Tag Archives: science

Retired!

After years and years of anticipation and months and months of planning, I retired last week. This is a self-photo I took of myself in my office on my last full workday. While my last official day was the 27th of October, I was actually on vacation for seven days before that so my last real work day, the day I took this photo was the 17th of October.

So what was it like on my last day? Well it was a day mixed with emotions of happiness but also sadness. After 35 years working in the same location and even in the same building, it should not come as a surprise.

The day before, I had sent out a mass e-mail saying goodbye to all of my work colleagues—those who were remaining behind as well as those who were moving on to other activities (some of which were also retiring). Part of my last day was spent reading the very touching responses I received from many reflecting on our productive and instructive work life together and wishing me well in retirement.

Another part of my day, I spent touring other floors of the building I had worked in all of these years. I decided to go by all my old offices that were on the four different floors I had worked on. Some still looked the same but others were no longer there having been torn down to make space for an expansion of our laboratory operations. Touring the labs was a bit sad as all of the equipment had been boxed up and relocated to other company sites. This was a part of the process of closing down our work site, the main reason I was retiring at this particular time.

But the most distressing sight I saw on my tour was when I came to our stability chamber area. When I rounded the corner of the second large room where many of these chambers were located, I was met with a gutted room. What previously had been our first chamber expansion area that housed four walk-in chambers and four large reach-in chambers were all gone. All that remained were the water, air handling, and electrical utility connections dangling from the ceiling, like bloody tendrils from savagely excised appendages. For 25 of my 35 years, I had responsibility for our stability program and these chambers had incubated the thousands upon thousands of samples at a multitude of environmental conditions. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

One bright spot though was an unexpected visit by my youngest son who lives in town. He stopped by to ask me some questions about a research project he was working on and after his questions were answered, I gave him a tour of the two remaining floors that were still occupied. It was his first visit to my place of work in many years and he was amazed at the changes that had occurred. As we ended our tour, he suggested we get a selfie, which thanks to his rather long arms, hardly even looks like one.

After calling into my last teleconference of the day, I began to box up my few remaining personal items. After more than 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry, I had accumulated a number of reference documents and texts that I planned to use in my “retirement.” Many of these I had taken home the previous day so that when I walked out for the last time, it would only be a single trip with the one box.

My Bose speaker that I continuously played jazz music and my two phone chairs, where my work and personal phones reclined while I was sitting at my desk, mostly took up the box. I know my daughter will recognize the thermal mug on the left; the one I drank ice water from all day long at work for at least 15 years. I got this mug one year in the early 2000s when I picked her up from college after the close of a semester.

Over my 35-year career at this location, I spent 32 years in management. My first three years, years that I absolutely had had a ball, were the years I worked in an analytical laboratory. When I was cleaning out my desk, I found this spatula that I had used many years ago to weigh out milligram quantities of samples and standards.

Knowing that I had used this tool on a daily basis whenever I was working in the lab, I decided to take it with me as a memento of those really fun days in the lab.

I carefully placed my box on the passenger seat and put down the top for one last fun workday commute. As I pulled out of the parking space, I realized this was the last time I would be driving out of this parking lot and the last time I would be waving my ID badge at the security gate to exit.

Tomorrow starts the first full day of my retirement, a period of my life I have been looking forward to for some time—a time of freedom, a time of relaxation, a time of adventure, and a time of unexpected pleasures. But none of this was I thinking of that last day. No, my thoughts as I drove away were about the three phases of my life. The first phase was the years of educational preparation for work; the second phase was my professional career; and the third phase being my retirement years. All of us spend a different number of years in each of these depending on our level of education, our career, and ultimately our life expectancy.

As I zoomed down the road on my way home, I thought this was indeed the end of an era. But at the same time, it was just the beginning of a whole new exciting phase of my life.

As a view of my office building receded in the passenger’s side mirror, in spite of the iconic phrase that “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”, I shifted my gaze forward through my windshield to the next phase of my life—retirement—which was now closer than anything in my rearview mirror.

Time Travel

Ever wonder what it would be like if you were to go back in time and make a different decision or take a different course of action in your life?  Maybe it would be to pursue a different career or to master a new activity.  Maybe it would be something as simple as taking a new route to work.  For whatever reason, I woke up one morning thinking about time travel.  But specifically in regards to three books I have read over the last couple of years.

Being a scientist, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I would include science fiction as one of the genres I read.  But I must say that I am not a hard-core science fiction fanatic nor have I ever been much interested in fantasy (early Harry Potter books excepted).  I like to have a bit of believability in my science fiction and for me time travel fits that model.  Einstein’s own general theory of relatively suggests the possibility of time travel and who wouldn’t believe the brilliance of Einstein?

I came across the first book on time travel quite by accident.  I had flown to Philadelphia for a one-day meeting and knowing that I would have little time to read while working, had left my Kindle at home.  When I arrived at the airport for my flight back home, I unfortunately found out I would be stranded in the Philadelphia airport for eight hours while a critical part was flown to Philadelphia that would then take several hours to install on our plane.   Without my Kindle with which to spend the time reading, I had to resort to buying a book at a bookstore in the airport.  Not wanting to pay full price for a hardback book, I scanned their selection of paperback books and my eyes came across an intriguing title, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

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With nothing else to do but wait, I purchased the book and settled down in a comfortable spot to read.  I quickly became enthralled in the story of two people travelling through time at different rates, a concept just as postulated by Einstein’s own theory.  And even for me, time travelled to quickly as before I knew it, I was being called for my flight.  Needless to say, I quickly finished reading the book (which for me is quite a feat since I am a slow reader).  Having thoroughly enjoyed the book, I hungered for more.

While searching for another similar book, I was happy to discover that Stephen King was releasing a new book, 11/22/63, a story about someone who goes back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination.  I had only read one other King novel before, The Stand, which had been recommended to me and I had really enjoyed it.   But other than that one, I had shied away from his other novels thinking they were too bizarre.  I thought with this title, I would give him another chance.  I can’t express how completely thrilled I was to have read it.  Being of the generation where you vividly recalled where you were and what you were doing when you found out about the Kennedy assassination, combining this true story shrouded in mystery and intrigue with a semi-plausible science fiction plot was a perfect combination.  It was a sad day when I finished this book; I wanted it to go on and on.

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Thirsting for more, I was reading through the author’s notes at the end of the book where King described some of the factual material in the book and how some parts where changed to fit his story.  After also citing the usual thanks for those helping with the book, he closed with a final thanks to Jack Finney, author of Time and Again, which in King’s opinion, is “the great time-travel story.”  If Stephen King recommended this book, how could I go wrong?  He was absolutely right.

TimeandAgain

This story also intertwines factual history with make-believe.  This is a story of someone who goes back in time to 1882 in New York City to solve a family mystery.  The book has numerous twists and turns, as the mystery is unraveled with a surprising ending.  What makes this book even more enjoyable is that the protagonist in modern times (1970s) is an artist/illustrator and so ably includes in the book, drawings he made while in the past.  Most intriguing of these was a drawing of the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch in Madison Square Park (a factual detail).

With this as background, you can better understand the context in which I awoke.  As I thought about these three books, I focused on the common thread running through them.  In each one, someone was going back in time to try to change an event that would make the future better.  In each case, it proved more difficult.  It was like history, as we know it now was trying very hard not to be changed—maybe a hidden influence of the time travel paradox.

I know in my own life even as a teenager, I faced a very tough choice between accepting one of two dramatically different summer jobs.  What made this decision so difficult for me was that the first job was a summer job that I had actually wanted for quite some time, a job that I had imagined myself having when I was very young.  This job was to spend the summer working as the elevator operator at the 1950s era hotel nestled against a mountain in one of my favorite places in the world, Montreat, NC.

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As a child, I was fascinated by the manual lever operation of the elevator and marveled at the person who though seeming fairly young to me, was privileged to operate it.  Growing up and visiting Montreat each summer, I had seen college students in this job casually sitting on a bench waiting for the next call to come from a floor above or for the next hotel guest to step up for a lift upstairs.

The second job was selling ladies shoes at a local department store.  The first job was exciting because it would afford me the opportunity to live in Montreat for an entire summer rather than just the single week we had stayed on vacation each summer.  The second job was less exciting but offered the potential for continued employment beyond just the summer—an important aspect for someone trying to buy his first car.  After painful deliberation, I took the job selling ladies shoes.  Had I taken the Montreat job, I can only wonder how different my life would have turned out for it was in this sales job in my senior year in college that I met the woman who would become my wife and life companion.

Until I sat down to capture my thoughts following whatever dreams I must have had that morning about time travel, I haven’t thought about that long ago decision to forgo the Montreat summer job 40 years earlier.  But when it came to the forefront of my mind, I began to envision myself as a character in a time-travel book—it became for me, an alternate timeline of my life.  Where would this alternate timeline have taken me in my life?  Would I have become a scientist?  Would I still have met the same woman I fell in love with and married, but maybe just in a different scenario?  I will never know nor will anyone who has ever had similar thoughts.

As much as I enjoy imagining the science fiction of time travel, the non-fiction scientist in me knows we will never be certain if we can travel back in time to try to change events or see a future world altered by those changes.  It is truly mind boggling to think that there are millions and millions of little decisions we make throughout our lifetime that any one of which could alter our own future in some way.  For someone who is unhappy with their life, maybe different decisions would lead to a better life.  Alternatively, for someone looking back over a very happy life, alternate decisions might have led to a less satisfied life.  For me, I know I can never see my life having taken that other summer job but on reflection I wouldn’t want to.  In the end, it would be a trade off of one lifetime of happy experiences for another lifetime of unknown experiences.  And I know I wouldn’t even be the same person.

So I’ll continue to enjoy reading science fiction novels about time travel.  And the “what if” questions, I’ll pose only for my own present decisions, not past decisions confident that whatever decisions I make will lead me down my own timeline which is already rich with experiences and fond memories.  Ones I treasure and ones I would never change even if the science fiction of time travel became nonfiction.

How I Got Started Teaching – 401 (prerequisite 301)

In our second year–the first full year of teaching–the course took off in popularity as we taught nine separate times.  Five of these courses were in Europe and I remember moving up in frequent flyer status so quickly, that I was achieving the next level even before I received the credentials in the mail for the previous level.   Separate trips to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland in addition to the other four domestic locations allowed me to really rack up the frequent flyer miles.  I remember my boss coming to me at the end of the year to say that I was gone from work so often, that people were beginning to ask if I had left the company.  His suggestion was to teach less the next year, which I did—only seven times in 1999.  These courses also included European trips to Amsterdam (twice), Portugal, and Israel.

Israel

While I often comment that M and I have seen the world together, a downside of using my vacation time to teach this course is that it has limited the time I had to take “real vacations” with my family.  Fortunately my wife has been able to travel with me on many of the trips and occasionally my children have been able to come along as well.  Admittedly teaching involved work for me but fortunately there was always a way to include a few days of vacation on the front or back end of the course.  While I was sacrificing some of my vacation to “work,” I was teaching a topic I loved and was very passionate about and after teaching it so many times, was easy to do without any preparation.

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This year, I made it to Asia for the first time when I was asked to teach in Turkey.  For this course, I would be the only lecturer but I didn’t anticipate this would be a problem since M and I had each taught alone previously due to scheduling conflicts.  But several factors resulted in this being one of the hardest times teaching.

First, I came down sick with a sinus infection two days before we left which left me symptomatic the entire trip.  Second, it took us so long to get there; I barely had a full day before teaching which with being sick, made the jet lag even more severe.  Then third, I found out once there that a translator would translate my comments into Turkish after I spoke.  This made it very difficult to keep up the flow of the class especially since I had already been asked to compress the three-day course into two days.  When it was over, I told my wife if that had been what it was like to teach this course when I first started many years ago, that I would have really had second thoughts about continuing.

15years

In 2012, we celebrated our 15th year of teaching the course.  Over those years, we have taught the course over 80 times to almost 2,400 participants.  In addition, these trips allowed me to travel to Europe 39 times.  While these trips may not have achieved the variety of destinations my mother- and father-in-law had traveled to, it certainly met or exceeded the number of European trips they had taken.  And I had not had to wait until retirement to begin my travels.

As I move towards retirement, I think of the additional time I will have to teach.  No longer will I have to decline teaching opportunities since I will no longer be limited by a finite number of vacation days.  I also plan to develop a second course that will afford me even more travel and I have begun to take steps to lay the groundwork for that course.

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By the time I do retire, I will have racked up over a million frequent flyer miles and will be able to consider myself an experienced international traveler.  I will have definitely answered my question from so many years ago—that no I won’t have to wait until I retire to be able to travel internationally.  I will have already done so and future travel in retirement will just add richness to the experiences I have already enjoyed.

How I Got Started Teaching – 301 (prerequisite 201)

A few years later, the British gentleman I had lectured for asked me to present at two more national meetings, one in New Jersey and one in Puerto Rico.  The political climate was more favorable, so I got the green light for both.

PuertoRico

The timing of my presentation was advantageous.  A controversy regarding my lecture topic had been brewing in the industry.  Now I had a chance to share my thoughts on resolving the issues.

I gave my presentations and they went well, but one moment when lecturing in Puerto Rico was tense for me.  Excited about sharing my ideas, I was eager to get started.  With just five minutes left before my talk in a ballroom set up to hold 100 people, only three seats were occupied.  I looked over at the British gentleman who appeared unconerned.  When I asked him about it, he smiled and said, “oh yea, you’ve never been to Puerto Rico.  Their favorite expression here is ‘Mañana’ (Spanish for ‘tomorrow’).  We won’t start for at least another 20 minutes.”

Manana

Later that year, I got a call from the organization that the British gentleman (Dr. S.) taught for.  They said Dr. S. had recommended me for developing a three-day course on the topic that I had lectured on with him.  What, take a two hour version of a 20 minute talk and turn it into a three day course?  I had to really think about that.

I called Dr. S. and thanked him for the recommendation but asked him what I should do.  He said don’t try to do it alone – get someone who thinks like you to help.  I hung up and began to wrestle with this.  I knew I wanted to do the course but I didn’t know whom I could get to help me teach it.  I thought about people I had worked with before and other previous contacts in the industry but couldn’t think of anyone.  Then I remembered the person (M) who had lectured after me at the FDA conference.  I wondered if I could find his contact information.

I don’t know how I was able to find his number but I called M and he was very interested in working together to develop and teach the course.  We then set up some time when we could talk at greater length about how we should structure the course.

Presentation

Our first step was to come up with an outline for the course and submit it as a proposal to the organization.  We wanted to develop a course that covered the entire subject from beginning to end.  We came up with the major topics that needed to be included and were amazed that we both quickly agreed what was important to include.  M made a really helpful suggestion about including a couple of workshops in the course so it wouldn’t be just lectures.  I suggested a Q&A session as a part of the course so participants could ask any question about the subject.  We put together the course outline, submitted it and then waited for the response.

The response we got was positive and we were asked to put together the course.  It was to be divided into twelve one and one half hour lectures over three days.  Once we broke down the topics over the three days, we decided who would work on each.  With that decided, we each began preparing 35 mm slides.  I knew preparing the course would take me away from my family so I began going into work very early on Sunday morning and working just until noon so as to minimize my time away from home.  I don’t recall how many weekends I did this but it probably took about six months to put all of the slides together.

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The first time we were scheduled to teach the class was in July 1997.  The maximum class size of 46 filled up quickly.  In fact someone who had previously worked with me and had moved onto another company called me directly to ask if I would let him in the class since he needed the course prior to an FDA inspection.  So our first presentation had 47 participants and went very well.  We taught the course a second time that year in the fall for an individual company which also went well.

How I Got Started Teaching – 201 (prerequisite 101)

My association with the British gentleman teaching as a part of his course led to several more lectures over the next two years along with a second trip to Amsterdam.  All of a sudden this guy (me) that didn’t even want to make a 20-minute talk was on the lecture circuit speaking multiple times a year.  I was getting to really enjoy this extra activity.

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Not long after getting started teaching, I received an invitation from the American Chemical Society (ACS) to give a talk at their national meeting in San Diego.  Their request was to present a paper about a couple of articles I had gotten published on the topic I had been teaching about.  I was starting to sense that I was stepping into the big league.  With my boss’s approval, I accepted and submitted an abstract for the talk.

SanDiego

Unfortunately just as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end; the political environment at work soured.  My boss came to tell me that I wouldn’t be able to give the ACS talk and that I would have to discontinue teaching with the British gentleman.  My time on the lecture tour had been short-circuited.  My next steps were to notify the ACS and the British gentleman that I was not going to be able to go forward with future lectures.

Shortcircuit

A few months later, my boss was sitting in my office talking about what had been going on at work that had caused the political difficulties.  He said that in spite of the fact that the ACS was a nationally recognized organization, he still couldn’t overcome the political climate.  On the other hand, he said if the FDA were to ask me to speak, that that would probably be fine.

Telephone

As my boss finished saying that, my phone rang.  It was the FDA.  The caller had read the abstract of my talk from the ACS meeting and wanted me to present it at the FDA Science Forum in Washington.  I couldn’t have choreographed the timing of that call any better even if I’d spent months to plan it.  I had to explain that I actually hadn’t even written the talk but that I looked forward to writing it.  I thanked the gentleman for the opportunity and told him I would get back with him.  I hung up the phone and explained to my boss the other half of the conversation he had just heard.  We were both dumbfounded for several reasons, not the least of which was how FDA even got my telephone number.

Washington

My trip to Washington the fall of 1994 was less eventful than my first lecture trip to Chicago.  I didn’t have any flight trouble as I did before but I did have to laugh when the FDA sent me my airline reservation information and there was a note at the bottom that stated if I was a government employee, that any frequent flier miles I earned were the property of the US government.  While the FDA covered my travel expenses, they didn’t cover the cost of preparation of slides (this was a time before PowerPoint).  At most national meetings, the expectation was to come prepared with 35-millimeter slides.  At many of these same meetings, I had seen FDA use overhead transparencies so knowing that was what FDA had used, I just prepared those.  That was not what they expected.

Overhead

Since I was on an elevated podium and the projector was on the floor, I had to ask someone from the FDA to turn my black and white overheads.  Well I might not have had to sweat the flight getting there, but I was sweating now.  I was in front of probably 100 FDA regulators and I was going to teach them how they should regulate us—with overheads.  Knowing that I would be nervous speaking to the FDA, I had typed out my entire talk.  I still have it today but I don’t think I could go back and re-read it, as it would make me nervous all over again.

I can’t tell you how I did; I can only tell you that I got through it.  Following me was another industry person (with slides) who spoke on another aspect of this same topic.  I was glad to hear that he had a lot of the same thoughts as I did about how our industry should be regulated.  Over lunch, I struck up a conversation with him about how I hadn’t been able to give my talk in San Diego but then had the opportunity to write it for the FDA.  His story was equally interesting.  His boss was supposed to give a talk in San Diego but had backed out at the last minute so he had had to give it.  We both thought what a curious turn of events, that I was supposed to go to San Diego but couldn’t and he wasn’t supposed to go but did.  And thanks to someone within FDA reading the abstract of both our ACS talks, we were now presenting to the FDA.

FDA

How I Got Started Teaching – 101

As I think about the many years I have been teaching professional development courses, I wonder if the desire to teach is hidden in my family’s genes.  For it was in the field of chemistry, not teaching that I had pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees.  And it was these degrees that have been the foundation for a career in analytical chemistry that I have enjoyed for over 30 years.

Analytical

It is interesting to note that in one way or another, all three of my siblings are also involved in teaching even though that was not their original field of study.  One sister went from retail management into teaching.  Another sister went from religious studies to teaching quilting and is now an art professor.  And my brother who is also a chemist is literally trying to teach the world how to harmonize standards in the research industry that he and I both happen to work in.  Each of us over our lifetimes has taken different circuitous routes to end up either full time or part time in teaching.

My path to teaching started in 1992 but also involved a desire to travel.  Being fairly young in my career, most of my business travel had been to the same few cities on the east coast where our industry is concentrated.

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I longed to travel internationally, as my in-laws were enjoying at that time.  When I heard the stories and saw the pictures of their travels to Europe, I wondered if I too would have to wait until retirement to see the places I dreamed about.  But it was no less on one of these business trips to Philadelphia where the story begins to my teaching and my international travel.

Teacher

It was in the summer of 1992 that I was asked by my boss to make a 20-minute presentation at a national meeting about an analytical topic I had been working with for about 10 years.  For the meeting agenda, I would give the industry perspective on this topic and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) would give their perspective followed by a 20 minute discussion panel where the two of us would answer questions from the participants.  I must admit that I am an introvert and didn’t really want to do this.  And besides, this would be my first presentation side-by-side with the regulatory authority of our industry, an activity that can be intimidating at times.  However, my boss “convinced” me that it would be both in my best interest and that of our company for me to make this presentation and so I agreed.

My first thought was how could I even talk about this topic for 20 minutes?  I came up with what I thought should be presented from an industry perspective and put some slides together.  Before I could even go through them to see how long it was, I found out that the FDA had canceled and I should make a 40-minute presentation.  So I added more slides.

Philly

The day came for the meeting and I walked in with what I thought was a 40- minute presentation.  Turns out, I had a lot more to say on the topic.  I took the entire hour, which didn’t even leave time for questions.  But the presentation was well received.  After it was over, a British gentleman came up to speak to me about the presentation.  He complimented me on my organization of the topic and my depth of knowledge of the subject.  He went on to say that my Southern accent was easy to understand.  I remember thinking, “What accent?  You’re the one with the accent.”  He then asked me if I would be interested in giving an hour and a half lecture on this subject as a part of a weeklong course he taught.  And to sweeten the offer, he indicated that one of the lectures would be in Amsterdam.  My first thought was could I talk on this subject for an hour and a half?  My second thought was “Wow, Amsterdam, international travel.”  I told the gentleman I would have to get back with him on the offer knowing I would have to get approval from work to do this.

Back in Memphis, I told my boss about the offer and he immediately thought it was great.  Again, he said it would be good for me and good for our company.  How could I refuse, especially with an international trip in the offing?

So back to the computer I went to prepare more slides.

Chicago

The first time I was to teach was the following spring in Chicago.  My lecture was scheduled for 3:00 PM and so to save money, I planned to fly up the morning of the day I was to lecture since it was only a one and a half hour flight.  However, when I got to the airport, I found out my flight had been canceled.  I scrambled to make alternate arrangements and managed to land in Chicago only a few hours late.  However getting to Chicago was only the first of my challenges as the taxi driver got lost trying to find the hotel (this was before the day of GPS).  Finally, I managed to get to the course location at 1:00 PM just as lunch was ending.  When it was my time to present, I again found I had prepared too much material as my 1.5-hour lecture turned into a 2.25-hour lecture.  Fortunately I could go over and in the course evaluations, my lecture was well received.

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The second time I was to lecture on this topic was in June and this course was to be in Amsterdam.  I remember thinking as I looked out of the window of the plane before we landed that soon I would be stepping foot on another continent, my first international trip.  Certainly not of the significance of stepping on the moon for the first time but for someone who had never even been to Canada or Mexico, still a momentous occasion.  Being jet lagged from the overnight flight, I fortunately had a day to recover before I had to lecture which gave me time to do some site seeing.  Exploring in a foreign country for the first time when you don’t speak the local language can be daunting but in Amsterdam, almost everyone can speak English.  Both the sight seeing and the lecture were a success.

Welcome to this new blog!

Whether you came to this site intentionally or just happened upon it by chance in one of your Internet searches, I say welcome again.  For you as a visitor, you have probably explored a multitude of similar blogs.  For me, this is a whole new experience.  I have twice been the guest author of another blog, Mindfulmagpie.com, but I have never created one of my own.  But that is exactly what I hope to do at this site, explore creativity.

By the domain name you probably are wondering, “What is up with that?”  I must first explain that I have been a professional scientist for over 30 years and have intently focused myself on pursuing mostly scientific endeavors.  Only in the recent past I have begun exploring my own creativity.  And what I am finding is that there has been a spark of creativity within me my whole life.  Only through some hard reflection have I come to recognize this, but I am finding that I like it very much.  So here is where it will be discovered and expanded.

I cannot promise you will find something new here on a regular basis, but hopefully at least a frequent basis; I am, after all, still a professional scientist years away from retirement.  But I know that just getting to this point I have discovered a number of things about myself.  My hope is that through your reading here, you will get to know me better and if you are able to relate to my stories then maybe you will also learn some things about yourself.  You’ll find at times I like to use cars, planes or trains metaphorically in my expressions, so I will say in closing, “climb aboard; let’s go for a drive.”

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