Tag Archives: Frank H. J. Figge

‘Grit is downstream from longing’

1973 BFF_at_SRV“The G.P.A. ethos takes spirited children and pushes them to be hard working but complaisant.” So said David Brooks in the New York Times in a column I want to keep, hence I’m writing about it now. Read it here and we can compare notes. Brooks says striving for the highest grades is “one of the more destructive elements in American education.”

I’ve been thinking about this since the ’70s when I watched children enrolled at a private progressive school, School in Rose Valley, which encouraged individual enthusiasm. I taught there for a year, as at left. When students transferred to public school. I saw lust for creativity at least temporarily squashed. At least those children didn’t succumb to “high GPA fever” as evidenced by OK but not outstanding grade averages.

Then we moved to  Princeton where some fight tooth and nail for GPA honors. Grade mongering is also rampant in neighboring districts, dare I finger West Windsor-Plainsboro? (As an aside, parents choose this value when they buy a house  according to a column in the Washington Post:  “Forty to fifty years of social-science research tells us what an important context neighborhoods are, so buying a neighborhood is probably one of the most important things you can do for your kid,” says Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.)

But arduous pursuit of grades is not all bad, according to Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur fellow and author of the new book “Grit: the power of passion and perseverance” as quoted by Brooks. People with grit also have a high moral purpose, she says, and “they know in a very very deep way what it is that they want. Everybody’s life is organized around some longing.”

fhjf grading papers with E
Frank H. J. Figge at the dining room table, with a granddaughter working alongside.

That helps explain my own motivation. I grew up with parents who took their work home, who worked all hours of the day and night to Get Things Done. My father taught medical school, did cancer research, and edited anatomy volumes. My mother helped him. They exemplified grit, a passion to succeed that was organized, not around grades, but around what you could accomplish. Drawn in also, to help, my sister and I absorbed the self discipline that, as Brooks points out, can lead to career success.

How do you teach this, or can it be taught? Can it be only absorbed? Brooks says that people with grit have a strong inner desire. “Grit is thus downstream from desire. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.”

Duckworth says that schools could be designed — not to encourage scrabbling for grades but to “elevate and intensify longings.” In a school like that,  Brooks suggests, “you might even deemphasize the G.P.A. mentality, which puts a tether on passionate interests and substitutes other people’s longings for the student’s own.”

When I talk to high school seniors, as an alumna interviewer of a selective college, it’s hard to differentiate between an overprogrammed student who has been coached to be enthusiastic about a cause and one who has a true deep passion for a cause. Then I wonder — isn’t it OK to find your passion later in life? Yes, I decided, if you established your “grit” when you were young.– Barbara Fox






‘Happy Chuckle’ – – Tears to My Eyes


When emotions get in the way of getting things done, sometimes you just have to let the work go. On Tuesday a copy of my father’s obituary, printed in the University of Maryland Medical School alumni magazine exactly 40 years ago, landed in my email box. I could think about nothing else all day.

How it happened: My daughter, Susannah Fox, spoke on Tuesday at the University of Maryland Health Sciences and Human Services Library on Embracing M Health: Mobilizing Healthcare, a main focus for her at the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Susannah’s grandfather, my father, Frank Henry John Figge, died when she was three, but he looms large in family memories. He taught at the medical school for 44 years, and my mother, Rosalie Yerkes Figge, worked alongside him, helping in his research, all that time.  As a prelude to her talk, Susannah ad-libbed a tribute to them, and the librarian — being a librarian — thoughtfully responded by ferreting out the obituary record to give her.

In these excerpts, the bolded phrases mark characteristics I knew about but had not seen put into words. I am sure I read these kind words when they were printed, but I had not looked at them for 40 years. Hence, the tears.

. . .Dr. Figge was a close associate of another famous
Maryland anatomist, Dr. Eduard Uhlenhuth,  with a relationship of almost father and son.  While both were excellent anatomists and master  teachers, their methods and approaches were far distant, with Figge becoming a “friend” and confidante to many of his students, particularly the top ones and the ones in trouble. He directed the studies of a number of graduate students in anatomy and other subjects, many of whom will be leading teachers in their time. His relationship to the students was close, warm and  concerned. This was apparent in personal teaching, interviews, advisory sessions and private conversations….

. . .On the occasion of the passing of Dr. Figge it is no exaggeration to state that the University of Maryland, its faculty, students and friends have suffered a great loss. Comment has been made on the uniqueness of this great man. His eternal youthful appearance even with the passing years was a source of wonder. One can still see the genuine smile and hear the happy chuckle that characterized his greetings. His philosophy of relationship with others of all walks of life was that of the truly concerned and friendly Christian which smoothed over many situations which could have otherwise been very difficult. His scientific foresight and scanning of the horizon marked him as a true research brain and helped him lead the budding university of his youth into investigative fields. His influence and personal touch will be sorely missed at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and in his many other interests and walks of life by a multitude who are privileged to be called his friends.

Today, October 25, is the day he died 40 years ago, but it is also a day of rejoicing, because seven years ago today my eighth and last grandchild was born.

What does all this mean? Now I know that words of tribute are even more important than I’d realized. We lost a good friend recently, and it is tempting to just send a sympathy card to his teenage children and go on with the day. Now I know that’s not enough. Someone took the time to capture my father’s spirit in words that enliven my memory 40 years later. I need to do the same for their father.

P.S., If you wrote this, or know who wrote it, please tell me!

The $2 Billion Mouse

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Medarex (just bought by Bristol-Myers Squibb for nearly double the stock price) because Medarex has a transgenic mouse that can produce therapeutic antibodies that mirror a human’s antibodies. .

Mice are my favorite critters anyway, because I literally grew up in the Frank H.J. Figge mouse lab. The lab had 5,000 mice, who owed their existence to my father’s cancer research efforts, and my late mother, Rosalie Yerkes Figge, ran the breeding colony. My sister and I helped out in the family business with such age-appropriate tasks as filing records and filling glass bowls with cedar shavings (at five years old), transferring mice by their tails to clean bowls (age seven), and separating and marking the adolescent mice (age 10).

So when Donald Drakeman (left) started Medarex as a monoclonal antibody company in 1987 and 10 years later bought Genpharm with its transgenic HuMAb mouse, developed by Nils Lonberg, I was personally and professionally intrigued. Given the cost and time needed to administer clinical trials to humans, the Medarex mouse can help bring important drugs to market quickly and cheaply. I thought Drakeman was pretty smart to wend his way through some nasty patent disputes and emerge, owning the mouse.

Drakeman and his wife, Lisa Drakeman, have been on the cover of U.S. 1 at least three times, starting in 1987 when it was a pop-and-mom shop with offices at 20 Nassau Street. She came to Medarex as SVP of business development and moved on to be CEO of Genmab. He is no longer with Medarex but she is still at Genmab, based in Denmark but with an office here in Princeton.

Yesterday Bristol-Myers Squibb bought Medarex for what amounts to $2.1 billion, and this morning the stock of both companies shot up, with Medarex nearly doubling to $15 plus.

What does this do for GenMab? Nothing, GenMab claims. Medarex has sold most of its GenMab stock, earned in return for granting 16 prepaid licenses to use the special mouse for drug development. Medarex still owns 5 percent of GenMab, says GenMab’s PR person, Lucy McNiece. Of the 16 licenses, 13 have been used.

And now, of course, I kick myself for not having bought Medarex stock. Before I left my job at U.S. 1 in 2008, it would have been a conflict of interest for me to own it and also report on it. After that, naysaying from a stock broker (who shall remain nameless) deterred me.

But as my doc brother in law says, the Retro Spectroscope is never wrong. And congratulations to the prescient Medarex stockholders, the Drakeman family, and New Jersey’s biotech community. A rising tide raises all boats.

Family Values

My father, Frank H. J. Figge, was a cancer research scientist, and he used to tell me that “Nothing is ever completely true or completely false.” A useful mantra for a reporter. When he died, I was a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom with three children and an intense desire to tap his creative legacy. I learned by doing, as a stringer for a daily paper, and then specialized in dance.

After 10 years of freelancing as a dance writer, I got my dream job, working for Rich Rein at U.S. 1 Newspaper, Princeton’s business and entertainment journal, then a monthly, now weekly (www.princetoninfo.com). Covering business or technology, I discovered, was like covering dance. You present a personality, and you translate the technical terms into words that a layperson can understand. Whether writing about a choreographer, an entrepreneur, or a scientist — they are all “people” stories.

Two decades later I’m freelancing for U.S. 1, on a less stringent schedule. Freed from editing responsiblities, I am “out and about,” meeting business people and attending concerts. Virtually every day, someone I meet or something in the news reminds me of a person I’ve interviewed or an article I wrote, two or 20 years ago. I resisted blogging (what? put stuff up on the web that no one else has edited? do wordsmithing for free? make my reporter’s life public?) Why not just keep a journal?

Because journaling is private, and I’ve been putting words out for public consumption for so many years that it feels right to keep doing it. Perhaps my perspective will be useful — and provoke you to add yours. The comments page is open, and you don’t have to “join” or “sign up” though any identification you might provide would be most welcome. What did your father or mother tell you that affects how you do your work today?