My Meetings with Don
It was my first week in New York City. The Big Apple was living up to its name – as I strolled through the slimy summer streets of the city, I was struck in the face by a fancy or historical location every five minutes. I made my way past Riverside Church and headed east on 120th street. I stood at the intersection of Broadway and 120th street and stared at a big glass building. Later, I would come to know that this was the North West Corner Building, where the Science and Engineering library of Columbia University is housed. I crossed the street and started walking south towards 110th street. I looked at my watch. I still had ten minutes to walk ten blocks. Looked like I would make it in time.
As I walked, the aroma from a cluster of Asian food carts carried me forward, through a throng of people stretching two blocks long, waiting for their noodles and dumplings. Then there was the all-women college, Barnard, to my right around 118th street. Slowly, I made my way to the famous gateway of Columbia University, right after I crossed 116th and Broadway.
I remember I felt a little overwhelmed as I took in the bustling scene I had walked into. Did I belong in this institution? This city? Or this very street that was filled with students, professors, tourists, and incoming newbies like myself?
It was now 1:55 pm. I had five minutes to walk six blocks. I decided to quicken my pace and focused on navigating the New York pedestrian traffic. I reached the corner of 111th and Broadway. There was a Duane and Reade to my left and a T-Mobile store across from me. His email had said – ‘My office is on the first floor of 2801 Broadway, between 111th and 110th Street.’
2 pm. Just as I was starting to get a little anxious, I noticed a small glass door, hidden between the T-Mobile store and the busy Mel’s Burger to its right. I pressed a circular silver button I would come to know well in the next few years. A female voice answered, ‘‘Hi, how may I help you?’’ ‘Hi there, I have a meeting with Prof. Don Melnick’, I said. ‘‘Come on in’’, chimed the voice. I walked a flight of stairs and sat on a couch whose comforts were lost on me, nervous as I was.
A minute later, a tall man wearing a salmon-colored shirt and a bluish tie walked up to me. ‘‘Hi Vijay! Sorry to have kept waiting. I’m glad you found your way to my office. I thought it might be easier for us to meet here’’, said Don Melnick, Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Conservation Biology at Columbia University in the City of New York. I followed him through another glass door into his office. Immediately, I noticed that the plain white walls of the room were adorned with a mishmash of anthropological artifacts, photographs, and certificates. In one corner, a massive bookshelf held court, filed as it was with tomes of evolutionary biology, primers in conservation biology and a selection of popular science. I entered a smaller room in his office where the two of us sat around a circular white table that overlooked the teeming street outside.
‘How was your trip, Vijay? Are you all settled in? When did you get here?’ enquired Don, with the undivided attention I would come to expect from him in all our meetings. In retrospect, I realize that I answered his polite questions in excruciating detail. Even then, I pitied him a little, as I went on about the mundane details of my life, in India and now, New York. But Don didn’t care. He was in no hurry to rush into our meeting – he always, always made sure that I was doing okay. Was there anything bothering me? Did I like my classes? Nothing was too big or too small for us to talk about, not to him.
That first meeting, we eased into conversation about my master’s thesis slowly. We talked about Don and all the things he did, about his work with elephant researchers in India. When I started to talk about my idea, which was then in its infancy, he listened patiently and attentively asked questions at whenever something I said was not clear. Here and there, there were silences as he tried to think his way through a research question I was proposing.
That day, before I left, he prodded me along and pushed me to stay focused. He suggested I keep a notebook, to put down the notes from our meetings, and another one for my research ideas.
To this day, my best ideas live in notebooks.
The city was getting cold. It was my first winter in New York and I had never experienced snow or negative temperatures in an urban environment before. My first semester in an Ivy League institution was busy, to say the least. I was running from my class on Introduction to Statistics in R, grabbing a quick lunch at a falafel cart near the science and engineering library and finishing assignments on population genetics for my evolution class. Evenings would usually be spent cooking a quick meal in my crowded apartment on 125th street before I rushed back to campus to burn the midnight oil.
I saw Don less frequently that semester. Let me rephrase that – I saw Don just twice that semester. He used to travel a lot for work – he met scientists in Chile, colleagues in Indonesia and policymakers in Europe. As busy as his schedule was, I would still get emails from time to time asking me about my classes and how my thesis ideas were progressing. I would write to him in small paragraphs explaining that I had managed to resolve Plan A, but Plan B needed some more thinking and perhaps we should meet. If there is one thing you should know about Don, it is that once he took someone on as a student, he was completely invested in their goals and work. I realized this when, no matter where he was in the world, he often replied to my queries within a day and apologized if it took him longer than that. His emails were thorough, well-thought out and invariably assuaged all my concerns. Our email exchanges were much like our meetings in person, I realize. Even if I went in with things weighing on my shoulders, Don was always there to resolutely guide me towards a solution. Often, I left the thread and his office feeling lighter.
On a chilly December morning, I walked up to Don’s office on the 11th floor of Schermerhorn Extension. This was his second office, and it was a fairly cramped space stuffed to bursting with books. On his desk here sat a huge monitor, next to a chimpanzee figurine thinking about evolution. A copy of On the Origin of Species often took pride of place. Don had placed a massive wooden globe in one corner, and it remains the most beautiful globe I have ever laid eyes on. On the walls lay masks that looked like they were from Papua New Guinea. I never asked after their origin.
Don sat in front of me, looking a little tired that day, having just gotten off a red eye, but eager and willing to spend time and energy talking to me. As ever.
Every meeting, I realized later, started with him saying: ‘Vijay, hey! How are you? Give me one minute – I am just going to finish this email’. He would then proceed to observe me as he removed his glasses and provided a quick anecdote of his recent travels. Then we would talk about work. Usually, we would start by scribbling study designs on my notebook, followed by Don maybe narrating a wonderful experience from his trip to northern Pakistan.
But this meeting was different. I had not pulled my notebook out. I was a little nervous about what I wanted to say. He looked at me and said, ‘Is everything alright?’. He asked with genuine concern, and that was all the encouragement I needed. I told him that I really needed a tuition waiver or some form of financial assistance to continue in the master’s program. He looked at me briefly and he said, ‘Vijay! I don’t want you to worry about this. Let me send an email to XXYY and we can figure this out as soon as possible. And please do not hesitate to come talk to me if there is anything bothering you. Now where were we in terms of your research?’
And that was that.
A week later, Don had managed to convince the department to provide me with financial assistance to continue in the program. He’d made sure I had one less thing to worry about.
An entire year had gone by and my research ideas were set in stone, or so I thought. I had been shuttling back and forth between the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University to complete my master’s thesis. I was still taking classes on campus and I spent a lot of time at the main library, Butler, to complete my assignments. Don taught one of my classes, Introduction to Conservation Genetics. It was mostly a seminar-styled class, where each student would pick out half a dozen scientific papers each week and lead the discussion. Topics varied from inbreeding depression and isolation by distance to captive breeding.
It was the very first time I saw Don the teacher, in a classroom. Every Wednesday afternoon, we would meet for two hours and discuss the latest and seminal breakthroughs in the field. Over the course of that semester, I realized the expertise and domain knowledge that Don possessed. He would pose creative questions for each paper we discussed and ask us a series of questions designed to get us thinking critically. Why had the authors employed the methods they had? Did we think it was justified? What would we do instead?
My favorite part of the class, however, were not the questions he posed to us. It was the many anecdotes and stories that he would recount from when he had carried out similar studies, or the inside-picture he shared with us if he happened to be a co-author of a paper we discussed. The stories themselves centered around frogs in Africa, Sumatran rhinos, Javan gibbons and pachyderms from Asia.
One afternoon, Don reminisced a fascinating memory from the time he’d carried out fieldwork in northern Pakistan, for his doctoral dissertation. He spoke simply of how frigidly cold it was in the Himalayas, and how they had to figure out everything without things we take for granted today. Google Maps was not around, and ResearchGate had not yet been conceived. I was inspired. It was amazing to listen to him talk about how he had persevered in such tough field conditions to collect blood samples and fur from the rhesus macaques he was studying. Listening to Don talk about how conservation genetics had evolved from sequencing isozymes to whole-genome sequencing was truly cool.
A few months later, I heard a story that had been passed down in the ecology community at Columbia. A former student, Dr. Mary Blair, had been clearing out a refrigerator in Don’s lab, and she found, to her surprise, samples of a Javan rhino, frozen in time.
I had three months to go to complete my master’s thesis. It was a stressful time, and I was trying to figure out why my DNA sequences were not getting amplified. I had spent the entire summer and fall of 2015 carefully obtaining small chunks of toe tissue from birds that were collected prior to the 1900s. It was a laborious process, but I was keen to understand whether certain populations of the grey-headed canary flycatcher, a small bird with a musical call, differed genetically from other populations. If so, what did this mean for the bird’s evolution?
Rather predictably, as it goes in most master’s theses, it felt like there were multiple hurdles I had to cross before I was allowed to hold that coveted certificate in hand– the one that read, ‘Fulfilled all requirements towards the completion of a Master of Arts’. I grappled with not having enough data. The chunks of toe tissue failed to give me enough DNA to quantify any changes across populations.
3 months passed, and I still had no data. My mind was occupied wholly by this solitary thought as I stepped outside the American Museum of Natural History to walk towards the 1 train on 79th and Broadway. I had to tell Don. But what was I going to say? ‘I have no data at all, but thank you for all your support over the last two years’? Or ‘Hey! I had a good run, but I’m going home now’?
I slowly trekked up the flight of stone stairs to the 11th floor, where Don was sitting in front of his large Mac monitor, as usual. I took a seat and waited for him to answer that email. He looked at me and asked – ‘Are you okay? What did you want to talk about?’. I didn’t know how to start talking about any of it.
I did end up talking, though. I told him I had very little data, that the thesis was not progressing the way we had thought it would. He heard me out patiently, and before he could give me his two cents, I told him that I had a backup idea, but it had nothing to do with genetics or evolution.
I had already spent a couple of days thinking about alternate ideas. My friend and mentor, Dr. Sahas Barve had had a thought – not very many people had worked on the geographic ranges of Western Ghats birds. Someone needed to come up with an accurate description, especially now in a world that was warming by the year. I hadn’t been completely convinced by the idea, but now that I was sitting in front of Don, I told him about it anyway.
His glasses were sliding off his nose. He helped them off and said, ‘Vijay, please don’t hesitate to come to me whenever you have anything to discuss. I’m your thesis advisor and I will support you in any way I possibly can. So, let’s talk about that backup idea’.
We started talking about the basics of species distribution modeling, a field that he was not familiar with. But Don being Don, listened to me patiently and said – ‘Let’s set up a recurring time to meet every Thursday, where you can teach me about distribution modeling and I can try to help you as much as I possibly can’.
The next few months were tough, for both of us. But Don was there for me as I learned, taught him, and received feedback on how we could make a thesis out of my idea. At the end of the second month, as I started writing my thesis, I realized that I would have gotten nowhere if Don hadn’t been so open to the idea of dipping his toe into a pool that was out of his area of expertise. And for that, I will always be thankful to him.
May rolled around, and I presented my thesis to the entire department. Don was there in the audience that day. He smiled, and in that moment, I knew he was proud that I’d managed to put together an entire thesis in three months.
It was winter again in New York. I was working at a non-profit called the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and living a hundred miles north of New York City. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, I had spent a good six months recharging myself. I was enjoying the opportunity to gain some experience in the field before I jumped into a PhD program. I was still emailing Don frequently – we had been working on preparing my thesis for publication.
In the back of my mind, I’d also thought about who I might want to work with, as my PhD advisor. Almost immediately, I knew I wanted to work with Don, but his last PhD student had graduated in 2012 and it had been a good five years since he had advised anyone in that capacity.
In November 2016, I wrote to him anyway, asking if he would be interested in advising me, and if I could apply back to Columbia University to work with him. I received an immediate reply – ‘Yes, I would be more than happy to advise you. Let’s talk about the questions you want to answer!’ His response was exactly what I’d hoped for, and I drafted my statement of purpose, submitted all the paperwork and applied. I threw all my eggs in one basket and did not apply to any other school.
Come January, I was busy working on multiple revisions of my master’s thesis, which we were submitting for publication. Don sent me an email towards the end of the month – ‘Hey Vijay, can we quickly chat on Skype?’ I was in Bangalore when I got this email and it was 10:30 pm. I had decided to take ten days off and enjoy the pleasant winter in Bangalore, at home. I was a little surprised since Don usually sent me emails with more information, including what he wanted to discuss and when. I wrote to him asking if we could chat in a few hours.
At 7:30 in the morning, I video-called Don. He was wearing a pristine white shirt, and he peered at me through his square-rimmed glasses. He said – ‘Vijay, I just wanted to let you know that the department has decided to offer you a fellowship to work towards your doctoral degree at Columbia!’
I was ridiculously ecstatic and shocked, and I had no idea how to react. He continued, ‘Ruth and I would love to co-advice you for your PhD!’. I thanked him and yelled, ‘Oh my god!’ at least eight times. I think.
To this day, the memory of Don talking to me on Skype is etched in my brain. That he had made the time to call me and tell me in person was testament to the kind of person he was. Three months after that, my master’s thesis was accepted for publication and Don wrote me an email – ‘Onwards to pushing the boundaries of ecological research!’
I was in a good place, and I’d gotten into a nice groove with my research. I had an office space on the 10th floor of the department, where I had a couple of books, a monitor, and a white board to scribble ideas on. I was preparing to travel to India, for my first summer of exploratory research. I met both Don and Ruth (Prof. Ruth DeFries) regularly that semester, and I felt that as a first year PhD student, it was important to get their feedback on my ideas.
This year, Don’s office had moved from the 11th floor to the 10th floor. He took his books and the figurines on his table to the new space, and that gorgeous globe moved too. Every Thursday, I met him here now, and we would talk about the big ideas in conservation genetics.
After he asked after me, and narrated a fun story, my notebook of ideas would come out. He would talk, and while he did, scribble down thoughts on those pages. Many times, I remember face-palming, ‘Damn! Why didn’t I think of this earlier?’ Other times, I watched as he walked up to a well-stocked bookshelf and picked one up for me, recommending I read it.
At this particular meeting, I wanted to bring up a new idea. I knew that Don, in a previous role, had led discussions with the UN and other leading conservation organizations in framing the Rainforest Standard and drafting strategies to meet the Millennium Development Goals. I knew he was keen to explore unanswered questions in the field of conservation, and more importantly, their implementation. I pitched the idea of starting a conservation group at Columbia, one that would tackle these unanswered questions and work on projects together. His eyes flashed and he said it sounded like a great idea, and that he was all onboard. After our meeting, I headed back to my office and packed my bag.
Ten minutes later, I stood at the elevator door, waiting for it to make its slow climb up. Don had reached at the same time, wearing a dark brown jacket, a blackish muffler and fitting brown leather gloves. We took the elevator down and I asked him if he had any plans for spring break. He said, ‘Not really – we have a couple of friends visiting us.’ By this time, I knew him well enough to know these friends might just be a prime minister of a country or the director of a leading conservation organization.
I told him I was headed to Mexico for a bit, for a break and some travel adventures. As we walked down Low steps, he asked me if I was planning to visit the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I said I probably should, and he told me how many of his colleagues had set up anthropological exhibits there. ‘You should check out the Frida Kahlo house and head to XXYY to eat!’, he added. We stopped briefly at the entrance to campus on 116th and Broadway, and I said my goodbye.
As I walked back to my apartment, I thought I knew Don by now, but every meeting with him promised new information, some new knowledge and of course, a new story.
Time flies, they say.
It truly does when one is doing a PhD. I was in the 4th semester of my program and my dissertation ideas were falling in place. My meetings with Don would take place as usual. I would knock on his door around 3 pm in the afternoon on a Thursday and we would spend an hour or so discussing a myriad of topics. This meeting, however, was slightly different. Don asked me – ‘Vijay, can you give a guest lecture at the conservation genetics seminar?’ I was pleasantly surprised that Don had asked me to talk about the impacts of habitat fragmentation on the genetic structure and diversity of populations. We spent a couple of minutes talking about the ideas we were devising for my dissertation and how I could choose a few papers that I thought were seminal to my thinking process.
A week later, I entered his office at 3 pm and saw Don answering an email. For the next couple of minutes, I stared a framed collage of many famous evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, from Ernst Mayr to Barbara McClintock. Were they his inspirations?
He removed his glasses and was in a cheery mood as he proceeded to tell me a wonderful story about his time in the Pakistan Himalayas. We were talking about historical maps and I showed him a scanned copy of one of the oldest maps of the Nilgiri hills. He thought back to the time he had to use hard copies of maps to figure out his way through the complex terrain of the snowy Himalayas. I listened to his stories of bureaucratic nightmares and adventures in remote terrains and hoped I would have even a smattering of such experiences to relay on to any students I might mentor.
We talked about my thesis for a bit, and then discussed several papers I had chosen for the seminar I was to lead. He was happy and excited that we were going to present a couple of thesis ideas at the seminar the following week. Before I left his office, he said, ‘I think the ideas look good! We should aim for a big journal’ I only laughed and said we should wait and see.
The following week, I had a wonderful discussion with the students in Don’s class. Don asked me several questions during the session as though we were the only two discussing the papers. He was so enthused about these ideas we had and wanted to see if his students had any questions about it. When the class was done, Don pulled me aside and said ‘Good job, Vijay! That was a great seminar’. I felt happy and encouraged as I always did, after meeting with Don.
The next few weeks running up to spring break, I would see Don at the Tuesday seminars in the department. He was usually talking to students and professors, yellow mug full of coffee. He would also bring the same mug to our conservation group meetings, where we discussed our project ideas and went back and forth on how we should frame our question. It was fun to see Don in his element, recounting his experiences with senior officers of different conservation organizations and how he thought an idea was already done and dusted or if an idea deserved more thought.
A few days before spring break, I ran into him at the department and talked to him about how my qualifying exam prep was going. He smiled and said that sounded great. ‘Take care’, he said. Little did I know that it would be my last meeting with Don. He had fallen ill during spring break and was hospitalized. I would email him frequently, keeping him updated on grant proposals and classes.
On the 18th of April 2019, Prof. Don J Melnick, Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Conservation Biology, passed away as a result of a heart attack.
I still cannot fathom the fact that it has been a year since my advisor, Don, passed away. He was a father, a mentor, a husband, a teacher, a colleague, a friend and recently, a grandfather and so much more to all the people he knew. At his service, I met so many of his students and colleagues, and was touched that he had inspired so many, that I was one among scores of people he’d touched in his life. I felt angry and sad – so I had to do this PhD without his mentoring? What was he thinking? Logic was not enough to reason this out.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found it meditative to write about our memorable meetings. I am so glad that Don was a part of my professional and personal growth over the six years I knew him.
Don was always bubbling with enthusiasm, and I looked forward to my weekly meetings with him. When I went to academic conferences and introduced myself as his student, it would throw open the floor to people’s experiences with him from years ago. It was always heartening to hear about the influence he’d had on people from all over the world, really.
Every day, I am grateful to have known him, and I hope to do my best to honor the wonderful person that he was, through my life and my work.
A few years back, I had told him that he should come visit me in the Western Ghats, where I am now carrying out my fieldwork. He could not, but I hope to bring his yellow mug to this beautiful landscape someday soon. Right now, it resides safely at home in Bangalore, having made the long journey across the ocean with me.
Steaming hot coffee in that yellow mug, amid the mist-covered mountains, with the cool winter air on my face – what better way to think of the man I knew?
Avid reader, conservationist, quizzer.