Doktormutter

allison

Last week I flew to California to speak at a memorial for my PhD advisor, Allison Doupe.

I had lost her in pieces.  There was the email from her husband, forwarded by my former labmate, describing how she had passed away peacefully at home.  And the phone call over a year ago (she never called me) where she mentioned that her cancer “wasn’t in one place anymore.”  There was a trip out to see her last year, where I gave lab meeting, and tried to tell her thank you for everything she had given me.  There were nights when I would wake up crying.  Feeling scientifically motherless.  Feeling selfishly that I had lost her just at the time when I needed her the most.

I made David come with me.  And Joey.  And Ruby.  I wasn’t sure what I would feel but I thought I might need to hold a baby afterwards.  When I walked in and saw all the familiar faces I thought I might start crying there.

I wasn’t the only one.

I gave a talk; there were many talks.  They were a mix of memories and science.  The memories were painful, funny, heartbreaking.  I stuck to science, thinking this would help me maintain composure.  I think she would have approved of this strategy, as she had used it herself as the disease progressed.

What were the things she taught me?  Not to color my data in ways that were misleading.  To write carefully.  To state my findings with clarity and assurance.  Most important, she taught me confidence.  Graduate school is a place of harsh questions; I didn’t come in with the thickest skin.  In editing my writing, her most frequent piece of feedback was “needs more testosterone.”  Over and over, and in the kindest and gentlest way possible, she taught me to grow a pair.

What came out in the talks was that she had been these things to everyone: friend, mother, shrink.  What came out were the many strands of her science: natural behavior, quantitative analysis, social information in the brain.  What came out was a life fully lived.  Best of all for me was to listen to her many graduate students and postdocs.  To see what each one had done with the seeds she gave them.  To remember that I had a tribe to call on.  To understand that she had lived exactly the life she wanted.

At my thesis defense she called herself my “doktor-mutter”— doctor-mother— and that is how I thought of her.  I called her when I went on the job market, when I needed advice, when I was feeling blue.  I thought that when she died she was done giving me things.  But she wasn’t.