WPC 2018 – Preamble and introspection

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… This time it is hard for me to answer questions like “did you expect you could win this year?” or “how does it feel?” without starting from a more private angle.

That is because I did not expect to attend the WPC this year, at least viewed from US Puzzle Championship weekend. I was not prequalified for the US team and on the Friday before the US Puzzle Championship, I wasn’t anxiously reading the instruction booklet or prepping new puzzle styles like I used to. I was waiting for news about my mother, who had been taken to the hospital on Friday morning by a nurse coming to change some dressings who had observed low vitals. My dad isn’t great with cell phones, so the first update after the morning came 8 hours later right after I got home from a weird day at work. It wasn’t good news. I quickly booked flights to get back to Buffalo. I was still in the air when my mother passed away from cancer on Saturday morning. I did not take the USPC that day. Puzzles weren’t on my mind.

I’ve never mentioned my mother’s cancer to anyone outside of a very close group of friends. In part this is because mom had never shared the news herself very broadly. She did not want to be viewed as sick, or treated differently. From the time of her initial stage IV breast cancer diagnosis in 2003 until her last day almost 15 years later, she fought bravely and kept being a teacher to “her girls” — the students at the school where she taught calculus — and a loving mother and wife to “her boys” — my dad, my older brother, and me.

I was still in the early years of graduate school in 2003 and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life when I learned what my mother would die from. None of us knew when she would pass, although with a late stage diagnosis the numbers suggested only a couple years might be left. Given how close I was to her, compared to anyone else in my life, her cancer diagnosis was a crucible that changed me and it brought our whole family closer together. Where I had not written or phoned too often from college, I’d called my parents every weekend since then. We learned to celebrate the small moments and also the large ones. The first year of high anxiety came with questions like “would mom be healthy enough to travel to my brother’s wedding?” Mom was. And as targeted therapy seemed to be extending the time we would have together, we had more and more to celebrate as my brother and I both completed our degrees, began our professional careers, and in other ways embarked on our own journeys in life.

I was not doing puzzles in graduate school. But around the stress of the diagnosis and other things going on with a long-distance girlfriend at the time, the desire to “find more logic in life” got me solving puzzles again. With a lot to cope with, I solved lots of puzzles outside of work including a full weekend going through one of the World Puzzle Championship collections. This reawakened a childhood dream, and I first took the USPC to try to make the US team in 2004. Soon after, I found out about the “sudoku craze” from mom. As part of her care packages, she sent clippings of weeks of the puzzles from the Buffalo News. She was solving them too, and wanted to share with me — but not to get any tips as she wanted to solve them herself.

Mom had fed my puzzle habit as a young kid. The enrichment activities in mathematics I got from her in early grade school became getting Dell Math Puzzles & Logic Problems and GAMES magazines before every long car trip as I was a little older. Besides being given the opportunity to learn, I had picked up extreme diligence from her to try my hardest in everything I did and to pursue life with passion. I had no idea I was any good at Sudoku when I’d rush through the dozens of clipped puzzles she sent. But by the time I had my first opportunity to try to go to a World Sudoku Championship, I was already the best in the US. I didn’t break through at the first WSC due to playoffs, but the second time was more lucky. In Prague in 2007, on my mother’s birthday, I became the World Sudoku Champion. She was so proud — she and dad were able to watch the livestream from home — and would spend the next 11 years telling everyone she met that I was a champion. Mom never got to see me win a championship in person — at the two US Sudoku championships she and dad attended, I finished second — but I was happy to have had the chance for her to see me achieve something by trying hard in a way she had taught me from an early age.

While this has been about puzzles and my mother, it is also important for me to talk about how my mom’s cancer got me thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. My graduate PhD work in chemistry, sort of in drug discovery, felt like tool development in an exploratory sandbox and far from real problems. I was mostly following inertia as I started a post-doc at Stanford because that’s what you do if you want to be a professor. Being near Stanford’s School of Medicine, I soon discovered a passion to bring solutions back to patients with disease. I wanted to translate ideas to the clinic more than anything else. Perhaps this was a result of all those weekly calls hearing about the life of someone dealing with a challenging disease, trying to track through pain and the rise and fall of tumor marker numbers if we knew how things were going.

At Stanford, I started developing a diagnostic test to help people who had received an organ transplant track that organ after surgery and monitor for rejection. The idea was that a transplanted organ carried cells with a different genome, so I could use next-generation DNA sequencing technology to read out donor-derived DNA coming from dying organ cells in a blood sample. The technique worked quite well and went from a small proof of concept to a funded grant to study heart and lung transplantation to an opportunity to follow my patent to a start-up advancing the test to the clinic. ImmuMetrix has its own set of stories, none I will share here; the start-up had an unfortunate and early end due to funding/founder strife and I was burned out by many parts of the experience. But the scientific idea was sound, and CareDx, the company that acquired ImmuMetrix, has brought my technology to the clinic now in the form of their AlloSure test for kidney transplant recipients.

GMPuzzles started as a way to recover and restart after the burn out of ImmuMetrix, and I maybe naïvely thought it would be my whole life for a period of time. Within a year, the continued news from mom (and the pressure to have a real job and not be [f]unemployed) led me back to science, to apply my mind to important problems in health care. First to Adaptive Biotechnologies, which was looking at the immune system and cancer, and for the last almost four years to Google/Verily Life Sciences, where I currently lead a team of 10 bright scientists and engineers as the Head of Computational Biology. We look at different diseases including autoimmune disease (blog) and cancer. When even a day out of office can feel like lost time, it is hard to keep attending an event like the World Puzzle Championship every year as a top priority. I live a complex life where releasing puzzles — and giving joy back to others — is in balance with giving back via science and new clinical tools. I’m working all the time, and constantly feel like I’m behind in one area or the other.

Before November, 2018 had been a particularly hard year with the focus on science work and family pushing puzzles farther out of my mind than usual. My last grandparent passed away in March; the news that mom couldn’t attend the funeral was the first I learned that targeted therapies were running out and chemotherapy was now needed. A liver metastasis then led to edema and blisters on her feet, and mom’s mobility started going away. I visited in April and again in May, helping both my parents in different ways. I last saw Mom on Mother’s Day as she seemed to be turning a corner for the better, hopeful as ever. We talked the weekend before the USPC, after I’d finished a 12k race, which would be the last time we spoke. We had planned to catch up Saturday evening after the USPC as she wanted to hear if I had done well and maybe won another title. The end of that week was far from what I expected, a surprisingly fast end after a very long battle with breast cancer. We were all blessed to have 15 years together after her first diagnosis, but still so sudden that there wasn’t really a “last” conversation that I knew could be our last conversation. I have a lot I never got a chance to say.

I was grieving that weekend, and in many ways will be for awhile. But the US team captain understood the challenge and figured out a way to let me still try to qualify on Sunday morning. So with a lot of guilt that I would be solving puzzles at all, I took the USPC late, printing from a hotel business center, not fully reading the rules, and never understanding what the 30 point sudoku variant was really about. I did just barely well enough to make the team and I didn’t really care. I didn’t solve another puzzle for months. I wrote one puzzle a month later, a tribute to mom based on a tourism interest that followed diagnosis. But I found after I got over the initial grieving period that I was far more often driving to Verily at 6:30 AM on a Saturday than thinking about puzzles. More interested in taking my extra time to help my dad with this challenging transition in his life. I still am spending most of my time in those ways. Given I wasn’t doing any speed solving practice at all, I was really uncertain how I could contribute or perform in Prague. I mostly wanted to take it as a first break from work after a trying year.

So in short, I did not have any real expectations entering Prague for the WSC/WPC. …
[Continues here with Competition]

  • Andrew Brecher says:

    Thank you for sharing. As I move through middle age (and having lost my mother myself just over a year ago) it helps me to hear stories about how people find purpose in their life yet are still able to maintain connections to everything that has led them to where they are today.

  • Harold Reiter says:

    Thanks Tom. My wife Betty has stage four breast cancer also. I read your blog to her, and we both enjoyed it. I second Andrew’s post above.

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