Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Other Side of Grad School

Painting by Marilyn of Port Aransas scene in 1975; Marilyn is upper left with little boy building sand castle.

  I started grad school as the Vietnam War was winding down. Mustang Island, Port Aransas, Texas, where the Marine Science Institute was located saw an influx of returning soldiers who had discharged out of the service and gravitated to South Texas for a number of reasons, one of which was easy access to a pipeline of heroin coming in from Mexico. Jobs were easy to find on shrimp boats, in construction, or on oilrigs in the Gulf. Being an academic in this small town meant you were in the minority and a world away from the city life of Austin, the main Univ. of Texas campus. I met many of these vets in the local “Port A” bars, the only social places on the island where people hung out after work. Compared to State College, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey, the folks that lived on Mustang Island were a rougher crowd than I was used to.
            Soon after I arrived I met Carlos Jack Estep, in the Sail Club saloon, who used the old line, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” Alone, lonely, and not yet in step with my lab colleagues, we had a whirlwind romance. One month later, we eloped and got married on a party boat that took tourists out to fish in the Gulf for the day. At the time, I thought this was very romantic. Years later, I could see that a wedding without family is a red flag for future trouble. My family and friends weren’t told about our marriage until at least a month later. My family was ripped apart by the news. My mother and my sister Barb flew down to Texas for Barb’s spring break and met Jack. He was on his best, charming behavior, showing them some of the local Texas sites, barbequing great meals, and telling jokes. The shock of a secret wedding was smoothed over.
            As a newly married woman, I could concentrate fully on my work in the lab rather than pay any attention to the interlab gossip. I arrived at work by 8 am, kept my head down until 5:30 pm, and then pedaled my bicycle back to the little house we lived in for the first half-year. Grad students were required to move to Austin for two semesters to take formal classes, so we were uprooted from the beach life to big city Austin in August 1974. Rather than rent an apartment, we had the “brilliant” idea to take an old cab-over camper and convert it into a houseboat that would reside at a marina on Lake Travis, in the hill country west of Austin. Jack started the remodel, but with just about everything he started, his work rarely lived up to expectations and frequently never was completed. Our “house boat” became a small land trailer that lacked a bathroom. The only running water was a hose connecting to a small sink in a tiny kitchen. We lived in this modified camper for not quite three years, occupying various trailer parks in Port Aransas after returning from Austin.
            On main campus in Austin, I spent fall semester as a teaching assistant for Oceanography, earning about $300/month. Jack was a sign painter by profession, with no connections in Austin, so my salary provided our total support. We qualified for food stamps, which kept us going. I also had a side business making jewelry out of used, old eye glass lenses, something I had been doing since I was a college student. Between my studies, I made pendants and pins adorned with laminated famous paintings that Jack sold on the streets at craft markets. A necklace sold for $4 and a pin for $3. We made just enough to get by. In winter 1975, I needed to spend time studying for my qualifying exam, a nerve-wracking oral examination designed to find out everything that you didn’t know. I also completed my course work and passed the German foreign language exam by reading a hefty tome by Otto Warburg, a German physiologist. No question we were living in poverty, but that mattered little because I was consumed by my work.
            Returning to Port Aransas at the end of May, there was nowhere to park the “houseboat”, so we lived on the beach for a couple of weeks before finding out about a small tourist motel with eight units that needed to hire managers. We applied and became managers of the Gulf Beach Resort Hotel situated half a block from Port Aransas’ white sand beaches. We were then able to move into a small apartment with air conditioning for the summer. Before we’d moved back to Port Aransas, we purchased a 1966 International Scout that had been used as an ice cream truck in Austin. Down in Port A, Jack painted the truck with pink and white stripes with the Pink Panther cartoon character eating a popsicle on each side.  There was already one ice cream truck selling on the beach so we named our truck “The Other Ice Cream Truck”. We purchased a second large floor freezer and once a week the ice cream supplier from Corpus Christi loaded it up with various ice cream products. We hired two young folks to drive the truck---a buxom blonde who wore a bikini and a good-looking blonde surfer dude with a charming easy personality. It was not long before I became the number one ice cream dealer in South Texas!
            Meanwhile, at the Laboratory I took my oral exam and was asked questions about lipid (fat) metabolism, a topic I did not study thoroughly. After writing an essay on that topic, the exam was passed and I became a Ph.D. candidate. I had to tell my professor Chase Van Baalen that I had another job, or two. His response was, “As long as this doesn’t affect your work and you’re here Monday through Friday, it’s fine with me.” I kept my nose to the grindstone. Van Baalen did not believe in chairs in the laboratory, so I stood all day at my assigned lab bench. He also did not believe in automated biochemistry equipment, so all of my enzyme purifications were carried out by manually advancing a rack of test tubes every 5 minutes. After a couple of months of figuring things out, by the fall semester I was well into my research.
            My life continued on two planes—the academic, quiet university life and a rambling, often disorganized personal side. I learned years later that I was known as the “Phantom” at the Marine Science Institute. In the community, I was treated as a responsible nerd. I kept the books and did the ordering for the ice cream business, worked the hotel desk Friday through Sunday, and continued with my eyeglass lens jewelry business selling in local tourist shops. Dedicated work in the lab made the next two years fly by. I was finishing up my dissertation by April 1977, less than three years after beginning grad school. These days a three-year Ph.D. is nearly unheard of. However, I had accomplished more than I had proposed. I defended my work in Austin in mid-May.
Early on the morning of my defense, professors Parker and Van Baalen came by with fellow student Brian Fry, who was defending his Masters degree that same day, and together in the Institute’s station wagon we drove 150 miles north to Austin. I presented my dissertation work to my committee that included Parker, Van Baalen, Bob Tabita, Jerry Brand (a botanist), and Knut Schmidt Nielson (a famous animal physiologist).  It was a fairly cut and dry exam, over in two hours. We drove straight back to Port A in late afternoon. When I arrived, no one greeted me to hear the good news. Typically, newly minted Ph.Ds. are regaled with a party of organized by their friends and spouse. The lack of any celebration was one of the first major warning signals that Jack harbored jealousy over the success of my new career. In 6 weeks, we packed up an old trailer, hitched it to the back of a rusted out station wagon and drove north to Washington, DC, to start the postdoc at the Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory.

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