Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mothers' Day, Marcus Aurelius, and Microbiology

Just a quick post on this particular day, which is more than a little bittersweet to me.  It is Mothers' Day, as it happens, and it is also my first Mothers' Day without my being able to call my mother, Wanda Jean Martin, to thank her.  On the other hand, I get to celebrate how my wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, is a wonderful and beloved mother to our two sons Anson and Zachary.

My mother died last October, after a long and extraordinarily brave struggle against ovarian cancer.  I wrote about my mother and her struggle here, and discussed her relationship to my interest in microbiology.  My mother, unlike the mothers of some scientists, understood little of my love of science.  But she did her best to support it, in the ways that mothers always have, and hopefully always willMy mother would gamely sit through all those PBS shows on science, come to science fairs, and listen perplexedly as I prattled on about what I was learning.  I don't think my mother had an easy time raising either of her sons.  I am grateful, and try to remember my mother's example when my own sons develop interests I do not share.

Here is my mother, in a photograph taken on Thanksgiving in 2011, with my eldest son Anson (who is SO much older looking now after not even two years).  She detested her photograph being taken (as I do), but was a good sport about it; this is a photograph that really shows my mother as she was in conversation.

I was teaching my Fall semester Microbiology course during the time that my mother entered hospice care and passed away.  I spoke with her a couple of times a week during the process, but she was increasingly more focused on her pain and the latter part of her journey.  I cannot complain; anyone who survives over ten years with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer is "Chuck Norris" tough (though, again, my mother did not think she was tough).  

Losing my mother impacted me, of course.  And my microbiology students noticed.  They made for me this shirt.

 It's kind of a visual pun.  My initials spell "mom" which seems endlessly amusing at first (I'm philosophical about it).  So I am often called "Dr. Mom" or something similar by students.  But the shirt is about my mother, about me, and about microbiology.  I don't often get gifts from students, and never from a class.  

I was deeply touched, and grateful. 

Two memories about my mother are particularly relevant on this special day, and I would like to share them.
When I was in junior high school, I carried out a science project investigating the memory of planarians.  Briefly stated, I was able to train these flatworms to associate darkness with an electrical shock.  Because they are so skilled at regeneration, I was able to cut the flatworms into two, and the pieces grew new heads and new tails.  The "head portion," after regrowing a tail, "remembered" the conditioned response (perhaps not so strange, given the presence of a primitive brain).  But so did the "tail portion," once regeneration was complete!

I did not know that this underscored the "distributed location of memory" theory that was all the rage in neuroscience at the time.  So, as an 8th grader, I was recognized with a national award (along with several other members of my class).  I received letters from congresscritters and faculty members from universities, encouraging me to go to graduate school and become a scientist.  

That was when I first became utterly certain about a career (though I ended up a microbiologist, rather than a neuroscientist).   

This project was weird beyond belief to my parents.  Since I was unable to type at the time (long before word processors), my long suffering mother typed the application and report (putting aside her beloved "Laverne and Shirley" on television).  She told me not to get my hopes up, and kept asking me how all of this applied to people.  To be kind to the flatworms (which confused my 13 year old brain).   I did my best to answer her questions.  And I didn't have my hopes up about winning any awards.
But instead, I received exactly the kind of encouragement with that award that I needed to solidify my career choice. So, like most people on this day, I have much to thank my mother for.  She was awfully humble.  I would like to close with an interesting comparison.

My brother, Jack S. Martin, Jr. (a retired contract attorney and now a budding novelist) was always encouraging me with new books, new ideas, and endless stories.  It was my brother who first introduced me to a wonderful book of philosophy by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  His "Meditations" (which he called "To Myself," since he had written the book as self-reflection) was a revelation.  The Stoic philosophy seemed to "fit" so well into my psyche, and his words engraved themselves into my heart and soul.

My brother Jack recognized and encouraged my interest in this Emperor, his philosophy, and his reign.  For that reason, he got me a silver denarius minted during the reign of Marcus Aurelius as a gift.  I carry it with me daily.

I remember, many years ago, discussing Marcus Aurelius with my mother (probably after "Gladiator" came out, which gave an, um, unusual view of that period of Roman history, and Marcus Aurelius in particular).  My mother asked me why I liked the book so much.  I told her it has so much deep philosophy to it.  Like what, she asked?  So I quoted:

"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one."

My mother's forehead wrinkled a bit and she frowned.  

"That's not such a big deal, Mark," she said.  "Pretty obvious.  Everyone should live that way.  And he was some bigshot philosopher?" 

You and the Emperor are right, Mom.  We should all live that way.  Thank you for being my mother.  You---and your lessons---are not forgotten.

Love and miss you.       



  1. I am forever surprised by how un-obvious some of those obvious ideas in philosophy can be. I think that's what makes them so important - because they are so true, but so difficult understand and to put into practice. That your mother thought it was so obvious that it wasn't a big deal is a testament to her character and the strong foundations it was built on.

    Also, I am very impressed at your science fair project prowess. My high school science project consisted of feeding soda to plants and seeing if they died. I can't even explain that one to myself now.

  2. Isn't it funny how we call it "common sense" when it is anything but? My mother and father both were raised on farms, and had a very "that's obvious" approach to issues of ethics and honesty. So it isn't surprising, maybe, I found Stoicism an attractive philosophy!

    As for the science fair business, I was a freaky kid. I LOVED the weirdo idea that feeding "trained" flatworms to untrained ones led to learning transfer ( Of course, I never saw that, though I tried the experiment, of course. I did learn that memory was distributed throughout the nervous system of planarians! My parents were more focused on the fact I was giving mild shocks to flatworms. Probably couldn't do that today in science fairs...

    Thanks for your comment and kind words.


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