And how did the whole thing go about bringing Lou DeFelice with him?
Lou is a very sophisticated electrophysiologist, and he and Randy had done some work on measuring the channel properties of neurotransmitter transporters. Lou had trained David Clapham (now a member of the National Academy) when he was an engineering student, and if that was a measure of how effective Lou was as a teacher and mentor, he would be an asset to our department. He was. He was and is an excellent teacher, a demanding yet supportive mentor, and tenacious about things he cares a great deal about. His recruitment also facilitated the sustained collaboration of Randy and Lou, which really introduced some paradigm-shifting concepts into our understanding of monoamine transporters.
Were there any common themes you learned in your recruiting efforts?
Well, there is one story that, in retrospect, is comical, but it is also informative. There was one faculty candidate I was talked into inviting, against some gut instincts I wish I had “listened” to, and they gave an embarrassingly horrible talk. I was nearly in tears, I was so embarrassed. I was so respectful of faculty time, I didn’t want to take their time to finish the visit of this recruitment, and I didn’t want students to think that this was someone we would even think of hiring. If a student had given a talk with the same lack of critical thinking, we would have been all over them with criticism. I wanted to find a gracious way to have the candidate leave before their planned visit was finished. So, I called Joel for advice. And Joel gave me important advice. He told me “when they leave Vanderbilt, they have to think that this is the only place in the world they would ever want to work, whether you ever want them to join you or not.” So I endured it, and it was painful!
I hear so much talk, Lee, about your commitment to the graduate program.
Well, that was a model that Joel established, this commitment to creating critical thinkers and good scientists, and worrying less about course content, though I did do that, too.
But you were so clear about your goals for graduate students, philosophically.
I tried, and still try with graduate students, to help them understand that my goals in their behalf are twofold: 1) To liberate them from the fear of failure, and 2) To teach them how to learn on their own for the rest of their lives. These were the same goals I heard over and over again at my undergraduate school, the College of Wooster, where it was my independent study research in my senior year that seduced me into a career as an investigator.