Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Some friend he turned out to be

Jenny and Dave Christensen at Dave's retirement in 2003
Dr. David A Christensen, Professor Emeritus, Animal and Poultry Science, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan has been my professor, mentor and friend since undergraduate days.  He graduated from U of S himself 11 years before me.  If you look at the grad pictures from that year you recognize a lot of scientists.  There were no jobs in 1958 so they all went to grad school.

Dave was a dairy cattle nutritionist and I think frustrated human nutritionist as he seemed to enjoy human nutrition as much as ruminant nutrition.  He taught nutrition to the Medical Students, less than 1/4 of a semester.  You know where it says always consult your doctor before going on a diet...Dave just laughs.  (I advise consulting your veterinarian as they are far better trained in nutrition).

You can read about his career here. We got along quite well.  I think he tolerated me because I could be used as a bad academic example to warn other students.

The summer between 3rd and 4th year, I worked for him.  One of the projects was a digestibility trial featuring clover screenings.  Four x Four Latin Square design; four rations, four steers, three weeks adjustment, one week measurement; everybody change; repeat four times.  All data was written in a scribbler, hung on the wall beside the steer pen.  There was no backup.

Close to the end of the 3rd replicate, on a Sunday morning, I was late getting there to feed the steers.  Ten a.m. instead of 7 a.m.. One steer had stretched his long neck and longer tongue to reach the notebook and ate it.  Did I mention I hate Jersey steers? In panic and terror (I HAD been warned) I raced to his house.  His wife Jenny comforted me with bacon and eggs while Dave laughed at me and redesigned the trial so we wouldn't lose three months, only two.  The digestibility of ink-filled notebooks featured in successive nutrition classes over the years.

High tech analysis was a long way off and wet chemistry was the norm.  The Kjeldahl method of determining crude protein (nitrogen) involved digesting the sample in concentrated sulphuric acid, adding concentrated sodium hydroxide to neutralize the acid and boiling the mixture to drive off ammonia which was captured and measured.  If you didn't mix the acid and base carefully enough, when it started to boil it would explode.  When they closed the old building years later, I still was tied for the record of blowing up the Kjeldahl room most often.

In 4th year we had to write a thesis which was actually a glorified term paper but could involve actual research.  Mine was straight literature review.  We had all year to work on it which means I didn't start until after final exams were over and Dave put a gun to my head.  It was a month late.  He knocked me back from an A to a B for the effort he put into getting me to write it.

Yet for all this when I showed up five years later to do graduate work, he was willing to take me on as my advisor. I was just married and Ella said she would work two years to put me through before we started a family.  I think Dave figured with Ella around he wouldn't have to do all the nagging.  He was doing cereal silage work in those days, which was perfect as the crop grew in summer, you fed it in winter and did your analysis in spring.

His office was filled with tables, on and under which were stacks of paper three feet deep.  He did not need Google Desktop.  Ask him about anything and in two minutes he could locate the paper in the middle of a pile somewhere.

There was always a lineup of students waiting to get into his office.  I have no idea why unless they were masochistic but you always came out smarter than you went in.  He cross-examined like a trial lawyer and could pick holes in the best of arguments.  I apparently said once, "If you think you don't have any problems, go and see Dr. Christensen". It was quoted ever after as Hingston's Law of Graduate Studies.

At the end of two years, all the research and analysis was completed.  With a new baby and a new job, I flung my data into a box, knowing I had three more years to complete my thesis.  (You can see where this is going?)  At the beginning of the fifth year, I dug out the box and began writing.  Ella had an IBM Selectric typewriter and we went to work.  Now anyone who has ever written one of these things knows that multiple drafts are a necessary evil.  My first draft was pretty good other than it was organized according to Hingston not according to Hoyle.

About this time, my boss died of a massive heart attack and I was doing his job as well as my own and never home.  Dave and Ella revised the thesis over the phone (we were several hours from Saskatoon) as it was getting close to the April deadline.  Two more drafts and it was a done deal.  There was some mention at my oral defence that they had the wrong person in the room.  I said, "Go ahead. Ella knows this thing as well or better than I do and understands it too".

We stayed in touch over the years. Dave was always my resource for dairy nutrition since I was more into beef cattle.  We share much the same cynical sense of humour.  He has been to and worked in more countries than I have.  Last time I was in Saskatchewan I grabbed a whole afternoon to visit him. and we email back and forth usually once a month or so.

Which brings us to last night, I dreamed (no idea why) that Dave and I were teaching a nutrition class together.  I was supposed to get paid but Dave deducted for all my personality deficiencies and I had to pay him.  True story, I swear to God.


  1. My claim to fame now long forgotten was that my last paper from a comparative arts class ended up getting my professor a cushy job at another university. Another of my papers was used as the basis of a graduate level course. I would have continued on to a masters but saw no value of having an advanced degree in creative writing.

    Yes I see your point here as I too am the consummate procrastinator. I'd probably have to pay a publisher for the privilege.

    1. Kind of quiet satisfaction knowing you are responsible for something good even if no one else knows.

  2. Maybe the dream says more about you than it does about Dave, eh?

  3. I really enjoyed this little portrait. And at the end I was so relieved because I kept expecting you to say he had just died. How nice that you wrote this while Dave is still around to read it. He does sound like the consummate educator.

    1. I expect he will be around for a while yet. He is a young man. And, yes, an excellent educator.

  4. My dad took a diploma in Agriculture at the U of M back in the late 60s/early 70s (I can't remember exactly when), and he subsequently worked with the Department of Agriculture for a number of years. I'm sure I remember him mentioning a Dr. Christensen. I wonder if it's the same person. Small world...

    1. I expect it was the same. Dr. Christensen's classmate, Ray Ingalls, was the dairy nutrition prof at U of M. Your dad likely knew him too if he worked for the Manitoba Dept of Ag.

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