I just received an email from Sonisha Warren, or should I say, Sonisha Warren, PhD. Dr. Warren was a former student of mine, a biology major. Quiet, capable. Quite gifted, as a matter of fact. Her email included an attachment of a research paper in which she is the first author, detailing studies on the myosin light chain kinase.
A few weeks prior to her email, I received an email with an attachment of a young, handsome man in a maroon cap and gown, with three stripes in black. Dr. Trevis Huggins, another former student, had been hooded at TAMU for his PhD in Plant Physiology. I read the title and could get through the need to study wheat growing under harsh conditions.
It does my heart great to know that these students lived up to and beyond my expectations. I wonder if they had difficulties in their studies. Sonisha was very quiet. Did someone try to brow beat her? I cannot imagine this, as I think her mild temperament hid a will of steel. And Trevis? He barely spoke during his tenure here but, when he did, he had something important to say. Again, I can’t imagine his having a difficult time.
But their undergraduate professor and mentor did. That would be me.
Dr. Dennis Kiick was on my committee; he is a great kineticist. I recall one harried day in his company. The day with him started at 8 am and ended around 5 – 6 pm. We did not have lunch; he ranted and raved during the entire day. I tell people that I entered the conference room on the third floor with alligator skin. I left with skin that was baby smooth. Dr. Kiick took my dissertation, and with a green felt tip pen – it’s odd that I remember the color of the pen but not the day of the week or how long between that meeting and my defense – and went through every page, remarking on the science and theory, or seemingly lack thereof. The brain works weird under traumatic experiences.
Be that as it may, I suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes that day. Would I ever get my PhD? The previous defenses I had attended had only the person defending, the committee members, and a few friends. Everyone seemed to have been present for mine. Had they heard about the skinning I’d gotten from Dr. Kiick?
Defenses also last around an hour or hour and a half. I entered the room at 9 am and left at 1pm.
What do I recall about that day? Dr. Kiick asked a lot of questions. I answered them all, mainly because I knew theory. Dr. Malak Kotb asked one question that led to another, and another, and another, never seeming satisfied with the answers. Not that I was wrong in any response, but she later said that if I were to do a post doc, I needed to know more than what I studied. I answered her questions and even Dr. Gerald Carlson (my tormentor) said that I had answered beyond my field of expertise.
Dr. David Ash was there. He was my Outside Examiner. I had never met Dr. Ash before that day. He knew nothing about me. Thankfully, I had read nearly all of his published work. Of the questions he asked, I could not answer with any degree of accuracy only one of them. I thought, Well, this is it. I said, honestly, “I don’t know.”
He even looked as if he were thinking, Ha, I have her now! He looked from me to Dr. Carlson, and said, almost apologetically, “I don’t know, either.”
Afterwards, I recalled Dr. Carlson addressing me as Dr. Stiffin. He said that he had been in many defenses and that, in his most recent memory, mine was the best. I recalled Dr. Kiick’s words, forever burned into my memory: I have never been prouder of you than I was today.
Every defense is different. I have sat in on a few. Some were funny, nervous, disappointing. My difficult experience was not so difficult after all. The committee wanted the best out of me. And sometimes, to get to the precious metal, it has to go through fire. I think my students’ defenses were all great, because I prepared them long before the fire. The fire did not burn them.
About Rose Mary Stiffin, Ph.D.
Rose Mary Stiffin was raised and educated in Indianola, Mississippi, notably the Delta hometown of the blues legend, BB King. She received
a Bachelor of Art degree in chemistry from Mississippi Valley State University in 1974, a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry from Mississippi State University in 1981. and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Tennessee in Memphis in 1995. She did her post-doctoral work at the world-famous St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn and has written several grants, including a $1 million dollar grant from NNSA to start a radiochemistry program and a grant to support the development of its sister program, radiobiology, funded by NRC. She is currently chair of the Division of Health and
Natural Sciences at Florida Memorial University, a small HBCU located in Miami Gardens.
Stiffin has written several short stories and had some of them published in the Imagine literary magazine. She also has been published in the Algonquin Quarterly (“The Water Buffalo and Pink Flamingo”) and in an anthology For Your Eyes Only (“Casino Blues”). She has written several novels, including “Walk in Bethel,” Reflections” and “Groovin’ on the Half Shell.”