Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Haven Bound

I got a message from my wife this afternoon: our youngest daughter was officially notified that she's been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Yale. She'll matriculate in the fall to begin work on her doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry. She'll graduate in May from the University of Connecticut with both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in molecular cell biology. It only took her four years to get both.

She went to visit New Haven Thu through Sun last week. She loved everything about it: the students, the professors, the programs, the campus. It sounded like everyone was enthusiastic about what was happening, and there's a lot going on. We thought it might take a few weeks to hear the final decision, but one of the professors - the one she most wanted to work with - called her personally to tell her that Yale hoped she would come.

I have never been one to claim the accomplishments of my children as my own, and I'm not going to start now. I will say that I'm so happy for her. It's a well-deserved opportunity that she's worked hard for.

She's always had an unusual focus. Even as a young child, she could play happily by herself for hours. (Until her beloved older sister came along with other alternatives.) She loved puzzles; she sought out jigsaws that would challenge an adult, let alone a child. She was ambidextrous. She would pass the crayon from hand to hand as she colored pictures. She finally settled on her left hand for writing and preferred status, but it was touch and go for a long time.

She was quiet and reserved. She chose her words carefully and thought before she spoke. She still does, but now the words and ideas pour out of her at a faster clip. She's a confident woman these days.

She's always been a fine student. She "gets it" with math and science. I used to ask her if she needed any help with math when she was in high school. I learned right away that she didn't need my help. It was always a conversation about a topic that we both enjoyed. She would talk to me about problems she was given more as a courtesy to me than a plea for aid. She knew that it made me happy.

I've had the pleasure of repeating that experience throughout her undergraduate career. I swim on campus on Friday nights. I'll call her every once in a while after I'm done and ask if we can get together. We'll hit a dining hall or Starbucks, grab some tea and dessert, and I'll hear about everything she's doing in the lab and the classroom. Sometimes it's chemistry; other times it's quantum mechanics, math, computing, physics, or something else like a one-credit class in weight training. It astonishes me to hear how well she understands what's presented to her. She has a way of digesting the message, internalizing it, and making connections well beyond the context in which it was presented.

She is a biology major at the University of Connecticut. At the end of her freshman year she researched professors on campus and solicited them for a job in their lab. She found Robert Birge and sent him an e-mail. Did he accept undergraduates to work in his lab? He said it was rare, but told her to send in a resume anyway. He took her in and gave her a thorough grounding in research and how to conduct herself in a lab. Dr. Birge, his wife, Connie, and his team of graduate students have been so generous to our daughter. She worked without pay in the lab that first summer, but they found funds to support her after that. They've been the best mentors and examples imaginable.

I feel so fortunate to have the children I do. I wish I could point to some thing or another that my wife and I did that made this happen. Maybe I could bottle it or write a book to out-do a tiger mom.

I believe it's a combination of factors: genetics and the good fortune of peace and enough prosperity at home to meet their needs. After that it gets fuzzier. We read to them a lot when they were small and beyond. It is a common sight to see one family member or another draped on a chair or couch in silence, reading a book. The house is still full of them. We had television around, but it wasn't the 24x7 bombardment that is cable today. We didn't forbid television, but it didn't crowd everything out, either. We've never had video games; still don't. We had a computer in the house when they were young, but the Internet wasn't the distraction it has become. There were no cell phones.

They played a lot by themselves. We have an infamous book of games that they wrote together when they were small. ("The Queen Game" was a special favorite.) The rules included stuff like "If somebody gets hurt, don't cry or we'll have to go inside." Some of them make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, but they're funny to read today. They had a lot of opportunities to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. They played with other kids, but they spent a lot of time with each other, too.

My wife is an educator, so she's always been on the same schedule as the girls: home in the afternoon when they returned from school, able to spend lazy summers at home instead of being shipped around to camps. Quality time with children cannot be scheduled. You're either there when they're ready to spill or you're not. Being at the kitchen table after school with a snack put my wife in perfect position to hear what was on their minds. I'm glad that one of us was able to be there. They're lucky to have had her: she's so attuned to them, always knowing just what to do.

They weren't home schooled. We sent them to public schools, where they had more than a few outstanding teachers, such as Mark Logan, Jason Courtmanche, and Madame Bender, and that made a great difference.

Both our daughters are a great mix of mind, body, and spirit. They're just terrific to be around. I'm grateful for the vantage point I've enjoyed. It's a great show to see.

Yale, you're in for a treat.

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Nate Wilson said...

Congratulations to you on both your daughters' recent success. My goal is for The Professor to enjoy a similar upbringing. Or, failing that, for him to have a childhood like mine (i.e. much the same as your daughters', only with more TV and video games).

Michael Duffy said...

Thank you, Nate. The Perfessor certainly has his academic chops in order. I look forward to hearing about his future success.