First Week of New Term (pt. 1)

About a week and half ago, classes began at Wayland.  I have also started my one day a week position at Texas Tech.  For those who may not know, I took a bit of a sabbatical from teaching, without knowing at the time that it was a sabbatical.  It had been my intention to try my hand at full time research.  A few of things motivated my leave from Wayland last May:

  1. I enjoyed research both as a graduate student and during my two summer post-doc positions so it seemed natural that I would enjoy more research. I was often frustrated during the school year by constantly having to put my “deep thinking” on hold for class, lecture development, one-on-one student tutorials, exam grading, etc.  If I wanted to do “real” research I was going to need a full-time position to commit the necessary time.
  2. I had never had a full-time research position before so I didn’t know if it was something I would truly enjoy.  Having started my full-time position at Wayland just after the completion of my Master’s, I lacked any experience as a researcher other than, again, part time research with the constant interruption of my teaching responsibilities.
  3. The time was now.  If I was going to move my career in the direction of research, I needed to try it now.  Nobody would hire a Ph.D. who hadn’t been doing research for years and who hadn’t taken the opportunity to pursue a post-doc position immediately after graduation.  I didn’t want to look back later, perhaps during a mid-life crisis, and wonder, “What If?”

I took a position as a Bioinformacist at the level of a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in a new lab at Texas Tech University.  The lab was set up by Dr. Thea A. Wilkins who had recently been hired by Tech and who has a pretty significant standing in the world of cotton genetics research.  I took the position expecting to be a part of her lab for two to three years.  At the end of that time, I would evaluate my career options and determine if research was for me, if I ought to return to teaching, or if I should seek a position with a mix of the two. As is now obvious since I am back a Wayland, I learned a few interesting things about research and about myself during the 6 months in this position, things that have rekindled my passion for mathematics education.

  1. Bioinformatics research, particularly data mining and database construction, do not motivate novel research, at least not for me.  I honestly believe that the skills of using statistical analysis for obtaining biological knowledge from the current high-throughput technologies is not an area that will remain as a primary research field for long.  As I have read more than once, this kind of bioinformaticist will soon be relegated to the position of technician, perhaps as a microscopist has become.  It will be a specialized set of skills that fit within the larger context of molecular biology and functional genomics, but not as an active field of research in its own right.
  2. Successful research demands passion complete with a time commitment beyond my capacity as a family man.  I’m sure there are a few select individuals that manage to build successful research programs will maintaining their familial responsibilities but they are indeed an exception.  The stress of publishing, obtaining grants and finding the next big idea commands a mental focus that one cannot honestly say they are putting their family and faith before their career.  Even if one can successfully balance this career with their family, that individual must be strongly motivated in both arenas of life.  I am passionately motivated to be a Christian father and a Christian husband, but cannot say the same thing of bioinformatics research.
  3. I am passionate about teaching.  If a career in education held the same demands as research, I would actually be motivated to balance this career with my family.  Fortunately, while it still requires commitment and an enormous amount of work, undergraduate mathematics education gives me much more freedom to commit time and mental focus to needs of my wife and rearing of my children.  Sitting in front of a computer screen writing code, building spreadsheets, developing databases, writing proposals, at 10+ hours a day, 5-6 days a week, only made me long for the classroom and for my office hours where I could teach, respond to questions, and just interact with people.  In the first week at Wayland, I had in-depth conversations with more people than in 6 months at Tech.
  4. The work environment at this particular lab at Texas Tech is not conducive to productive research.  I’ll not say more than that other than to say that I am not the first or the second person to leave the lab prematurely within the last six months.  At least a part of the reason for this exodus is the management of the lab.  Enough said.

This post was originally intended to discuss my first week at Wayland but it looks like that will be forthcoming.  I’ll draw this post to close and conclude that God let me follow a path of self-discovery.  I would even go so far as to say that He wanted me at Tech.  He also left a place for me at Wayland so I could return. 

I still must confess to doubt myself at times, wondering if I am just make excuses for not wanting to work hard. I remember a bad decision  I made during the summer following my junior year at Wayland.  I was living with my grandparents in Amarillo and completing an English course at Amarillo college.  I was trying my hand as a temp.  I had a job with a firm doing data entry.  I was asked if I wanted to take it as a full time summer position. After my first day, which was tedious and gave me a serious migraine, I convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out for data entry.  I convinced myself that it just not worth the challenge of monotony that it would inevitably provide.  Looking back (hindsight is 20-20) I really think I should have kept the job, saved up my earnings for an upcoming wedding, honeymoon and down payment on a house.  I needed to learn the responsibility of a “real” job outside the world of academia.  There are things that I learned at my first full time, non-teaching job this past 6 months, that I should have learned a long time ago.

Didn’t I say I was drawing this post to a close?  Well, I will, saying this: God is at work in our lives and we can trust his plan to work itself out in us.  We simply must give him the reigns to our life and make Jesus our Lord, master, boss, chair, dean, and all-around head honcho.  (Easier said than done.)

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