Saturday, February 16, 2013

Preparing for My Defense

Finally, my professor helped set up a date for me to defend my thesis for sometime in December 1989. I had been focused on writing and editing my thesis in the fall, using my own savings since I had to pay one credit to be a student, the project funding ran out in the summer.
     A week before my defense, my professor said that I needed to do more work to get more results. I was shocked. I was preparing to defend my Masters. He said that we could postpone the defense until the following year. I said, “I know that there are always more results if we study more. There is no end to research. But I want to finish my master’s degree first. Then, I could do more work if you want. I think that I have done enough for my master’s degree.” He said, “I decide how much is enough for your master’s degree.” I said, “Yes, you and my committee.” He said, “But I decide when we are ready to show your thesis to the committee.” I said, “when do you expect me to be ready? I am working all the time on this thesis including weekends and holidays plus there is no more money. I cannot work for free forever. I have been working on the project for three and a half years and you paid me $7500 for not even a full year. Why did you let Porter graduate in two years so he could continue for his Ph.D.? It is not fair.”
     Desperately, I asked my co-professor for his advice concerning my options. He said, “It’s probably best for you two to calm down. Let me help you complete your last stage of preparation for this degree since I have been involved in the project since the beginning with you. Plus, your professor is too young and has too many students. It is hard for him to give everyone advice. You could get all my attention. I will talk with the chairman and dean first. Then I will talk to your professor and do all the necessary paperwork for a smooth transfer. Meanwhile, why don’t you try to work on your professor’s suggestion? He is still going to be on your committee even though not as your major professor. If he votes “no” at your defense then you fail. You only need one person to vote “no” and you fail. I know that both of you are emotional.” Finally, I said, “I am not sure it is a good idea to change my major professor at this stage, not to mention he could still vote no, and not to mention my focus would change too since you are a pathologist.”
     The next day, my professor stormed into my office. He said, “Ying could you please take all your files off of my computer and return your key as soon as possible. I need the space on the computer for my students.” I was shocked that my co-professor had already went ahead without a yes from me. “You mean you don’t want all the original data and results. That’s your copy. All my data were stored on my own disks. But if you don’t want them, I will delete them all.” He said, “Yes, do it.” I was upset. I went to his office and deleted all of my files in just one second. Three years of my work were gone from his computer. I felt very good because I felt like I deleted all of the unpleasant past. Later on, I told my co-professor, who was now my major professor, what had happened. I was worried that he didn’t make the transition smooth and he would not allow me to pass my defense. He said, “I don’t believe it. What he asked you to do! And you did it. What if I need to use some of your data later on after you graduate?” “Well, you just have to go back to the mainframe and transfer them again,” I said. He shook his head, cursed, and said, “I do not know how to transfer data. I cannot believe he is so childish. He was fine when I talked with him yesterday. He agreed that he had too many students anyway.” I suddenly realized that I was in more trouble than before.
     Since my original professor was an ecologist and my co-professor was a pathologist, they always ended up arguing with each other. Now my professor was the pathologist and he wanted me to shape my work from a pathology point of view to make up for Mark who left. One thing that I learned was that he wanted me to do as much as my former professor did, just with a different approach. He was older and wiser and I actually felt sorry about my former professor. I ended up doing, if not more, the same amount of additional work, which meant wrapping up the whole project from everyone’s perspective. There was no project money so I had to pay for one more credit tuition to keep my student status. Moreover, since I was an international student I had to pay more and find a excuse to explain why I could not finish a master’s degree in three years while most other Chinese in other fields only needed one or two years to finish. I moved into Anthony’s apartment so I could save my little money. I finally set my defense date for February 1990, fourth years after I started.
     A few days before my defense I had a horrible dream that my former professor asked me all very tough questions and failed me in a most humiliating way. But for my real defense, I was ready to fight. I was prepared and I was very calm. At 9 AM sharp, I first gave a seminar to everyone who was interested in listening, the other professors and graduate students. It was a large crowd even though there was a snowstorm the night before. At the last minute, switching a professor was not a common thing to do in college even for an American student and I was a poor little Chinese girl. Thirty percent of the graduate students could not complete their degrees for various reasons. For my defense seminar, every seat was taken.
     After the seminar, I defended my thesis before my committee. It went very well and I was surprised that my former professor did not ask me any tough questions at all. He did ask one very interesting question: How did I feel after working in both ecology and pathology fields (two professors)? I stated my true observations. Overall, ecology was more of a big picture approach; relationships, the attention was on finding a way to sample to represent a whole population or several populations. We were looking for relationships, successions at the broad scale. Therefore, statistics, modeling, and simulations were very important. Ecology was a tool for almost every problem. Pathology was mostly at a small or micro-scale. Pathologists were looking for disease. For example, my professor was looking for an unknown virus mycoplasma-like organism (or MLO). He, like the professor in his field often drove around looking for diseased trees. Then, they took samples back to the lab determined to find the cause of disease, the pathogen. They were very much focused upon individuals and details.
     The good thing about this project was that ecology and pathology worked together. We designed the best sampling technique for the northern hardwood forest. The factors included both natural and abandoned agricultural land used by early settlers, the age of populations through forest succession, climatic factors, roadside winter salt effects, other artificial effects, etc. I had the opportunity to incorporate Mark’s pathological lab results and Porter’s detailed site descriptions and my yearly tree ring growth to find out that our trees were dying mostly between the ages of 30–40 years in their pure forests. But in older forests (50–80 years old), this tree was as healthy and strong as could be; however, it only made up three to four percent of the species. Others tree species like maple, oak, etc. together made up the healthy Northern Hardwood Forest. The MLO virus was one of many factors pushing the forest to change its composition and reach the stage of a healthy mature forest. From my forestry management experience, we could selectively cut those suppressed or sick trees to open room for other species. This would accelerate the process of thinning without spreading more MLO in the forest.
     After that, I went out in the hallway to wait for the results. Anthony was there all the time to support me. About 15 minutes or so later, I was invited into the room again. The chairman proudly announced that I passed the defense and everyone shook my hand to congratulate me. My former professor too, came over and shook my hand, “Ying, well done. Congratulations.” I said, “do you want to know what I dreamed last night. I dreamed that you failed me.” He said, “Me! No, how could I fail you. I knew your good work all along,” he said.
     One last surprise was in store for the cover page of my thesis, which listed a number of people including the chairman of the department. I asked Porter for a copy of his cover page so that I could copy his format since he had finished thesis writing and defending almost two years ago. I was surprised when our chairman returned my thesis without his signature. He said that he refused to sign because I typed “chairperson” instead of “chairman.” He was not just a person. He was specifically a “man.” I didn’t even pay any attention when I copied Porter’s format. So I asked Porter, why he used “chairperson” and still obtained his signature. He said that the chairman was on
sabbatical leave at the time and another professor was acting chairman. I changed the word and sent it back. This time, I got the chairman’s signature. Chairman translated in Chinese is Zhuxi (主席) which means “head seat.” The word is neutral. It could be used for a man or a woman. The same was true with any other positions in China, neutral terms, although most of the time, men held those positions. Mister translated in Chinese is Xiansen (先生) which means “student head,” sometimes, we used the same word for a woman. My department chair was a woman in college. People called her Mister just like a man in the same position. The word "policeman" in Chinese is Jin Cha (警察), a neutral term, while the word Jin (警)means alert.  So for the word Jin, two Chinese words are combined, "respect" on top of "speech." Finally, Cha (察) means to observe. If I was the Chairman, I would not ask my student to change the word just because I was a man. Its meaning of leadership is far more important than the name.