Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cornell University and graduate school decision

Cornell University. 1959-61.

The town of Ithaca is very hilly with Cornell University situated at the top of the hills. The town could be divided into two parts, college town, surrounding the campus, with lots of run-down apartment (student housing) and in my opinion firetraps and larger clap board houses running all the way  down the hill to the downtown, which was predominantly built in the 1920’s style. Here and there particularly along the canyons were spacious stone or brick houses built probably at the turn of the 20th century. The major department store on State St. was Rothschild’s. Driving in the town was extremely hazardous, and vehicles required chains in the winter months.
Unlike our first attempt at living in Ithaca, this time we had applied for and received married student housing. Cornell quarters was a large area of small duplex huts left over from the US army. The huts were small, one bedroom and a small living area with kitchen. To us they were heaven since they gave us a sense of ownership, and being on our own, although there were times when we could hear the next-door couple quite clearly either arguing or have sex. We got to know a number of our neighbors, and I would walk into campus every morning with a student from Ghana, whom I suspect became one of their minister’s of agriculture. The whole area had a superintendent or janitor, a Mr. Bell, a kind, middle-aged man who offered after a few months to teach me how to drive an automobile (our first car). The quarters were very extensive and looked like the internment camps used for the Japanese during WWII.
Even though I had a fellowship, which covered part of my expenses at Cornell, we both needed to work to sustain ourselves. Mimi found a good job as a lab technician in the chemistry department with Dr. Harold Scheraga, who is considered one of the great protein chemists of his time. She was an assistant to some of his graduate students and post-docs studying the enzyme ribonuclease’s physical structure.  I in the meantime found a part time job in the main library, cataloging books dealing with Jewish subjects. I was hired because I was able to read Hebrew.  Later on I dealt with cataloging government documents.  This latter  job was very boring but it did bring in minimum wages.
 I also worked for Dr. Marble in the poultry husbandry department, who was the contact with Ben Adam in Israel, recording weights of eggs and matching these to specific hens. I occasionally did some plowing for Dr. Baker, my advisor in the department of Poultry Husbandry. Dr. Baker was a very typical American, large and forceful. His specialty was marketing and he organized and ran the Cornell University Booth at the New York State Fair. We students were expected to man this booth and persuade the public to buy chicken hot dogs, which at that time was quite a novelty.  We also had to participate in poultry judging. I also had to take a class in this, and I found it very difficult to feel up a hen or cockerel and judge its health and quality.  In fact it was poultry judging which began to make me think twice as to whether I was in the right field.  I could tell the difference between a skinny chicken and a fat one, but to judge by feathers and look the chicken in the eye and judge its health was beyond my abilities. Dr. Baker is still alive and in his retirement has opened a 30-acre farm of gardens and nursery stock, as well as a cafĂ© near Ithaca.  This is probably the same farm that I plowed as an undergraduate.
I got a very good education in Poultry Husbandry. I took a class in avian anatomy taught by a famous poultry geneticist, Robert Hutt. I knew the name of every bone, in the chicken and every hole in that bone by the time I finished the course.  I still have somewhere the term paper I wrote (probably the first in my life) on the feather and its development. Mimi did the much-needed drawings for the paper.  I actually found feather development and structure fascinating. Knowing all the bones and joints of the chicken has helped with carving at the table. Unfortunately Turkeys are not built the same way, and they still give me difficulty.
Another feature of Cornell avian life was the ornithology center. It was situated outside the campus in Sapsucker woods. It was a place to sit and watch the birds, and had wonderful exhibits.  We have been back a few times since I graduated and we always head to this and to Cornell Gardens, an area of beautiful extensive gardens and green houses. One of the main attraction of Cornell campus, are the extensive flower gardens. The campus of Cornell is very beautiful, not so much the actual buildings of the campus, which in these days tended to be mock –Gothic, or built in the utilitarian style of the turn of the 20th century but for natural beauty. The campus, or at least part of it was within walking distance of Cornell Quarters, and since we did not have a car, and I do not remember a campus bus, we must have walked every day. The campus and surrounding area is full of canyons, waterfalls, and lakes formed by glacial movement. It is close to the Finger Lakes about 200 miles North of New York City. In fact Ithaca is at the head, the southern end, of one of the lakes, Lake Cayuga. Apart from the gulley’s, canyons and Water Falls on the campus there is a small lake which in our time had a small restaurant where one could have a snack or cup of tea. This was Beebe Lake and Noyes Lodge. This was not too far from the chemistry building and we would meet there for lunch, and remark on the other students who appeared too poor to even buy tea, and would bring their own tea bags.  One could sit for hours looking at the lake, and the waterfalls. Noyes Lodge is no more and has been turned into a language resource center.  Unfortunately a lot of that beauty has been spoiled by expansion and the crowding of buildings.  I was at Cornell, perhaps 4 years ago, and although still beautiful, the campus was ruined by excessive over building. However one can still bathe in ButtermilK Falls and climb up to the upper park and surroundings.

Although the summers were idyllic, the winters  in upstate New York were unbelievably cold. Ithaca was in the snow belt of upstate New York and it is no exaggeration to say that  there was 3-4 feet or more of snow  on the ground all winter long.  We would have ice form in the corner of our little hut in Cornell Quarters. And to get to the school, we would wrap ourselves up with multiple layers of clothing and run from building to building until we arrived at the correct one. From Cornell quarters we would walk past the cattle barn, famous for its dairy and ice cream, through the Ag school, and eventually reach the chemistry building, frozen stiff. For the first year we had no car and no washing machine, so that we would lug a load of laundry in a basket or bag through the snow and bring it back damp from the Laundromat. In the spring this would be hung out to dry a very European idea.
Chemistry where Mimi worked was not in the Ag school and had just moved into a new building near the lake. This was an architectural experiment in which all the pipes, made of a transparent plastic were out in the open, and one could see the drainage from the sinks flow through them. It somehow reminded me of the Pompidou center in Paris.
We had quite an active social life. Through Mimi’s work we met Jan and her husband Ed who was a physics major.  They were an interesting couple from some small town in Virginia. I think they thought us very exotic, having never met Jews before. However we would go out together, and we have maintained contact to this day.  We went to our first Football game together Ed is I believe one of the inventors of the Star Wars Missile shield, proposed during the Reagan era. He has been very successful as a missile engineer, and Jan has been involved in various businesses. They now have retired to Maine.
 I have mentioned previously my cousin Ralph. He was the son of my grandfather’s brother, thus really a first cousin to my mothers. He and his wife were very Irish, from Dublin, and had quite a number of Irish friends. They were a happy lot, often a little drunk, ( not Ralph and Muriel )  and to us a bit crazy. They lived in what was called College town, an area close to the gates of campus.  They lived in an old wooden Victorian style ramshackle building that I was sure would catch fire one day.  I never expected to see it still standing and looking as dangerous as it did 50 years ago but there it was a few years ago, still the same. We often went out to the only movie house in town, and to the few cafes on the main street. While we were in Ithaca their first child, Susan was born and we were the first baby sitters. Susan of course is now a mother of two children, and I see her quite often, she lives in the Washington DC area.  Ralph was a graduate student in soil microbiology, and later went on to have an endowed chair in the department of engineering at Harvard.

After one year we bought our first car and I learned to drive.  It was a white and red Buick, quite a monster by today’s standards. The body was a little rusted and apparently it ran on 5 out of 6 cylinders. It was very noisy and could be heard for miles.  I was taught to drive by Mr. Bell the super at Cornell Quarters. Since there were so many parking lots nearby, it was not difficult to find an open space to practice driving. I got my driving license after one test. The car had automatic transmission, which made it easy, compared to later on when I drove a stick shift, while on sabbatical in England.  I quickly got used to the roads of Ithaca, and later on I would occasionally drive to New York City and actually drive in the city and surroundings. One major characteristic of all the cars in Ithaca was their rustiness. Since there was so much salt on the roads, car rusted very quickly. My cousin Ralph who occasionally drove us around had a car with no bottom, that is one could almost pedal with ones feet it was so rusty, in particular on the passenger side.
 Graduate School decision:
While I was still toying with the idea of going back to Israel and working for the Ministry of Agriculture, a Dr. Bornstein appeared on the horizon. He was visiting the department to deliver a seminar, and we invited him over for tea. During the course of conversation he inquired of my plans, and when I told him that after the bachelor’s degree, I planned on returning to Israel and applying for my “ old ‘ job back, he thought that this was not such a great idea, but rather since I had been quite successful with course work, that I should go on for the MS or MA in agriculture. This took me by surprise, since I had really never given it a thought, and really had no idea even how to begin to apply to graduate school.   However my interest in poultry husbandry had also began to wane, and I was not sure that this was my future path. In fact I took an elementary course in microbiology from Dr. Van Denmark and found it quite interesting.
 At this time I was taking a class in genetics from Dr. Everett, a plant geneticist. This was a very basic genetics course dealing with Mendelian genetics. One day I talked to him after class, and asked his advice. He suggested I write directly to top individuals in the field of genetics, and gave me a list, among whom were Nobel Prize winners as well as future Nobel Laureates.  These included Hermann Muller of Indiana University, and Joshua Lederberg of Stanford, as well as professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and the Rockefeller.  I sent in my applications to these various laboratories and schools, as well as to Purdue University Poultry Husbandry as a back up.  These were the day before the GRE was required, and admission depended on grades and letters of reference.  If I remember correctly the application had to be in by December, but admission letters with offers were sent out in Mid-April. Before the time, probably in March I received a letter from Purdue, offering me a full fellowship in the Department of Poultry Husbandry with a request for an immediate answer.  This threw me into a tizzy, since I did not want to say yes, before I had heard from the other schools.  I wrote to the other schools, telling them the situation. I got a long letter back from Hermann Muller explaining that I should not give into Purdue’s pressure. He could not tell me whether the answer from IU would be positive but that Purdue was behaving in an unethical fashion (I did not know at that time of the rivalry between Purdue and IU). On the basis of this letter I decided to wait, and I must have responded to Purdue somewhat ambiguously.
 Sure enough in Mid April I got an offer both from Indiana and Stanford of a full fellowship (NIH training grant). I may have also received a positive response from Berkeley and Michigan but without support. Mimi and I debated the relative pros and cons of both places, and after having spent two years in “ cold” Ithaca we opted for warm Stanford and California.  How different my scientific career might have been if we had gone to IU. There I would have been in the lab of Hermann Muller and studied classical drosophila genetics.  I have been told that he was rather a difficult person, so I do not know whether I could have stuck it out. Josh Lederberg wrote that he did not have any room in his laboratory, but that he had passed my file on to a new colleague, Charles Yanofsky, and that I would work in his laboratory. This turned out to be one of the major laboratories in the country deciphering the genetic code.  Of course if I had studied at IU I probably would not be in Bloomington today.  How ironic! Life is full of such accidental happenings.  In fact this sequence of events, the visit by Bornstein, the talk to Everett, and the letter from Herman Muller basically put me on a different career pathway, and changed my life. We had given up the idea of returning to Israel for the time being, and eventually moved to Palo Alto and Stanford, California, which later on influenced all of Mimi’s family. Almost the whole family, including Mimi’s Uncle from New York and family moved to California.  Thus we started a Western migration.

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