Natural Habitats: Stories of finding where we belong

In this week's episode, we bring you two stories of natural habitats, from a city girl's first experience in the wilderness to an ecologist's decision to leave science.

Part 1: Born and raised in Brooklyn, naturalist Helen Cheng leaves the comfort of the city to venture out into the field.

Helen Cheng is once a city-dweller turned solitude-seeking naturalist. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Helen’s journey took her from the big city to the coasts of the New England, studying horseshoe crabs and receiving her M.S. in Zoology from the University of New Hampshire. Interested in how management plays a role in research, she worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a Sea Grant Knauss Fellow. As an interdisciplinary marine biologist, Helen works on a variety of projects involving research, education and outreach, and science communication. Whenever she gets a free moment, Helen enjoys eating new and delicious foods around the city, hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, and singing and playing acoustic guitar.

Part 2: Ecologist Thom Young-Bayer makes the unthinkable decision to leave science after his life changes course.

Thom Young-Bayer’s affinity for the outdoors developed into a brief career as an ecologist, during which he worked as a tropical forest guide, studied coral reef fish and kelp forests, and traveled to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then, he has managed two organic farms, worked on a commercial fishing vessel, sailed across the Pacific using celestial navigation, and worked as the First Mate of a Maine windjammer. He maintains his tenuous grip on sanity with open water swimming, ultra-marathon running, and classical piano. He lives with his wife, Skylar, and their two dogs in Maine.

Note: You can find the story Thom told with his wife, Skylar, here. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Helen Cheng

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, right here. My backyard was Manhattan. Yeah! I learned how to be proficient in speed-walking, jay-walking, and navigating through the complex maze of the MTA subway system.

I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was twenty-one, nor did I ever really need to drive. I was so used to walking on concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets. I didn’t think of New York City as a natural place: that most of the city is on an island or three islands. Yes, Brooklyn and Queens are part of Long Island despite how much we want to deny it.

Sure, there was Central Park, but as a city girl, I didn’t like to get my shoes dirty, I didn’t like to sit on grass, let alone roll in it, and I always carried hand sanitizer. Yet, I enjoyed things with cute animals like whales and dolphins. I mean honestly, what little girl didn’t love a Lisa Frank rainbow dolphin? I guess what drew me to animals in general was that it was something out of the ordinary, something you couldn’t find in New York City, outside the occasional subway rat.

I got my first glimpses of the non-New York City wildlife while volunteering at the aquarium. I saw bright colorful fish, heard the loud roar of a walrus, and smelled the pungent aroma of the colonies of penguins and their poop. But these encounters were always blocked by some sort of barrier; seeing fish through a glass tank, hearing a walrus through a drape netting or smelling the penguins through a chained fence.

I was still walking on paved asphalt, heard the subway in the distance and was being bumped and tossed around by throngs of people trying to catch a glimpse of the animals. I knew I was still in the city. I was still in close comforts of the city when I left for college, being an hour and a half away on the Long Island railroad. But one of the highlights of college was the opportunity to study abroad. And out of all places, I studied abroad in Jamaica; not to be confused with Jamaica Queens, guys.

I was going to study the tropical marine ecology, but most excitingly, I was going to experience it; I was going to live it. So when I registered for the course, I had to sign a waiver saying that I was an experienced swimmer. I’ll be honest with you, I knew how to swim, but I didn’t know how to swim that well at the time. So, I kind of lied on that application saying I was a strong swimmer.

So here I was, sitting down by the docks, close to where the course was being held. As I looked out to the horizon, I saw these turquoise blue waters that were so enticing to swim in, but it also looked deep. My friend Constance, who was taking the course with me at the time, and who knew my dark little secret, sat next to me and said in an encouraging tone, “Don’t worry. You’ll float in salt water.” Salt water, fresh water, pool water, what was the difference? I didn’t know the physics of it all at the time, but she put on her swimming gear, jumped right in and swam a couple of yards away from me, and waited until I got into the water.

So I strapped my new fins to my feet, put my mask on my face, put my snorkel on my mouth, took a deep breath and jumped in. Great! My feet were touching the bottom! The water was so dandy, I was feeling great. No problem. But Constance kept swimming further and I knew I had to follow, and my feet were not going to touch the bottom forever. So I turned my body horizontally, I swam towards Constance, trying to see where she was, and kept my head above the water.

When I placed my face into the water for the first time, I panicked. I saw how far way I was from the sea bottom and I freaked out. It was pretty darn far. I tried to find the nearest buoy or pole, something to hold on to for dear life, “This water is really deep!” Constance heard my frantic yelling. She yelled back and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll float!”

So, I let go. I let my heart rate slow a bit, calming down, regaining sanity. When I finally gained the courage to place my face in the water, I did. This time, I was a wonder. I saw urchins like a field of spines. Crawling amongst them were crabs with brightly colored speckled shells.

When I turned my head the other way I saw shiny blue and yellow fish dart right in front of me and swim into an underwater horizon. I was fascinated to see all this different wildlife unobstructed by a glass wall. I was immersed in a different world. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to study marine biology and swim in clear, warm waters every day.

So I applied to graduate programs focusing on studying marine animal behavior, specifically with dolphins, fulfilling that childhood aspiration. But none of those programs were available to me at the time. My sense of adventure and my interest in marine biology didn’t stop.

Rather, it took me on a brief detour to a New Hampshire estuary and it wasn’t as glamorous as the tropics. It was much murkier: murky enough to not see what was in front of you while you were swimming. It was muddier; that if you got stuck in the mud you desperately needed someone to pull you out of it. And compared to those tropical Jamaican waters, just really, really cold.

Here I was, in this New Hampshire estuary; I was going to study the behaviors of a peculiar looking animal that was ugly and creepy looking. And that animal was the horseshoe crab. Not a crab at all but more related to spiders and scorpions. Think of a horseshoe-shaped animal, with six pairs of creepy crawly appendages, and a medieval, intimidating spear for a tail.

These things are prehistoric looking and they are. They are considered living fossils having been around since the age of the dinosaurs. I was literally a horseshoe crab stalker in grad school. I tried to find out where they lived in this New Hampshire Estuary, following their schedules of when they would appear and disappear from the beach, and intruding on them when they were having some private meeting alone time.

I remember the first time I went out alone at midnight to do fieldwork. I had just gone out at noon that day in the sweltering heat counting crabs, and I had to go out again at night to make that day-night comparison. As I drove up to the beach, it was a beach that was sort of hidden away and only accessible by dirt road, I remember the place being a little more livelier during the day.

Cars would be parked alongside the road, people would kayak in and out of the boat ramp, and children playing in the sand while their parents watched. But here I was in the dead of night. It was dark and quiet. There was no one to witness me on what I was going to do. I remember watching the six o’clock news earlier that evening; that there was a report of a murder in one of the nearby towns close to where my field site was.

So as I drove up to the beach, I kept repeating to myself, “Count crabs and leave, count crabs and leave, count crabs and leave.” So when I arrived, I got out of my car, hurried to get out all of my equipment, locked the car, and raced down to the beach to start counting. I stopped. I couldn’t see much except what was illuminated by my flashlight but I heard crickets chirping, the rustling of leaves from the trees, waves slightly crushing along the shoreline and maybe what I thought was a coyote’s howl in the distance.

I turned off my flashlight, allowed my eyesight to adjust and looked up. Stars, the Milky Way: it was this big expansive of space and a dark sky. I had never seen the night sky like this before, as it was usually blocked by a street lamp or looked like washed out specks in a purple-grey haze. But on this night, the sky glittered across a pitch black backdrop. I felt small and insignificant. It almost felt like it was an honor to be in that place and in that moment.

I wanted to keep gazing at that night sky to feel that sense of wonder, calmness and peace. I was stirred back to reality when I heard the occasional bumping of horseshoe crabs approaching the shore, as they’d done every year for millions of years, since the age of the dinosaurs and even before. As magical as it was to be one with nature, I commenced with my duties. This was work for me. After telling my suit-and-tie friends from the city knew what I did for a living, they were horrified. “What! You work with that? How do you survive?” I thought the job of a marine biologist was to play with dolphins all day. Hey, horseshoe crabs are really cool.

But I felt a sense of pride for the work I did, that I was able to endure physical and mental struggles, like walking through tall tick-infested grasses to get to the beach, or swimming through muck and muddy waters, or trying to figure out how one thing works one way but not the other way for a very, very long time.

This was about exploration; exploring the unknown, facing hardships along the way, finding new discoveries to unanswered questions, all the while marveling at nature’s beauty and mystery. Thank you.


Part 2: Thom Young-Bayer

Anyone who knows me really well, knows that if there is one thing that I definitely am not, it’s a quitter. But there I was, telling my PhD advisor that I was giving up $200,000 in prestigious scholarships and dropping out of graduate school. Wow! Why would I leave academia at the start of such a prestigious career in science? Well, that really began thirty-seven years ago, when a fertilized egg in my mother’s womb divided into two.

You laugh, sure. But it is true; it is not just a cliché. When that egg divided into two, I became an identical twin. I was first born, so everybody always asks the twin, “Who was born first?” Whenever anybody asked who was born first, I would probably answer, “I was. I’m the original. He’s the copy.”

My twin brother, Kyle, quickly learned to respond, “That means you’re the rough draft and I am the final draft.”

But in a way, he was right. I was the rough draft. As a kid, I developed all these problems that Kyle just didn’t have. I had a bad speech impediment for many years. I developed exercise induced asthma and would often black out trying to keep pace with Kyle in sports.

Most embarrassingly, I wet my bed until puberty, which wasn’t until I was 16 years old, three years later than Kyle. Until then, I was the smallest student in the entire high school. Every girl that I had a crush on seemed to pay no attention to me. They all, I felt, would rather date Kyle.

One time Kyle and I were at the weight lifting room where I had, of course, taken up obsessively lifting weights, trying to make myself bigger and more attractive, and I overheard a friend ask Jaime Handerson, who I had a crush on for two years, “Which of the twins do you think is cuter?”

Her response, “Well, Thom is cute, but Kyle is the ruggedly handsome one.”

That really hurt. That same year I went into a deep depression. I was diagnosed with OCD. I had a near suicide attempt and I was placed under anti-depressants. Even today, two decades later, it’s still really hard to talk about that period of my life.

But through all that, there is always one thing that I could do better than Kyle: Science. Science was my thing. It always came easy to me and I loved it. My senior year of high school, I won numerous science awards and scholarships. I was featured in the Oregonian about the work I did with injured wildlife, including a full front page photo of me holding this majestic golden eagle named Cabolero.

That was huge. I was finally being recognized for something that I could do better than my perfect final draft twin brother. I felt that I could finally contribute something unique to the world. I went on to college where I became a marine field ecologist and I started working in kelp forests, coral reefs and tide pools.

I co-authored my first peer reviewed publication and won every single grant and fellowship that I applied for. When I told my wife that fact, my perfect funding record -- my wife is a marine biologist -- I think that the words she used in response to that were “jack ass.”

Kyle and I drifted apart as he joined the coast guard to become a helicopter pilot. I applied for a course with SEA semester that involves sailing across the Pacific Ocean while conducting oceanographic research. It would be a dream-come true for me. And right before the course began, I found a pea-sized lump on my right testicle.

Within a week, I had three doctors’ appointments, a chest X-ray, a CT scan and an ultrasound. Lying there on the ultrasound table, my groin exposed, cold liquid jelly and ultrasound transmitter pressed against my scrotum, I felt more awkward and uncomfortable than I ever have in my entire life. The radiologist pointed to a spot on the screen, a colorful spot, and said, “The doppler shows increased blood flow to the lump. That’s probably a tumor. You have testicular cancer.”

A part of me knew that those words, “You have cancer,” should have scared the shit out of me. But they didn’t; I was numb. It was like I expected it, like everything I’d already been through in my life had prepared me for that. I asked the radiologist, “What happens next?” And he said, “You need to have that testicle removed right away.”

A week later, not knowing whether the tumor had metastasized, I left for Woods Hole Massachusetts with a very sore groin and an uncertain future. I began that course with SEA semester. My research partner, Steve Burton, started affectionately calling me ‘lefty’ in reference to my recent amputation. I experienced regular ghost pains. I don’t know if you are familiar with these, but that’s when a phantom, at random times during the day, kicks you in the nut that doesn’t exist anymore. You have to not act like you’ve just been kicked in the nut.

Midway through the course, my biopsy results came back. I had a Sertoli cell tumor. It was a type of testicular cancer that was so exceedingly rare in post-adolescent males, that I was apparently the 11th documented case. My urologist actually had to do a literature search to figure out what to do with me. It turns out that several of those previous cases had metastasized in a manner that couldn’t be detected with chest x-rays or CT-scans.

So that meant that I had to go back for another surgery, this time to remove all of my abdominal lymph nodes. When I heard that, I was devastated. The thought of going through a second surgery didn’t bother me one bit, but that meant that I wasn’t going to be able to sail across the Pacific Ocean with my class, who I had bonded with so closely during that time.

The next day, I went in front of my entire class and told them that I couldn’t sail with them, and they were just as devastated as I was. I finally felt that I had become a part of this community that truly accepted me for the first time in my life; that really cared about me.

Cancer actually made me feel care-free and confident in a strange way. I started to feel this sense of freedom that I hadn’t felt since before I was a teenager. I started doing things that my teenage self never would have done. My research partner Steve, and I, at the end of that course at Woods Hole, repainted the Pacific Equatorial current system across our bodies and in front of our entire class, we stripped down to our underwear to present our research proposal. Our class loved it! I had learned how to laugh and smile again. I had learned to find this happiness I hadn’t felt since before I was competitive with my twin.

Two weeks later, while my class was sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti, I woke from anesthesia to find that I had been cut open from sternum to pelvis. My abdomen was held together with 20 staples and my belly was distended to twice its normal size. The epidural had slipped out and the pain was absolutely excruciating. The doctors had literally disemboweled me, moving my digestive tract aside to access the lymph nodes along my inferior vena cava.

I was forced to fast for two weeks, no food or water while my stomach was pumped. I lost twenty pounds during that period. But I discovered the magic of a urinary catheter. There is always a silver lining, right?

One day Kyle came to the hospital. We hadn’t been together alone for several years. He sat down alongside my bed, his normally supremely confident self clearly shaken, and he asked me how I was doing. I wanted to act all stoic next to my twin, the Coast Guard helicopter pilot-to-be. I said, “I’m fine. I am just waiting for the biopsy results.”

Obviously, that was a lie. I probably looked like shit. I felt like shit and I was in the worst pain of my life, plus I was starving, I had no idea whether I would live long enough to fulfill my dream of becoming a marine ecologist. Meanwhile, my twin brother was in the midst of fulfilling his own dream of becoming a Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter pilot. But for the first time that I could ever remember, I didn’t feel competitive with him at all. I didn’t feel jealous.

What I felt more than anything else, more than the pain or the uncertainty for my future, was just really, really, fucking bored. I told Kyle that the worst thing about being in this situation was being stuck inside this whole time. I realized while I was in that hospital that what I really wanted for my life, what I really truly loved, wasn’t being better than Kyle at something, it wasn’t being the best scientist -- it was simply to be outside.

And then Kyle said something that caught me completely off guard. He asked me, “Do you know if the type of cancer you have is genetic?” He wasn’t just worried about whether his twin brother just might die from cancer. He was concerned about whether he could get it too. He had never before asked me if asthma was genetic, or bed wetting, or OCD, or depression, but faced with the prospect of such a serious illness at such a young age, he was really scared.

But for me, cancer was just another obstacle in the rough road of my life. I’d been the rough draft all of my life going through all this tough stuff that tested and blistered me over and over again, until I built up the callouses that allowed me to face cancer without a single fear, other than not having the opportunity to be outside again.

The biopsy results came back and the cancer, the tumor, had not metastasized; I was ecstatic. It was like I was given a second chance to learn how to be happy and to be myself, in my life. I went on to graduate school to study kelp forest ecology. I spent so many days under water and reveled in every incredible wildlife encounter in those amazing kelp forests.

But like every scientist, I spent the vast majority of my time in an office or a lab and that just reminded me of that hostile sterile room where I swore to myself that I would never again settle for something that made me unhappy. Here I was fulfilling my life dream of being a marine field ecologist, doing the one thing I believed I could do better than Kyle, and I wasn’t happy.

On a whim, I started an apprenticeship at an organic farm and I quickly grew to absolutely love the work. Then I realized that’s what I truly wanted, that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be outside, getting dirty, growing food for my community. So standing there in my advisor’s office on the verge of leaving academia, I finally felt so confident because I knew who I really was. I finally knew what made me happy in life. Thank you.