The final hurdle for all Ph.D. candidates in our department at the university was an oral defense of their thesis work. The thesis was a formal report of the research project that had usually taken candidates years to finish. Along the way, they had to satisfy a list of course requirements, and the knowledge that they should have learned in these courses was also fair game for questioning by an Advisory Committee of faculty members who had guided the candidate over the years and attended the oral defense.
The way the thesis defense worked in our department was that the candidate prepared a talk summarizing his or her work, and presented this talk for the first 20–30 minutes of their defense. Anybody, including other faculty members not on the Advisory Committee, fellow graduate students, family members, and even undergraduate students could attend this talk. When the talk had been completed, anyone in the audience could ask questions of the candidate, and, when these were all exhausted, everyone except the candidate and the Advisory Committee was excused. That’s when the important questions were posed. After a while, when questions from the Advisory Committee had been satisfied, or not, the candidate would be dismissed, the committee would discuss the candidate’s merits, and a vote would be taken to determine whether or not the candidate would pass the exam and receive a degree. If truth be told, most of us faculty members knew before the exam if the candidate was going to pass.
It was a tradition in our department that candidates would bring refreshments to the exam. Perhaps they thought that their Advisory Committees could be bribed, or at least more easily convinced about the merit of the candidates if the refreshments were as elaborate as possible. So, they tended to bake cookies, bring sandwiches, and offer quality drinks at the exam.
Karen was one of my Ph.D. candidates who had done a nice job with her research project dealing with exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) in race horses. EIPH happened a lot during horse races, and, it was thought, was a factor in the speed at which horses could run their races. Her project was done cooperatively with the New Bolton Center of the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania.
When it was time for Karen to defend her thesis, she had planned to bring refreshments that catered to the tastes of her committee. Knowing that I am a fan of fresh fruit, one of her refreshment items that she provided was fresh seedless grapes.
All was going well during her presentation. She had prepared a nice set of Power Point slides about her work. Her Advisory Committee had very few questions to ask, and things were going smoothly for her. The faculty members on her committee really liked the grapes, and, because they expected Karen to do well, their attention turned almost universally to the grapes. Passing the bunches of grapes around from one person to another took a lot of their attention.
When many people talk from slides, they tend to look at the screen more than at the audience, especially when just a little nervous about their situation. What Karen did not observe initially was that one faculty member had started throwing his grapes up in the air one at a time to catch them in his mouth. That looked like so much fun, that the other faculty members began doing the same thing. Now, faculty members may be good at a lot of things, but catching grapes in their mouths is not necessarily one of them. Soon, everyone had missed at least one grape, and had bent down to try to find it on the floor and recover it.
After a while when this was going on, Karen sensed that no one was paying any attention to what she was presenting. She looked around, only to find that the whole audience was bent over, searching for grapes that had fallen on the floor. Not a person was above the level of the table, and some fine faculty butts were the only parts that were visible. At that point, Karen stopped talking and decided to let the drama play out. She broke out in laughter; there was nothing more that she could do.
Perhaps the faculty members on her committee felt embarrassed about how they had acted, but probably not; faculty members are a self assured and proud lot. Karen easily passed her exam. And, to this day, there is not a faculty member in the department who has improved his or her talent for mouth-catching grapes tossed into the air. They all failed.