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Academic dynasties

For some young Canadians, picking a career path comes naturally - it runs in the family

by Rosanna Tamburri

What is it about the family business that's so compelling? Consider the law offices, medical clinics, legislatures and even the music charts filled with sons and daughters following in their parents' footsteps.

The hallways of academia are no exception.

To shed some light on this phenomenon, we explore the family and scholarly ties that bind five academic dynasties in Canada.

Like parents everywhere, these ones are proud of their children's accomplishments and generally delighted that they have found joy and fulfilment in the same field. They can also be fiercely protective, knowing that scholarly criticism, as painful as it can be, can only hurt more coming from a parent.

Many of the children seemed drawn to academia and their discipline by an innate understanding and aptitude. For them, the emotions and experiences are often mixed. They are more prepared than most for academic life and feel at home in the culture, but sometimes struggle with self doubts, wondering if they could have achieved as much as they have without the family connections. They want to measure up to expectations - of both parents and colleagues - and yet strive to distinguish themselves and make their own mark. Some have had to contend with accusations of nepotism. All have had to face unavoidable comparisons.

"Everyone's relationship with their parents is complicated," says one daughter. "Ours is certainly coloured by the fact that we are in the same field."

Living up to the master
As father and son, Leonard and Bernard Linsky share more than genetics. Both are philosophy professors and both leading scholars in the work of English philosopher Bertrand Russell.

"It's amazing," declares the elder Linsky, Leonard, who at 82 years old is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He's perhaps best known as author of Semantics and the Philosophy of Language, a seminal textbook which remains in print 50 years after its first publication.

Though father's and son's interpretations may differ, their subject matter - Russell's contribution to the development of logic - is virtually identical. "It's a bit unusual," allows his son Bernard, a professor at the University of Alberta, who's as measured as one might expect a philosopher to be.

As a high school student Bernard Linsky intended to become a mathematician or a scientist, a hope that was crushed in his first year of university when he took a course in number theory. But that year he also discovered an innate love and understanding of philosophy. "It seemed a bit familiar," he remembers. "I understood what was going on."

Little wonder. When he was nine years old and living with his family in Amsterdam, his father came up with the idea one typically rainy afternoon that to entertain his children he would give a lecture on logic. Bernard recalls the family lectures with amusement but says his father didn't push him into academia. "He never thought I should go into the family business. That just sort of happened."

The younger Dr. Linsky, now 54, completed his undergraduate studies at Chicago in the department where his father taught. He had him as a lecturer. "It was a little embarrassing," he recalls. "He would point at me rather than call me by my name."

The elder Dr. Linsky was highly regarded and his reputation cast a long shadow. Bernard opted to do his PhD at California's Stanford University, hoping the distance would help him make his own mark. "Of course when I got there everyone knew him as well," Bernard laughs. Then there were those awkward job interviews when he found himself riding elevators with distinguished scholars (on whose knees he had likely bounced as a toddler) staring at his name tag. A job opportunity at U of A in 1976 gave him the fresh start he had been seeking. It was there that his attention turned to Russell.

Not even distance, though, could ease the pressure to live up to the family name, particularly in a discipline like philosophy where public scholarly disputes are common. The pressure, he admits, made him too cautious in his writing at times, careful not to overstate his claims. Nonetheless, a colleague once sharply criticized his ideas in an article ("In a footnote," he laughs. "I wasn't dignified by being refuted in the text") but neglected to give proper attribution, leaving the impression that he was criticizing the ideas of the elder Linsky. "We had a good joke over that," says Bernard.

"I think he has a much deeper understanding of Russell than I ever had," says Dr. Linsky of his son. "I'm very proud of him. I admire his intellectual powers which I think exceed mine considerably. I don't think he has as strong a reputation academically as I do but he deserves to."

That may be changing. Not long ago a distinguished scholar praised Bernard, telling him, "You have some of the intellectual virtues of your father." Bernard was pleased though, he adds with a laugh, slightly worried about use of the word "some."

Sharing careers and research interests has brought the two - both private men - closer over the years. "As I get older we've had more to say to each other," says Bernard. "There aren't a whole lot of people working in these fields so it's kind of nice to have one of the world experts at home I can phone up."

On a recent visit to the Bertrand Russell archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, his first impulse, he says, was to call his father and share the excitement.

Joy in sharing a life's work
What binds Mark Skinner intellectually with his son Matthew is their mutual love of fossils - a love discovered by both in the dry barren lands of southern Alberta.

"It was a great place to understand nature," reminisces Mark Skinner, professor of biological anthropology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Skinner, now 58 years old, spent his childhood there, digging for dinosaur teeth and other archeological treasures, and years later returned with his own children each summer so they could do the same.

"That time we spent together in the badlands of Alberta looking for fossils influenced me more than I may have realized," says Matthew, who's now pursuing his PhD in human paleobiology (a branch of biological anthropology) at George Washington University.

He didn't plan to follow in his father's footsteps and began his undergraduate studies in political science. Perhaps anthropology was a calling he couldn't resist. The Skinner family's "involvement with death and anatomy" goes back generations, muses Dr. Skinner, whose own father was a coroner in Medicine Hat, Alberta; his great grandfather was an osteologist (an anatomist who deals with skeletons) in England at the turn of the last century.

Destiny aside, Matthew, now 28, enrolled in anthropology at SFU, curious to see what his father did for a living. He discovered a familiarity and aptitude for the subject that had eluded him in political science. During his undergraduate years, he and his father commuted to campus together, usually talking shop along the way. His father taught him courses and later supervised his honours essay, although he left the marking to TAs and others in the department.

Having your child in your classroom "makes you vulnerable and it makes you do a better job," says Mark Skinner. When his son is in class, "I cannot blow a lecture. I cannot look stupid." But he admits to having done just that on at least one occasion - a lecture on DNA. Afterwards, he had to contend with his son's blunt appraisal: "That was awful," Matthew told his dad.

At other times, having your child in the classroom can stir up deep and unexpected emotions, says Dr. Skinner, who also works as a forensic anthropologist, monitoring exhumations of mass graves. One occasion stands out: He was telling his class about his work in northern Bosnia and about a young man who had joined the search team with the hope of finding his missing father.

"We excavated a bunch of bodies that day and they were all in body bags lying on a floor in a warehouse. I saw him walking back and forth in front of these body bags and then he stopped. He looked at me and said 'I found him.' Even now it moves me that he would do that [for his father]." As he was describing the scene to his class with Matthew in attendance, Dr. Skinner broke down in tears and left the lecture hall.

Having a son with whom he can share his life's work has brought Dr. Skinner immense joy and satisfaction. "I'm still filled with wonderment that he cares about the particular areas that I work in and that he's so brilliant," says Dr. Skinner. "He's very much suited for a professional career as an academic and that's enormously pleasing."

Matthew, aside from the practical tips he picked up on writing and researching, learned something else at his father's feet. "More so than other professions, academia - I think if you choose to let it - can dominate your life. I think [my father] would probably say he sacrificed much for his academic pursuits. One of the things I've learned from him is to think about how much time you put into this and to try to maintain a balance in your life."

Coming home to Western
Tilottama Rajan admits somewhat sheepishly that she grew up wanting and believing she would follow in her father's footsteps.

"My father was a very formative influence in my life," says Dr. Rajan, an English professor at the University of Western Ontario, where her father, Balachandra Rajan, was a renowned scholar of English, as well as a former Indian diplomat. "When I was a child I used to imagine that I would become a diplomat. Then when he went back to teaching I would imagine that I would become an academic.

"Which does make me sound very imitative," she adds with a small laugh. But, looking back now, she isn't surprised she's ended up in the same profession or the same discipline because in temperament she and her father are very similar. Their research paths, though, have diverged. The elder Dr. Rajan focused on the work of the 17th century English poet John Milton, while she felt more of an affinity towards the later Romantics.

Their careers have been similar in many ways, both encountering adversity at the start - he as a member of a visible minority in post-war England and she as a young woman scholar growing up in the shadow of her distinguished father. The elder Dr. Rajan, who at 84 continues to write and publish, began his academic career at Cambridge University but found his advancement there hampered by racial prejudice. "I don't think they were ready for an Indian teaching English in 1947," says Dr. Rajan. "I was told informally that had it been any other subject but English there would have been no difficulty."

So he left both England and academia and spent the next 14 years as a member of the Indian Foreign Service. He eventually returned to academic life, teaching first at the University of New Delhi before finally settling at Western.

In the early part of her career the younger Dr. Rajan, now 53, had to contend with comparisons to her father. She remembers one particularly stinging encounter. After presenting a paper at Brock University, one professor asked her publicly: "Why don't you write like your father?" Also, she says, when she landed a junior faculty position at Queen's University, there were also suggestions "that I got a job because he was my father."

Perhaps this is why she has sought to put some professional distance between them, choosing the University of Toronto for her undergraduate work, rather than Western. She went on to teach at Queen's and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it wasn't until her father had retired that she accepted a position at Western, where she now holds a Canada Research Chair in English and Theory.

Although they've always maintained a good relationship, she resisted showing him her academic work, particular during her undergraduate years, to avoid any criticism. He resisted asking many questions. "She had a mind of her own and I preferred to leave it to develop by itself rather than impose any kind of guidance on it," he says.

Instead, he provided emotional support, mentorship and professional advice, all things that weren't as readily available to students in those days as they are today, particularly to women students, she says.

Growing up in an academic household gave her a good idea of the politics in the profession, but there were still some surprises. "I found in my early years that you simply could not trust your colleagues," says Dr. Rajan. "If you had a problem with teaching you should not confess that to them. I was idealistic enough to think that everyone had had these problems early in their careers so they'd be sympathetic."

When Dr. Rajan accepted the post at Western in 1990, it was in many ways like coming home. Surrounded by friends and colleagues, she instantly felt a sense of security and belonging. Four years later she became one of the youngest scholars elected to the Royal Society of Canada, joining her father and, he notes with obvious parental pride, becoming one of the society's few father-daughter members.

Pleasure tinged with pressure
Rachel Wortis grew up awestruck by two things: the beauty of shapes - "like soap bubbles, snowflakes and crystals" - and the sheer joy her father derived from his work.

"There's no question that he influenced my decision enormously," says the younger Dr. Wortis, assistant professor of physics at Trent University and daughter of Michael Wortis, professor emeritus of physics at Simon Fraser University. Not because he pressured her, "but because he loves what he does and I can see that. He's so happy and so [physics] always seemed like it would be exciting and interesting."

She remembers the day, as a young schoolgirl, when her father showed her a microscopic photograph of a tiny gold droplet. "My Dad talked to me about how there were flat parts of it and curved parts of it," she recalls. He described how its shape changed depending on the temperature. "I remember thinking the picture was beautiful."

With time, it seemed only natural to pursue a career in physics. After completing her undergraduate studies at Harvard, Rachel (now 36), enrolled at the University of Illinois, where her father had taught for some 20 years before joining SFU. He'd already left by then, but "every member of my PhD committee had known me since I was in diapers." To her, the department seemed like a friendly welcoming place, not part of a big impersonal institution.

She didn't have to contend with allegations of favouritism or nepotism; it helps that in physics, unlike some more subjective disciplines, there is only one right answer, she says. But there were problems with other people's expectations. "Everyone wanted me to turn out to be this great whiz kid in physics," she says.

In fact, she has found great satisfaction in academic life. "I feel so comfortable in this environment," she says. "I fit in so well." She relishes the company of other physicists, whom she describes as people with boundless curiosity yet great humility. Academic conferences feel more like family reunions.

The one obstacle she struggles with is her reticence to discuss her work with her father. "It's frustrating, to feel as though no matter how good I'll get . . . I will never catch up to him," she explains after careful consideration. As she sees it, his vast experience will always make him a better physicist. "It would be nice to enjoy the things he can teach me and not be frustrated by the fact that there's not a whole lot I can teach him." She senses this may be starting to change as she gets more established in her own career.

The elder Dr. Wortis, who is 68, admits that he too has avoided asking questions about his daughter's work, particularly earlier in her career, for fear his curiosity would be mistaken for criticism. "I've always waited for Rachel to come and tell me what she was doing."

He explains that "when you work in science you are aware most of the time of how stupid you are. You are working on problems that you don't know the answer to." It's one thing to probe your students for answers to what may be unanswerable riddles and quite another to do it to your child.

But now, he says, they work in sufficiently different research areas that he doesn't feel he has anything "particularly wise to add" to her work.

Of course he's pleased that in physics and academia she has found the same sense of happiness and satisfaction he has. But, he adds, "anybody with kids will tell you that all you care about in the end is that they are happy."

Family of five
As far as academic dynasties go, the Andermann family clearly stands out as one of the largest in Canada.

The parents, Frederick and Eva Andermann, are both neurology professors at McGill University and well known for their pioneering work in epilepsy research. For many years the two have worked together at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill, where he heads the epilepsy unit and she, the neurogenetics department. They are best known, among their many accomplishments, for identifying in the 1970s what later came to be known as Andermann's syndrome, a debilitating and degenerative disease of the nervous system concentrated in patients of the Saguenay and Charlevoix regions of Quebec.

For their three children these must have been big shoes to fill, yet each of them embraced careers in medical research. Lisa, the eldest at 37, is assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Anne, 31, is a Rhodes Scholar and nearing completion of her family medicine residency at McGill. Mark, 26, is pursuing a PhD in biophysics at Harvard.

"We've tried not to influence them or push them," says Eva Andermann. On the other hand, they grew up surrounded by medical researchers and often accompanied their parents on their travels, to Europe, India, Brazil or the Canary Islands, sometimes to present papers at medical conferences, sometimes to visit patients.

"I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have at the time," muses Mark. "It was like the whole world and their kids would come by the house and stay a few days."

Yet it all contributed to a sense of familiarity with the academic and medical professions, says Anne: "The interest and excitement [my parents] have in these areas has sort of rubbed off." She says she hasn't felt any pressure to live up to expectations, and it helps that each family member has found a niche.

In fact, the medical-research dynasty goes back further still. Eva's parents, Mina and Leon Deutsch, were both young Jewish doctors who worked in Poland under the Nazi regime (the Nazis turned a blind eye, explains Lisa, because they desperately needed medical care for their soldiers in Poland). When things became impossible for Polish Jews, the couple went underground, later emigrating to Canada where they retrained as psychiatrists. While Leon died relatively young, Mina had a long career at McGill University's Douglas Hospital during a time of great discovery in the field of psychiatry at McGill. (She died recently at the age of 92.)

All three children agree that growing up in an academic household brought many obvious career perks, including solid advice on writing research papers, a ready-made professional network and inside knowledge about such hidden challenges as the backroom politics of academia.

But there were downsides too. Having parents with demanding careers often meant they didn't come home until the three kids were asleep, says Mark. The toughest part, though, was his own internal struggle to accept that he has benefited from his family connections (he got his first job - working with PET imaging - through his parents) while at the same time not selling short his own accomplishments. "I think one of the challenges has been trying to prove to myself that I can do things on my own. It's a little bit daunting because you never know how much it's really you."

Lisa adds, "Sometimes you think about wanting to make your own contribution and wanting to be in a place where they aren't so well-known." Early on she avoided medicine, opting for an undergraduate degree in anthropology. But she now happily finds herself attending medical conferences with her parents as colleagues, and even collaborating on the occasional paper.

On a recent trip to Harvard, Frederick Andermann accepted an invitation to visit his son's class to speak about his lifelong work in epilepsy research. For Mark, it was just one more occasion to be proud.

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