Chance » Reflections » Li

Memory of Dr. Chance and I

Hong-Mei Li / University of Pennsylvania

This reflection was written in January 2006

Today, as I was scheduling the Johnson Library and the classroom for the Summer Program with Angie, a departmental secretary, we came across the topic of "When's Dr. Chance's Birthday"? This year, Dr. Chance will be turning 93 on Monday, July 24. I have to think about how to surprise Dr. Chance with this summer's students and "hiding it" from the schedule. Angie mentioned that the Department usually just has a cake for him, unless he's turning the "Big Ten's," such as 90 and 100. Living through 100 years of fulfilling living like Dr. Chance's is phenomenal. Now, reflecting back what I would say if he turns 100, or if but hopefully not, during his funeral.

The Great Dr. Britton Chance, whom I have known since the Summer Program in 1999. During his 100th birthday, which is more than 7 years down the road, most invited guests would ask, "How did you meet Dr. Chance"? or "Do you know that Dr. Chance has done this so and so"? In my case, the answer for the my relationship to Dr. Chance is generally similar to his students. Although I am aware of Dr. Chance has mentored many brilliant students, I feel my personal experience as his student is one of the most extraordinary parts of my life that shaped me of whom I am. I also know that Dr. Chance has done many great things, such as inventing the auto-steering for sailing in his teen years, winning the gold medal in the Olympics, pioneering the Stop-Flow Technique to measure fast biochemical kinetics, earning three PhD’s and President Ford's gold medal for science contribution, and developing hand-held devices for breast cancer prevention. All of these glamorous accomplishments is what he contribute to our society. To me, what made him "Great" is my one-to-one student-mentor relationship.

During the summer of 1999, I was finishing up my high school and wanted to continue exploring my science interest before starting at Dickinson College. Even though I already had many caring and supportive science research mentors such as Dr. Jorge Santiago and Dr. Glenn Rall, I was still open to broadening my horizon by pursue further research with Dr. Chance. Most students during their summer starting college would like to take a vacation or "hang out" with their friends. I was brought up with the mentality of "work hard for your reward." Being the first one to attend college and first to do something "Great" also builds up the pressure of completing a well-done job of what I want to do. Personally, I wanted to be a scientist since I was in second grade because of my curiosity of the stars and the myth of "Two Worlds" between China and the United States. In order for me to become a scientist, I needed to attend college. As a female, I was aware that I need work "extra" hard to even go to college. My grandfather was most educated one because the family chooses to support the males' education over the females'. Females would marry out of the family and would be a good investment. Right at start, I learned this is family mental obstacle. Financially, my family can barely get by with living, where would we have money to go to any college? I learned to study hard and reach out for mentors and programs in the science fields. Since some of my family members still debate whether we have "Two Worlds" or the world is flat, they no better science or educational knowledge to share. This is where Dr. Chance has the greatest impact of my desire for science education.

Although summer of 1999 is not my best summer program experience comparing with my other programs such as the Pennsylvania Governor's School for Teach and the Penn Summer Science Academy, I established a strong urge to make the summer research program better by writing weekly reports to Dr. Chance addressing improvement ideas both for science and program structure. Since the Summer Program only started in 1998, it was not quite well-structure nor established. I remember that Dr. Chance patiently listened to my suggestions and set aside time for any students to meet. Because of his age, he reminded me of my great-grandmother in China. Talking to him was kind of intimating because I never encountered an educator at his age and being "the boss" as well as "the teacher," I had no basis of how to interact with him. I was talking to him as I would talk to someone with a combination of characteristics of my great-grandmother and research teacher. At first, I was less confident and quiet, because I thought "who am I giving him advice on his research field and critiquing my job?" Thank God he did not fire me! Instead, he listened patiently, asked interesting questions to further my thoughts, and ALWAYS encouraging more ideas for future discussions. I bet Dr. Chance is full of ideas after synthesizing all his students' creative ideas and he's known to ask "good and challenging" questions after sleeping through most of a lecture. This I still need to learn to master from him. I did pick up part of this technique, which is "learning by asking questions." I have applied the questioning/learning method during my later studies in college and graduate school. However, I also realize that not everyone respects being challenged with questions, which got me into trouble during my miserable teaching experience at my chemistry graduate school. Personally, I still feel this one of the most helpful learning strategy that people learn to use and respect.

The summer of 1999 intrigued my interest in neuroscience, which I further explored with the Biological Psychology course in college. However, the course was heavily based on memorization which turned me away further studies. I realized that I like science because of its applications and logical explanations which why I majored in chemistry. Every semester or year, I updated Dr. Chance on my studies in school and how liked organic chemistry and physical chemistry. Actually, I did not realize that Dr. Chance's Ph.D. work was on physical chemistry and one of my favorite topics was chemical kinetics until my Chemical Dynamic class in graduate school. I used to think he was more of a physics, engineering, and medical science person. When I was thinking about going to graduate school in material science engineering verses chemistry, he said that many people are moving away from basic sciences but it's the critical building block of engineering. Thus, I applied to chemistry graduate schools. While senior year, Dr. Chance would send me information about Cambridge University, where he earned two of his Ph.D.’s. At that time, I thought my GPA was not high enough nor could I find funding.

Then, life became twisted a bit when I joined Teaching for America (TFA) upon graduation. After one summer of TFA, I realized that teaching in the public school system was my forte along with my alternate goal is getting a PhD in chemistry to be a professor. During my two years of graduate school, I went through a period of darkness of failing in almost anything. Then, I questioned what I can do to still get to my alternate career passion, which is helping students to pursue science careers. Just because I cannot do my chemistry PhD at the same time does not means I cannot accomplish of what I want. One night in May, while talking to my sister who was about to launch her eight years of MD/PhD at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), she said that I would be great to help student locating resources in pursuing science careers. Thus, I decided to start a national nonprofit to help disadvantaged students connecting resources to pursue math, science and engineering careers. At that moment, I could not sleep and had to write down my thoughts of my future organization. The next day, I started calling people such as the presidents of my college and TFA. I knew that what I want to do is may not have a degree on how to do it nor do I know where should I start, I strongly believe that I will be able to accomplish my career goal of helping disadvantaged kids to get math, science, or engineering careers. Nonprofit organization is the main focus of my career goal. I learned many practical resource skills while I was seeking my educational goals and supporting my extended family growing up, I am sure this is no more than another step in the ladder of overcoming obstacles toward my final destination.

Dr. Chance has nurtured me like an apple seed into a blooming tree. I was only a seed while in 1999. After watering me throughout my college years, the young tree was saturated for two years due to ill weather. Most apply farmers would have told Dr. Chance that this tree is hopeless in further growth, especially harvesting any apples. However, the old farmer Dr. Chance would not give up on this tree as he would with any of his trees. If he planted a seed, he would tried any possible way to get a tree to grow, even not harvesting anything. He may not even get the apple harvest as he would with his other prosperous trees, he still would not give up. He's an experimentalist, because the most unique harvest is accomplished by varying growth conditions with various seeds. Even some trees may not get a desirable result, he can learn a lot from the growing process. In my case, he might not harvest apples, but he might be able to grow an apple tree into a hybridized version of apple and orange, even though growing oranges is not his field of expertise. The studying of apples is like science, whereas oranges are nonprofit and education. At the end, I hope that I can be the hybridized tree, which hopefully earns Dr. Chance's the accomplished farmer award or the Nobel Prize. At least, the other farmers will be amazed by Dr. Chance's tree nurturing skills as pioneer of a new plant that no other farmer can do.

Hong-Mei Li