My Biology Story

My Biology Story

Stories of peoples’ life transitions are compelling. The influences, sometime major, sometimes minor, that send us hurtling off in new directions are amazing. In my late 20s, I had a love affair with science as the foundation of my plan to go medical school. A large part of that happened at San Francisco State University.

Last week I received an email from the SF State biology department inviting me to share my biology story. The beginning and end of that adventure was a huge transition in my life. So, I sent off the following tale:

Dear Kai,

Great to get your Bio Connect Magazine, including the invitation to share my biology story. I suspect my story is very different from other grads who might respond. 

After getting  a BA in psych from SF State, I worked in the VD clinic in the Berkeley Public Health Department. That experience turned me on the medicine. So, in my mid-20s, with mediocre grades and no science background, I decided to go to med school. I started studying science in junior college, then returned to State as a biology major.

Something had changed since my undergrad days – mainly I had a huge passion and vision for my new goal: med school. Even without a science background, I figured if I studied my ass off, I could do this.

For several years at SF State in biology, I had a rollicking good time. To my surprise, I could do this science stuff. Studying hard was the key. I remember some classes with great fondness: 

  • Zoology with John Hensill
  • Microbiology
  • Genetics (the structure of DNA had only been worked out 10 years earlier – very exciting)
  • Organic chem – loved learning about the Krebs cycle, and how the formula for the benzene ring was worked out.
  • Cell Physiology (who could forget the “semipermeable membrane”?) My semester project was the effect of LSD on slime mold.
  • Human Physiology (From my lab notebook): 

The key to my success, in addition to studying like hell, was a faculty beyond compare. The professors inspired me. John Hensill was amazing. Can’t remember the names of the others – but their influence on my life was huge. 

So what happened next? At 29 even with good Med CAT scores, and a good science grade point, I didn’t get into med school. I was accepted for a masters program in biology at State, but my heart wasn’t in it. I dropped out.

About a year later, I got into a SF State psych masters program. With my science background I could deal with the biological psych stuff that came my way. After getting my  masters, I entered a humanistic psychology PhD program. I taught psych for several years at Bay Area schools, including SF State. 

Like when I left biology, I left psychology in 1980 to get a job in industry at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto. But I was never cut out for a career in corporate. I have huge authority problems and was always telling my bosses to go to hell. So in 1985 I started my own company, PowerSpeaking, Inc. It all started in a spare bedroom with a telephone and a Rolodex. Today, it is a world-wide business with 34 trainers presenting more than 300 programs a year. 

But, back to biology at State. With our headquarters in Redwood City, a huge part of our business was with tech companies in Silicon Valley and with engineers and scientists.  As I developed the company it became clear that my science background gave us a huge advantage in the marketplace.

In addition to the class PowerSpeaking, we developed HighTechSpeaking, for scientists and engineers. Our major client was Genentech. (Yes, let’s talk about Watson and Crick.)

On a personal level, it was a thrill to realize that I didn’t feel intimidated by the high-powered PhDs who came through our workshops. I could talk to them about the benzene ring, slim mold, and semipermeable membranes with confidence. I owe it all the SF State and that wonderful biology department in the late 1960s.

So, hooray for you. Thanks for what you are doing. Sorry for being so long winded, but when you asked  for my biology story, the flood gates opened. 

All my best,

Rick Gilbert

So, what were YOUR turning points?

Who were the major influences in how your life worked out?

Tony Bennett

From the Monterey Jazz Festival

3 thoughts on “My Biology Story

  1. Susan Page says:

    That is quite a fabulous story, Rick. I surely am glad they did not accept you to med school. Look what we would have missed! And then hearing how your science background helped you so much in developing training for tech speakers, that’s just a lovely full-circle story. The way you kept trying new avenues when the old ones became dead ends is a true inspiration.

  2. Patricia T. Green says:

    I have a similar story, when I rebelled against my mothers’ determination that I would be a nurse, I didn’t know what i would do, but did embark on an interesting job that allowed me to spend 21/2 years traveling overseas. When I became a Medical Social Worker instead, the pre-nursing science classes came in handy. although one of my RN friends commented that” one could always carry a bedpan “as a nurse.

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