hysteresis part 2: finding that stable steady state{1}

A few weeks ago in anticipation of beginning a new semester of Cell and Molecular Biology, I wrote about the natural phenomenon of hysteresis. While I have investigated hysteresis as a mechanism that regulates the irreversible transitions of the cell cycle, blogging about hysteresis left me far more contemplative about its potential in life’s transitions. I wrote:

“In the past few months, and more pointedly in the past few days, I have the unsettling sensation that I am in the midst of a professional hysteretic transition, moving from one stable steady state to the next…. and I’m not quite sure where I’m headed. I’ve even tried to turn back, but find that I cannot. I’m propelled, which is thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I’ll report back when I land.”

Well, I’ve landed, and guess where? Right back where I started, which is about the last place I expected to be.

Just a few days before the semester began, I made the painful but absolutely correct decision to step down from my position as the Associate Dean for Curriculum, Instruction, and Advising in the College of Science. It wasn’t exactly a life of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but I was paid very well.  And I had resources and autonomy to impact higher education for the betterment of our students. Until I didn’t. And that’s why I quit.

Enough said about that. It’s where I find myself now that really matters. After a hysteretic transition, a system generally comes to rest at a stable steady state. That has a nice ring to it. Rest. I could use some of that after an insane year. Stability. Aaaah. For the foreseeable future, I’ve returned to the life of a biology professor. Less money. Smaller office. More time to wonder about the mysteries of the cell. More time to spend with students.  I couldn’t be happier.

But there is an eeriness to this transition that cannot go unmentioned. Much like the cell cycle, my life has really come full circle. Last fall, the first Cell and Molecular Biology class met just hours after I had to put down my sweet Comet. His death haunted my semester.

Last Wednesday, on the one-year anniversary of Comet’s death, my friend Ed rescued Bruce.  Bruce is best described in brief as a lover and a runner. Bruce needed a home and our family needed Bruce.

I’m convinced that in life, at least in my life, there will be a dog waiting and wagging at every stable steady state.

In the hysteresis post, I also wrote about closing my research lab this year: “I spent the last of my grant dollars from the National Institutes of Health, hung up my lab coat, and shut the door to Derring 5029 where I had spent the most – and some of the best- waking hours of my career.

As I looked for some place on campus to call home when I left the dean’s office, my department head in Biological Sciences asked me, “What would you think about moving back into your old office and lab?”

What would I think? I’d think I was pretty darn lucky. Like a student who moves back home for a while after college and finds her bedroom has not been turned into Mom’s home gym or Dad’s new man-cave. Since I announced I was stepping down as associate dean, countless people have recited the cliche, “when one door closes, another one opens.” Who knew it would be the door to good ol’ Derring 5029?

One final word on hysteresis: as discussed in my earlier post, even at the same steady state, the behavior of a hysteretic system is dependent upon its history. In other words, I may be returning to the faculty ranks and back in my old office, but I am not the same professor who left to become an administrator four years ago. An obvious example is my focus on science education rather than experimental science. I still bring in significant grant dollars from places like the NIH and NSF, but the projects focus on the learning of science rather than experimental cell biology. But that’s the obvious. I expect my behaviors will be changed in many other ways. I can already perceive an enriched appreciation for many aspects of my new-old life, especially for the hours of learning, laughter and who-knows-what-else in Cell and Molecular Biology.