This week, we present two stories about science and fatherhood.
Part 1: As a kid, comedian Gastor Almonte seeks answers about some of the scientific terms he hears around school.
Gastor Almonte is a storyteller and stand up comedian based out of Brooklyn, NY. Gastor will be appearing on season 3 of "This Is Not Happening" on Comedy Central. He is the founder and host of Stoops2Stages, a weekly interview series featuring many talented independent artist from the worlds of music and comedy. He performs throughout the east coast, and has been a regular guest at QED Astoria, UCB and the NY Times featured Liar Show. GastorAlmonte.com
Part 2: Scientist Usman Hameedi struggles to live up to his father’s expectations while also pursuing his art.
Usman Hameedi received his MS in Biomedical Sciences from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. His research focused on cancer biology, specifically on how cells determine their fate and sometimes write their own destinies. He is also a poet with experience performing and coaching at both collegiate and national poetry slams. Usman was highlighted on the Huffington Post and Upworthy, was featured at multiple venues, and was invited to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School and The White House. As an aspiring physician, he hopes to dovetail his scientific and artistic passions in a career focused on illuminating the rich narratives in health care. Despite some impressive credentials, he still can’t drive a car or ride a bike. Feel free to make fun of him about this.
Part 1: Gastor Almonte
I was putting my son into bed recently, right, and he's like, “Dad, is Uncle Gabriel a scientist?”
My brother Gabriel is a sixteen-year-old kid who just cheated on his Spanish test. We’re Dominican so that’s extra bad, by the way.
“No, he's not a scientist. Why do you ask me that, Aidan?”
He said, “Well, you told me that scientists discover stuff.”
I’m like, “Okay.”
He said, “Well, when I was at grandma‘s house, Uncle Gabriel came home and he was like, ‘Yo, I just discovered the new Jordans.’”
“That’s not the same thing, little man.” And I put him to bed and I stepped out, but I realized they're kind of similar, right? Research scientists and teens. They got the same goal. They want to know the information first. That’s what it comes down to. They want to know the cool shit first.
The only thing different is when a research scientist discovers some cool shit first, they want to tell you how they discovered that shit for twenty pages. They want to talk about their shit. They care about the process. I don't care, but they want you to know.
Teenagers are different. They want to be the process. They don’t want to tell you how they discovered it. They just want to tell you the day and the reason, you know.
And the other thing is scientists, they want everyone to know. They'll put it out there. They want to share the good news. Teenagers are picky as fuck when they discover some new things. Like if a teenager discovers the cure for cancer, you're aware that only their friends are getting saved, right? Like we’re just fucked. That’s just not in the cards for us.
I'll give you an example. See, when I was thirteen, I was coming home from school. I was going to be thirteen in Brooklyn, junior high school, eighth grade, comin’ home with my whole class. We’re all on the bus.
And I see all the girls in the back of the bus. They're all giggling. “Ha-ha-ha. I can’t believe that shit happened. Why, it’s crazy.”
I want to know. I’m cool. I want to know what’s going on.
I walk over to the back and like, “Yo, what happened?”
They're like, “Oh, you know… nah, we can’t tell you.” They all, they start laughing again. Now, I really want to know.
So I started playing Guess Who. You know, that cool game? I played that in person because that’s… see, that’s what teenagers do when they want to know shit. They pretend that they know, but then they start asking questions to give them hints to what the real thing is. I won’t front like I don’t do that shit. I do that shit all the time. You know?
“Oh, you know such-and-such?” “Oh, hell, yeah. What’d they look like, though?” That’s not just me. I know.
So I’m in the back of the bus, I’m like, “Yo, for real, though. What happened?”
They're like, “Yo, you didn’t see who had an erection today in class?”
And I’m like, “Oh, nah, nah. Who was it?” And they start giggling again. And then they're like, “Yo, it happens to them all the time. Ha-ha. That’s the third time this week.”
So now I’m really curious.
Now, up until this point I didn’t know what an erection was. So I discovered what an erection was this week, but I had to do recon. I didn’t want them to know that I didn’t know what an erection was. But let me be clear, by the way. I had erections at this point. I knew what an erection was. I didn’t know what “erection” meant. Like I didn’t know that thing that was happening to me every morning was called an erection.
I’m watching you all being like, “Damn, I’m really sorry for this guy.” Yeah.
So yeah, I had erections, I knew what erection was, I didn’t know that “erection” meant what was happening. Cool. We’re on board. Hi.
So I’m like, “How do I figure this shit out?” So when you play Guess Who, most people -- I know I’m not the only one -- you try to eliminate half of the people up front. So I asked the wrong question, you know?
I said, “Yo, so was it a boy or a girl?” Funny enough, the same thing happened there. They started laughing too. They start cracking up.
The thing is, I played it off. I was like, “Yeah, it’s crazy.”
They're like, “Yo, Gastor, you're so funny. That’s funny.”
I’m like, Hell, yeah. I killed it. I walked away. On a high note. Whole class thought I made this funny ass joke -- I still don’t know shit. Someone in class got an erection. I don't know what it is. It’s either a boy or a girl. And whichever one it is, it’s ridiculous that it’s not the other.
I live this shit. You know?
So I go home, I get changed. You know, I’m Dominican, I play baseball all the time. That’s what we do. Had a game that day. I go to the game. I was pitching. It’s hot. It was about to be summertime. It’s almost the end of school year. And I fainted during the game.
So my mom rushes, she sees me on the floor. She picks me up with the coach and they're like, “Yo, are you okay?” And I’m like, “I’m not feeling too well.” They take me to the doctor.
I go to the doctor and I’m explaining to him how I felt. And Dr. Harvey is like, “Hey, yo, how you feeling?”
I’m like, “I’m not feeling too well. I’m a little dizzy. I didn’t really have anything to eat earlier. I’m not feeling too well.”
And he's like, “Were you feeling like that all day?”
I’m like, “Nah, just during the game.”
My mom is standing there she's like, “Yeah, he's fine. He's fine. I gave him food this morning. I don't know what happened.”
And Dr. Harvey looks at her and he looks at me and he's like, “You mind stepping out for me, Ms. Almonte?”
She's like, “Sure.” She walks out the room and he turns into a cop.
He said, “Yo, Gastor. You done drugs? You been drinking?”
I’m like, “Yo, we had a good rapport going, Mr. Harvey. I've been coming here for years. You would know if I was doing something like that. Why would you ask me that?”
He's like, “I just wanted to make sure you felt comfortable sharing. I asked your mom to leave the room. Do you drink? Do you take drugs? Do you take pills?”
I’m like, “No, I don't do any of these things, sir. I play baseball. I crack jokes. That’s what I do. I go to class.”
He said, “Okay.”
“But why would you ask me that, sir?”
He said, “Because people that drink and take pills and they do drugs, on occasion, they feel lightheaded. They fall down. They faint.”
I was like, “Oh. Interesting.”
So I go home, I get some Gatorade, you know, hydrate. I go to school. I go to school that week. Then final week on Monday.
Now, this is towards the end of the school year so we had a little party. This was eighth grade. We’re graduating so everybody wants to kind of throw their getaway graduating party kind of thing. And this is also the first time I'd been at parties with alcohol.
I didn’t want to drink. I refuse to drink. Alcohol kept being spilt on me, though, so everybody assumed that I was drinking. Now, people thought I was drinking, I wasn’t drinking, but I liked the fact that people thought I was drinking because now I’m cool. So I ran with that shit.
So we’re in school on Monday, they're like, “Yo, Gastor, you were drinking with us too?”
“Man, I was feeling great.”
They're like, “Yo, what’d it feel like? That was the first time I was drinking. How about you, Gastor?”
“I drink all the time.”
“So what‘d you feel like? I didn’t get a chance to have one.”
So I was starting to say what the doctor said. Like, “Yo, I felt lightheaded, you know. Felt like I wasn’t all there.”
And they're like, “Yo, that sounds great.”
I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. It does, it does.” And I pulled that shit off.
So then we’re hanging out, we’re talking about the party, and they're like, “Yo, did you see Crystal’s home girl? Her cousin came to the party too? Yo, she had her period.”
I’m like, “How did you know?”
They're like, “Yo, she had a stain on her pants.” And in my head I’m trying to figure out what a period is, and why having a stain on your pants is a giveaway for this situation.
So I’m trying to figure out is this a situation where I could ask Crystal, or would she get mad if I asked Crystal about her friend having a period? I don't know how to play this one out.
So I start hanging out with the girls at lunch that day to see what they talk about, and I wait for Crystal to leave the crowd. And I’m like, “Yo, did her friend have a period? Is she okay? Is she good?”
And they're like, “Yo, Gastor, that’s real sweet of you to ask.”
Period sounds scary as hell. They're scary now and I know what they are. But imagine, at the time, like you're hearing that shit. That’s traumatizing. They were legit concerned. And they were impressed that I was concerned.
So I’m like, “So what happened?”
They're like, “Yo, you know, like she was getting cramps, her stomach started hurting, and I think it was her first one so she wasn’t ready. It was embarrassing.”
So I’m like, “Oh, that’s crazy,” but I still don’t know what a period is.
So I go home, I get ready for the baseball game and I’m like, Yo, I actually faint again and go to the doctor’s office asking questions about periods. And I could learn what this is that I apparently was real nice to know and care about happening to this young lady.
So I listened to what they were telling me happen to her, so I fall down the floor again. I didn’t do a good job. I’m not a good actor.
So my mom rushes over. She like, “Do you feel lightheaded again?”
I’m like, “Yeah, plus my stomach’s hurting. It’s cramping, Ma. I think I’m spotting too.”
We go to the doctor’s office again, and Harvey’s like, “What’s going on, man?”
I’m like, “Yo, my stomach’s cramping. It’s really hurting me. I think I have a period.”
And Dr. Harvey looks at me and he’s like, “Gastor, I think you know how this works. Do you have some questions?”
I said, “Dr. Harvey, I’m gonna be real with you. I don't know what a period is, but I need to know.”
He said, “Why do you need to know what a period is?”
I said, “Because I didn’t know what alcohol made you feel like, so I came in last time. I didn’t need to know that either. But knowing that made me the man. I want to know what periods are because I could keep being the man and being involved in these conversations.”
He said, “You could just ask me that over the phone without pretending to faint.”
I was like, “Dr. Harvey, if I asked my mom to give me the phone so I could call the doctor so I could figure out what these things are, she’s gonna be suspicious.”
“Okay, I hear you. I hear you.” So he explains to me what a period it. That shit is incredible.
Kudos to you all by the way. That’s just wild. You don’t get credit enough for that shit because that shit… see, like everyone here is an adult, so I’m assuming it’s been happening for at least half your life or more. For those of you that aren’t aware, it’s crazy what happens there every month. You see that shit’s wild.
Like if they're happening for anything else in your life, you would just be like so impressed. Like imagine if some new television came out and once a month that television, if you rubbed it next to the refrigerator, would make a new appliance. And if it didn’t need to make a new appliance, it would just discard said ability and do it again. Every month it just gives you this option. That’s incredible. I would pay so much for that TV.
And we have people right next to you all that do this shit all the time and we just dismiss, won’t even think about that shit. It’s an aisle at Rite-Aid that just stops it from happening. That’s crazy. It’s a super power, I’m convinced.
So he explains this shit to me. I was like, “Cool. Thank you, Dr. Harvey.” I walk out. My mom asks me if I’m okay. I said, “I’m feeling better, Ma.”
We get to the counter. She's about to pay the co-pay and I’m like, Oh, shit. I forgot to ask him about erections.
So I’m, “Oh, Ma, I feel lightheaded again. Give me one second.” I run into the room.
And Dr. Harvey’s like, “What’s going on?”
I’m in his room, I say, “Sir, I forgot to ask you one thing.”
He said, “What’s that, Gastor?”
I said, “What’s an erection?” And he starts laughing.
He's like, “That’s the other end of the combo that we just had about the periods.”
I said, “What you talking about?”
He's like, “That starts happening to girls when they're becoming women, and that starts happening to guys when they start becoming men.”
I said, “Okay.” And he walks me through that whole process. I learned what an erection was from Dr. Harvey. And now I knew how ridiculous my question sounded to those girls. And I was thinking over my head to make sure I played it right, that I pulled that shit off, but I felt good, you know?
So I go home, I relax for the day. I go to sleep. I wake up the next morning and my dad is sitting in my room.
He's like, “Yo, you okay?”
I’m like, “What’s going on?”
He's like, “I don't know, but I paid three co-pays this week. And every time something was wrong with you, the doctor kept asking your mother to leave. She wants to make you’re fine.”
I’m like, “I don't know what you're talking about.”
He's like, “You've been fainting at the games -- she wants to know what’s going on. What’s going on? Why are you at the doctor’s? You're fainting all the time. Talk to me.”
“It’s like it starts with erections, Dad.”
He's like, “Erections? You've been fainting cause of erections? How big do you think your penis is that it’s causing you to faint?”
And I’m like, “No, Dad, I had a question about erections. I asked Dr. Harvey. He schooled me to the questions.”
And he’s like, “Why’d you need to ask Dr. Harvey about erections? I would’ve answered those questions for you.”
I was like, “Dad, this is the most awkward conversation I've ever had in my life. I did not want to have this with you ever.”
He's like, “Well, next time you have these questions, you got to ask me.”
I said, “Why?”
He said, “I’m here to answer those things, A, and B, you ain’t here to cost me ninety dollars in co-pays over these erections.”
So going forward now, I've got my own son. He's six, he's going to be seven this year in March, and I tell you all, if you have a boy, when he's a pre-teen, a teen, and you see him fainting, ask him if he has questions about erections. He's either really blessed or he's really confused. But either way, he's going to appreciate your concern.
Part 2: Usman Hameedi
So my name is Usman, Usman Hameedi and I’m a Pakistani-American, which is to say three things. One, when I go to airports TSA goes, “Copy, we have a Muslim on Line One. I repeat, there's a sandstorm in Terminal A.” Two, my beard-growing genetics are the envy of Williamsburg hipsters. And three, I’m a pre-medical student.
Now, most people assume that South Asians pursue medicine because their dads made them. Legend has it as soon as we exited the womb, our fathers picked us up, mucus and all, and proclaimed, “Yeh-hai doctor.”
I’m a bit of an exception from stereotype. My initial exposure to medicine was seeing my dad struggle with diabetes. Diabetes is endemic to my family. A thick molasses coursing through our veins for generations. As I was a kid, I would watch as he would prick his finger and check his blood sugar and figure out how much insulin to take.
One day, he asked me if I wanted to give him his insulin. I was scared. I didn’t want to hurt my dad by mistake. So I took a pear, which was my practice pear, and I began injecting it with water and just practicing how to inject. And the pear was riddled with holes. By that point, I was ready to do the injection. Since then I've been a pro and my dad thinks I have a really great knack for it.
A little bit more about my dad, my dad gave me the diabetes gene. Did not give me the tall gene, which is really annoying. He's also a teacher by profession, and once he introduced me to the world of diabetes he began to explain more about the science. He began to explain about the difference between Novolog and Humulin, the proportions he used and why.
So I’m already aware of the clinical ramifications of the disease. I began learning the science underlying them. And to me that was the hook. He's a brilliant storyteller. That hooked me into really pursuing science in high school. Graduating, I had an opportunity to go to Brandeis University through the Posse Foundation and that identified young leaders and helped them through college.
But I wasn’t really sure if I was a leader. I did the typical stuff you put on your resume and you're like, “Oh, yay, I’m a leader.” I also knew within me I had those kind of ambitions.
So back to the health thing, my family and I were first-generation immigrants from Pakistan. And whenever we would show our Medicaid cards when we’d go to a dentist or the doctor, people would give us scoffs. People didn’t want to do extra paperwork, they didn’t want to have deductibles or whatever, all that stuff, and we would get special treatment that was different from everyone else who could pay.
And I was tired of that. I knew that was wrong and I knew that you shouldn’t have to worry about your access to healthcare when you're an immigrant. I knew I wanted to do something about this, but I didn’t know what that was exactly.
On top of that, especially when you consider the political climate now, when you're an immigrant you're kind of taught to just keep your mouth shut, do what you got to do, don’t cause commotion. I knew that that wasn’t for me.
On top of that, just as I was going into college, I discovered the one thing that you don’t want, like a kid that’s supposed to be quiet you give him this, you give him poetry slams. So once I discovered that I was like, Oh, I want to be loud about everything.
But then at the same time that created an even bigger problem. I have this science stuff, I got the leadership stuff, got the art thing, and then I didn’t see how any of that connected. So what I decided was I’m just going to do it all anyway. And the mistakes that would happen along the way, I'd be happy about them just because they're my mistakes and I would be happy that I pursued what I wanted to pursue.
But it’s difficult to break from the mold, especially the science mold because most people who do have a safety net. I barely had a bank account. Still, I knew that if I did something unique with my gifts that it would inspire other immigrants to really reach beyond what people tell them that they can do, that their dreams are limited by the scopes of their imaginations.
I’m happy I really did that because art has really helped me become a better scientist, as weird as that sounds. With art, you get to connect with people on a much more expansive level. I've had the opportunity to perform across the country with my poetry. And because of that, I realized how important science is because science is really making tangible tools and really making differences in the lives of others. I’m really honored to be considered a scientist.
But telling your dad this after four years of undergrad, saying, “You know, med school’s gonna happen eventually,” is a difficult conversation. He didn’t really get it anyway. So right after graduating I started a job at Sloan Kettering, and he didn’t care at all.
So six months after, he was like, “Beta, when are you starting medical school? You're off the track.” So as any good son would do, I completely ignored him. Then I continued to do what my moral compass was telling me to do.
So in 2013 I had the opportunity to compete on a poetry slam team at NPS in Boston, and that was my first time on an adult team. So in college at Brandeis I represented Brandeis at a thing they called CUPSI, but NPS is for like the big kids because if you do poetry you're still a kid. And that was such a wonderful opportunity for me.
But as life is, things get complicated when you least expect it. So NPS is in August, traditionally, and then in July of 2013 my dad, he was scheduled for a quadruple bypass. So this was like a few weeks out before competing. They rushed him to Sinai.
My dad’s being dad about it. He doesn’t want us to worry and he's like smiles and like, “Everything is going to be all right.” But like me as the most medically inclined, I know it’s not. There's a specific reason why they immediately needed to rush him to do this. Without going on to the science of it, I just knew that this shit got real.
That whole experience was a blur to me. I didn’t get a chance to be a son. I immediately was in work mode, and I think that frustrated me even more because I felt how inadequate I was. So at base of his bed there was his EKG, all the results. I picked it up and I went to read it and I couldn’t. I just blanked out on what the squiggles meant. It upset me so much it just made me feel like such a fraud that I didn’t know this basic thing. It hurt me and I couldn’t really get out of that.
But I've learned since then that you can’t let science tell you how smart you are, and in certain moments it’s okay to not know because the whole point of science is to learn it. If you don’t know something, go find out the answer.
So, for all of you, an EKG is an electrocardiogram. It’s organized into P, Q, R, S, and T complexes. P is arterial depolarization. It’s the kick. It’s picking up and flying from Pakistan to American with nothing and coming in the middle of February from the hottest place in the world just because you want to have new opportunities for your family.
Q, R, S is ventricular depolarization. It’s the flexing of the thick cardiac muscle. It’s working hard despite the quality of reimbursement being complete shit. But you know that you have to drive these taxis, work at these airports to provide food for your family.
And then T is ventricular repolarization. It’s the relaxation before the next kick. Relaxation is a tricky word here because there isn’t time for that. There's never enough time because the next shift starts soon. And that’s how my dad got here. That’s how I operate too, because I am my dad’s son.
As soon as I knew my dad was okay and back home, I went to NPS and did what I needed to do. The reason why is because these goals have to get accomplished. You can’t wait for life to be pretty before you keep going.
Then, with that, my relationship with Sinai really started in 2014 when I applied for this master’s degree. The reason why I did it was because I knew that I’m still not qualified yet to be in medical school because med school is really a complicated process. I was like I need to do this so that I can get my stuff together.
I explained that to my dad and he got it and he kind of let me do my own thing. And I’m glad I did it because one of the issues that I've been having was, how do science and art fit? Opportunities like this, opportunities throughout Sinai have made that really obvious. It’s like, duh, it always has fit.
And here at Sinai, meaning what I do now, I work on cell death and mitochondria. So it’s basically understanding like how cells determine their fate, which is a cool idea. This is really a basic biology kind of lab and what it teaches me is why the cells or the neurons in Muhammad Ali’s brain couldn’t answer the ten-count, why the beta cells my father’s pancreas are disappearing like sugar crystals in water, and why cancer cells they blossom into tumor just before petals fall beside gravestones.
Another thing here I learned is that, ironically, the metaphors, they find you.
I’m constantly worried about my fate, especially now because I didn’t get into med school this cycle. That means I have a whole bunch of other stuff to do now. It’s weird, it’s frustrating, it’s nerve-wracking, but I think that’s just life. I’m trying to embrace that as best as I can.
Now, you would assume my dad would be upset about all this. But he's not. He's actually really supportive because he's seen how much I've struggled and really pushed myself.
A unique thing that my dad and I both have -- I don't know if unique is the right word -- but we were both actually patients at Sinai. Right at the beginning of 2015 I was there for about ten days. I had diverticulitis, just like Brock Lesnar. He gets it. He gets that, “You know what, my son, he's doing his own thing.”
I’m also understanding that, although science has learning curves, the greatest learning curve is being a dad, and he gets that. Like I've done the part where I've pushed him and pushed him and he's going to do what he needs to do. He gets that I can’t just walk into Columbia.
One thing I’m learning is the mistakes that you make, you have to own them. And the people who love you will get that those are your precious things, those are your gifts that you're learning from.
So my folks still live in Greenpoint and I visit them on the weekends. Then one day after the night before, I had a conversation with my dad that, all right, med school is not happening yet.
That morning, I always see him before I go, and I shake his hand. Then he holds my hand a little longer. His hands are big, big and puffy. He holds my hand and he says, “Beta, I’m proud of you. I’m proud of all the hard work you've done.”