“This is a shit” yelled my professor holding what I thought was a well-composed manuscript. Version 14 of what was to become a 44 version paper traversed a love-hate relationship between a lazy suburban boy from Orlando and a hard working woman from the People’s Republic of China.
The night prior, I had just updated the table headers per her specifications. In order to print and revise our manuscript, I used a laptop computer, borrowed from the chemistry department’s stock room. I saved the draft on floppy disks that I then carried outside in the heat to the next building. Another lab graciously allowed us use of their printer while another lent us time on their unix machine to run the analyses. I fumbled through a large ring of keys to open the outer door, then the inner door, then finally the door to the neighbor lab. So as to not interrupt these other laboratories, I had to do this at night. God help me if I locked myself outside, forgetting the keys. Every version engaged this floppy disk walk of shame in the Florida hot evening nights.
Despite her occasional mishap with the wrong article, saying “This is a shit” instead of properly “This is shit,” I learned from her how to command the English language. She returned every draft with markings from her favorite red ink pen. I was convinced they were secret messages back to the communist party in her motherland. Surely they were not corrections of a sad attempt of my native tongue. At lab meetings, she tasked me with reading that week’s manuscript version while one post-doc and another graduate student chuckled listening to her criticism.
I don’t blame her really. Growing up she memorized large multiplication tables and endless rewriting of Chinese characters. If she didn’t, she disgraced her parents. Coming to this country, she faced an all-male all-white university department. In order to earn an audience with her graduate professor, her results had to be the product of several repeated almost flawless experiments.
In comparison, my schooling involved MTV, Sierra role playing video games and Star Wars. I almost failed high school and started college at Florida State with remedial algebra and English. I hadn’t started learning Calculus until my junior year of college. I joined her lab because I thought it would be fun. I never imagined I would be transformed.
Version 44 arrived. I held what I hoped would never see that red ink punishment. She was in her office on the phone. She held up her hand, palm facing me, to signal not to interrupt. She gestured her hand where I should precisely place my precious manuscript. I left her presence and took a break from her laboratory to focus on my classes.
One month passed. I walked into the library and saw her in the distance. Would she pull out the manuscript and show me all the red ink markings? Would she point out all my failings? She beckoned me with her red nail polished manicured hands. She looked pleased. I approached. She leaned forward as though wanting to whisper something. I leaned in as she said, “we published a article.” The following summer we published another. Together both articles have been cited over 200 times.
My success thereafter owes her red ink and patience. She persisted through 44 versions to manufacture not just a published article but a man, a scientist, and one who wants to give the same to another willing but stubborn student.