When PhD does not mean Post-hole Digger

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(Last Updated On: March 16, 2015)

Years ago, well before my father died, I told him I would be a biochemist. I was nine. People are always surprised when I tell them this, as if being nine means you cannot have a dream, a goal, an objective. Of course, at nine, I had no idea what being a biochemist meant. I simply liked the sound of the word and the thought that I would be a something. Something, as in fill in the blank, and it identifies a career.

What was I doing when I told my father this? I’m not sure. Maybe I was chopping cotton – as in weeding cotton, since I started doing that at seven for $3 a day, for about 10 hours a day. I minored in math, so that would be roughly 30 cents an hour. No joke.

Or I might have been picking cotton. I started doing that lovely occupation at four. The pay was 2 cents a pound, and as far as I know, that pay scale never went up during the 12 plus years I did this. I’m from the Mississippi Delta. What can I say?

At any rate, I know that I told my father I would be a biochemist. My father had an odd sense of humor. He liked changing the definition of acronyms. Like BTU. In Missionary Baptist speak, this is Baptist Training Union, when teens and preteens are trained in the Bible by taking lessons on a weekly basis. My father said it was actually BTPU – Beat the Preacher Up.

So, my father asked once what PhD stood for and of course it means Doctorate of Philosophy. Not to Joe Stiffin. It did define a profession, but one that might not engender the respect one would desire – post-hole digger.

My father died when I was twelve so, of course, he did not even live to see me graduate high school, let alone receive that PhD. Yet, he was the impetus behind it. As was my mother.

You see, my father died from a diabetic coma. We were poor, with practically no health care. My father was given his daily dose of insulin but I suspect he was noncompliant when it came to the diabetic’s diet. That coma was not the first one but, unfortunately, it was his last. I think I vowed then to study that disease. After all, I had told him I would be a biochemist, and surely a biochemist understood the cause and effect of diseases?

On that road to becoming a biochemist, certain precepts had to be in place. One was discipline: I studied hard and got good grades. Another was commitment: I never strayed from the path. And finally: a pathway. I studied for a year to take the GRE, applied to graduate school, was accepted, and several grueling years later, I held a PhD – with the discipline in biochemistry.

My area of study was the characterization of a liver enzyme called phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (GTP) (PEPCK). A mouthful, I know. But, remember, I made myself a promise. This enzyme catalyzes the committed step of gluconeogenesis – another tongue twister. But, PEPCK actually causes an increase in blood sugar because it helps make glucose from non-sugar molecules. So, as a Type II diabetic, what’s happening is that PEPCK is busy helping the liver make sugar you don’t even need. Voila! So, if I could understand how to control PEPCK, I could possibly find a way to treat diabetes.

Earlier this year, a team of biochemists – myself included, applied for and got a patent – the development of a drug to inhibit PEPCK and in so doing, improve the prognosis of the disease that took my father and so many others.

Every year, I tell my students that achieving one’s dream takes work. In fact, the word dream should change, because a dream has no substance; it is intangible. Hard work, dedication, tenacity – they have dimensionality. They are real.
Two decades ago, I became a biochemist and a PhD, but I have always been the very proud daughter of Joe Stiffin.

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.”

When PhD does not mean Post-hole Digger