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Strong Back, Weak Mind?

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  • Registration Date : 2013-01-21
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There are memories from my early days of studying abroad that still make me laugh. The majority of them can be summed up as the result of the language barrier or a culture clash, but some have to do with differences in philosophy, principles, or values. When I first visited the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in America for my doctoral dissertation, Dr. Hoffman, who was set to be my lab advisor, suddenly asked in response to my comment that I wanted to carry out practical experiments rather than theoretical research:

"Do you have a strong back?"

I was taken aback by the cryptic question. Laughing, Dr. Hoffman explained to me the equipment and work I would be handling while working with him. That first afternoon with Dr. Hoffman, I received the most valuable instruction on the mental attitude required of a researcher conducting experiments. His question, in fact, contained the half-joking implication that a person who wanted to get their degree through practical lab work could succeed if they had a back strong enough to lift the heavy equipment needed for experiments, even if they fell a bit short on creativity and understanding. I later learned that his terse question was one he repeated to all new students who came to the institute to do lab work. At first, I dismissed it as a humorous icebreaker of sorts, but over the several years that followed, I came to know the true significance of his question. Although there was a lot of heavy equipment that required actual back strength, the major part of the work was conducted through small monitors and computers. What really demanded a strong back was something else altogether. Learning the functions of all the complicated pieces of equipment in the lab and understanding when and how to use them took a huge amount of time and dedication. Even a task like discovering the optimal method for a measuring device was impossible without a thorough understanding of the equipment and tools available. The best results could not be obtained without doing the actual legwork and 'heavy lifting' of searching out various hidden experts working at the institute and soliciting their input. The more I realized this, the more I saw how insightful Dr. Hoffman's warning about having a strong back had been.

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Whenever the date for using a large piece of equipment only assigned a few days out of the year approached, he directed us to "double check." He meant that, because lab time lost can never be recovered, and it would be another year before an opportunity to conduct the same experiment came around again, we had to put that much more care into the preparations. In addition to showing up earlier than others to check the equipment, and discussing the experiment contents one more time with other researchers for confirmation, it was vital to keep moving busily to accurately assess and understand the various peripheral elements involved even while an experiment was in progress. We had to diligently check related materials and references, and sort them together.
The need for a strong back did not end with the experiment. Used equipment and apparatus had to be returned to their original order and preserved carefully until their next use. The massive amount of data derived from the experiment had to be analyzed in detail. None of this could be done just with your head. We had to continually knock on doors to get reference materials from other researchers, and perform small or large experiments on our own repeatedly to test the feasibility of interim results. Of course, not all experiments required the same arduous process. But it was brought painfully home to me just how much "back strength," in various senses of the term, was needed to perform experiments.

At the end of several years, I visited Dr. Hoffman with a dissertation draft I believed to be more or less complete. When I reported to him that my draft was done, he asked, with barely a glance at the pile of papers I handed to him, how long I had been working at his lab. When I told him, he replied that this was a sufficiently long time for me to graduate, implying that I had passed my defense. The remaining steps after that were mere formalities.

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His advice, when taken out of context, sounds as if it means back strength and a certain length of time are all that is needed to get a degree based on lab work. But the true teaching contained therein cannot be understood without going through the entire process with him. Years have passed since then, and now I find myself in a similar position of instructing students with the kinds of hopes and dreams I once had. It makes me look back on my life, and ask myself if I've been consistent enough through the years to impart the same profound teaching to my own students, and if I have lived fiercely enough to say with conviction, "You're now ready to graduate." Could I become a true teacher who does not judge students merely by exam scores and evaluation results, but instills a simple teaching that will last them a lifetime?끝맺음 아이콘