Update after a hiatus

I spend most of my days writing: grants, papers, letters of recommendations, and endless emails. When I was sick and forced to take six months off work, this blog gave me an outlet for all the thoughts I’d otherwise be putting on paper. But, when I returned to my office full time, the urge to continue blogging diminished.

Two weeks ago, I hd another surveillance MRI, and received, as expected, another clean bill of health. These visits are routine now. I don’t lose sleep over them anymore, and if anything, they resemble trips to the dentist. i.e., an inconvenience that includes minor discomforts, ending in my doctor asking the same pro forma questions, such as: Have you had any additional seizures? Unusual headaches? Drainage from the incision scar? Do you want to consider chemotherapy or radiation at this time? There’s some satisfaction to be had in answering NO to everyone of these, and greater satisfaction in the thought that my next check-up is half a year away. Those six months will include another Christmas and New Years, another year’s cancer-versary, my oldest daughter’s 9th birthday, and any number of exciting or pleasurable happenings at work.

Still, this checkpoint reminded me that not long ago, I was projecting my mind into the future by visualizing expected landmarks while reclaiming my life from cancer. You may recall that I had a list of 14 events I wanted to see or experience. Where the number 14 came from, I cannot say; I’m sure it made sense at the time. I’m happy to say that 2.5 years later, 10 of the 14 have been accomplished. Briefly:

  1. Carolyn’s first haircut (June 2015, Paul Ye’s salon).
  2. Carolyn’s first ice cream cone (July 2015, Oberweiss on Manchester, after my first and most important post-op surveillance MRI).
  3. Carolyn’s first big girl bed (Summer 2016). This has been of somewhat doubtful pleasure, as Carolyn likes to wander the house at night.
  4. Quinn’s Daddy/Daughter Dance (Yearly in the Spring). Quinn is now dancing at COCA on her own, and I’ve been to Daddy/Daughter dances with Carolyn. The little ones are growing up.
  5. Sophie’s first Children’s Choir concert (Autumn 2015, and many times thereafter).
  6. Hawaii with Jing (Summer 2015).
  7. Ten-year anniversary of diagnosis. Obviously not yet achieved, but I have a venue — Spink Pavilion, MOBOT, picked out for the party.  
  8. My lab’s first research article (2015, and yearly thereafter). The first was a nice set of simulations by Jiajia published in Methods in Enzymology, the second, another paper by Jiajia, this time in Brain, Behavior, and Immunology. The third, a Plos ONE paper on a software package by my sister Laura and Scott Lewis. I also took the lead on a review in JBR with 90+ co-authors. I’m proud of all those works, but we also have a paper in review at Cell, which if accepted, could blow those previous ones out of the water.
  9. The award of my lab’s first federal grant (Summer, 2016). R21 from NIAMS, and afterwards, I’m a co-I on an R01 expected to be funded early next year.
  10. Tenure. Again, I haven’t had enough time to finish this one, and in fact, when I moved to WashU, my tenure decision was moved back another 10 year. So, it’ll be a long wait. But, if you allow me to  make this a more general “acceptance and approval of my seniors in science” then it gets a tentative and provisional YES. I’m happy and productive at present, so I don’t worry too much these days about arbitrary and artificial deadlines.
  11. The graduation of my first PhD student (Winter 2017, Dr. Jiajia Li).
  12. A normal work day (Winter 2015). One shouldn’t underestimate the pleasure of being able to drive oneself into work and contribute to your family, university, and science in general without being dependent on anyone.
  13. Italy with Jing. Not yet, but I’m hoping that when the big skeletal muscle is published, I can invite myself to give some talks to the muscle physiologists in Rome, Venice, etc…
  14. The book. Not written yet, but still intended.

So, the big “to-do” list is shrinking. As is my way, I’ve decided to re-populate it, lest I wander aimlessly without a plan. Going with a similarly arbitrary number as previously, I’ve settled on 11 essential events / accomplishments to look forward to.

  1. Ten-year cancer-versary party
  2. Tenure
  3. Italy with Jing
  4. The book
  5. 1,000,000 meters rowed on my Concept2 indoor rower. I started this project about two years ago, when I over-did my jogging/walking exercise plan and gave myself plantar fasciitis. A million of anything is a lot as my Dad would say, but even with that foreknowledge, a million meters rowed has been a longer, harder task than I ever expected. I would have never done something like this before cancer.
  6. All my kids complete the MathFacts Scholars Program. Not trying to sound too much like a TigerDad, but elementary math education is embarrassingly weak, and there are still too many voices telling girls they aren’t expected to be good at math and science. My daughters are all taking morning math enrichment, which is a revealing euphemism for basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, and percents. It’s not like we’re psychotic tennis or golf parents. If I can get all of them through this program, they’ll know they can study and succeed at whatever they choose to do when they grow up. And they’ll know the sorts of things their parents value. This is really a multi-faceted pleasure, since they’ll all necessarily be out of diapers and able to read by the end of this program as well.
  7. anti-PD1, TOCA 511 Phase II/III trials published. Brain cancer has been cured in mice using two independent technologies. At this point, it’s an engineering problem, to get them to work in humans. I’m not very anxious about my health, but it would be enormously gratifying to see the end of cancer (especially brain cancer) in my lifetime. The rumors are that both sets of trials look very good so far. Bonus points if combinatorial treatments (e.g. multiple checkpoint inhibitors) are published and approved by the FDA. Monotherapies (or other silver bullets) probably won’t be “the cure” we’re all hoping for.
  8. Passing Dietmar. I find the tendency of scientists to judge one’s accomplishments against peers to be unsavory. Publications, citations, H-indexes, etc. are all vulgar when overused, and great mischief results from overly competitive scientists. That being said, my graduate advisor did his utmost to run me out of science, and it will be gratifying when my career’s productivity surpasses his, despite the 10+ year head start he had. Call me petty if you like, but in this one case I make an exception. Or, re-phrasing a cliche: the best revenge is publishing well.
  9. End of the Trump administration. On the subject of toxic people, it will be a relief to see the end of the Trump administration and the polarizing convulsions that it’s brought to American politics.
  10. Visiting my alma maters to give a talk. Penn, Yale, Harvard, and especially Stanford. It would mean a great deal to come back home and show the folks who’ve shaped me that I turned out ok.
  11. Land. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had an idle fantasy about buying some land to serve as an ancestral homeland and patrimony for my daughters once all the various expected expenses — braces, college, etc. — are covered. Recall Byron Nelson’s lifelong dream  and you’ll grasp the general idea. I have a rough location picked out, but I’ll keep that to myself for now.

Perhaps these are daydreams, but as I mentioned in the original post, it’s better to keep your eyes on the future than worry about the present.