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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Mentors

By Jeff Danner Posted May 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm

From time to time I step back from the sciences and write a more personal column like this one. Lately I have been thinking of some of the key mentors in my life, the impact they have had on me as well as some of their most memorable lessons and quotes.

It may surprise you to know that the high school teacher who had the most significant impact on this chemical engineer was not in the sciences, it was my 10th grade world cultures teacher, Doc Wilkerson. It’s hard to define which particular intangibles make the difference in a great teacher, but he inspired and challenged his students and helped us appreciate the interdependence of cultures, trends and events in history. Perhaps even more importantly, he taught us to think, a trait which seems increasingly rare in the public sphere these days.

His continuing influence on me is clearly evident in these columns as I often include the cultural and historical trends which are interwoven subjects I am covering, including, of course this one. Doc’s class nearly caused me to change career paths to study history rather than engineering. To this day, when I can find time to read, I am much more likely to pick up Jared Diamond’s most recent history book rather than a legal thriller from John Grisham.

One key lesson he taught us in 10th grade (1981-1982 for me) was that figuring out the solution to a problem was easy; it was convincing other people to implement your solution that was the hard part. That simple statement turns out to be perhaps the most succinct and accurate commentary on society that I have ever heard. Given his challenges in Washington today, I suspect President Obama would agree. (By the way Doc, if you are reading this, the plaster-of-Paris effigy that appeared in your lawn in the spring of 1982 was made by Liz and me. We intended it as an homage rather than an insult.)

When I went on to College I learned an important lesson from Dr. Lembit Lilleleht one of my professors in chemical engineering. Dr. Lilleleht was a young boy in Estonia at the outset of World War II. During the conflict, Estonia was first absorbed by the Soviet Union, then overrun by the Germans, who were subsequently driven back out by the Soviets. Dr. Lilleleht and his family suffered great hardship during this time including, an unsuccessful to escape attempt to Sweden, a hasty emigration to Germany, a near miss of a forced repatriation to Soviet controlled Estonia, and a variety of other extremely challenging circumstances. As will discuss below, the lessons of his childhood taught him to have little patience for trivial concerns.

After the war, things improved for Dr. Lilleleht. He and part his family came to New Jersey to work on a farm as part of a post World War II displaced persons program. He went to university to study chemical engineering and then became a faculty member at the University of Virginia.

My lesson from Dr. Lilleleht came the day before a big exam. A particularly annoying classmate of mine asked what he “needed to know” for the upcoming test with the expectation that Dr. Lilleleht would spoon feed him a short list of topics so that he could limit his studying efforts to the absolute minimum. The student asked the wrong question to the wrong man. Dr. Lilleleht paused and looked up at the ceiling for a moment as if he were formulating the answer for which the student was hoping. After the pause he said “Well, everything from all of the lectures”, pause, “everything from all of the previous tests”, pause, “everything from all of the home works”, pause, “everything from all of your other engineering classes”, pause, “everything you learned in high school”, pause, “and everything else you have learned since you were born”. He never cracked a smile or tilted an eyebrow to display a sense of irony. When he was finished he picked up his lecture where he left off. It was a thing of beauty.

I have tried to follow Dr. Lilleleht’s advice ever since by focusing on learning all I can about a subject rather than trying to complete just the bare minimum, a practice which has served me well. Dr. Lilleleht’s philosophy touches on the debates are engaged in these days regarding instruction in our public schools. Our state prescribed curricula, which lead to narrowly focused standardized tests, remove the holistic and interwoven elements of education to which Dr. Lilleleht was referring and make everything a lot more like what the whiny classmate of mine was hoping for.

In the summer between my junior and senior years of college I had my first job in Corporate America, an internship with Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, PA. This was the first time I needed a real resume as well as the first time I would have a real interview, a scheduled 30 minute telephone call with an engineer named Bill Sweeny. I was prepared, I had notes, and I had practiced in the mirror. Bill called, we talked for five minutes, and then he abruptly ended the conversation. I was despondent. Clearly, I had blown it. About a half an hour later I got a call from the Human Resources department to offer me the internship, which I enthusiastically accepted, albeit with some confusion.

A few weeks later I started working for Bill. He gave me an interesting project, made time explain things to me, and was generally about the best boss a young summer intern could want. Once I became comfortable enough, I asked him about the telephone interview. I wanted to know how I managed to get the job after such a short conversation.

His answer, which included some colorful adjectives that I cannot include here, turned out to be another great life lesson. He said “Look, all of you engineers from good schools are smart and can do the work. On the phone interview I only needed to learn one thing, were you a jerk or were you not a jerk. You didn’t seem like a jerk so I gave you the job.”

Now that I am bit more “seasoned” I have observed how insightful Bill’s comments were. The subset of people who are effective at their jobs is much smaller than those who are smart. A key part of being successful is the ability to work and play well with others, or in Sweeny-speak, not being a jerk. I’ve tried to follow Bill’s advice to the best of my ability, though I suppose I have faltered on occasion.

I don’t feel old at 47, but given that I coach sports teams, lead boy scouts, volunteer as a mentor for UNC science students and supervise employees who are early in their careers, I suppose that somewhere along the way I have made the transition from mentee to mentor. I can only hope the lessons I am giving are as good, and as quotable, as the ones I have received.

Have a comment or question or favorite mentor story? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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