Before They Were Scientists: Daniel Solomon

Sitting down with Daniel Solomon, dean of the NC State College of Sciences, to talk about his middle school life was certainly a highpoint for the “Before They Were Scientists” series. In this interview Dean Solomon opened up about how his life as a child in the Bronx allowed him to appreciate a diverse learning environment, how he got in trouble trying to escape the island he lived on in Florida, and how his parents’ drive for him to go to medical school shaped so much of his young life.

Lea: Where were you in middle school? 

Daniel: In junior high I was in Florida. In elementary school I was in New York — in the Bronx. My family moved from the Bronx to Florida when I was nine.

You were in Florida for middle school, how was the transition moving from New York City to Florida?

I really wasn’t involved in the decision. My parents said, “We’re moving to Florida.” I didn’t think much of it because both my mother and my father’s sides of the family — all of their brothers and sisters — were moving to Florida. We were almost the last ones to move. It was 1950 when we moved. My father was an immigrant and spoke Russian as a child and came from a little town that today is in Poland. My mother was born in New York, but her parents were both immigrants. Being an eastern European immigrant family probably has something to do with my schooling and the penchant that my parents had for how important education was as a way to climb into the middle class.

I was told we were going to move, and it didn’t mean too much to me as I was already prepared since all of my cousins and aunts and uncles had already moved to Florida. They were going there to look for new opportunities. We got this newspaper, the New York Post, a magazine-shaped newspaper and a bit of a rag, like the kind you find at the grocery stores now. Soon after I was told we were moving to Florida, there was an issue of the Post where the whole back page was a photograph of a scorpion with a story about how they had scorpions in Florida. I said, “We’re not moving. I’m not moving. I’m not going anywhere where there are these two foot long scorpions.” I think I had probably been in Florida for 10 years before I found my first scorpion, and it was already dead.

Florida was culturally not much different from the Bronx. My school there had students from very much the same ethnic backgrounds as I had seen in New York. There were a lot of eastern Europeans; in fact, our school used to close down on the Jewish holidays because 90% of the high school was Jewish. It wasn’t that much different from New York in that regard, except for the climate.

What did your parents do and what did they want you to be? 

When we moved to Florida, my father bought a washing machine business. First he had a laundromat and then he had what they called a route. He had coin-operated washing machines that would be put in apartment complexes and he would maintain those. It was a very blue-collar world. My mother did various kinds of work, and was a medical secretary at one point. She did a lot of moonlighting for … a bookie named “Mop Top.” Well, not a bookie, that’s not the right word. He was a handicapper. This was legal; he was someone who other people would give money to and he would go to the track and bet on their behalf and he would take a share of the winnings. The day before the guy went to the track, my mother would have the racing form and do a lot of cutting and pasting and looking at the records of what each horse had done in the preceding times it had raced. Whether it liked long tracks or short tracks… I hadn’t thought about that before, maybe that’s where my eventual statistical interests came from. Very quantitative predictions, that’s what she did. Although what he did was legal, the people who invested in him were rather questionable with respect to where they got their money. I probably shouldn’t go any further than that.

My mother did various kinds of work, and was a medical secretary at one point. She did a lot of moonlighting for … a bookie named “Mop Top.”

The other memory of childhood, but I don’t know if any of this has anything to do with science: being in the coin-operated laundry business, my father would once a week or every other week collect the quarters out of the machines. In the evening we would setup a bridge table and my parents and I (I’m an only child) would sit around the table rolling these quarters to take to the bank. I ended up getting interested in coin collecting at the time. I’d find these old, possibly valuable quarters.

I was about to begin this conversation — because you said the title was “Before They Were Scientists” — by saying that there was no “before.” I think my mother conceived the notion that I would go to medical school at about the time she conceived me. Throughout my childhood there was almost a no-need-to-be-stated assumption that “Danny” would go to medical school. That’s what kids of my background did, particularly boys. I don’t think I questioned that until it was about time to go. In fact, before you leave I’ll show you my admission letter to medical school — it’s framed in my office. They’ve still got my deposit.

[laughs] But I didn’t go, as the story will play out.

I think my mother conceived the notion that I would go to medical school at about the time she conceived me.
That sounds like you were under a lot of pressure — can you tell me more about that?

Since it was presumed from birth that I was going to go to medical school, I did all those things in the early years that you need to do to get ready to go or to get into medical school. There was never any doubt on my mother’s part that I would get in, little did she know… So that meant science projects, science fairs, working in labs, working in hospitals… One summer I worked in a bacteriology lab in a clinical setting in a local hospital. One summer I worked in a research setting at the Miami Heart Institute doing research on rheumatic fever. This was a long time ago, so it was a poorly understood infection. It’s triggered by bacteria, specifically Group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus. I was doing some kind of quasi-research trying to identify a certain carbohydrate on their cell walls (serotype) and its relationship to rheumatic fever. I was doing all sorts of things that probably wouldn’t be allowed today. It was probably way too dangerous.

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Probably the most dangerous thing I did was in high school. (That was this project that you see in the pictures of me with the rats.) There was an organization called RELPAR which was an acronym for Radioisotopes Experimental Laboratory for Plant and Animal Research. The nerdy kids in Miami Beach High School used to work with that laboratory doing things that would surely not be allowed now. In the picture above I’m in a glove box with some lead shielding, but I’m handling radioactive iodine. So this was 1958 and tranquilizers were becoming popular. Our research looked at the effect of tranquilizers on basal metabolism rates, using rats. We would feed rats tranquilizers, inject them with radioactive iodine, and measure the rate that the iodine was taken up by the thyroid (using a Geiger counter!). We compared this rate of uptake in tranquilized and non-tranquilized rats. I’m surprised I’m still alive. I think back about it and I can’t imagine how any of that was allowed.

Probably the most dangerous thing I did was in high school.

My freshman year in college (at Florida State University) I was pre-med, but pre-med wasn’t a major. Late in the first semester I was walking out of the door of my freshman math classroom, and the professor stopped me at the door and he said eight words: “Have you ever considered being a math major?” I hadn’t. He was telling me, which I realized years later, “You’re pretty good at that.” I thought about it at the time, and I realized I had to take a fair bit of math anyways, pre-requisites for the chemistry and physics classes that I needed for medical school. Math didn’t require too many courses to get a degree. And I was in a real hurry to get to medical school; I finished college in three years. I went to summer school for two summers in between because I was in such a hurry. That semester I became a math major as an undergraduate since I needed a major. I took all the pre-med requirements. That math professor never knew what happened to me and that he had changed the course of my life; it was a real lesson in the power of a faculty member to impact the lives of students.

That spring and summer before I was supposed to go to medical school, when I had already been admitted, I decided that I didn’t want to go. I never wanted to go to medical school; I never wanted to be in medical practice. I thought I might be interested in medical research, and that’s where I was headed. My mother didn’t care so long as I was a “doctor.” This was 1962 and I decided I would not go to medical school in the fall. The other option was that I would go to Vietnam. I didn’t think that was an attractive prospect, so I decided to go to graduate school instead. At that point the math department was asking me to stay on and go to grad school in math. I didn’t think I really wanted to do that, but I really didn’t want to go to Vietnam, either. So I accepted the opportunity to start grad school in mathematics that fall as a holding action until I decided what I really wanted to do.

During that first year of my graduate work in the math department, I took a course in probability theory, which I thought was the neatest stuff I’d ever seen. I also took a course in statistical methods that I thought was the strangest stuff I’d ever seen. It was not mathematics — I didn’t know what it was, and it didn’t make much sense to me. Later that year I was walking down the hallway in our department and saw a poster. Here’s where I learned the power of serendipity: the poster was essentially talking to me. It said something like, “Are you good at math and interested in human health?” or something like that. I said, “WHOA, wait a minute…” The poster was advertising what was called the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biometry Training Grants. This was a period when NIH was trying to attract kids with quantitative backgrounds — redirecting them from math and physics into health or medical research. It turns out that there was a statistics department in the same building as the math department and that was why the poster was there. I inquired about that and won one of those training grants and shifted over to statistics.

It sounds like your mom really wanted you to go into medicine, but you found your own way into science. What was it about science and math that intrigued you? 

I had been convinced that I was interested in human health and some kind of research. I did toy with the idea at one point of a joint MD/PhD, but then I strayed into math. The next step was deciding what to do after I finished my PhD in statistics. I wasn’t sure then whether I wanted an academic career or a non-academic career. I interviewed for some industrial jobs as well as academic jobs and when all was said and done, I had three offers when I finished my PhD: two university jobs and one industrial job. The industrial job was at Tennessee Eastman. As I struggled to think about it, my first thought was that if I went into academia and didn’t like it, I probably could go on and still get a job in industry. But if I went into industry first and didn’t like it, it would probably be harder to get into a research level academic career. I dismissed the industrial job first. By that time I was married and with child, so then I had to choose between two academic jobs. That was easy because my major professor told me, “You don’t have any choice, you have to take that one.” They were two different kinds of places and the “that one” was one of those places where I thought it was very unlikely that I’d ever get tenure. He said to start there and if I didn’t make it, fine. But if I started at the other place, I’d be limited. So I ended up going to Cornell, and surprising to everyone but my mother, I got tenure as well. I was in a group called the Biometrics Unit. It wasn’t health-related, but it was still at the biology-statistics-mathematics interface.

But this was supposed to be about before I was a scientist.

Maybe you were tapping into some of your childhood experiences when making those types of career decisions? Did you play outside when you were younger? 

Oh, absolutely. There was nothing to do inside! When I was little, television was just coming about. In New York we lived in a community of 8- and 13-story apartment buildings that were built by Metropolitan Life. It wasn’t a tenement, but sort of a lower-middle class housing development. It was completely self-contained; there were playgrounds, stores and theatres within this community. It was called Parkchester. My elementary school was right across the street, PS 102 in the Bronx. We played stoop ball, stick ball, hopscotch, roller skated… those kinds of things. I wasn’t too far from the Bronx Zoo. My two science adventures would be going to the Bronx Zoo and going to the Hayden Planetarium. Those were influential on me. It was great fun this last April when we hosted Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium; it was a nice bookend to my early days spent there as a child.

And I used the subway to get to the planetarium.

How old did you have to be to ride the subway by yourself?

It couldn’t have been very old because I left New York at age nine and I had already been riding the subway by myself. Gosh, was that dangerous? I never felt threatened, especially not in Parkchester, because it was self-contained.

If you could give your middle school, or younger self, some advice — what would it be? 

I wouldn’t have taken it, I don’t think. I was very shy and socially inept. Classic nerd. I would have given myself advice to not be so shy, but I wouldn’t have been able to accept that advice. I went to Miami Beach High School and it was more upper class; we were lower-middle class. There were a lot of kids with madras shirts and fast cars in high school and I wasn’t in that category. I probably suffered a little bit in that regard; perhaps that may be part of the explanation of my social ineptness. Things worked out OK.

I sometimes think that my life turned around in college and graduate school. I built some confidence. Many of us suffer from what some call the “Impostor Syndrome” — [whispers] I still have that. That’s hard to talk yourself out of, but I think I was in college when things turned around. Reflecting back on my youth I think that I may have strayed from medicine to higher education because I saw its power. When you think about the context of immigrant families: my father went to school through eighth grade and then whatever successes I’ve had, all happened in one generation. When you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Whatever your politics, that’s the American story.

 When you think about the context of immigrant families: my father went to school through eighth grade and then whatever successes I’ve had, all happened in one generation… Whatever your politics, that’s the American story.
Do you think that’s what your middle school self would be most surprised about? That you’re not wearing a white coat and tapping people’s knees? 

Maybe I would have told myself in middle school, “Tell her now.” (My mother.) I don’t think I realized I didn’t want to go into medicine then; I think I was still assuming I was headed for medical school. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten involved with all of the radioactive rats.

When did you go to your first concert and what band was playing? 

Good grief… Remember I’m a child of the 1960’s. It was the Peter, Paul and Mary era. Hair the musical. I wasn’t much into music — I had a couple of very unsuccessful ventures into music. What two instruments might you have thought that I tried out and failed in both? This was part of my “becoming more well-rounded” in order to get into medical school.

I’m supposed to guess your instruments? 

Yes. You’ll never guess.

[At this point, of which I cannot completely explain, I had a vision of a young Dean Solomon lugging around a large, heavy instrument through his Parkchester neighborhood.]
Is one of them an accordion? 
[The complete look of shock takes over his face and he excitedly beats on the conference table.]

You’ve [bang] got to be kidding! [He jumps a little out of his chair, mouth agape]

Are you serious?

I am serious! [We both can’t catch our breath and fall into laughter]

I was just getting an aura of “accordion” from you. 

That is amazing. I dare you to know what the other one might be? I’ll give you a clue. Bill Clinton.

Saxophone. 

Saxophone.

That’s so much cooler.

I was terrible. Why the accordion, I have no idea. I had an accordion, I don’t remember how long I practiced and took lessons. The saxophone was really hard.

Some of the missions that you have here at the university include increasing STEM diversity and working in schools, how are some ways that you are able to do that? 

Going back to the Bronx, where I lived until age nine — it was this richly diverse, multi-ethnic neighborhood. Then in 1950 we moved to Florida which was still very segregated. There were black and white water fountains in my junior high school. The signs on the buses said who should sit where. It was quite a shock at the time, but as I look back on it, I beat myself up — how did I tolerate that when I was a kid? The first thing in a university setting is to change the conversation about diversity. The conversation tends to be framed in moral terms, but that’s just not good enough. Even the best intentioned of us have to get beyond saying, “It’s the right thing to do.” That doesn’t really sell and it may even demean people.

The first thing in a university setting is to change the conversation about diversity.

You need to try to change the conversation. In the University setting there is an academic imperative to create a diverse learning environment; critical thinking requires that you consider multiple perspectives, multiple points of view, and students learn to do that better when they’re in diverse environments. In some sense the different perspectives that people bring to a conversation from different backgrounds create something that’s new for everybody. We also have an economic imperative for fostering diversity. We know that the American scientific workforce is primarily white and male and aging. American kids of any race and gender or ethnicity don’t do as well by international standards in science and math. American students also don’t go into science, math and engineering at comparable rates. In the US it’s about a third of bachelor degrees in science and engineering and in China it’s over 50%. If we’re going to build a science workforce, we’ve got to look to the two-thirds of the population who are not white males and get them going into these fields at higher rates. That’s part of changing the conversation about diversity from moral to academic and economic.

We also have range of programs to increase diversity, starting at one end with faculty and at the other trying to get kids engaged in science (and their parents seeing them as having the potential for science careers). With respect to diversifying the faculty, we’ve had some success with gender and pretty limited success with race and ethnicity. One example is the physics department at NC State: there’s no active research physics department in the United States with more female faculty that ours. The downside is that it only takes eight women to get you number one. Only 19% of PhDs are women. In the life sciences there are more women, in fact more than 50% in those pipelines, but they’re not coming to academic careers at that rate. In chemistry nearly 40% of PhDs go to women, but they’re not coming to universities at that rate. There are a lot of work-life issues surrounding the academic life that we’re beginning to confront now. For example, when I first came here we didn’t have a daycare center or the “stop the clock” tenure policies for mothers- and fathers-to-be.

Who were your adult role models and what about them did you try to emulate? 

There are people like Carl Sagan whose influence I didn’t appreciate until later. How many public science figures were there when I was a kid? There was Continental Classroom on TV. Actually, Sagan and I were at Cornell together. He wouldn’t have known me from anybody, but one of the nice things they had there was a School of Hotel Administration. They have a restaurant and it was common for people on campus to eat there and sit in the lobby and drink coffee. You could sit near anybody, so – yes – there were times I actually sat in a group with Carl Sagan. That was a wonderful, enriching experience that you could be sitting next to people from different departments. That’s harder to do here. It’s getting harder and harder as science gets more and more narrowly focused. Scientists’ own work gets more narrowly focused — it’s hard enough to talk to other scientists no less to get the opportunity to talk to someone interested in the history of science. That’s something I missed when I first came here to NC State was that opportunity to, on a daily basis, interact with other people from other fields.

Did you ever feel bored when you were a kid?

I don’t remember feeling bored. We played outdoors all the time. My cousin, who I should say became a real doctor, and I were exactly three weeks apart in age; we grew up together. When the real doctor and I were little we did a lot of stuff together. We built a raft and we hid it because we didn’t want our parents to see we were actually going to put it in the water. We lined it with inner tubes.

We built a raft and we hid it because we didn’t want our parents to see we were actually going to put it in the water.
Did you actually put it in the water? 

We did! Then they caught us under the bridge at Miami Beach. We lived on an island and there were a bunch of islands that were connected by bridges. We’d built it under the bridge.

What was your biggest worry when you were in school?

I guess I was so driven by the assumption that I was going to get all A’s. You needed to do that to get into medical school. I remember coming home proudly with a 98% on a physics exam that I thought was really hard — and I came home beaming. My father’s question was, “What happened to the other two points?” He was a sweet man but that was the way it was in the family. It’s amazing I didn’t become a serial killer. [laughs] That was the pressure — this continuous low-level academic pressure that I needed to get all A’s so I could get into medical school.

What would have happened if you didn’t get an A? 

I’d never thought about that — what a good question! Why didn’t I think of that? What’s the worst that could have happened? Semi-serious answer: my parents would be disappointed in me. Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that sad? It’s about them and not about me. Maybe it was partly the only child thing.

I’m also an only child, I can relate. 

So are you selfish and spoiled, too? We get a bad rap. You don’t have the other sibling to worry about being the lesser of two siblings, so maybe that’s a healthier place to be.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be, what would you do with it and why would you want it? 
[long pause] I can give a smart aleck answer and have the superpower to educate the North Carolina legislature about sea level rise. At this stage in my career, what’s the important stuff to me? I really do think that changing the culture of the next generation of scientists to make them better able to communicate science to the public and see it as a professional responsibility is important. Engaging the public in science is a way to educate them about the scientific method and is a powerful tool for science itself. At this stage in my career that’s what’s been occupying my attention and interests.

Dr. Daniel Solomon is the Dean of the College of Sciences at North Carolina State University. The father of identical twins, one who attended NC State and the other who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he’s more than qualified to discuss the topic of genetics as it relates to school rivalry. Follow the College of Sciences on Twitter @NCStateSciences.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:56+00:00 September 15th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

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