January 23, 2021

My #Me Too Story (Of a Slightly Different Sort)!

How It Began

You don’t forget your first intuition as a scientist. I had recently moved to San Francisco from the Boston area and started working as a lab technician in a biology laboratory headed by another recent transplant from Boston, Stephen Rothman. Not many #MeToo stories contain experimental details, but this one does. I’ll try to keep it simple, so bear with me!

The Experiment

The Rothman lab studied how digestive enzyme—proteins that are required to break down the food we eat—are secreted from the pancreas where they are made, into the small intestine where they do their work. For the experiment Steve and I used a pancreas isolated from a rabbit and put into a special apparatus that allowed it to continue to make digestive enzymes—a technique developed by Steve.

We collected the digestive enzymes secreted from the isolated gland for two hours before we added radioactive amino acids—amino acids are the precursors of proteins—to mark the new synthesized digestive enzyme that the pancreas would make. Two hours later we added a stimulant known to greatly increase digestive enzyme secretion.

I stayed late after everyone else had left the lab for the day to process the samples. The raw data taken together showed that digestive enzymes secretion increased dramatically after a delay of about 5 minutes. The jaw-dropping surprise was that during the 5-minute delay, the amount of radioactivity in secretion decreased preciitously, by about 90%--although the amount of total digestive enzyme stayed constant. Both eventually increased by several orders of magnitude.

Seeing this data marked the first time I experienced the joy (and, alas, addiction) of scientific discovery. The radiolabel provides a time stamp for when the digestive enzymes were made. The initial decrease in the radioactivity after the addition of the stimulant meant that for a short while after the pancreas was stimulated, instead of releasing newly made digestive enzyme, it released older, unlabeled ones—therefore stored digestive enzymes made before the radiolabeled digestive enzymes were. In other words, the system is not a simple “first-in-first-out” one. 

The implications, I realized, were extremely important. It meant that there is not just one pool of digestive enzyme in the pancreas, as most all researchers—with the exception of Rothman—had assumed. Rather it indicates that there are two different pools that empty and replenish—or turnover—at different rates. I also realized that because the amount of radioactivity decreased while the amount of protein secreted released stayed the same, the pools were not independent of each other. (If they were independent, when one pool’s spigot was turned off, the amount of protein released would necessarily decrease, which was not the case.) Rather they had some kind of complicated relationship to each other.

I was intoxicated with the data and could not stop thinking about it. Before I went to sleep, I came up with a series of experiements to show that what distinguished the two pools was the time it took them to completely replenish themselves—or to turn over. I was sure that by varying when we added the stimulant, we could eventually reverse the two pools and make the storage pool, the one tapped by the stimulant, the more highly radiolabelled one. I was hooked, and I couldn’t wait to begin.

The next morning, with a mixture of joy and pride, I showed the raw data to Steve and reported my conclusions. He understood the results the same way I had and he was delighted. Although he seemed skeptical when I revealed my plan for reversing the two pools, he gave me the ok to try. After a number of very late nights at the lab I was indeed able to show that the older storage pool indeed turned into the more highly labelled one over time. Among other things, this meant that both pools contribute to secretion even in the absence of the stimulant.

Steve wrote the paper, titling it “Secretion Derived From Two Parallel Intracellular Pools”. It includes the two experiments I mentioned above and one more. He argued that the two parallel pools were interactive and also provided a likely mechanism to explain their interction. He gave me second authorship on the paper, and I was glad to be included. These series of experiments eventually became a section of my PhD thesis when I later went on to graduate school, continuing with my research in the same laboratory.  The notion of parallel interactive connectivity has come to have a critical role in my thinking about a great many things.

The Betrayal

I certainly would not have anticipated that this important experience in which initiated me into the joy and power of experimental science would eventually become my academic #Me Too moment. In a recently published book, Rothman wrote a rather different story about what happened the morning after the experiment. In his telling, I very sheepishly showed him the raw data, saying that I must have made a mistake in processing the samples. In his fictionalize account, he assured me I had not made an error and then informed me on the importance of these unexpected experimental results.

I am no longer as hurt or angry as I was when I first read this invented story. My cocktail of emotions about the situation is now dominated by feeling sad and disappointed that Steve felt the need to rewrite history. We have drifted apart over the years in part because of our growing political differences. But we were once very close, and I still harbor a deep pocket of affection for him. Also, I find myself ruminating quite a bit about what is it about the human condition and gender relations that makes something like this not an entirely unusual event.

One possibility is that in this case the frailty of memory is to blame. In his book he incorrectly states that another series of experiments that was also part of my doctoral thesis was part of my postdoctoral work with the same laboratory. But my suspicion is that there is more going on. 

I now study and write about intuition, trying to bridge the science and the experience. In a number of publications about intuition, I have referred to my understanding of the data from the pancreatic experiment as my first intuition as a scientist. Perhaps what might be read as taking public credit for understanding the implications of these experiments had a role in motivating Steve’s fictional account of what happened? Perhaps he feared that if he did not publicly turn the tables on me, I might end up with credit for the Two Pools work. Probably this did play some role in his revisionist tale, though how much I cannot say.  

A Blink of the Eye

Why I see my understanding of the results as my first intuition is a complicated issue. But it is worth exploring for a number of reasons, not least because it is potentially relevant to some of the basic concerns that the Me-Too movement taps into. But first things first. I have come to feel that deep understanding of this elusive capacity of mind we call intuition requires that we try to bring science and experience to together in a parallel interactive way. In part I was led to this mixing of science and experience by an encounter I had with intuition that referenced these experiments. It occurred a number of years later, when I began my official study of intuition as a Bunting Scholar at Radcliffe College in Sept 1994.

Early in the year, at lunch one weekend day, a friend asked me for a definition of intuition. I didn’t have a ready answer, but I felt I did know something about intuition and was therefore unwilling to let the question go unanswered. Involuntarily I turned off my conscious mind and opened to my unconscious. Three images came to mind, none of which made sense to me at the time. One was the phrase “a blink of the eye,” another, an increase and decrease of tension in my body, and the third,  a signal going down and then up on a graph. When I noticed that each of three images encoded the same down /up motion, I realized that my unconscious was indeed giving me an answer to the question, “What is intuition?” even though I could not yet understand what it meant.

Months later I realized that the down/up motion was the pattern of the data in the pancreatic experiment described above. I read the signal going up and down on the graph that appeared in my mind in answer to the question, “What is intuition?” to highlight that intuition also depends to a large extent on parallel interactive connection. It is at the core of the way the nervous system functions, and intuition is in many ways closer to basic nervous system function than is logical analysis. The idea of two parallel interactive pools also provides a cogent analogy with a number of levels of correspondence for the interaction of the two cognitive pools in the mind—the conscious and unconscious—in much of ordinary thinking and in many important cases of intuition.

To me, my understanding of the pancreatic data that late night in the laboratory seemed logical, and indeed it was. But it was a special kind of logic. It required taking one thing into account in the context of other things—or looking at the data in a parallel interactive way—or as a whole. One pieces of information is no more important than the other. This parallel interactive way of thinking--or taking things in the context of each other is critical to the way intuition works, and this is so at a number of different levels. 

Why The Fiction?

While in no way justifying Steve’s revisionist view of what happened, I do feel it is important to say that had I not been working in a laboratory that had a view of digestive enzyme secretion that ran counter to the traditional one, it is conceivable that I would not have recognized the meaning of the raw data. I don’t think this would have been the case, but of course I cannot be sure. 

Even more importantly, I feel extremely grateful for my time in Steve Rothman’s laboratory where I became a scientist. This is both because of the pleasure of collaboration and because I was introduced there, at least at a conscious level, to the idea of parallel interactive connectivity and related ideas that have played such a critical role in my thinking about intuition--and now, other things as well. I never felt that our work together on these studies was other than a collaborative effort—indeed, a parallel interactive one—and I was delighted to have had a part in it.

In the acknowledgement section of my recent book on intuition, I even thanked Steve for introducing me to a more complicated version of parallel interactive connection (a bidirectional one), and for the privilege of working in his laboratory. I was aware that esepcially the latter was somewhat hyperbolic, because I gave as much as I got in our collaboration. I kept taking the statement and putting it back in various drafts. But the part of me that wanted him to feel appreciated and good about himself won. The idea that there are two pools of digestive enzyme in the pancreas is now well accepted (although the idea that the two pools are interactive, is not yet). However the body of Steve’s work, which includes a more extensive theory, is worthy of considerably more recognition than it has received to date.

Perhaps Steve took me too seriously when I thanked him for the privilege of working in his lab, and felt he was calling in a debt. In retrospect I do feel my urge to “take care of him” was a mistake. But I doubt if this alone was the critical factor in Steve’s revisionist telling of what happened the morning after the experiment. More likely it was one of a number of parallel interactive factors that came together to motivate his behavior.  

#Me Too

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Both times, how Steve chose to rewrite history follows the pattern exposed by the #Me Too movement--men, for whatever combinations of reasons, appropriating what does not rightfully belong to them. His attempt to rewrite history was gender abuse of an intellectual sort. Academics all too often write out or minimize the contributions of those they supervise, as well as of other collaborators. Those written out can be male as well as female, but given gender relations, it happens much more to females than males. One great female scientist who had this unfortunate experience was Rosaland Franklin, whose work was eventually recognized as key to the discovery of the genetic code. Another was Candice Pert, who was eventually recognized as the discoverer of endorphins, and there are many more. There are many other female scientists who have been so successfully written out that we are unlikely to hear about them much. Moreover, there must be many, many more who have been so successfully written out that we are unlikely to hear about them at all.

Steve’s rewrite doesn’t change my personal knowledge of what happened. But it does dampen some of the joy that surrounds my memory of the experience. It wraps it in a veil of misinformation. As been true of so much of our public life recently, the truth is opposed by alternative facts that can turn what actually happened on its head. This misinformation over time encrusts the actual experience, even if it was very positive, in a layer of frustration and pain.

In some sense I would have preferred that he write me out entirely, rather than fictionalize me as an ingénue who is sure she made an error and whom he can enlighten about the meaning and importance of the results. The ingénue framing is in some sense the flip side of “Lock her up.” Women becomes threatening if they intrude on what males feel to be their prerogatives. They have to be contained, either by chants of imprisonment or by fictitious narratives in which they serve as the foil for the prowess of men.

Using the idea of parallel interactive connectivity that I first became consciously aware of in Steve Rothman’s laboratory, perhaps I can turn this around a bit. Women and men are two parallel interactive pools. At least at our best, women are not trying to be dominant, which is indeed the modus operandi of many men. We want something different. We want a collaborative world in which we all interconnected and can build freely on each other’s gifts. We want a world in which we are all doing our bit and all are deserving of credit. I long for a time in which appreciation for the common good and our common humanity at all levels trumps the urge for undeserved and ill-begotten credit and gain.

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