Friday, August 27, 2021

Giving Back…after Taking?


Volunteering with Carnegie folks at Special Olympics DC 2012

When you reach retirement age, as I have, people encourage you to “give back” to the community—essentially working for free or donating money to support causes not directly related to your personal benefit. But what does “giving back” imply to some of us? Does it mean that we’ve spent our lives taking, feathering our own nests, and not considering others?




What have I done to “give back” prior to continuing to work as a scientist, now without a formal salary?


This past weekend, I discussed “Giving Back” and what it means with long-term friends, Paul and Linda from San Francisco, who both attended Harvard College in the 1970s. They expressed distain for those classmates of theirs who spent their lives as hedge fund managers, real estate moguls, or other careers where personal aggrandizement was the primary goal. Paul spent his career working on creating low-income housing; Linda taught elementary school in the Mission district to kids from diverse backgrounds. Their lives centered on “Giving”—but not necessarily “Giving Back.” The discussion sent me to think about my contributions to others.

Linda Dallin (r) with my mom, 2019


Paul Sussman, a story teller, 2019

I’ll start with the easy stuff. It’s easy to donate money and even small amounts count in this regard. Starting as a young child, I saved my pennies to give to the Lutheran Church in the collection basket in Sunday School every week. When I eventually left my Christian upbringing behind, I started giving small donations ($20) to Penn State and other organizations that seemed to do good work (e.g. UNICEF). At this level, “giving back” is minimal.


In high school in the late 1960s, it was the height of the Vietnam War, protests, and young people questioned the materialistic practices of those folks Over 30. In my senior year (1969-1970) our class organized a day free of classes—“Give a Damn Day”—in which we met in small groups in the gym doing sensitivity training and thinking about how to make the world a better place. I attended the 1st Earth Day that year, starting on a journey to somehow make the earth a better place.


I chose becoming a scientist learning about the natural world, attempting to discover how things worked, to someday make a difference. My career didn’t hold up to my original goal to improve the world, but I did manage to “give” a bit along the way.


With time, and when I had children and a husband, “giving back” meant putting my needs second (or third) sometimes to make sure they had what they needed to succeed in life and be happy. I expanded this to take care of my parents as they aged and my sister and her family. “Giving back” to family is a no-brainer.


On reflection again, still pretty boilerplate stuff.  As a research scientist, I wasn’t in it for the money—never earned a bonus, but kept a secure paycheck. I don’t think that is “taking.”


For years, working at Carnegie’s Geophysical Lab, we were “protected” from service work! We often lorded it over our colleagues who were made to sit on committees, engage in tasks that didn’t plump up their research portfolios. Near the end of my time at the Lab, the director insisted we serve on committees where we did all of the work, and he took all of the credit and made his own choices. By this time, I had my head enough out of the sand to want to do something more important with my time in the spirit of “giving back.”


Teaching students ecology UC Merced, 2015

I left to start a position at a “start up” university in the rough, agricultural region of California’s Central Valley at the University of California Merced. I spent time building, organizing, listening, coordinating, and teaching to move the school forward. It was often frustrating and difficult work, not always successful. I was “Giving Back” the time I had been given by the Carnegie to do whatever I wanted—whenever I wanted. When my ALS diagnosis unfolded, I needed a softer, easier place to “give back” and went to sister school UC Riverside.


Mentoring people was my primary mode of “Giving Back.” Without realizing it for years, I had been mentored by my professors, postdoc advisor, and directors, perhaps not in the sense that people receive mentoring today in highly stylized and organized settings. Giving career advice is something I enjoy doing, so it doesn’t really feel like work, and it’s certainly not a sacrifice to mentor.


Taking UCR students to Salton Sea, 2018



Teaching was another way to “Give Back.” In the 8.5 years at UC, I was treated with plumb teaching chores. Easy hours, engaging subjects, and good students. My hat is off instead to elementary school teachers, professors at community colleges, and special ed teachers. Those folks have the real hard work. But anyone who is a teacher has experienced first hand “Giving Back.”


Has the balance between giving and taking been evened out?




At this point in time, my family, especially Chris, is now “giving back” to me taking care of all my physical needs and providing emotional support. Fortunately for us, though, we have the financial stability to help encourage others and try to do as much as we can. I plunk along working on projects to Save the Salton Sea (, to keep colleagues moving forward to a more inclusive workplace, and to support folks as they start and solidify their careers.

On a good day, the balance seems pretty healthy. When I consider the enormous challenges people have today, it doesn’t seem enough.

Evan taking care of his mother



Given the political polarization in the world today, doing what a single person can do to help the world be a better place could rest in your hands. We can listen—and maybe not judge. We can reflect on our own well-being and open our hearts to others not like us. Neither of these cost money. They aren’t necessarily easy. But doing so, you’ll be “Giving Back” to a world that needs you.



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