You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but just to fill you in, I like to write posts that incorporate song titles or lyrics. This post isn’t about The Breakfast Club, or any other John Hughes movie for that matter, but it is a coming of age story.

About seven years ago I found out that a friend and fellow scientist that I worked with and had lost touch with had passed away suddenly. At one point, I even wrote a post about it entitled “The Tribe of Science Loses Another Warrior.” Each year around the anniversary of when I wrote this post, I always revisit it. Invariably as soon as I open this post a wave of emotions washes over me. Some of them are warm and comforting, as I remember all the great times we had together. And others are cold and icy, reliving the thoughts that my friend is no more and the voids in our hearts and minds he’s left.

One positive thing that I have taken away from this experience is that it forced me to keep up the friendships that I have had throughout my career. I’m always sending someone a message: A kind personal note out of the blue to a fellow former graduate student or an email to check in on retired technicians that I used to work with. Life is fragile and people walk in and out of it. I don’t ever want to regret not reaching out to someone. So each year I read this post and think about my friend and all the great times we had and wonder what his life would be like if he were still around. Ryan was a very bright light who burned for such a short time and we loved him very much. We miss you, Ryan.

The Tribe of Science Loses Another Warrior

I sometimes like to think of Science as a tribe (if you don’t just shut the fuck up and play along with me here). When you get down to it we really are just one big family with a shared goal in mind, discovering the mysteries of this world, and on a more focused level for us biomedical scientists, improving the human condition. Often younger scientists like myself look to more senior folks for advice and role models. Towards the end of my MS program I found one in a PhD student named Ryan. We crossed paths a fair amount on campus and in the halls of the undergrad institution that we both taught at to make extra money. So invariably we always chatted about science and life. He was an incredibly insightful guy who would let me bounce ideas off of him and never treated me like the sorry ass noob that I was. By chance we both graduated at the same time, he with his doctorate and me with my MS. I kept in touch with him by email for a while when he left for his postdoc in a big-name lab. He was excited and even confided to me that he was nervous about keeping up with the pace in the lab. When would shoot weekly emails back and forth as he was starting his postdoc and I was kicking the tires on my PhD program.

And then nothing. I hadn’t heard back from the guy for a while. I would occasionally send him an email to see what was up and got nothing back. At first I figured he was busy what with his frenzied pace in his new postdoc lab. After a while I couldn’t figure what the hell was going on. He didn’t respond to my email or phone calls. At some point you just say screw it, if he doesn’t want to talk, he’s not going to.

Flash forward a year and a half. While navigating a website trying to find my non-existent and non-employed boss, I wander over to his old PhD mentor’s website. There it was a photo of the guy I had just assumed was too busy to respond to an email. Ryan passed away.

I don’t know how to put it but as I stared at the computer screen in front of me time just stopped. The annoying jabbering of the other grad student, the whir of the centrifuge, the sound blaring out of my headphones, it all disappeared. I swear I fixated at that screen for a good ten minutes. It honestly took every fiber of my being to get up and walk to the bathroom and sit in a stall and just bawl for a few good minutes. And I realized I was crying not only because I had lost a friend, but because I had written him off when I thought he was blowing me off.

Even though a friendship was for a fleeting moment in the sands of time, it will always be treasured. He was a guy I looked up to and made the people near him better people just for being around him. So I’ll always remember the time we were both outside the hall screaming at our individual students, the time we rung up a huge bar tab for the institution at those recruitment dinners, and the time we just sat there and bullshitted about everything under the sun.

You’ll be missed, Ryan, not just by me but by the world you would have made better not only by your scientific contributions but merely by your presence in it. You will never be forgotten. RIP buddy.

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