Al Malkinson the Scientist: Eulogy by Dr. Lori Dwyer-Nield
In this second part of my remembrance of lung cancer biochemical pharmacologist, Colorado’s Dr. Al Malkinson, I’d like to share with readers some recollections by Lori Dwyer-Nield, PhD. I’ve known Lori since my appointment to Colorado’s faculty in 1992 when she had already been a postdoctoral fellow of Al’s. Dr. Dwyer-Nield continued on as research faculty at the CU School of Pharmacy and co-authored over 40 publications with Al.
At Al’s memorial service last Saturday in Boulder, Lori was asked by Al’s wife, Lynn, to eulogize Al on behalf of all his scientific colleagues. Her thoughts were so warmly received that I wanted to share them more widely, especially with members of the scientific community who knew Al but were unable to attend the memorial. Moreover, I had reflected in my previous post how supportive Al was of his women trainees in balancing career and family. This eulogy provides a glimpse into this philosophy of Al’s directly from someone who lived it for over 20 years.
My tremendous thanks go out to Lori for agreeing to share with us this text of her eulogy.
Al the Scientist
by Lori Dwyer-Nield
as presented 11 August 2012 at Community United Church, Boulder, CO
It’s an honor to speak about Al the scientist. Al was my mentor and friend for 21 years, and in that time I learned that ‘Al the scientist’ was a complex character. The more I think about it, though, I realize that Al the scientist was the same person as Al the family man and Al the writer. We called Al our lab Dad. I remember when I first interviewed for a post-doc position in Al’s lab, he had me meet with his lab first, and then with him. That was quintessential Al. His approach to lab management was egalitarian. We all had to approve new lab members before he would let them join. He saw his lab personnel as colleagues and friends, not employees. In his eyes, the high school student or dishwasher was just likely to come up with the next great idea as anyone else. And if someone contributed to a study, they got their name on the paper.
He cared about each individual. It didn’t matter if you needed to talk to him about a personal problem or an irksome experiment. He did his best to help. He was happy when one of his lab personnel got married, but he loved the babies. Many mentors discourage having a family, but Al knew that family was important. He also felt that we needed to have interests outside the lab, and even told one young faculty colleague that she should take vacation, because ‘what could really happen in a week?”
Al the artist was a big part of Al the scientist. Al’s love of writing extended to scientific writing. It didn’t matter if it were prose or scientific manuscripts, he had standards that we strived to reach. It didn’t matter if you were an undergrad or full professor, if Al proofed your manuscript it would be covered in red pen. The end result was worth the painful process. Reviewers consistently started out their critique with the opening line: This is a very well written manuscript, but the discussion is a bit long. His students were much better writers when they left the lab than when they started.
Al the artist was also evident in the way he thought about science. Al thought outside the box before the rest of the world knew there was a box. He was a visionary. He could hear or read what the rest of us would consider a totally irrelevant tidbit and come in all excited about it. His enthusiasm was contagious. If he found something scientifically interesting, he would think about it until he could connect it to the lung cancer problem. And Al found almost everything scientifically interesting. He often came back from a big meeting to tell us about some obscure new scientific direction that he’d just learned about and how it related to what we were doing. A few months or years later, it would be the hottest of research topics. I learned not to discount his visions—most of the time I didn’t understand them, but I would secretly read up on them on figuring that I would need that knowledge in the near future. I can remember that he proposed to study the lung biome years before it was even called a biome—no one then understood what he was talking about, but now it is the focus of many successful research projects. He was able to connect obscure facts and understand their importance long before the grant reviewers which didn’t help our funding issues, but did make lab meetings more interesting.
As an educator, Al taught at many different levels. There were the usual lectures, but that was only a part of his teaching. He loved to talk about science to anybody who would listen. Often these discussions would evolve into discussions of literature or movies or sports. His breadth of knowledge was amazing—he was by far the best trivial pursuit partner I ever had! He liked to go for coffee and talk and he often would suggest doing that instead of meeting in his office. In the relaxed atmosphere of a coffee shop, he would advise, teach, and debate science, movies, life, or whatever topic came to mind.
He always cautioned us to back off and look at the big picture—look at the forest instead of the trees. We often debated the attributes of forest people vs. tree people.
When a student moved on from the lab, they did so with the skills needed to survive in the science world. Al’s approach to everything was teamwork. Everyone from Al to the undergraduate assistants helped put grants together. Everyone read the manuscripts. We all knew what was involved in putting together a research protocol for submission. We all knew the financial situation in the lab, and what we had to do to get the most out of our limited funds. Al didn’t hide the responsibilities of his job, he shared them. As a result, his students were prepared to run their own research programs when they left the lab.
To keep up with the ever changing world of science, Al collected scientific articles. He read many journals from cover to cover each month, and copied papers from those he didn’t subscribe to. This led to a storage issue. Often we wouldn’t be able to see him over the piles of papers on his desk. This led to hilarious situations such as paper avalanches and often prompted a trip to the aforementioned coffee shop. He collected friends just as readily. Going to national meetings with him was great fun. Al introduced us to interesting colleagues from all over the world.
Al was the master collaborator. He liked interesting people and if he could figure out a way to collaborate with someone interesting, I would soon be shipping samples to them. It was amazing how many places Al had collaborations. He also loved to visit these colleagues—he said it was to make sure the collaborations were going well. Italy, Spain, England—he could always find a reason to travel. The trip to Kenya to harvest 1000 mouse lungs with Ming and Fuad was my most challenging to pull off. From all the stories I’ve heard, they managed to enjoy themselves while working very hard.
Al could always make me laugh. He was a master story teller. Over a beer, he was better than any sitcom. His adventures entertained us. He could laugh at himself and truly enjoyed a good joke. Evidence of this could be seen on his office door which was covered with cartoons. Many times he didn’t realize how funny he was until we stopped laughing long enough to explain. His lack of technical savvy was a constant irritant to him, but when he realized how he could make us all laugh, he used his helplessness as a ruse to get us to fix things. Cell phones and printers were in league against him, but he fought through and mastered email—the greatest tool of the master collaborator.
Finally, Al was a good friend. He stood up for me, he was my biggest fan, and my best critic. He kept me interested. When he became ill, people from all walks would come to me to ask after him. Until that time I hadn’t realized how many lives he had touched and the diversity of those who cared about him.
Goodbye Al. Science won’t be nearly as fun without you, but we’ll carry on with your work because you taught us to keep trying even when things seem impossibly hard—and when all else fails, go see a movie.
Postscript: In our post-memorial communications, Lori and I were discussing the other speakers at the service and just how broadly Al loved and was loved – again, I was touched by her distillation of the day’s proceedings:
Me: I was comforted by the words by some of the others as well – and I had no idea how much Al was engaged with this other world of people on top of all of us. I was particularly struck by whoever said that Al didn’t feel as though he was cheated out of life. He truly did suck the marrow of what this world offers – and he contributed so much to it.
Lori: I thought that each speaker added a piece of Al that was unique. I know that Al had become very peaceful the last year or so. I think he truly was satisfied with how he’d lived–and I’m so glad because so many folks aren’t. He was always grateful for the small things though, which most of us discount as unimportant. He enjoyed life like he enjoyed food. There’s a great lesson to be learned here. Treat yourself good. Treat others better. Appreciate what you have and let others know how you feel. I hope I can attain that kind of dignity someday.
For those in the scientific community who knew Al and wish to celebrate his life and career, plans are underway for an event at the CU School of Pharmacy during the fall semester. Stay tuned.