Viewpoint: The pursuit of a career in vision research

November 1, 2010

The chief medical editor reflects on stocks, retirement and careers in research.

"What's the difference between a Vail ski instructor and an investor? The ski instructor was always broke." http://www.stta-consulting.com/jokes/stm_jokes.htm

One individual has gone on to be a department chairman and excellent teacher, with a very large and successful clinical practice. Although I had been the professor, it was obvious to me all those years ago that this fellow was easily the smarter of the two of us (now all my old fellows think I am writing about them). At any rate, this person and I keep in touch and try to get together for a refreshing beverage and chat when we are in the same city.

"Why? What will you do?" I asked.

"I am going to move to [a different city] and do research. Working in the lab always made me the happiest when I was a fellow," came the reply.

Remembering back to how this person had been unusually talented and excited by research projects, this made sense to me.

My friend explained that due to large and quite successful investments in the stock market, this goal would not be a problem financially. Using an online trading service and devoting significant time to researching stocks had paid off handsomely. In the next few minutes I was given some specific examples of stocks that had done very well, as well as some tips on which stocks might do well in the coming months and which to avoid. The investment portfolio would provide an income while my colleague spent time in the lab, enjoying the excitement of scientific discovery.

Less than a year after this conversation, the worldwide financial crisis triggered the dramatic stock market decline, and people like me were depressed to receive our mutual fund statements that revealed dwindling balances. At our next get-together, I expressed sympathy (being the empathic person I am) that the market decline had no doubt necessitated a postponement of his plan to retire from practice and teaching to pursue research.

"Not at all. About 3 months before the crash, I sold all my stocks," responded my friend, in between sips of a martini.

"What!" I spluttered. "I always knew you were smarter than me, but how did you know to do that?!"

He told me a story of being in the operating room with an ophthalmology resident one morning. While scrubbing before surgery, the resident shared that, having observed the impressive gains in the stock market reported in the news, he had taken his entire paycheck from the previous month and made his first ever stock purchase. Excited by the prospect of beginning to generate substantial investment returns, he had resolved to put all of his disposable income every month into the market. But the resident did have one question for his professor: "What exactly is a stock?"

"When we were done with surgery that day, I sat down at my computer and sold all my stock," my friend told me, smiling and reaching for his martini glass.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD
Director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu