By Gina Shaw
When Jane Morse, M.D., made the discovery that will likely define her scientific career, she was 70 years old and had been officially retired from the P&S faculty for nearly five years.
A rheumatologist by specialty and professor emeritus of clinical medicine, Dr. Morse had become intrigued by pulmonary hypertension, a condition that affected many of her patients who had lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A few years before retiring, she began research in primary pulmonary hypertension. “We began to realize that there were families with pulmonary hypertension, and we knew that there were genes to discover in these families, and so we persevered,” she says. In 2000, she and Columbia colleagues announced the discovery of the gene that causes familial primary pulmonary hypertension (a discovery they shared with Vanderbilt researchers, who hit on the gene at the same time).
At a time in their lives when many professionals’ thoughts turn to sailboats, golf courses, homes in Florida, and jaunts to visit the grandkids, many P&S faculty members are choosing a new kind of retirement: the working kind. Like Dr. Morse, they may be emeritus faculty, but they still teach classes or run active research laboratories. In some cases, they’ve started entire second careers after retirement.
That’s what happened for Paul Ellner, Ph.D., professor emeritus of microbiology and pathology. After his retirement in 1989, he received a call from a colleague who was consulting as an expert witness: Would Dr. Ellner be interested in testifying in a particular case dealing with intrauterine devices (IUDs)? “There were questions about microbiology involved and whether a certain aspect of the device predisposed users to infection,” Dr. Ellner recalls. “I found it so interesting that for the next 15 years, I testified in 80-some cases on IUDs and many other subjects.” One even took him all the way to Australia to testify in an IUD case.
This second, post-retirement career as an expert witness also paved the way for a third professional life: author. In late 2005, ASM Press published “The Biomedical Scientist as Expert Witness,” Dr. Ellner’s guide for scientists interested in following his footsteps into a courtroom. “During the 15 years that I had that practice, I would get e-mails and letters from colleagues, other microbiologists or scientists who had been asked to become expert witnesses, and they didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “It occurred to me that there must be a need for a book. It’s a whole new world and there are a lot of things to learn, especially how to behave in a courtroom. How you present yourself is almost as important as the testimony itself. Making the testimony interesting without sacrificing the science, that’s the trick.”
“You can’t practice a little neurosurgery,” says Edgar Housepian, M.D., professor emeritus of clinical neurological surgery and special adviser to the dean for international affiliations. When he decided that he was “over the hill” his words in 1997, Dr. Housepian knew that he couldn’t just cut back on his practice, “You’re either in it or you’re not in it. I went to medical school 54 years ago (P&S 1953), and since then, so much has changed especially in neurosurgery. It’s very technology driven and has moved to sub-sub-specialization. I was trained to do everything: aneurysms, brain tumors, spinal cord tumors, and so on. The real exciting cases I’d had in my career, I was sending to young colleagues because they were doing better with the most modern technology.”
But Herbert Pardes, then dean of P&S, wasn’t about to let Dr. Housepian retire to his den. He’d been involved in Armenian humanitarian aid since the 1988 earthquake and had also taught overseas in Scotland and India, the perfect background, Dr. Pardes thought, for a new position the dean was creating: special adviser for international affiliations. At the time, P&S had affiliations with two or three medical schools overseas; over the past decade, under Dr. Housepian’s guidance, that number has grown to more than 20 universities on five of the six other continents (Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa); none in Antarctica yet. “I prize the opportunity to interact with students and faculty. The opportunity to be innovative is very important to me and the freedom I now have to be so is wonderful and rewarding.”
Launching or relaunching a successful program has also been the post-retirement focus of Peter Puchner, M.D., who was a course director in the Department of Urology for more than 30 years. As he was about to retire in 2002 at the age of 66, Linda Lewis, M.D., then dean of students, approached him with a proposal to revive the moribund advisory system for medical students. After reviewing successful programs at other schools, Dr. Puchner developed the new advisory deans program, which began in the fall of 2003 and has met with great success. He is now professor emeritus of clinical urology and advisory dean in the Office of Student Affairs.
“It is a program, really, that begins virtually the minute students arrive at P&S and then continues on through their four-year experience,” says Dr. Puchner, a 1962 P&S graduate. “In my mind, the program is unique in its intensity: Faculty choose to do this as part of their commitment to the school, in addition to their own work in their own departments.”
Georgiana Jagiello, M.D., the V.G. Damon Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology and professor emeritus of genetics and development, also shifted her professional focus after she retired, but stayed at Columbia to start a new career in fund-raising.
“When I left ob-gyn and all my administrative duties, I came to the genetics department to do fund-raising. At that time, five or six years ago, we were already concerned about the number of grants being funded, and now of course the situation is much worse,” she says. “People who do basic research are being cut, and labs are being closed. I’m sort of embedded in the university. It was impossible to just walk away!” She cut down on the many committees she once served on, but still participates in some, such as the Scholarly Resources Committee.
Some “retired” faculty members, like Dr. Morse, still work five days a week. “I don’t work at the bench any more I’m too old to do that but I collaborate,” she says. “I work very hard. We have lab meetings, I meet with my collaborator, and there is a lot of work to do with the families. We have over 100 families now, and some of them are quite large.”
Pediatric endocrinologist Jennifer Bell, M.D., a special lecturer in pediatrics, finds the two-day-a-week schedule she now has to be a vacation compared with the hectic clinical and teaching load she carried before retiring in 1998. “My day used to start at about 8 a.m. and didn’t finish until 11 or 12 at night, when I finished writing up my charts. When one is a practicing physician, it follows you to bed, so to speak. I don’t have that any more.”
Today, she’s primarily involved in teaching and committee work. “I interact mostly with the fellows. I’m involved in their teaching and in their clinical assessments and judgments. Bone age assessment is the technique we most use as pediatric endocrinologists, and I’m the one who teaches them that,” she says. “I read bone age X-rays on Tuesdays, and on Thursdays we have rounds.”
Barbara Low, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, spends two days a week teaching a nonrequired but “highly recommended” course in scientific writing to graduate students. She retired unwillingly in 1990, at the age of 70. “The thought of retiring and going away somewhere did not appeal to me at all.”
She continued to teach in the department for a few years and then created the scientific writing course after trying to help a student whose first language was not English. “It occurred to me that really all of our students could benefit from this,” she says. “Once the students realize that it’s not that simple to write down a lucid and well-developed argument on the first try, I enjoy helping them understand the whole process of thinking about problems. I learn a lot from them.”
Drs. Housepian and Puchner both report that they keep the hours that they want to keep. “The nice thing is that I’m not required to be there in any way, shape, or form in the summer!” says Dr. Puchner.
“I come to work when I want, usually about 8:30 or 9 a.m., and go home around 4 or 5 pm,” Dr. Housepian says. The flexible schedule allows him the freedom to travel and work on his other commitments, such as the Armenian NGO (Fund for Armenian Relief-FAR) which he co-founded in 1989. He predicts that in two years he will start to wind down his work at P&S. “I’ll be 80 then, and I think people of that age are usually ‘in the way’ no matter how productive they feel they are. I don’t think I should hang around much longer than that though I’ll hate giving up my parking space at NI.”
Why this flurry of professional activity post-retirement? Why not take it easy for awhile? “My children wish I would!” says Dr. Morse. “They think I’m insane to still be working. And one of my competitors in Britain saw me at the World Health Organization meeting and said, ‘You know, Jane, you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing in England, because retired professors have to retire.’ I said, ‘Richard, you just want me out of the field, don’t you?’ But that’s not for me. I do like golf and I’ve always liked tennis, but I don’t think it’s enough for me intellectually. That’s the reason I'm here for the intellectual stimulation.”
That’s the same word Dr. Bell uses when explaining why she still comes to work. “I don’t know how I would feel being away from Columbia and New York. It’s such a stimulating place. Being retired in the way that I am gives me the time to do the things I would have liked to do when I was working and yet stay involved with my profession and the changes in pediatric endocrinology as well as the incredible wealth of information that’s coming from molecular biology in all fields. It just enthralls me.”
For Dr. Puchner, the transition to a new field of endeavor has been particularly rewarding. “It’s been a nice change from the hectic world of intense practice to something different, something that hadn’t been done before, something that was needed and that otherwise might not have been done if someone really hadn’t had that as a primary focus without a lot of other responsibilities.”
“It’s very important to remain active,” says Dr. Ellner. “The mind is like a skeletal muscle: When you don't use it, it atrophies.”
That’s not likely to happen to these “retired” faculty members. Dr. Low, at 86, guesses that “we feel younger, more like some of our contemporaries at 65 or 70. That’s because we are remaining active, alert, and capable when we’re older and expect to stay busy.”
So many emeritus faculty are pursuing active retirements, in fact, that they’ve created a new organization, Emeritus Professors in Columbia (EPIC), “a professional and social fellowship of retired professors, researchers, and administrators who share the common experience of extensive careers in education and wish to pursue intellectual interests or render further service to the University community.” The group spans the entire university, but many of its members are P&S retirees.
And the Retired Scientists’ Cooperative, a free-standing, private nonprofit, is seeking to make the most of these active retirees. Dr. Jagiello has been serving as an ad hoc adviser to the group, whose goal, she says, “has been to utilize people with particular expertise as part-time employees. They want to be the conduit between employers looking for someone who’s, say, a chemist who knows about steroids and wants to work part time and someone who has that expertise and is retired from a university in this area. The program is still very much embryonic, but the idea is a splendid one. People would love to do it.”