Goodbye to a friend

About a month ago, I was checking my e-mail while on vacation, as academics are notorious for doing. A new e-mail popped up while I was writing, with a forebodingly vague subject: “sad news”. If I ever have to write an e-mail like the one I’d received, I know I’d agonize over the subject for ages, and probably end up leaving it blank. One of my mentors had died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

When I was just starting my PhD, my supervisor encouraged me to study lizard brain evolution. I was in a lab that studied lizard evolution, and I had studied neuroscience in undergrad. I thought it was a great idea, but I quickly realized that studying neuroscience in a department where no-one else worked on brains was an immense challenge. I did a lot of reading scientific papers, trying to figure out what to do and feeling incredibly lost, and I kept coming across a name: Jeremy Ullmann. Some Googling told me that me had recently completed a PhD on fish brain evolution.

I had no connection to Jeremy, and he had no reason to help me. He was doing a postdoc at the University of Queensland and had pivoted away from evolution and towards medicine. But I sent him an e-mail out of the blue one day in 2011, asking for help. He responded almost immediately, asking for more details about my project and seeming genuinely interested. I answered him as best I could. It didn’t satisfy him, he responded immediately again with more questions: “have you thought about doing this?” “what about trying this"?” etc. Finally, after a few more back-and-forths, during which it must have been painfully evident to him that I had no idea what I was doing (despite my best efforts), he suggested I call him, so we could have a proper conversation. And so I did, and it was one of the most useful and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had.

Jeremy mentored me throughout the rest of my PhD. I’m sure it couldn’t have always been easy for him, I was so intimidated by him that sometimes it took me weeks to answer his e-mails. I looked up to him because he was young, sharp, and ambitious. He gave the impression of total confidence and control, and at times during my PhD, particularly when I’d reach out to him for help, I felt like a total failure, completely out of control. He’d set me straight, solve problems over the phone, and remind me to contact him whenever I needed. I learned not only practical skills from him, but people skills as well. The way he was with me, I strive to be that way now, with others. I usually fall short.

Since I graduated, I’ve seen Jeremy at conferences. We’d go out for dinner if he wasn’t too busy networking, or we’d just hang out amongst the posters. He insisted on introducing me to one of my neuroscience heroes, Charles Watson. I learned that he’d gotten married, and last time we spoke he had just had his first child. I still looked up to him, wanting to know what he was thinking of doing next, how he was strategizing, so I could emulate him.

Jeremy died last month climbing Mount Washington. He was 37 years old and leaves behind his wife, Kylie, and their three-year-old son. My heart breaks for them. Despite the fact that we really didn’t know each other that well, he had a profound impact on my life. Jeremy was good at everything I wanted to be good at. He was smart, an agile thinker, confident and charismatic. Science is worse off without him. The world is worse off without him. I feel extraordinarily lucky that he touched my life, however briefly, before we lost him.

Jeremy’s wife and son are stranded in the United States, where Jeremy was doing a postdoc, far away from family in Australia. They have started a Go-Fund-Me to cover the enormous cost of moving back to Australia and rebuilding their lives.

Jeremy’s obituary is here, and his death was also covered by the news.