What’s in your DNA?

I had one of those moments this week – the kind that gives you a perspective on yourself that you didn’t expect. Sometimes that can be disconcerting, but in this case, it was reassuring. I was long overdue for getting my vision checked. One of the steps involved taking a photo of my retina, that wall in the back of your eye where some pretty amazing cells turn the energy from light photons into signals your brain can interpret. It’s a pretty important feature for me.

I’m not sure why it looked green back there, but that’s a good color, so I didn’t ask. Within the green background, I could clearly see the blood vessels that keep my retina well supplied with the fuel those sensory cells need – oxygen and glucose. The optometrist talked me through the landmarks of my retinas. As a biologist, I’m always fascinated with the images today’s technology can produce. But my attention kept going back to those blood vessels, thinking about how important they are to my ability to see.

After the tour of my retinas, the optometrist brought up photos of my retinas from three years ago, and immediately I went back to those blood vessels. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, but I was struck by how similar the two photos were, having been taken three years apart. They weren’t just similar – they were identical. Other than the date stamp on the electronic image, nothing distinguished the 2009 image from the 2012 image. There aren’t many things about my life that have remained unchanged over the past three years. My hair is lighter colored and thinner than it used to be. My legs don’t move as fast as they used to. There’s that crook in my shoulder and an ongoing battle against tooth decay that I take very seriously (I’m winning). But there it was before me – something that looked as good as it did three years ago.

The fact that I was surprised made me realize that my thoughts often are dominated by the things that I’m wrestling with – challenges from within and from without, things that force me to change. It led me to reflect on what hasn’t changed over the past three years, and building the list has helped me to look forward to this season of celebration and the promise of a new year. Here’s a start on my list of things that haven’t changed:

  1. My family: I’m fortunate to share my life with a tremendously gifted and optimistic spouse, and we are blessed with two sons who brighten our days.
  2. My DNA: As much as I might like to re-engineer a few things about my genetics (taller, faster, smarter), it’s a blessing that our DNA doesn’t change – it’s a rock I know I can count on, like it or not. It’s what gave me that pattern of blood vessels I saw on the image of my retinas this week, a pattern that hasn’t changed.
  3. My employment home: I’ve been fortunate to have a career that I characterize as that of a professional and permanent student, and I get to practice that vocation at an institution whose values have shaped and sustained me. They are summarized nicely in this opening line to the “About MSU” web page: Spartans work every day to advance the common good in uncommon ways. That hasn’t changed in 157 years. Spartans will.
  4. My colleagues: What makes a university special is the people who make it a university. I get to work with Extension professionals – folks who are deeply committed to the people we serve in Michigan and the promise of our state’s human and natural resources. I marvel at what they can accomplish and the difference they make in the lives of people across the state. This university would not be what it is without the spirit and dedication of my colleagues in MSU Extension and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
  5. My geographic home: We live in the heart of the North American Great Lakes – a tremendous natural feature that holds 20 percent of the earth’s fresh water. We live and work on landscapes that give testimony to awesome and powerful glaciers that skimmed the surface of some ancient and diverse geologic features.

The list goes on, but even if it were a list of only one steady constant in my life, I think I would still find it reassuring to know that there is at least one constant I can count on. My DNA isn’t changing and knowing that makes it easier to take on the challenges and changes I experience every day.

The certainty and constancy of an organization’s mission isn’t as unchangeable as a person’s DNA. We depend on social and cultural constructs to take the role of DNA in ensuring that whatever comes along as a threat, our core set of instructions, our guiding principles, will ensure that we remain the organization we were founded to be. Our colleagues, our stakeholders, our students, our alumni and our donors all contribute to that organizational DNA. And my faith that we will remain true to our mission is grounded in the quality of the people, with many different perspectives, who tug and push to make sure MSU remains the land-grant university that Michigan needs us to be now and in the future. At this special time of year, I am particularly grateful for those people who help to make sure that MSU’s DNA remains immutable.

I wish you many special moments with family and friends at this special time of year and plenty of time to reflect on your blessings.

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One response to “What’s in your DNA?

  1. Cheryl Peters

    Thanks for such an inspiring message! There are many things to be thankful for when we take time to appreciate. I also marvel at the motivated and bright people I have the honor to work among at MSUE.