PhD

Tara

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Tara Scientific Laboratories was formed as a registered partnership on August 1, 1990. I owned 60% and Mom and Dad each had 20%. The main focus of Tara was to provide analytical services to business, government and the public. Our project began in July, 1990 when we looked for the best location to run the lab. We chose a suite in the old Medical Arts Building on North Cumberland Street in the Port Arthur side of Thunder Bay. It was a good location for us in that it once had a medical lab in it. The building wasn’t designed to accommodate a lab like ours, but we adapted it to our needs. We made renovations to the suite, built benches and set up the equipment. A bank loan for $50,000 covered our start up costs such as two analytical instruments and supplies. To be honest we could have used twice the money. We also had to decide on a name for our business. One evening as we sat in the living room Mom suggested, “What about Tara?” Tara was the ancient capital of Ireland. Dad and I liked it. Then Dad added Scientific Laboratories. I drew the logo by stylizing a Celtic “T” from the ancient Irish text the Book of Kells.

Just after returning to Thunder Bay from London, and while I was starting Tara, I also began studying for a PhD in Health and Human Services with a professor at Columbia Pacific University, CPU, in California. I followed the curriculum set by CPU, conducted the research in my lab, corresponded with a mentor in Minneapolis that CPU appointed to me and the professor at CPU monitored my progress. My days were spent working in my lab and many evenings and weekends studying for my doctorate during the first five years of running Tara.

Soon after starting Tara I realized that my chemistry skills were only half the job. The other half was the administration of the business. Sometimes it seemed the paper work was more important than the analysis. I should have taken a secretarial course. Like Dad I didn’t have the mindset for the intricacies of accounting, paper shuffling and the like. But Mom loved it. She took care of the office and worked with Sherry, our bookkeeper, who tracked payroll and taxes. I kept abreast of the daily ins and outs of the accounts.

Tara was demanding and never a 9 to 5 job. I got to know what 18 hour work days were like. Weekdays, after putting in a full day, I came home, ate dinner, watch an hour of TV and then Tara called me back until eleven o’clock often with Dad coming with me. I returned home, hit the sack and did it again the next day. If I didn’t have to go back to Tara I worked on my PhD.

Tara was like a temperamental love. I never knew what she was going to throw at me from one day to the next. Some days went smoothly and others did not. I went from being swamped with work to having little to do.

Catharine had a steady full time job and she was able to send a fair bit of business my way from her workplace. Dad was still working at McKellar Hospital for the first two years of Tara. I worked the mornings and went home for lunch. Mom came back with me in the afternoons to take care of the office while I ran errands, carried on with lab work or whatever else needed my attention.

Saturday mornings I spent catching up on things such as invoicing and finishing off a letter or report. For the most part I stayed away from Tara on Sundays. One night a week I tried to get out and see a friend. It was long and hard work but I didn’t mind because Tara was mine. I was building my future with the goal of becoming established enough to employ a staff so I could gear down.

I was my own boss and Tara never told me I wasn’t able do something. Once I became the owner of a business I gained instant credibility. I took part in trade shows, manned display booths, gave talks, offered demonstrations and presented workshops as required to operate my business. When I started in the back of my mind were the voices of the people who told me I wouldn’t be able to teach or speak to groups. The words of a self-assured University Professor echoed in my head. “You won’t ever be able to teach.” Despite my challenges I was successful in business.

Tara Scientific Laboratories became known for doing unique, out-of-the-way analyses for entrepreneurs, government ministries and university researchers. These projects were anything but routine. They tended to be one-time, occasional or as-needed tests that paid for themselves but didn’t generate much income. Therefore many labs weren’t interested in them.

These were the projects that were really interesting and often fun. We had to scratch our heads a bit, use our imagination, research the methodology and think about how to tackle the problem. Dad was in his element. I liked them too but I mainly took care of the routine testing.

We advertised that we analyzed garden soil nutrients. The next day an interesting project came through the door. A man walked up to our front desk carrying a large bucket of soil. We had advertised that we only needed a small jar of soil. However he didn’t want the soil tested but the earthworms in it.

We accepted the challenge. There was no method for analyzing earthworms for nutrient content that we knew of. This required some thought. First off if he wanted his worms back after we were finished he was out of luck. They would meet their demise in a blender. Next we had to decide on the ratio of how many worms to how much water. This took some experimenting. If the worm to water ratio was too small the nutrient concentration would be too weak to measure. We went by weight of worms rather than number. Since the worms were in the soil we had to wash them off in a strainer before we could weigh them. Worms don’t stop wiggling for even a second. They kept crawling up the sides of the strainer. A few managed to avoid their fate by escaping down the sink drain before we could catch them.

With the worms cleaned we proceeded to weigh them. Weighing wiggly worms is an art more than a science. We had to be quick weighing them before they squirmed up the sides of the tall glass beakers. When we had a predetermined weight of worms we added a measured amount of water to the blender, dropped the worms in, put the lid on tight, pressed the button and zzzzzzzzzzzz worm puree. We were fast. It was all over for the worms before they knew what was happening. We filtered the puree and tested for the various nutrients. Once our customer had his results he left and we never saw him again. I don’t know what he did with the information. What I can tell you is that earthworms are high in dietary protein and have virtually no fat.

Another time we were involved in a government research project to analyze the nutrients in moose hair to see what nutrients the moose got in their diet. Hair must first be burned to ash before it can be tested. Burning hair produces a lot of smoke and burning moose hair smells a lot like marijuana. A fume hood vented the smoke outside. During the burning process we stood by the window and watched people’s heads turn toward the cloud of marijuana-smelling smoke as they walked by. All the time we were ashing the moose hair samples we cringed as we looked out the window and kept an eye on the door. “The cops are going to show up any minute.”

Tara and study consumed my life for five years.  In April, 1995, I graduated with my PhD in Health and Human Services. I’d had more than enough with schooling by then and I swore that, apart from taking an evening course for interest’s sake, it was no more classes for me. But as they say, famous last words.

Two months after I graduated I hired a woman named Judy for the summer. In July I took my first vacation since I started Tara. Mom and I spent the month visiting as many relatives as we could in England, Ireland and France while Dad and Judy ran the lab. The time away recharged my batteries and I was ready to tackle Tara with renewed vigour when I got back.

LU Here I Come

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Although the surgery in Cleveland wasn’t successful I succeeded in becoming a student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay in September of 1977. Some of my friends started university that year. I wanted to try university. Since I had been out of school for more than three years for reasons beyond my control Lakehead University allowed me to take at least one course. If I did reasonably well I could register in a program at LU the following September as a mature student. My goal was to get into the Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biology program. I enrolled in first year calculus, a requisite course, and Astronomy, a science elective. I could drive myself to classes but I worried the walk from the parking lot to lectures would be too far for me. It was a bit of a hike at first but with practice it became routine.

The high school correspondence courses had provided me with all the education I needed for university except Chemistry. I took a non-credit course at LU as well which taught high school plus some first year university chemistry. There I met Terry. He was from Toronto and had a BA in Psychology from the University of Toronto. He came to Thunder Bay to take a Masters degree in Psychology and also to study science. We quickly became good friends. Terry had a wild streak in him. He was eight years older than me and had seen much more of the world. Terry possessed a natural propensity for making friends many of whom I got to know.

I was still finding my way out of the house when Terry took me under his wing. He made sure I got out to experience the world. Terry took me to a bar one night and got me drunk. I could barely stand up. Another time he set me up with a date, Anna, a nursing student. Our date didn’t lead to second but she and I liked it when crossed paths at LU. Terry knew how to throw some great parties all of which I remember well. He was also licensed to fly small planes. Now and againTerry rented a Cessna C127 from the Thunder Bay Flying Club and take me up flying. When the plane was in level flight he let me steer. I felt so free and in control of myself as I flew the plane over Thunder Bay and the countryside. The coolest was to see my house from 10,000 feet up. When we landed I was eager for our next flight.

I squeaked through Calculus with 51% and got a respectable 68% in Astronomy. My marks were good enough to make me a university student in September of 1978. I have to say that Dad’s encouragement and his affiliation with Lakehead University as Professor of Medical Laboratory Sciences had a lot to do with my chance to try out for LU.

I enrolled in the Biology program at Lakehead University as a part time student and took three credits. Full time students take five. Mom and Dad thought that three courses would be all I could handle. They were right. My writing was still slower than average. The amount of reading required for just those three courses overtaxed my eyes. Sometimes I came back from LU after classes and asked Mom if she would read a section of the textbook to me. We sat at the dining room table across from each other just as we did for high school and she read the textbook as I covered my eyes with my hands to rest them. I passed my courses and together with the two I’d taken the previous year I had the five credits I needed to complete the first year of the Biology program requirements.

I took a course in the spring and another in the summer. These were intensive full courses that went five hours a day Monday to Friday. It was a gruelling overload of information each day. But the classes were small, we helped each other and I earned a credit in just six weeks.

Armed with my two second year credits I registered for another three courses in the fall. In April of 1980, I completed the second year of the program.  Once more I took a course in each of the spring and summer terms.

During that summer I had to say good-bye to Terry. For the three years he was in Thunder Bay Terry was a regular around my home. His colourful personality filled the house as soon as he walked in the door. Terry was my good and constant companion during his time in Thunder Bay. With his MA degree in hand Terry bought an old car. He packed all his belongings in it, which were not much more than his clothes and guitar, and headed off on his next adventure. I missed him when he left. Terry moved west to Edmonton, got married and settled down.

In September I started the last three courses for the BSc degree. At the convocation ceremony on May 31, 1981, I received a BSc degree in Biology from Lakehead University. I had accomplished what some people thought I would never live to do.

I wanted to continue on to become a graduate student and earn a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Biology. I had to have an Honours BSc (HBSc) to do that. I needed a course average of at least 70% to get into the honours or forth year, but I pulled up short with 68%. I was determined. I studied for another year at LU as a full time student to get a four year BSc pass degree in Biology in May, 1982.

Four years of university had taught me about plants, animals, anatomy and physiology, but I still didn’t have a skill to find work. In September of 1982, I enrolled in the two year Medical Laboratory Technologist diploma program at the Thunder Bay Institute of Medical Technology. It was a requirement for the HBSc in Medical Laboratory Sciences program at Lakehead University. In May, 1984, I received my diploma and enrolled in the HBSc program at LU. I had all the courses for the degree from my BSc in Biology except the core courses. In a year and a half I had an HBSc in Medical Laboratory Sciences. I set my sights on the MSc in Biology degree.

I enrolled in the Master of Science in Biology program at LU in September, 1984, and worked as a teaching assistant. The pay wasn’t great but it paid my tuition and gave me some pocket money. On graduation day in May of 1986, I received my MSc degree in Biology. I walked in procession into the convocation hall. When I stopped I had a front row seat in front of the podium. Dr. David Suzuki addressed the graduates. He talked about how hard we worked to earn our degrees and that we should take pride what we had achieved. Next Farley Mowat spoke. As I listened I was transported back to the desperate times of 1973 and the evenings I lay tucked into bed listening to Dad reading his stories. I clearly realized then just how far I had come. I held my MSc degree knowing how hard I had worked for it, how determined I had stayed and how much adversity I had overcome to attain my goal. I was definitely proud of my achievement.

While I was a Teaching Assistant I thought I would like to teach in a university. To do that I needed a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree, but LU didn’t have a PhD program. In the fall after I graduated with my MSc degree Dad was invited to speak at a conference. He met a former colleague from London, Ontario, who knew of an opportunity. He suggested that I could work at St. Joseph’s Hospital lab in London where he worked. I could try some courses at the University of Western Ontario in London and possibly get into a PhD program.

During the year after I graduated with my MSc I applied for work in the medical labs in all the hospitals in Thunder Bay but to no avail. The opportunity Dad’s colleague in London proposed seemed better and better as the months passed. London offered me both a job in a medical lab and a chance to earn a PhD.

I planned on moving to London in late August of 1987 but I was faced with a challenge once again. I woke up one morning just before the move to discover that I was completely deaf in my right ear. When I had my hearing tested I was told that my deafness was caused by damage to the auditory nerve. They couldn’t offer a solution to the problem. I didn’t know until then that my tumour and the radiation therapy damaged the myelin sheath around the nerve. The damage impaired its function and started a progressive hearing loss. I carried on hearing only through my left ear.

Despite the loss of hearing in my right ear I packed my belongings and moved to London. I enrolled in a physiology course at Western and started part time work at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I worked there for two and a half years as a technologist in the hospital medical laboratory with a great group of people. After three years of trying I was no closer to getting into a doctoral program at Western than when I had first travelled to London. The professors I approached about doing a PhD with them kept citing their lack of research funds.

In June, 1990, I moved back to Thunder Bay with my tail between my legs. The London experience was the first time a lot of work and perseverance didn’t get me to where I wanted to go. I was burned out. I couldn’t push anymore. There was some good that came out of my tenure in London. It was a time of much personal growth. I lived by myself independent of my parents. And I clearly demonstrated that I could organize my life and take care of myself. After all I was 30 years old.

When I got back from London Dad had a plan. He proposed that we should start an environmental laboratory business. I had the chemistry skills and Dad was confident I could do it. We took a chance and created Tara Scientific Laboratories.