How Will Your Chapter End?
The thick black volcanic sands churn and ebb, infesting the pristine air with its pungent sulfur stench. In the distance an explosion blinds the dark earth, blasting sand, metal shards and endless dreams into the heavens. A mortar has exploded. In the distance a man falls. Lunging right when he should have gone left, sprinting when he should have slowed, he is pierced by a projectile with no mercy or soul. A chapter is closed, a book has ended. The man - John Basilone. The place - Iwo Jima 1945.
Rewind the clock three years to 1942. On a remote island in the South Pacific, the United States Marine Corp endure the rain soaked night, swallowed up by the dark jungle. Food is nonexistent, ammunition is low, and reinforcements are nowhere to be found. Suddenly, night is turned into blinding day as the rainforest erupts with lights generated by every form of weapon meant to kill the enemy has arrived. As the battle unfolds, the Marines realize that they will have to do something extraordinary if they are to make it out alive. Fighting through the jungle heavy laden with ammunition, one machine gun section leader is risking all to act on the call. After resupplying the front lines and noticing the rapidly advancing enemy, he selflessly endures severe arm burns to move vital machine guns, scolding hot from their nonstop use, to block the enemy advancement. As morning breaks over the bomb shattered trees and cratered infested fields, the outcome is clear the battle is won. It was on this small island, far removed from civilization and unheard of by most people in the world, where one of the most important battles in World War II was fought and won by the allies. The place - Guadalcanal. The man - John Basilone, winner of the Medal of Honor, the highest service award given by the United States of America.
While watching a recent documentary on the Pacific theater of operations, it was interesting to learn about the life of John Basilone. Born and raised with humble beginnings in New Jersey during the Great Depression, John Basilone joined the United States Marine Corp because he wanted to be with the best. After receiving the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal, Basilone was transferred out of active military duty and promoted to selling war bonds, constantly traveling in the presence of movie stars and wealthy people to raise funds for the war effort. In fact, upon return to his hometown, over 50,000 people came out for his welcome home parade. Despite all this newfound fame and fortune, however, the descriptions of John Basilone by his fellow marines are most striking. Known to only wear his Medal of Honor at fundraising events, Chuck Tatum of the 5th Marine Division remarks, "you would have never known from his lips that he had a Medal of Honor." John Seda, the actor who plays John Basilone in the HBO television miniseries, The Pacific, remarks "he was never about the fame and about the limelight [.] he never looked at himself as above his men [.] so much so that he demanded to go back [to active military duty]." Although this decision would ultimately result in his life coming to an abrupt end on the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima, John Basilone would not only become the most decorated serviceman in history, amassing the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and Purple Heart, but would inspire an entire world. As Clinton Watters of the 5th Marine Division states, "he really was a fighter [.] he came from nothing and to greatness. I think that is what we all honor, the guy that didn't have anything that made it. He just ran off and became great.. he became a world hero.a whole country honored him." For John Basilone, a chapter was concluded and a book ended on Iwo Jima. However, by simply doing his job and placing others before himself, John Basilone was, is, and will forever be remembered by millions for his valor and courage. For him, fame was not the prime product, but the byproduct resulting from years of hard work and perseverance. If someone were to read a chapter from your life today, how would it read?
Often I hear the questions "why do you want be in that profession?" or "how did you get started in that field?" Some of the varied responses I have heard include "because doctors make a good living," "because a lawyer can get rich," "because all my family members are scientists and therefore I must be also," or "it just happened." Although none of these responses are inherently wrong, it is interesting to note that I rarely hear a response on the order of "I have a passion to help others, and will endure whatever the cost may be for their benefit." As I read and listened to the story of John Basilone it was clear that we, and we alone, have the power to write our own chapters, and ultimately the final book, of our lives. How any particular chapter of life will be written depends specifically upon the numerous small decisions you purposefully make on a daily basis, and not on a false desire to achieve fame and fortune that would give you standing amongst men. Stated most plainly by William Ewart Gladstone, a British statesman of the 19th Century, "the fame of the moment is a dangerous possession and a bastard motive; and he who does his acts in order that the echo of them may come back as a soft music in his ears, plays false to his noble destiny." In this editorial, my last as a staff member of this journal, let me describe to you my experience with JYI and give you three key points I have learned with regards to writing the various chapters of your book of life.
On April 17, 2006 I received an email from a professor at UCLA regarding a recruitment drive for some organization named The Journal of Young Investigators. I had never heard of this journal before, but the subject of the email was rather straightforward stating "This might be an excellent opportunity for some of you, if you are interested." While going through the list of available jobs on the journal's website, the Associate Editor in Biology and Biomedical Sciences sparked my interest. Sure it was the lowest ranking position at JYI, but by working with other students from around the world, I believed that I could somehow play a small part in helping them learn the details of science manuscript writing and publishing that would assist them later in their careers. After being hired, I immediately dived into the various training assignments, spending hours making sure I was giving my best effort and meeting all the journal requirements. My training as an Associate Editor was short lived, however, when a call for a new Research Editor to lead the department was made. To me, the Research Editor position was not a resume item or a fancy title, but rather an opportunity filled with new responsibilities, burdens, and possibilities to assist others. As a result, from August 3rd 2006 till July 2008, I was the Research Editor managing publications in the Biology and Biomedical Sciences department. During this time, it was a privilege and honor to work with other staff members to achieve our common goal of producing high quality publications. One of my most favorite moments during this time involved our monthly staff meetings in which we would all share ideas on how we could make a difference in the lives of others. To this day I find it a real encouragement to know that JYI is mostly composed of staff members not concerned with status symbols, but rather with advancing and improving the undergraduate educational experience. What is more fascinating is that JYI is composed entirely of undergraduate students who are taking full coursework loads, participating in various extracurricular activities, and performing their own research. Hence, those who succeed at JYI are not those that have joined simply on a whim or to have another activity to put on their resume, but rather those that have recognized the time and energy sacrifices required, and have made the specific decision of devoting themselves to a noble cause.
On July 2008 and July 2009, I found myself promoted to the Executive Board positions of Senior Research Editor and Editor-in-Chief (the highest rank position at JYI), respectively. With large shoes to fill, I again was blessed with a multitude of great co-workers that make up JYI. Together, we brought JYI to new heights, first with the creation of SciEdit, an undergraduate-based proof reading service for scientists in third world, non-English speaking countries, and SciTeam, an undergraduate journal alliance. We further expanded our horizons by establishing the first ever undergraduate virtual poster competition via Youtube.com, promoting undergraduate science writing and publishing internationally by sponsoring the 2009 Medicon conference in India, and producing our first in-print publication titled The Best of JYI. As I hand off the torch to Selina Dobing, JYI's next Editor-in-Chief, on June 1, 2010, I can say without a doubt that JYI has been a unique and rewarding experience. For over four years working in four widely different positions spanning the lowest to the highest ranked jobs at JYI, I have greatly appreciated the opportunity JYI has provided me to not only learn how to write great science manuscripts, but also to make a difference in the lives of others. Although this chapter in life has ended, I can truly say that it was a life changing experience that was definitely worthwhile. Over the course of my four years at JYI, in addition to my undergraduate and graduate school experiences, I have learned many different lessons, most of which were obtained the hard way. As I close this final editorial, let me share with you three of these lessons.
First, never do anything solely to achieve the approval or glorification from others. Although I believe that we must all do our absolute best in any sort of task we apply ourselves to, especially those given to us by people in places of authority, striving for the praises of others should only be a byproduct of our actions and not the primary end goal. This might sound like a rather silly statement, but from my personal experiences TAing pre-medical undergraduate courses, it is unfortunate to say that many students are simply after fame and fortune, rather than helping others. In fact, they are so caught up with the glamour of the medical profession that they forget lives will be placed in their hands shortly. As an undergraduate student, one of the most shocking stories I heard concerning this was told by a professor in chemistry. His wife was pregnant and she was at a well-established hospital for the delivery. However, whether due to arrogance or simple ineptness, the doctor in charge of delivering the baby did not follow the appropriate procedures required at the time. As of result of her actions, the baby incurred significant mental retardation due to trauma. For that family, every day is not only spent dealing with the various medical bills associated with their child's condition, but also with the fact that one person, not taking their job in the seriousness it deserved, caused lifelong damage to their child. Could this incident have been avoided? Yes. If you are currently studying to be a doctor remember this one thing a doctor is not just a mechanic of the body. Rather, a doctor must be a humble and compassionate person that sees every individual as a life full of dreams and possibilities, rather than a dollar sign. Although a doctor may gain fame and fortune from their work, it should only be a byproduct that is never dwelt on. As Samuel Johnson, an English author, once accurately described, "To get a name can happen but to few; it is one of the few things that cannot be bought. It is the free gift of mankind, which must be deserved before it will be granted, and is at last unwillingly bestowed."
Second, strive to do your best in the smallest of tasks. One of my favorite verses of the Bible is Luke 16:10 which states, "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much." In other words, although a task that you may be performing may seem small and insignificant at first, its ramifications are usually more important than you realize. For example, let us analyze the importance of a dishwasher at a biochemistry laboratory. At first glance, this lowly job seems rather simple and meaningless. But, it is important to realize that a biochemist's worst enemy is contamination. Whether it is a bacterial or chemical contamination, a host of items can lead to an experiment ending in ruin. When you think of it on the grand scheme of things, thousands of dollars can be wasted and the reputation of a laboratory destroyed if one piece of glassware for a vital experiment is not sufficiently cleaned. It is unfortunate that this is not how the world we live in today thinks, but rather than being the lowest position in the laboratory, should not the dishwasher have a more respectable role? The case of John Basilone is not so much different in that as machine gun section leader, his job was to obtain instructions from others and command a group of men to achieve an objective. He obtained fame only by executing commands and performing to the best of his abilities. If one were to read the book of his life, and hopefully ours as well eventually, one would find a series of chapters filled with what seems to be meaningless tasks achieved. However, as a painting that is nothing more than a mere blur of fine brush strokes when viewed up close, one must only step back to see how each stroke contributes to the overall masterpiece. As Billy Mills, the surprise 10,000 meter gold medal winner in the 1964 summer Olympics states, "My fiercest competition was always myself. If I could reach into the depths of my capabilities and perform to the greatest extent I was capable of on a given day, based on proper preparation, that's all I could ask of myself. I try to get this across to young athletes to make them understand that they must look within themselves - not at their fellow competitors - for their dream. And when they do that, they are going to get the most out of themselves based on their training, and talent."
Finally, realize that when fame does come, we must deflect the praises and carry on. The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once stated, "Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful." All too often when we receive that good grade, get into a particular professional school, or advance in our careers, it is all too easy to get prideful and start to believe that we are better than everyone else. I have seen this numerous times TAing classes were certain students would be downright rude to others for asking simple questions, only to be asked that same question in private by them right before the exam. One must realize that when pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom. If someone were to read the chapters of our lives right now, how would it sound? Would it be about a person who achieved greatness but kept moving on the upward way, or would it describe an individual who looked for fame and became prideful, never achieving their full potential?
As I conclude this editorial, I leave you with one final story. In 1883, two young men graduated from medical school. The two were different from each other in almost every way. Ben was short, stocky, and dreamed of practicing medicine in New York. Will was tall, thin, and desired to work in a rural Midwest community. Ben argued and begged his friend to join him in New York so that they both could make a fortune and live in prestige. Will refused. His friend called him irrational for wanting to practice medicine in the middle of nowhere. "But," Will is recorded as saying, "I want first of all to be a great surgeon, the very best, if I have the ability." Years later Will did eventually become a good surgeon, and the wealthy and powerful came from around the world to be treated at his clinic. His clinic is simply known today as the Mayo Clinic, one of the world's top ranked facilities.