Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Illusions of Fame

Samir Mitragotri was assigned as my Ph.D. advisor when he was starting his 4th year on the tenure track at UC Santa Barbara. He seemed pretty old me to, but, in reality, he was something like 32 at that time. I thought he was amazing. He worked in the area of drug delivery, and he was famous. He had won several awards, and when I visited UCSB as a senior in college, he offered to let me try his Thai Iced Tea, which was one of the best drinks to ever touch my lips. Altogether, I thought that Samir, as a total package, was pretty darn good.

A couple of years later, in 2004, I began attending conferences. Other academics would ask, Who's your advisor?, and I'd proudly say, Samir Mitragotri. Usually, people had no idea who he was. Samir Migratory?, they'd ask.

Ah yes, the Samir: the migratory, brown, Thai iced tea-drinking bird of the Indian subcontinent.

I was perplexed by these conference-goers' seeming cluelessness. How could they not know him?, I would wonder, He is famous!

Oh, little lamb, spring chicken, my former self. 

Ten years later, and I am now intimately familiar with the non-fame associated with being a young, untenured professor. Nonetheless, I am tickled when I remember how enamored I was with his scientific prowess, and how I never once questioned his suitability as my advisor despite his young academic age. Part of me says that maybe I was simply naive, the other part of me says that my instincts were right.

Fame is relative, and while my Ph.D. advisor has not become a household name in the United States, he was elected a couple of months ago to the National Academy of Engineering. I was and am so excited for him. I was there when he was starting, when his lab's work began gelling together. I don't know if, at the time, his head swirled with all of the thoughts that collide around mine. But I'm proud that I was with him at that stage, and that I found him worthy of the recognition he was en route to receiving.

One day last month, I was reflecting on all of this, and I asked my most senior Ph.D. student why he chose to work with me. He said he felt really passionately about the lymphoma drug delivery project. When I asked if it bothered him that I was a new professor, he said no. He said not a word about me being famous - but, for his sake (and for mine), I'm glad that wasn't a criterion.