing it.  I started to get worried because the application deadlines were days away.  Finally, he asked me to stay after class to talk to him about the letter.  He said he wanted to go over it with me for whatever reason.  I was excited because teachers weren't supposed to show you what they had written, at least none of my other teachers shared this information with me and most applications specifically say that students should not be given access to the letters.  Once class ended, I stuck behind and waited for the other kids to filter out.  Eventually everyone left and physics teacher pulled out a folder with the application information and grabbed the page with the letter form.  I guess these days everything is electronic, but in the old days colleges still sent out paper submission forms.  The page included the question on one line and then had 4 blank lines below it with a note in italics saying (attach additional pages if necessary).  Scribbled in micro-print on those four lines and all of the way down the side of the 1" blank margin of the page was my letter and his answers to the 3 or 4 application questions.  He maybe wrote 6 sentences worth of information for each question.  I don't know why I didn't blow up on the guy, I guess I was just a lot like Dave in Happy Endings, my physics teacher was my friend and could do no wrong.  Physics teacher rambled about the bullshit he had written, he threw out crap like, "And we've discussed the philosophical paradigm of life...blah blah blah."  It sounded like jibberish even to my high school student ears.

I really wish there was someone there to shake the stupid out of me, fortunately, physics teacher was kind enough to do this all on his own.  He continued his explanation of this life philosophy paradigm and began a horrifying conversation about irreducible complexity.  To the unannointed, irreducible complexity sounds like it describes something scientific, but it's actually a creationist/intelligent design term to explain why god exists.  Essentially irreducible complexity insists that structures like the eye could not have evolved.  The argument is that the system is far too complex to be the product of evolution because all of the parts are uniquely tied to one another, these systems must be created by a master designer.  I guess if you think that the earth is only 5,000 years old, this is a rational hypothesis, but given millions of years to work, evolution by natural selection produces profound complexity as exemplified by everything around us.  To hear my physics teacher talk about biology from the perspective of intelligent design was shocking.  I was completely unprepared for the conversation.  I just smiled and nodded, but on the inside I was dying.  Someone who I had looked up to as an expert source of scientific knowledge was a creationist stooge, and worse yet, he wrote about it in my college application letter!

At this point it was too late.  I couldn't tell him to not send the letter for fear that he'd get angry and retaliate.  And I only had a couple of days left to find a teacher to fill the hole created if I did ask him to not mail it in.  I essentially just gave up on getting into that school, because there was no way in hell a college would take any student seriously if they had a recommendation letter written for them by a devout creationist.*  The upshot of this story is that this was one of the first college applications that was due, and I did not request any more letters from physics teacher.

Following my creationist encounter, my time in physics class was brief.   I stopped hanging out after class.   I don't remember much else from that class, other than a few fun projects like the parabolic oven my friend and I made for our optics project, or the clear water flute I made that included a water reservoir filled with goldfish.  Physic teacher's stay at the school was also brief.  As it turns out, he was fired a year later for trying to pursue a relationship with a student.  Unfortunately, he also had a wife and a new born baby.

My question to you dear readers (Do I have any left? It's been a while since I've written a post!): have you ever had one of these "Dave" experiences?  Have your lofty opinions of a teacher ever been crushed by acts of idiocy?

###

*I did get an off site interview with this school, and the interviewer didn't ask about that recommendation letter.

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JaniceF
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I'm not sure if I should thank them or hate them for that.
That's such a true statement.  My Dave moments have come with my PhD supervisors.  But not as harsh as the Dave experience.  Just a realization that our role models are human.


Suzy
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I doubt that a school would hold you responsible for a letter from a teacher that made the teacher look kooky. Wasn't the letter about you? About your enthusiasm and smarts? I am not sure how that fits in with creationism at all- or how creationism fits in with letters of recommendation.

I never had a letdown experience with a teacher in high school. But definitely as a PhD student.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I think our bullshit and people filters are much more in tune in our 20's.  There isn't that fear of authority anymore so it's easier to pick out the crazies.

@Jade, I couldn't figure out why he thought it was necessary, maybe he was just trying the screw me over?


Alchemystress
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holy bat shit crazy... yeah I have had that happen a few times maybe not to that extreme but started seeing people in a new light after reaching their age group and seeing it from an "educated" perspective and by educated i mean life-wise mostly. Sorry you went thru that.. whack-a-loon for sure

PS someone turned me onto that show and I love it


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Alchemystress said:

PS someone turned me onto that show and I love it

It's a pretty hilarious show.  I'm glad it got a second season!

 

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