Two posts diverged…though not in a yellow wood

This post began as the seventh in the “organizing by themes” series, the one that would contain annotated links to my posts related to epidemiology, epistemology, public health and career changes.

THAT post may be found here.

When I started writing, though, I realized that I was telling the full back story of my adult professional and graduate student life. So rather than clunkily shoehorn the “theme organization” post at the end, I acceded to the inevitability of two distinct posts.

This was not the first time I had started writing one post only to find myself writing an entirely different post; it is a welcome process of literary free association.

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As I have alluded to elsewhere, I sort of stumbled into my previous career as a health-related data analyst.

On June 30, 1995, I walked away without a degree from a six-year-long pursuit of a doctorate in “government” (rea: political science) from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). In June 2015, however, I applied for—and received[1]—the Master’s Degree for which I had already qualified when I resigned; it was not the worst consolation prize ever.

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With no idea what to do next (other than remain in the Boston area, having just moved into an apartment with my girlfriend of two years) and a set of quantitative and “critical thinking” skills, I spent the summer of 1995 performing data entry at a long-defunct firm called Pegasus Communications. That bought me some time…though I did not use it as wisely as I could have.

The following January, despite my better judgment, I accepted a position as an Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University. To this day, I do not know why I was offered the position: I was a 29-year-old political science major with zero experience in higher education administration who would be supervising three highly-competent professional women a few decade older than me.

In retrospect, I think my relative youth and inexperience equated to “willing to work long hours for a lower salary.”

Still…you get what you pay for: it was a terrible fit from the start, and I was unceremoniously let go late in May. As relieved as I was to be free from that position, that was the most drunk I would be until the day my mother was buried in March 2004[2].

Regrouping, I narrowed my focus to positions which would allow me to utilize the data analytic skills I had acquired at Yale and Harvard (though, in retrospect, I did not know nearly as much as I thought I did).

My break came in October 1996—just after I turned 30. I accepted an Analyst position with Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (HARI), in part using baseball statistics. And for the first time, I truly enjoyed a full-time adult job[3]. However, the federal grant funding for this position expired (not for the last time) in June 1998, so a few months later I moved on to North Charles Research and Planning Group then the MEDSTAT Group. These latter two gigs were, in order, horrific and not-bad-for-a-few-months.

All of these companies were located in or near Boston (and no longer exist in late-1990s form). However, as 2000 ended, so did my relationship with the woman my wife Nell half-jokingly calls my first wife. As a result, I decided to resign from MEDSTAT and seek a fresh start in the Philadelphia area, where I was raised.

I actually had a good position lined up with a psychometrics firm in King of Prussia (about 21 miles northwest of Philadelphia), but for still-unexplained reasons, I was “unhired” two days before I was scheduled to start. Nothing breeds paranoia like “we are withdrawing our offer but we won’t tell you why!”

The silver lining, however, was that I was unemployed when a Senior Research Associate position became available at the Family Planning Foundation of Southeast Philadelphia (FPC) in June 2001.

This was where a collection of loosely-related health data positions became a full-fledged career in “health-related data analysis.” Following the abrupt departure of my initial supervisor, I effectively ran a grant-funded research project. When that project ended after one year, I was promoted to direct a new grant-funded project; this latter project remains the most rewarding professional work I have ever done.

In the meantime, I was preparing and delivering talks at scientific conferences (American Public Health Association, Eastern Evaluation Research Society—on whose Board of Directors I would serve for a year). My colleagues and I wrote and published a peer-reviewed journal article for yet a third grant-funded project; I was listed as second author[4]. When the woman who directed the Research Department retired, she hired me as a data-analytic consultant.

And so forth.

That first project for which I was hired related to the association between the establishment of neighborhood youth development activities and teen pregnancy rates. As I recall (more than 16 years later), these activities were established in selected zip codes in North Philadelphia (the “exposed” group), but not in West Philadelphia (the “unexposed” group—unless it was the other way around.

FPC was one of 12 sites chosen nationwide to receive one of these teen pregnancy prevention grants. At the end of the project, we began to write an article summarizing our findings. This was scheduled to appear in a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal (I forget which one) presenting the results from each funding site. While I was well-educated in quantitative methods (albeit from a social science perspective), we needed a more specific type of statistical expertise.

Enter Dr. Constantine Daskalakis on a consulting contract.

This man was a revelation to me. I had not known there was such a thing as “biostatistics,” and, despite working in public health as a data analyst, I was only vaguely aware of what “epidemiology” was.

In fact, all I really knew about epidemiology was an odd remark my Harvard doctoral committee chair made while teaching one of my graduate American politics classes: “Getting a PhD in political science is tough, but if you really want to do something hard, get a PhD in epidemiology.”

Make of this what you will: I did not complete the political science doctorate; I did complete the supposedly much-harder epidemiology doctorate.

What most impressed me about Dr. Daskalakis-who had only recently completed his own biostatistics/epidemiology doctorate—was his sheer clarity of thought. He laid out an effective analytic approach in a few quick steps.

It was, for all intents and purposes, my first epidemiology lesson.

For various reasons (the timing and efficacy of the youth development activities was wonky?), we wrote a solid draft but never submitted it for publication; there went my first chance to be a first author.

Until then, I had fully rejected the idea of completing a doctorate in a different field; the wounds were still too raw. But the idea of directing my own grant-funded projects—even directing a non-profit research department myself—began to appeal to me. And that would require pursuing a public-health-related doctorate in either biostatistics or epidemiology (they were already cleaving into distinct fields of study).

It remained simply a vague notion, however, until the summer of 2004 when in quick succession 1) my mother died, leaving my stepfather and I co0-executors of her modest (but not trivial) estate, 2) the second grant project ended, 3) the next grant-funded project proved less appealing and 4) the siren call of Boston grew ever louder, especially after a trip there which combined a HARI reunion and catching up with friends at the 2004 Democratic National Convention[5].

At the reunion, I heard excellent things about the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). With no desire to return to Harvard (and/or fearing they would not want me back, even in a different graduate school), that was the only viable option I had.

That Fall, as the lawyer-driven[6] rift between my stepfather and me grew wider, a solution to our impasse occurred to me: sell the condominium my mother had intended me to have (and from which I was earning rent) and use the proceeds to pursue a doctorate at BUSPH.

Starting around my 39th birthday, no less.

My intention had been to apply for a doctorate in epidemiology, but the deadline for biostatistics was later, so that was what I chose. My GRE scores had long since expired, so I needed to take those again. My scores, after re-learning how to study for any kind of exam (the last time I had taken anything close to an exam was May 1991, when I somehow passed my Harvard GSAS oral and written exams), were…good enough.

But when I submitted my application to BUSPH, their response was a qualified acceptance: given how many years (20) had passed since I had taken a pure mathematics class, they enrolled me in the Master’s Degree program. I was excited and disappointed in roughly equal measure.

[Spoiler alert: they were not wrong]

Nonetheless, I was returning to Boston for what was shaping up to be a multi-step process. I submitted my resignation at FPC, and left—with an emotional send-off—at the end of June 2005.

In the meantime, I was still waiting for my stepfather to settle my mother’s estate with me…which he finally did in July 2005. In the interim, I had to borrow money from a friend to secure the apartment I had located in the Boston suburb of Waltham (yes, where Brandeis is located).

The final dispensation check was dated August 9, 2005; I know the date because I took an enlarged photocopy of it (it is resting comfortably in a filing cabinet behind me and to the left). No, I am not going to include a photograph of the photocopy.

However, just bear with me for a brief romantic digression.

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On October 31, 2005, my first Halloween night back in Boston, I received a message from a woman named “Nell” on Friendster, one of the original social networks (and quasi-dating site). On a lark, I had posted on my profile page 10 trivia questions based upon key interests/likes (sample question: “Freddie Freeloader sits between what two greats?”[7])

Only a few miles away in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, Nell, a private school teacher from Washington DC, was bored. Something about my profile appealed to her, so she took the time to research the questions to which she did not already know the answers.

Naturally, I was deeply flattered—and intrigued by her profile (and, later, her use of the word “persiflage” as the subject line for her first e-mail to me). We struck up a  brief correspondence then went on our first date (meeting in Harvard Square to eat at Bertucci’s—which is no longer there—and watch Good Night, and Good Luck—at a movie theatre which no longer exists). I was so nervous, I kept dropping the movie tickets.

I must not have been too nervous, though: we married 23 months (and one day) later[8].

*********

My plan had been to complete all of my coursework in two semesters (while not earning any income other than interest) to save money. I had already paid off some substantial credit card debts and lingering student loans—and a few days after I returned to Boston, my 1995 Buick Century died. Rather than incur new debt, I paid in full for my black 2005 Honda Accord (it was love at first sight when I spotted it on the dealership lot); I still drive that Accord.

Four courses a semester proved too stressful, though, so I paid for an additional semester.

On a Thursday night in early September 2005, I drove down to the Albany Street campus, parked and walked into a classroom—more of a small auditorium, really—for the first time (as a student) in nearly 15 years. It was Dan Brooks’ Introduction to Epidemiological Methods; the two disciplines may have cleaved into different departments but they were still interconnected.

And, just like that, I was home. In epidemiology, I had found that perfect combination of applied math, logic and critical thinking I had not even known I was searching for until I found it. Even as I labored joyfully through, first, Intermediate then Modern Epidemiology (perhaps the best course I have ever taken), I knew I would soon be applying to the BUSPH doctoral program in epidemiology.

It had to be soon, actually, because my GRE scores would expire in 2010.

By January 2007, I had completed both my “theoretical” and “applied” qualifying exams, and I received my diploma a short time later. I had already parlayed my impending degree into a Quality Researcher position at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP), where I would remain until I was laid off (expiration of grant funds again) in June 2010.

My application to the BUSPH epidemiology doctoral program was accepted early in 2009 (“We were wondering when you were going to apply!”), and I enrolled that September. Thank goodness I did, because when I left MBPH the following June, we lost our health insurance; BUSPH picked up the slack.

In May 2011, I accepted an Outcomes Analyst position with Joslin Diabetes Center, where I would remain until June 2015, when—you guessed it—the federal grant funding expired. Yes, not only did my father die on June 30 (1982), I left four different positions (only one truly voluntarily) on that day in 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2015. And yet it is not even close to my least favorite day of the year; I reserve that honor for Valentine’s Day, which I utterly loathe.

Unlike my doctoral program at Harvard, the BUSPH epidemiology program had an elegant, well-ordered rhythm to it: two years of coursework—culminating with the dreaded hurdle known colloquially as “Dan Brooks’ seminar.” After that came the “biostatistics” and “epidemiology” qualifying exams, selection of a three-person committee and a thesis topic, drafting of a short letter of intent outlining the three connected studies you were going to conduct, drafting of a very-detailed 25-page outline of the final dissertation, then the researching and writing of the thesis itself.

Nothing to it, he wrote with a shudder of remembrance.

And, of course, what followed that five-year journey (nine if you count the biostatistics MA) was the doctoral defense.

Oh my…the defense.

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Technically, this photograph was taken (on the late afternoon of December 16, 2014) after I had successfully defended (when the three doctoral committee members leave the room to “confer”—and return with cake and champagne), but my slides are still being projected, so it is close enough.

Not long after, I collected this from…somewhere…on campus.

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Nearly 20 years after I had walked away from one doctoral program, I had successfully completed an entirely different one.

And this is essentially where you came in to the movie.

Until next time…

[1] In December 2015

[2] After the funeral (at which I eulogized my mother), I spent much of the evening walking around my late stepfather’s house, where we were sitting shiva for my mother, swigging directly from a bottle of Scotch. When I walked out the house later that night in the direction of my parked car, a family friend with the superb nickname “Yo!” said he would “rip out [my] fucking distributor cap” if I attempted to do drive myself home. Not being a complete fool, I permitted a close male cousin to drive me home.

[3] And where I taught myself my first geographic information systems (GIS) software package.

[4] A 2000 article based on HARI research listed me as third author.

[5] In June 1991, a late friend of mine from suburban Philadelphia asked me to come to St. Louis to support his candidacy for Treasurer of the Young Democrats of America. I rented a car and drove to St. Louis, renting my very own room in the conference hotel, and joining the Pennsylvania delegation. I became friends with some members of the Alaska delegation, one of whom served as a whip at the 2004 convention in Boston. She was the one who invited me to Boston. I was actually in the rafters of the Fleet Center (the former Boston Garden, now the TD Garden) for former president Bill Clinton’s address—having walked by then-Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio on the way in to the building. I was in a local bar watching with dropped jaw as a charismatic young Illinois State Senator and candidate for United States Senate named Barack Obama gave the keynote address. While I was there, Mr. Obama spoke to few dozen or so people at nearby Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park; I saw his speech, but I regret not meeting him and/or getting a photograph with him.

[6] I still do not quite understand why he chose to fight my mother’s—his wife’s—crystal-clear distribution of what property she had. But he did so—then tried to intimidate me by hiring a man named Vito Canuso, who had been the chair of the Philadelphia Republican Party…at some point. I countered by hiring the lawyer—Barbara Harrington Hladik—my mother had used for my sister Mindy’s guardianship hearing (she is severely mentally retarded; I am her legal guardian now). It was a mismatch from the start—Canuso never had a chance.

[7] Answer: “Freddie Freeloader” is the 2nd track on the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue, “sitting” between “So What” and “Blue in Green,” my favorite track…period.

[8] It was not all smooth sailing—but we made it there in the end.

2 thoughts on “Two posts diverged…though not in a yellow wood

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