It was a simple task, really. Hand out programs to those attending the Distinguished Scientist ceremony in May. “How hard can this be?” I thought to myself. That was before I tried to check my e-mail on my iPhone during a lull, and hold the programs at the same time. All 62 ended up on the floor.
I bent over to pick them up and glanced out the window of the Durham Research Tower. There was Dr. Jonathan Vennerstrom, hustling down the sidewalk across the street. He looked so ordinary in his baseball cap and corduroy pants.
If he was just the guy ahead of you in line at the grocery store, you’d never know he’s working on a cure for malaria. How would you know? Sure, he looks smart, but unless you resemble Einstein, people assume nothing. It reminded me of Clark Kent. How no one knew what he was capable of by just looking at him.
Dr. Vennerstrom walked into the auditorium and removed his hat. I gave him my standard greeting, followed by his name. He paused, gave me a quizzical “how do you know me?” look, and proceeded into the auditorium.
It happened again with Dr. Chris Kratchovil, a guru of sorts in clinical psychology research, and assistant to the Vice Chancellor for Research. It was that, “wait, you know me?” look.
What these researchers fail to realize is that they are our local superheroes. When one of them puts on a white coat, it transforms into a cape. They might not be rescuing a damsel in distress, but their work is just as heroic. Working on a cure for malaria. Testing medicines for ADHD. And like the Scientist Laureate honored that day, Dr. Tony Hollingsworth, devising tests and therapies for the deadliest cancer out there — pancreatic.
These researchers are humble. But so are we — the ones who support them, the ones who order the supplies for their experiments, the ones who make sure the lab is clean and comfortable. But we matter. Without us — the supporting cast and crew — cures don’t happen, drugs don’t get tested and – in my case – the community doesn’t get to know the UNMC story because there’s no one there to tell it. We may not have capes, but we are superheroes in disguise, too. Even if we’re just handing out programs.