FORUM: First Professional Call

I was quite young—I can’t reliably be very precise. I moved so often during some of my early years that my memory of space and time are disoriented. Everyone who was with me then has passed away. Thus any estimates made of dates and ages during high-flux periods are likely to be inaccurate. I’d guess this story happened after first grade, on a visit to Chicago from New Jersey.

However, I can say with absolute certainty that the event described herein directed the course of the rest of my life.

My dear Aunt Irka, Mom’s younger sister, took me for a full day to her immunology lab at Northwestern University. I got to meet many of her colleagues, including the world-famous Dr. Patterson. I was allowed to flip some switches and watch chemical reactions unfold, centrifuge some material, peer through microscopes adjusting magnification and light filters, examine the experimental animals including an enormous pig and monkeys. I got to see cadavers: that didn’t scare me, it was for science! At noon my Aunt’s colleagues met us in the cafeteria for lunch. I was allowed to get anything I wanted, but I had to eat everything I selected. It took two trays (I didn’t carry either) to hold my selections. I knew I had to eat it all—it was a lot, but I finished. Years later my Aunt told me she made a lot of money betting I would finish when her colleagues thought I wouldn’t. Irka was a gambler, she loved going to Vegas.

Hanging out with cool scientists working together as friends and colleagues, doing such cool stuff, eating great food and curing diseases—was the most fun that I’d ever experienced. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to be a scientist, that I wanted to work at Northwestern, and that I wanted to work with Dr. Patterson and the rest of the awesome scientists in the Allergy and Immunology Department at Northwestern University Medical School. It was a dream which never strayed far from the front of my mind…

My life played out in reverse order relative to my dream.

First I became a scientist, a PhD in academic psychology with a focus in behavioral medicine and health: I was a top-drawer experimental methodologist, statistician, and systems engineer. There were no jobs anywhere in 1984, so I taught courses as an Instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and analyzed data which I collected using the Department of Psychology subject pool.

A trimester later the Department Head told me he heard of a research assistant position in General Internal Medicine, Northwestern University Medical School in downtown Chicago. I called and made an appointment to apply. The wonderful Dr. Hughes interviewed me. He asked if could do “XXX,” and I replied sure—I’ve published several studies using that methodology. He asked if I could do “YYY” and I told him sure, but it is a discredited methodology so I’d instead do “ZZZ.” This continued.

Dr. Hughes asked if the pay was sufficient ($12,000 a year—the job was funded for a graduate student). I told him that I was a research assistant half a decade ago, and that instead I was planning to become an Assistant Manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken (I’d worked as a cook at KFC as a teenager): I’d get more money, free food, and a van to drive with a chicken on the side. I just wanted the data, which I’d analyze and write-up at night—no charge. I laughed as I told him that my dear Mother was irritated by my plan: she said that with a PhD, I should be hired as a manager! I told her that in this world one has to work their way up the ladder.

Dr. Hughes offered me the position of Assistant Professor of Medicine. The job didn’t exist when I showed for the interview—he created the position for me on the spot, based on the interview. My position was funded by “soft money”—meaning that I had to earn my salary through research grants.

No problem, I wanted to do science, Northwestern was an internationally ranked university, and I wouldn’t make meaningfully greater income cooking chicken. I learned later that I wasn’t allowed to raise my salary via a grant, but only through annual cost-of-living-adjustments, and also by academic promotion which allowed me to apply for grant funding at a modestly higher salary level. Money was never part of my life-long dream.

Can you guess who heard that I had been hired as faculty, and contacted me requesting my assistance analyzing data for research publications in the Department of Allergy and Immunology? Yep, it was Dr. Patterson. But, that’s another story…

It was my very first day as a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine. It was a great moment. I sat down in my chair at my desk, and hardly had a moment to think when my phone rang! I was amazed that someone already had my phone number!

I picked up the phone, and before I could say a word the unknown man on the other end of the line asked: “Is this Paul Yarnold?”

I responded yes, and immediately the voice asked me: “My name is Agent (I forgot his name) of the FBI. Are you in the process of purchasing two tons of fireworks in Florida using your credit card at this moment?”

I replied: “FBI!? Cool! What? No! Huh? Can you do that??”

The voice thanked me and assured me he would call back. It turned out that my credit card invoice was found in a garbage barge in Florida, and someone tried to use the information to make a purchase. This was in 1985.

It was a crazy first call in my new office. As things turned out, it was only the first of many…

Who are you? I am NoMan! (Homer)

First Professional Call

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 13, 2021

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