Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Door Closes, A Window Open



A Door Closes, A Window Opens

In December, 1973, I flew back to Ottawa for my brother David's bar mitzvah. A week or so after the simha, I was surprised to receive a telegram (phone call? I can't remember) from Tel Aviv University.

"Where are you?" they wanted to know. A week before the Yom Kippur war, I had taken the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to interview for a graduate position there as a M.Sc. student /teaching aide. The following week, the war erupted and the next two months were turmoil.

Nevertheless, school had now started again in Israel and I was expected back, to teach and study. I remember sitting on the plane back to Tel Aviv with a religious man who told me that the world was going to end soon, and that the battle of Gog and Magog (Armageddon) was imminent.

Thus began my romance with Tel Aviv University that lasted thirty-six years. I did my graduate degrees there (with a 30 month hiatus for army duty), hung out at Gilman, lived intermittently in the dorms (the same ones that still exist!), did some crazy things at the pool that I cannot share, fell in love, landed a tenured position at the Dental School and more recently Medical Faculty, and made a decent career as a 'bad breath guru'. I even brought the university some four million dollars in revenues from several inventions.

In two weeks I turn 58 and could continue as a tenured professor there for another decade. But I have decided to call it a day. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the main one is that I have many interests, aside from being a microbiologist (or scientist, for that matter), and this university (and most others) want their professors to be very focused and to maintain the very same specialty throughout their careers. In other words, if you come in as a young lecturer teaching bacteriology in your thirties, you are expected to be teaching the same subject thirty-five years later.

That works for many of my colleagues, who are delighted to hang out in laboratories for decades focusing on a singular path towards stellar success in a very specific scientific area. But for those of us who become easily distracted by other loves such as music, creative writing, thinking and other 'wastes of time' the academic trajectory becomes a strait-jacket.

Some of my favorite scientists followed meandering careers. Louis Pasteur, who started out as an amazing chemist and followed his nose into microbiology and other biological pursuits and my own professor, Eugene Rosenberg who also began in chemistry and found a new and amazing career in bacterial behavior. I also remember the late Herman Epstein, whose amazing career kept morphing (I was witness to his main morph, as he started studying the development of rodent brains in response to educational development in the 1970s).

For many years, my research on bad breath saved me. I was able to look at not only the microbes that cause the smell, but also the smelly substances, and the psychological implications of smelling and being smelled. I invented gizmos and mouthwashes. I interviewed thousands of people and learned a lot about humanity. The breadth of breath research was satisfying for me. But when I left the dental school for the medical faculty five years ago, I was expected to morph back into a regular bacteriologist and teach medical bacteriology much the same as it was taught when I was a student in the early 1970s. I tried, but eventually decided that this was wrong. I cannot teach medical students subjects in which I am neither up-to-date, nor particularly interested.

And so, from December 1st, one month from now, I will become an 'emeritus professor' at Tel Aviv University. I will maintain my office and laboratory (the latter will likely diminish in size and manpower of time) and will continue, part-time, my work on the causes, diagnosis and treatment of bad breath and related issues. I will also do some teaching, but only subjects that I feel passionate about.

My original retirement plan was to spend less of my time at the university, and invest more effort in my other pursuits, i.e., playing and singing jazz, writing children's stories, and teaching multidisciplinary creative thinking. I sent a message to the President of Afeka Engineering College, Prof. Moti Sokolov, asking him whether I would be continuing the course in creative thinking that I had given over the past few years with Dr. Alon Amit. Instead he called me in and invited me to be the Dean of Students of the college.

Flabbergasted, I accepted. During all my years at Tel Aviv University, I was never asked or elected to run or administer anything (always considered too much of a scatterbrained nonconformist). When I applied for the position of Rector of Tel Aviv University a few years ago, the nomination committee treated me with such kindness and compassion that I knew it was hopeless! I certainly hope that the qualities that made me such a round peg in a square hole will now work to my advantage!

So, from Dec. 1st I start a new and exciting career, hoping to help the college shape and sharpen the minds and careers of 2000 youngsters. Afeka, here I come.

1 comment:

marc said...

Mel

Congratulation
Your friend in Paris

Marc.