Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Advice to twentysomethings


My dad, Art Fogel (center with tie) and RCA people he supervised

My father rose every morning at 6 am, showered, and donned a suit and tie. In high school he woke me up at 6:30, made my breakfast, then jumped in a car pool with three other men who were also engineers at RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in Camden, New Jersey. For 30 years, I recall him taking only 2 or 3 sick days. He was never late. My mother did not work outside the home, had dinner and cocktails ready by 5 pm when my dad returned, and kept the house clean and us kids looked after. Not until I was much older did I learn this was not the way everyone else lived.


From my father, I learned early on how to be a good employee. Show up for work on time, even a bit early, and don’t fool around while you’re there. If you haven’t figured this out before your twenties, master it now. Someday, maybe you’ll be a supervisor like my dad was and I am. Having basic work skills is an important task to conquer.


I grew up in the time of campus protests, the Vietnam War, and the summer of love. When I left NJ for grad school in Texas, I was leaving behind my middle class roots and the orderly life of my parents. The cool thing to do in those days was to live with your boy or girl friend without getting married. As an iconoclast I went one step further and eloped, getting married on a Texas fishing boat without telling my parents. It was a dumb ass thing to have done, and I paid for it 10 years down the line.


Fishing boat where I eloped

Your goal in your twenties is to cut out revolting from your parents and stop depending on them for everything, but learn a new way of interacting with them as a young adult. Standing on your own two feet takes even more work these days, but it’s time you listen to parental advice, but make up your own mind. My mistake was bypassing my parents’ advice before taking such a big step. Fortunately, I grew up quickly and we re-established good relations.


At the same time, try to establish healthy relationships with other mentors who are thoughtful people. Accepting the advice of others who are not your parents—but are smart people—is something you’ll do all your life. I had a professor at Penn State [Peter Given, organic geochemist] who was a mentor for me for at least a decade longer. Tom Hoering, my postdoc advisor, became mentor then colleague then friend. Relationships built at this time can literally last a lifetime.


Cultivate curiosity and creativity. College can beat down even the most free-thinking people, especially with a demanding degree in science. Fortunately for me, I kept up my interest in art turning out simple paintings and keeping a jewelry business going for many years. Starting when I was 19, I helped friends in Santa Barbara with their craft of turning used eyeglass lenses into works of art worn as pins and pendants. I continued to make this jewelry through grad school earning a few hundred dollars every few months. [My salary in those days was about $300/month.]


My mom (Florence-R) and friend's mom selling jewelry for us


Released from being a student for the first time, it could be easy to follow the status quo—video games or social media these days. This is not the time to let your wildest dreams dry up. I had my nose to the grindstone then, but fortunately, I was given a job that allowed maximum flexibility and unbridled freedom. I allowed my curiosity in science to bud, writing notes to myself on what I thought were good ideas. Learning to stand up for your ideas—not those of your mentors, bosses, or parents—is important. Not all ideas will be good ones, but testing them out allows you to figure out more rapidly and more smoothly what crazy idea could be a winner.


Experiencing hardship or financial insecurity is something that should be tackled in your twenties. Growing up as I did, I had little to worry about. Those with less family support have a leg up on how to roll with Life’s punches that everyone will inevitably face. In science, it's a good time to get a paper rejected or have an experiment fail. My primary PhD manuscript was rejected first time out. It was like climbing back on the proverbial horse, to revise and resubmit. Financially, I was at or below the poverty line eating a lot of beans and rice, drinking cheap beer, and thinking $10 in the bank was good. This is the time to figure this stuff out. When the stakes are bigger, you’ll be glad you worked problems out on your own.


Realize you are going to change big time during your twenties. The shy, awkward person I was at twenty morphed into a competent scientist during this decade. My taste in men switched as well. I’d had enough of the Bad Boy I’d married and looked towards finding a person who kept up intellectually and was good looking. [I found him years later in my husband Chris Swarth.] What you did on a weekend to relax didn’t necessarily include beer. I had the time to read good books, go for hikes, and learn to be a better cook. Most importantly, I was learning to be comfortable about who I was.


29 years old in Yellowstone NP

For scientists, this is the time to start and maybe finish your advanced degree. Working for a couple of years after undergraduate college is good, but putting off further training should be carefully considered. A typical PhD takes about 5 years in the US, and often requires 2-3 more years of postdoctoral training. Starting at the age of 25 will put you on the permanent job market at 33. This is the perfect time to let your personal self grow along with your professional self.  


I wish I had cultivated more peers at this stage of life. I didn’t realize then how important frolleagues [friendly colleagues] would become. I’d have networked more and done less solitary work. Looking back, this is all about cultivating balance—figuring out how much to grow in one direction and how much to flow in other directions. It should be stressed to chose and maintain friendships with honest people, who don’t “play games.” Let the troublemakers and jerks go their own way,


For most of us, we enter our thirties wiser and wittier. The twenties can be tough, but as the phrase goes “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...