Cantor's Dilemma, inappropriate relationships, and the emotional dimensions of mentorship.

Near the end of the "Ethics in Science" course I teach, we read the novel Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi. It does a nice job of tying together a lot of different issues we talk about earlier in the term. Plus, it's a novel.

While it's more enjoyable reading than the slew of journal articles that precede it, Cantor's Dilemma is a little jarring for the students at first, because it contains whole passages that aren't directly relevant to the question of how to be a responsible scientist. As one of my students synopsized: "Science. Sex. Science. Sex. Science. Sex."

Upon reflection, though, I think at least some of the "novelistic" relationships in this novel really do have something to say about the nature of the scientific life. Explaining it is going to require some spoilers, though, so if you haven't read the novel and don't want me spoiling it for you, go read it before you click the link for the rest of the post!

Ready? Here we go. The relationship in the book I want to examine is the one between Celestine ("Celly") Price, a talented undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, and Graham Lufkin, her professor. Well, ex-professor:

Graham Lufkin was both a charmer and a rationalizer. He thought sexual contacts between faculty and students quite unprofessional. Contact with ex-students, on the other hand, was a different matter: a private relatiionship between consenting adults, which was nobody else's concern. His definition of "ex" was quite precise: the moment he signed the grade sheets for his course and sent them off to the registrar, the student became an "ex." (p. 21)

Letter of the law or not, my students' reactions to the Price-Lufkin affair is a pretty universal "Ew!" and I pretty much share that reaction. (To readers who have happily settled down with former teachers/students/bosses/employees: I'm not saying that your relationship is at all icky -- of course it's not! -- but the Price-Lufkin relationship in Cantor's Dilemma kind of is.) There is a 35 year age difference. There is seduction to a lascivious opera record. There is toe-sucking.

But in addition to the stuff that squicked my students out, there is more going on in the Price-Lufkin relationship:

Both Lufkin and Celestine agreed that their sexual intimacy precluded any possibility of a more professional relationship. This did not stop Lufkin, however, from offering advice about picking a Ph.D. supervisor. "I know what the people in your department will tell you: work with one of the big-shot professors." He spoke with the gruff brevity of the self-assured. "They have more money, bigger research groups, and frequently they work on a variety of problems." His right index finger pointed at Celestine like a cocked pistol. "As a beginning graduate student, you're likely to be a small fish in a rather big pond. Don't reject out of hand the though of working with a young hotshot assistant professor, somebody who'll still work in the lab. ...
"You might as well get a female role model in graduate school and find out how she did it. What the costs are. How her male colleagues treat her." He pointed to himself. "There are still so few women in academic chemistry, you're unlikely to find one for your postdoc stint." (pp. 22-24)

Good advice sometimes comes from vaguely creepy guys.

Anyway, after about a year, Lufkin declares a unilateral end to the relationship (apparently with a view to avoiding getting dumped by Price down the road). Celly Price follows her young hotshot female advisor to a position (with tenure) at a university in the Midwest, where she gets romantically involved with Jerry Stafford, postdoc to Isidore Cantor, the professor with the dilemma in the novel's title. Later, when that dilemma is wreaking all kinds of havoc, Lufkin comes out to Price's university to give a seminar. She is his ride from the airport, and she takes advantage of this fact to confront him in an airport coffee shop:

"I guess what I wanted in our relationship was parity. I couldn't very well compete with you intellectually but I didn't want to be just a sexual object. At least I wanted to matter to you, and when you suddenly sent me packing, I resented it deeply."

"I know," he replied. "I knew you'd feel that way before I even said a word. But I also wanted parity. How long could I remain sexually attractive to you --"

"Don't be such a fool!" blurted out Celestine. "What sort of sexual attractiveness are you talking about? Your sex attractant, Lufkin's personal pheromone, is knowledge. It's intellectual mastery that draws a young woman to an older man. You abused that." ...

"Don't you know what your youth meant to me? When we went to the opera in New York, most of the time I watched you through the corner of my eyes rather than looking at the singers on the stage. To you it was all new. Don't you know what that means to someone like me?" (p. 129)

But, it turns out, there's a peculiar motivation to the relationship that's intimately tied to the academic life. Lufkin explains:

"When I got tenure at Hopkins, i was a promising researcher. But the tenure decision was really made because of my teaching. I always took teaching seriously and even twenty-five years ago I was damn good at it. But my research never really took off. I didn't want to admit that to myself, not for the first dozen years or so, but it was true. Only gradually did it dawn on me that I would never become a star. ...

"As time progressed, it became clear to me that I wouldn't get a great deal of approval from those scientists I admired most. My research simply wasn't important enough for that. So I ended up focusing on my students rather than on my colleagues. Getting excellent student evaluations in my courses, seeing excited faces in class, hearing spontaneous laughter and good questions, at time even applause -- these are all satisfactions. But in the end they weren't enough for me. Not as the years passed. Maybe it would've been different if I hadn't remained a bachelor, but it wasn't enough. So instead, I focused on individual students. ...

"I was only interested in the brighter students, the ones I imagined might turn into the type I aspired to become. Students like you, Celly." (pp. 130-131)

And here, I think, we see evidence that Graham Lufkin is not a character created simply to sex the novel up. While Cantor's Dilemma exposes the reader to lots of features of the world of academic science -- inspiration, ambition, intrigue -- to my mind, it's really a novel about mentorships.

A mentor is more than a teacher or advisor. A mentor is someone who guides you through a world that is still largely unknown and unintelligible to you. A mentor shares vital information and gives honest opinions. A mentor has your best interests at heart -- and this occasionally means that the mentor must support your choices to do something that your mentor would not have chosen for you.

For all the advisors out there training new scientists, there are not that many mentors. Mentoring is hard. It requires not only teaching skills but also astute observation of the environment through which you're guiding your mentee. It requires the ability to think through new situations to try to work out likely outcomes (as well as best-case and worst-case scenarios). And it requires the mentor to genuinely care about the interests of the mentee -- even when those interests might be in tension with the mentor's own.

All this makes it sound like an utterly selfless act to mentor someone. If that were the case, there would be no rational reason for an academic scientist to mentor a trainee (or at least, no incentive to do it well). On the road to tenure/promotion/grants/publications/Nobel Prizes, the smart scientists would just use trainees in the lab and in the classroom, then cut them loose.

That assumes, though, that scientists aren't actually human.

Graham Lufkin shows us -- if in a vaguely skeezy way that's only technically respectful of appropriate boundaries -- that academic scientists actually get something out of mentoring trainees. No, not sex; satisfaction of a desire to help someone with promise succeed in an area, perhaps, where the mentor himself feels he fell short. Lufkin's experience taught him a lot about what he might have done differently to fulfil his own promise as a researcher. Since he couldn't go back to steer his own route differently, he shared the lessons he had learned with promising students like Celly who might really become stars.

Of course, the mentee doesn't want to be of interest to the mentor solely as a vehicle for vicarous living out of unfulfilled dreams. The mentee wants to matter as a person. The mentee wants her talents to be nurtures and her choices to be respected. As Celly says in the novel, the mentee wants parity in the relationship.

One hopes that by the end of the mentoring, there really is something close to parity -- the mentee has become a real live grown-up scientist who is competent to navigate her way through the world. But at the beginning, there's a definite imbalance of power. The mentor has the knowledge and connections the mentee wants. But, as Lukin makes clear, the mentee has all that promise and a wide-open future, which is a kind of power as well.

It's a tricky balancing act. We want to be in relationships where people care for us unconditionally, yet if there's not "something in it", some benefit of being in the relationship, for both the people in that relationship, it's hard to understand why they'd want to be in it. While people don't often acknowledge it, mentorship really does have a strong emotional component, and it feeds very human needs -- on both sides. This means, like other emotional relationships, mentorships can get pretty dysfunctional. (See the mentorshop relationship between Isidore Cantor and Jerry Stafford for further details.)

Are there mentor-mentee therapists out there yet? (Could you write the research grants to cover the costs of such therapy?)

More like this

Just like marriage counselors, eh? A great idea for a niche psych market and probably quite lucrative in academically dense areas like Boston or S.F.

Not too surprising that a book written by the man who ushered in the era of oral contraceptives would be heavy on science and sex.

Not sure if you're aware that we in cancer research lost a great mentor last week, Dr Anita Roberts. I've got a post over at the old blog. I'm trying to find if she wrote a book or series of papers on her methods sometime during her career.

Hmmm. It appears to be the intellectual analog to a coach/star athlete relationship. That might make an interesting compare and contrast discussion.