Monday, September 24, 2012

"Microbial" Vests, Teaching Micro, and a Shout-out to my Mother!

It's been a week since I have posted a blog entry; sorry about that.  I'll be posting several times this week to make up for it.  Again, please feel free to comment or pass along links if you feel so inclined.  This blog experience is supposed to be therapeutic for me, and---from time to time---interesting for the reader.

Back when I worked in the biotech business, I had to dress nicely.  For "official" meetings, I even had to wear a three piece suit!  As a "Senior Research Microbiologist" who supervised technicians, there were many attempts to interest me in golf (I explained that I had played it before, the challenge for me was putting the ball past the windmill), and other more "business-administrator-type" pursuits.  Not an ideal fit for my, ahem, non-authoritarian personality.

Academia has no official or unofficial dress code, especially in the sciences, and that is fine.  When I returned to teaching, I originally wore a sportcoat and tie whenever I had lecture or lab.  Some of my departmental colleagues teased me about it, which probably seems odd, but it is pretty normal for academicians.  Remember, we academics are the ones no one wanted on their 4th grade kickball team, pretty much.  I continued to wear a coat and tie when I lectured.  The students didn't mind (some remarked on it positively and saw that I was showing them respect) and I really don't care for peer pressure of any cultivar.  

Then, in 1998, my mother Wanda Martin was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is an awful disease.  It is the fifth most common form of cancer among women, and it causes more deaths than any other type of cancer.  It gives few signals of its presence early on, so that by the time it is detected, the disease is usually far advanced.  Treatments are limited, though research continues.  The five year survival rate for all stages of ovarian cancer are 47%.   My mother's chances, giving the staging of her cancer, were not considered to be anywhere near that good.  Parenthetically, ovarian cancer has touched close to me and mine several times:  my mother, a former student from Occidental College, and my brother's late wife (you are missed and remembered fondly, Sonia Chorlian Martin).  No type of cancer is admirable, but I truly detest this particular disease.

We were devastated with the news of my mother's diagnosis in 1998 (I was on leave doing research in Hawai'i at the time, which makes those beautiful islands much less lovely in my memory than they deserve); the prognosis was not encouraging.  But we pulled together as a family.  As the representative from the American Cancer Society told me over the telephone, it isn't just the patient who "gets" cancer; family and friends are impacted as well.  

My mother is psychologically Amish---she abhors boasting and is very humble.  But as her son, I can say that my mother is the toughest person I know.  She has been through many types of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, radiation, experimental therapies.  If it is a possible treatment for ovarian cancer, my mother has tried it.   As I have mentioned, the survivorship for ovarian cancer (and my mother's cancer was decidedly not early stage) is not encouraging.  Not surprisingly to those who are lucky enough to know her well,  Wanda Martin is still hanging in there.  

As I wrote above, a remarkable woman.  Here is a photograph of my mother, and my youngest son Zachary, taken last year at Thanksgiving.

 And here she is, again last Thanksgiving, with my oldest son Anson.

As an effort to keep my very "crafty" mother busy in the early days of her diagnosis,  I suggested that she make me vests.  My mother has always loved to sew, so sew she did.  Thus, I have a collection of vests, all made by my mother.  I wear them each time I give a class lecture, in honor of her and her fight against ovarian cancer.

A few years ago, I noticed the company "Infectious Awareables."  They sell microbially themed items.  I buy "microbial ties" that my microbiology students sign at the end of the course, which is a nice souvenir of each class.  Then I thought: what about a microbial vest?  The folks who run "Infectious Awareables" did not sell bolts of their "themed" cloth, I discovered.  But I could buy scarves.  So I did.  I would buy three of them, and then sweet talked my mother into trying to make me a "microvest."

Here is the first one she made, both overall and in close up.  It is based on "The Foodborn Six."

Here is the second one she made.  It is based on "E. coli."

And here is the last one she made, which is my favorite.  It is based on "Anthrax."

By the way, I have bought many of my students merchandise from Infectious Awareables.  Fun place!

I don't know if my mother can make any more vests, given the state of her health.  Years ago, I remember someone asking me if my mother would make them one.  She said "Sure.  For $5,000."  Which is her way, I think, of saying nope, no way, negatory and null set.  So I am lucky to have my three!  I enjoy wearing them when I lecture, and my students shake their heads and chuckle at my microbiological derangement.

So here's to you, Mom!  Thanks for the vests---which I value more than you might think.  And for folks interested in a worthwhile   charity, contributing to learning how to manage and eventually defeat ovarian cancer is a good choice.  A former student from Occidental College, Marschinda Felix, is an ovarian cancer survivor and promotes awareness via the Revlon Run/Walk for Women.  During the last few years, Marschinda has walked in that event carrying a sign honoring my mother and late sister-in-law.

Thanks, Marschinda.  I tell people I learn as much from students as they learn from me (or more), and this is a good example. 

I should probably add the following.  Years ago, when my mother was first diagnosed, I gave her this paperweight, which has one of my favorite quotations from Winston Churchill:

Words to benefit us all.  Folks like my mother, my sister-in-law, and former students are a good reminder of the principle! 


  1. Why is blogging therapeutic for you? I do it for the same reason, so I am curious about your take on it.

    Thank you for sharing the story about your family and cancer. Your mom sounds like an amazing woman, and your sons are lucky to have such a grandma.

  2. Thanks for the comment, ma'am. I find blogging therapeutic for a couple of reasons. First is to keep me writing. It's easy to have too high of an energy of activation otherwise. Secondly, receiving tenure makes me feel very, very weird. So exploring how I feel about teaching and research is helpful.

    As for my mother, thanks for the kind words. She can't make any more vests, which make the ones I have all the more precious.

    I appreciate the comment, again. I never know if people are truly reading these posts!

  3. My favorite remains E. coli. When I picture you, it is always wearing one of your mother's vests. They have become such an integral part of who you are.

    1. I could make a joke---an accurate one---that microbes are indeed an integral part of who I am. But I will say "thank you" for the compliment. You are too kind.

  4. Your blogs are very well written. Working from the heart does that.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!