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The Key to Science Excellence

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle

 

“I realized that I didn’t really have a choice.”

My friend Roy is not a scientist; he would not describe himself as an academic nor as a researcher of any kind; and he may not have finished high school. I never pressed him on that latter point.  But he is the first person that comes to mind when I think of the key ingredient in the pursuit of scientific excellence.

Resilience.

Better still.  Lighthearted resilience.

Most grad students have heard that the difference between a smart, talented researcher and one with a doctorate and publication success lies in perseverance: that capacity to rebound from the personal and professional setbacks that plague anyone with ambition and dreams. 

Students nod their heads, plod away, and pretend they get the resilience thing, but many assume that some people are just lucky and some are not.  Mentors and senior professors seem god-like, and it is hard to imagine them as anything but infallible.

Roy is fallible.

That makes him a great friend and role model for looking at life and dealing with its blows.

If he had to summon some scientific or technical credentials, Roy Mayer could point to laurels as the winner of Success Magazine’s Breakthrough Ideas Contest, characterized by the U.S.  media as the International Inventor of the Year, in 1993.

Roy had developed and started to market a process for colouring fish.  Ecologists like my daughter might wonder why the world would celebrate the introduction of artificial agents into the environment and why the colours fish carry naturally might not suffice. But in 1993, Roy’s innovation drew a lot of attention because live bait stripped of natural camouflage and wearing bright colours attracted predator fish of the kind that brought prizes in sport fishing contests.

Winning the Success Magazine competition meant that Roy’s product, Color-Z-Bait, would be promoted across North America in many formats.  This included a series of television infomercials with production costs in the many hundreds of thousands of 1993 dollars and with a business value set at over $1 million. After years of ups and downs in developing and producing his product, Roy sat on the threshold of commercial success, and with national media coverage in Canada and the U.S. around his win, he had reason to think that the years of work and personal investments in his invention would pay off.

But almost immediately after his victory was announced, the sponsor went bankrupt and the infomercials and visions of millions in sales evaporated.  Color-Z bait persisted as an invention and modest commercial entreprise for a while, but eventually the business died.  Years later, a sports fishing company resurrected the invention and added it to its product line under license.

But the part of the story that inspires and interests me most is Roy Mayer’s reaction to the loss of a million-dollar prize.

He reflected and then eventually decided to laugh about it all in the pages of a book about his experience.  The book Invention: In the Quest of the Bright Idea became a Canadian bestseller and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award for non-fiction.  The book drew praise from reviewers, inventors, and even some ecologists as a fun, instructive, and human account of the creative process and all of its ups and downs.

Inventing Canada

The success of that book led publishers to engage Roy, an old-time “ad man” and PR guy, to apply his communications and public engagement hand to other Canadian science and technology stories.  This resulted in Inventing Canada, another bestseller that sold out within weeks of its release in the fall of 1997.  Again, this book drew great media coverage, and bookstores across Canada ordered more for the Christmas season.  Roy was pumped and had reason to believe that the crushing loss of his million-dollar prize was morphing into a new career as a writer on innovation.

But his publisher, Raincoast Books in Vancouver, had another preoccupation.  In the fall of 1997, it gained Canadian distribution rights for a new fantasy novel by a British author who went by the initials J.K.   This other book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, also created buzz to put it mildly and seized all available production capacity.  Plans for a second run of Roy’s book on Canadian science and technology were cancelled and the next batch was not printed until the following February.  Christmas gift giving passed, media interest faded, and book sales flatlined.

Scientific Canadian

Still, the positive feedback led to another deal, and Roy pumped himself up again to write Scientific Canadian, a book that introduced him to another arena of science and technology: federal government scientists who loved discovery and who had, themselves, persevered in inspiring work that saved lives, created new industries, and help protect the environment.  This book experienced moderate sales, but today a few decades later Roy recalls it as one of the great experiences of his life because of the things he learned and “the amazing, dedicated people” he met – people “working in science for the public interest.”

I believe that resilience and perseverance of the kind needed to start all over again when a promising research project fails, when funds are cut, or when you lose all your data comes in part from having the instinct to look on the bright side, to focus on what you learned, and, of course, to laugh at yourself if you can.

But where does that instinct come from?

Roy Mayer feels that he had no choice but to absorb this predisposition when he was young.

While still in his teens, Roy crashed his car in a dramatic accident near Ottawa.  It left him in a coma and his best friend dead.   Partially paralyzed and unable to function in his job at a local, no longer extant, newspaper, he was shown the door under a dark cloud.  He might have stayed in the darkness or slipped further into it having bills to pay and facing the prospect of losing his home.  But his girlfriend, now wife, defied her French Catholic parents to be at his side in the hospital.

With this support and few options for a job, Roy went to work for himself with a small advertising business, starting out by undercutting his former employer and taking clients away from it by working for free: an act that still makes Roy chuckle sixty years later.  He now sees the tragedy as a turning point that led to his mainstay career and to his volunteer work for many charities and community organizations in Ottawa.

Roy suggests today that the car-crash darkness lifted when he grasped that he “had no choice, but to plug along and look ahead to the possibility of better days.”

Dusting yourself off, resetting your goals, and plugging ahead with a smile. 

My daughter is wrapping up her doctorate in biology at the University of Toronto and taking a post doc fellowship at the University of Illinois this fall.  I’ve watched her succeed and fail and succeed and fail and start over again many times in her just-starting career.

I don’t want her to have to learn resilience the hard way so I like telling her stories like Roy’s and seeing her smile and relate.  I also like to point out that scientists in pursuit of excellence can learn from looking at people outside the lab and the halls of academia.

Roy, now getting up there, is giving me stories to tell.  He has battled strains of cancer and other health issues in recent years.  One episode involved a hefty brain tumor and time back in an Ottawa hospital. Even before fully recovering from the surgery, he felt obliged to write an essay about the experience for a different local paper. 

The article featured his friendly, storytelling style, but its message and emphasis rested on just how lucky Roy felt to live in a place where quality treatment was available and again how neat it was to meet all “the amazing, dedicated people” - nurses, doctors, and medical researchers - at the Ottawa Hospital.

I kept the newspaper clipping as it seemed to capture his life and its lessons in one piece:  illness, newspapers, writing, science, technology, gratitude, and that lighthearted resilience.

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