Monday, September 14, 2015

so long blues: an homage to marjorie thompson

The following tribute marks one year since the passing of
Marjorie Thompson, beloved biology professor, dean,
musician, and friend to thousands.

It was high noon on a picture-perfect Memorial Day, 1999, the unofficial beginning of summer and the official beginning of the rest of my life. As photons from our home star beamed down through gothic mullioned windows, I and several hundred biology concentrators — the lot of us clad in black from head to shin — lined the pews of the First Unitarian Church in Providence, Rhode Island, waiting to receive our undergraduate diplomas.

One by one, we made our way toward the moment many of us had been anticipating since the word "college" first crossed our synapses. As O's and P's yielded to V's and W's, my name finally rang out across the hall. With my family proudly looking on, I strode with purpose to the podium, toward a petite brunette with wavy, chin-length hair and thin, metallic spectacles. We exchanged knowing smiles, and I reached out my right hand. I was soon holding onto a small rectangular paper that read, in part, "et huic omnia privilegia lura honores us ad hunc gradum evectis pertinentia fruenda dedit" — "and to she has given to enjoy all the privileges, rights, honors, and symbols pertaining to those advanced to this degree." Thanks in no small part to the woman with the wire-rimmed glasses, Brown University was about to make its appearance in the rear-view mirror of my life.

Marge (right) with Jen, a fellow bio concentrator and my former roomie, at our graduation in 1999.

Now, 15 years, five months, and three weeks later, I am sitting in the same hallowed hall, once again dressed in black. The flood of brilliant sunlight from that memorable May day has given way to a smattering of amber-stained rays, soon to disappear behind our earthly orb. On this bitter-cold November afternoon, students, colleagues, family, and friends have come to say goodbye to Marjorie Thompson, the woman who helped me and thousands of others at Brown become who we are: scientists, doctors, engineers, writers — and much, much more.

It had been a shock to hear the news some two months prior that Marge, a two-time Brown graduate, longtime adjunct professor, and beloved dean, had died at the age of 60 from cancer. While I hadn't been in touch for quite a few years, Marge had always seemed so dynamic and vital — the kind of person you'd imagine would be doling out time-tested truisms well into her 80s or 90s. Tragically for her family and for everyone she touched, cancer took Marge at the pinnacle of life: In addition to her flourishing career, she'd found recent success outside of the university as a singer-songwriter; at home, her children were all thriving, the two youngest actively studying at Brown.

Her youngest son, Griffin, was, in fact, still a bun in the oven when I first met Marge in the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years of high school. I'll never forget that muggy June morning when the dozen or so members of our histology class discovered that our petite 5'2" professor was very pregnant with her seventh — seventh! — child. The fact was incredible on several fronts: that such a small person could seemingly double her size while carrying a baby; that someone as young as she could have already birthed six other children; and that as a profoundly busy professor and dean she could have had much time for family at all, much less a fairly large one.

And yet, here she was, introducing us starry-eyed teenagers to the basics of cellular and tissue biology in what was, for most of us, our first academic venture away from home. I don't think I ever told Marge how much of an impact she had on my decision to apply to Brown and to ultimately matriculate, but for 10 weeks, she was my ambassador to a world where I could become whomever I wanted to become — even if I didn't know who that was quite yet.

It was during this time, for instance, that I first entertained the thought of combining art with a career in science. While I sometimes struggled to memorize the functional differences between fibroblasts and osteoblasts, I excelled in our labs, in which we were to draw and describe what we saw in stained tissue slides magnified by standard light microscopes. The positive feedback she gave upon seeing my lab work encouraged me at various points to consider a career as a scientific illustrator/designer, or to work in some way to bring science to life through art.

To be sure, Marge was also an excellent teacher of biology: Her analogies were always illuminating, and she mixed fact and humor in a way that made learning challenging material fun. But Marge made it clear to us in word and in deed that science could be interdisciplinary — and that we didn't have to abandon our multiple interests and passions as we came into our adult years. As someone who went on to take many science courses across a wide range of subject areas, I can say that few professors encouraged cross-disciplinary thinking the way Marge did. She was a proponent of STEAM — Arts in connection with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — before the term even existed.

​Cellular fun: Marge's handmade jewelry fused science and art.

And by the way, she really walked the walk. Well before Etsy, Marge was a budding crafts entrepreneur in her own right, with a line of biologically inspired jewelry she called Cellular Fun. She produced and sold vibrant pins, earrings, and necklaces of neurons, white blood cells, and skin cells made from colored polymer clay.

She also betrayed her love of music to us on more than one occasion — gushing in class, for example, over Lyle Lovett and the Beatles. Years later, well after I'd graduated from Brown, she followed her own advice and took her guitar-playing talents to the next level, becoming an accomplished singer-songwriter. "Time doesn't wait for you," she told Oprah Winfrey when interviewed about this mid-career shift on Winfrey's eponymous TV show. "I knew that it was now or never." In her 50s, Marge toured the country, playing in coffee shops and on stage; she produced five albums of original music as well as a series of instructional guitar videos. In short, she'd found a second calling, and instead of writing it off as too late to start anew, she'd embraced it with full force.

It was the kind of move that didn't surprise for one moment those who knew her. As associate dean of biology, Marge headed up the advisory system for one of Brown's most popular concentrations. Hundreds of students each year engaged directly with Marge, who made sure their academic requirements were on track, who gave advice regarding courses of study and career paths, and who organized and advertised events and opportunities encouraging them to follow their love of the sciences — or whatever it was they were passionate about.

Sitting now at the First Unitarian Church, I am moved by the stories spoken aloud by former students who have returned to Providence to pay their respects to Dean T (as Marge was known to many). One in particular brings the congregation to tears when he plays an original recording of her singing a song she'd written some years back. The words of colleagues and friends make plain the enormous impact Marge had on her family and her community.

That, of course, includes me. In addition to drawing me back to Brown for my undergraduate years, Marge helped me choose my major, an interdisciplinary concentration that drew from biology but also anthropology, psychology, and sociology to better understand human evolution. She also led me to my future concentration advisor, Anne Fausto-Sterling, a noted professor and science writer on topics relating to the sociology and biology of gender. Anne helped guide me toward a path where I could explore the STEM fields through writing — and, ultimately, the photography, animation, and design that gave it additional color through the popular science outlets I've worked for throughout my career. More recently, Marge has been in my thoughts as the public has started to know me as a "LEGO artist" for my photographic depictions of scientists and engineers in minifigure form. As she quipped in her interview with Oprah, "this is not how I imagined my life!" Yet I've enjoyed this new avenue of expressing appreciation for the work that scientists do, and these vignettes have become an project of which I'm extremely proud.

So thank you, Marge, for your insights, encouragement, and grace. In the lives that you have touched, you will live on for generations to come, once again and more.