Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Head-On Collision with the Traffic of Capitalism's 'Golden Gate Bridge' (III)

Back to the hostile take-over. When the biotechnology company failed to respond to my emails over the next few months, it became obvious that the same day responsiveness and collaborative interactions I'd experienced with Research Genetics were a thing of the past. 

It felt like I'd suddenly been materialized on a tightrope. Though I didn't have problems focusing on work, once home, my mind would spiral out of control replaying conversations with colleagues, as well as trouble-shooting experiments in my lab. Thankfully, encountering Eckhart Tolle's description of his own mind in a similar state in The Power of Now let me know I wasn't alone in my experience.

I knew that being on hyper-alert, over-sensitive to the slightest rebuff from colleagues and failures in experiments wasn't going to help me traverse the tightrope I found myself on instead of the well-delineated tenure track I'd expected. I started meditating more intensively. I also read ~10 pages of dharma a day and found my first Sangha -- not only as a support for sitting, also as a social support separate from academia.

It didn't take long for me to learn to shut-down mental spirals at the outset. I also grew more attuned to the beauty in my environment and drew on it as source of strength and patience. I rediscovered my amazement and appreciation for simple things. I began to see the many ways the quality of my life had suffered due to gradually increasing stresses of work over the years.

A practice that began, at least in part, as stress reduction, affirmations, and positive psychology, grew to include the four immeasurables, the four foundations of mindfulness, the eight-fold path, and tonglen in its foundation.

When the time came to go up for tenure, I can't say I thought I had a strong case in spite of my lab's extraordinary findings in the interim. So I was surprised that my faculty advisor insisted. (Every assistant professor is assigned a senior faculty member as an advisor and meetings are scheduled a minimum of once a year.) It seemed as though he knew something I didn't.

My tenure seminar was stellar. It would have been impossible for it to be otherwise. I viewed the seminar as the summary argument of a defense lawyer in front of judge and jury. Or perhaps, even more accurately, my last chance to present all we'd accomplished -- in front of a firing squad.

A few days later, my faculty advisor pulled me into his office. I was expecting some words of consolation or an apology for the difficulty of, but necessity for, their decision. 

His opening words: "NOW WE KNOW HOW YOU FOOLED US!"

My response while he continued in a similar vein was to tap into my breath and send him kindness and understanding. Somewhat like the social worker in That Bird Has my Wings that, in complacency, believed Jarvis' second foster parents more than Jarvis, my advisor had failed to listen and do his job. Whether unintentionally or purposefully, I'll never know.

For any Zen practitioners, being denied tenure and being stripped of one's ordination are not that different. Here's the mirror. And the shadow.

A Means-Whereby

As a measure of the seriousness of the circumstances, a few months after the hostile take-over I explicitly told my husband to stay where he was even though, after getting the NIH grant, I'd bought a house in the hopes of encouraging him to join me.

Although I was still working toward tenure, my primary goal became to plant as much of a seed as possible for the hypothesis that the type of protein we were studying, an ion channel, could play a direct role in the intracellular signaling pathways responsible for neuronal plasticity.

The traditional accepted role of  ion channels is the generation of an electric current that is the language used to communicate within and between neurons, as well as muscle fibers. Without the current generated by the flow of ions through the pores of ion channels, information exchange in the brain and body would be forced to depend on the much slower process of diffusion.

Our findings suggested that ion channels are not limited to that role: Channels containing mutations that prevented ions from flowing through their pores were still able to affect intracellular signaling pathways.

[In fact, my lab was not the first to show the potential multiplicity of roles for an ion channel. The first, most well-described example was for the interaction between L-type calcium channels and channels in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. That example was in muscle and seemed to be viewed as a special case, as opposed to an indicator of the flexibility of roles that might be applicable to all ion channels. In addition, the link was direct: conformational changes in the L-type calcium channel directly triggered changes in the sarcoplasmic reticulum channels, as opposed to interacting with intracellular signaling proteins. There are other examples that appeared simultaneously or since. It would be interesting to write a review -- now, ten years after.]

By the time I was informed of the tenure decision my focus was primarily on getting the last two research papers published and my graduate students their Ph.D. degrees. When I rejoined my husband, I pushed my disappointment aside and focused on the papers.*  I also searched 
for employment in the area and any free-time I had I spent knitting: A sweater for my husband. Ten or more pair of socks.

What happened next is going to break your heart. Well, at the very least, it broke mine.

Both manuscripts went through a couple of rounds of review. We had tested the model using transgenic fly lines containing specific mutations in the channel gene to confirm an in vivo role. I had hoped that the fact that four distinct transgenic fly lines confirmed the overall model as well as specific hypotheses would  permit reviewer's comments to be dealt with through revision of the text. That was not the case.

Though 'threatening' might not have been the best word choice in my previous post, any finding that challenges the predominant paradigm or way of thinking is subject to more stringent criteria for publication. And that's how it should be. I remembered the difficulties researchers 
had encountered decades before when trying to convince the larger neuroscience community that ion channels could be modified by phosphorylation. Unfortunately, I no longer had a lab.

I recruited the help of a longtime collaborator. Her lab's initial findings, a first step before attempting to address the reviewer's comment, failed to replicate ours. There could have been several reasons for the failure, including but not limited to modification, masking, or deletion of the transgenic constructs due to stresses during shipping or deleterious effects of the inserts given that the channel we were studying has been implicated in several forms of cancer.

It gets worse. When I went back to check the files corresponding to the data in question, the relevant files were missing. After trying and failing to contact the graduate student that performed the experiments, I let go of the thought of publishing the papers. It was the only responsible thing to do. And I was days away from starting a new job.

What did it feel like? If you love the Buddha-dharma the way I do, you might understand this comparison: It felt like being Dogen and being forced to destroy half the Shobogenzo, with no possibility of recreating it. It felt like being a witness to the destruction of the final chapters of Buddhacarita.

*Unpublished Manuscripts:

Hegle, AP, Marble, DD & Wilson, GF. Conductance-independent gating of CaMKII associated with Ether a-go-go K+ channels.

Marble, DD, Clyne, JD, Sun, X-X, Ganetzky, B, Griffith, LC, & Wilson, GF. Bi-directional regulation of Drosophila EAG potassium channels by calcium-dependent mechanisms.

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