Independent Research: Stories of setting off on our own

This week, we present two stories of young scientists setting off on their own for the first time.

Part 1: As an undergrad, biologist Frank Stabile lands an exciting summer research position in D.C., but soon he starts to notice something’s not right.

Jump to Frank’s story >>

Frank A. Stabile is an evolutionary biologist in training at Yale University. He is currently a PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where he studies the evolution of feathers. In particular, he wants to understand how birds evolved to develop feathers and scales at the same time. Before Yale, Frank earned an undergraduate degree in biology at The College of New Jersey, where he spent several years in the woods catching birds to study feather replacement. He has several other interests that probably take up too much of his time, like history, politics, literature, and birding.

Part 2: As a teenager, Deena Walker dreams of being a scientist, but her controlling boyfriend, and her own attitude toward her gender, get in the way.

Jump to Deena’s story >>

Deena Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine where she studies the molecular mechanisms of addiction and depression. She recently moved to New York after finishing her PhD at The University of Texas at Austin in December 2012. When she's not in lab she enjoys practicing yoga and playing fetch with her dog in Central Park.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Frank Stabile

So I’m here to tell you about the time a garbage can ruined the best summer experience of my life. 

To set the stage a little bit, this was just after my junior year in college and I am heading to Washington, D.C., with my family.  It’s late May.  Really nice, sunny Saturday.  And I’m super excited because I’m moving to this dorm room in George Washington University.  I still really can’t believe it, but somehow I got a summer research position at the National Museum of Natural History. 

I’m sure most of you know about it or have even been there, but in case you haven't, the museum is kind of a big deal.  It’s super famous.  It is.  It’s just the way it is.  So it’s super famous.  It’s like the most visited national history museum in the world because of its immense collections, awesome people who work there. 

I’m this young scientist who already was super into museums and now I’m going to work at this museum, so my mind is already, like, blown.  And on top of that, I love Washington, D.C., just as a city, as it is.  You should go there right now because I think it’s great.  Now, I’m this late teenager who’s going to be living there for two months, so I’m super excited. 

And because my family is a little crazy and really close, we all just piled in the car and we drove to D.C.  So we go through all the logistics, paperwork, getting the keys, whatever.  They helped me unpack all my things in the room and we kind of meander around the national mall a little bit, then they take off for the motherland in Jersey. 

So then I’m in D.C. alone, and the whole time I’m mostly excited but I've been feeling a little stress too.  Right?  I mean, it’s a move.  I think most people feel stressed during a move.  My stuff is all boxed up.  At this point, nobody in my family has lived this far from Jersey.  It’s not that far, but whatever.  It’s far enough for my mom to be upset. 

So my stuff’s packed up, everyone is touching it and it’s not good.  So I decide, even though I’m in D.C. and I’m alone and I could go check out the GW campus or go to Dupont Circle or do any number of things, I’m still feeling kind of stressed about all the stuff being touched by my brothers and stuff.  So I figure I'll just stay here that night and finish unpacking, get settled, get comfortable, and that’s what I'll do tonight.  Then after that I'll feel less stressed and I'll go do things. 

But the next morning I woke up and still kind of felt stressed so I was like, you know what?  I'll just do that again today, and the day after.  I was like, that’s fine.  I used the first couple of days of this internship to unpack pretty much and get settled and make the room okay.  But that’s fine.  We still got two months. 

And I still wasn’t doing all things I needed to do.  So my roommates moved in, I met the other students in the program and, before we know it, it’s the first day of the internship.  So we all walk over together to the museum and it’s like you're passing the White House on your way to work.  So you can’t beat that. 

And we get in and it’s a ton of introductions, a ton of policy.  It’s a lot all at once.  But it’s also super exciting.  I meet my mentor, who’s this really great guy.  Lucky for me.  I get my ID card with my face on it and it says Smithsonian and I’m like freaking out.  But it’s a lot and, like anything else, after a little while, it went from overwhelming to kind of routine after a couple of weeks. 

I was waking up every morning, kind of speed walking to the museum because people in D.C. walk really fast.  I don't know why.  They just do, so I did that.  Then I’m working long hours during the week and things are going well.  It’s a lot, it’s a lot of work, but the kicker is that every Friday we get this special kind of behind-the-scenes tour of the collection, which is amazing.  One week I’m holding like a moon rock and a Mars rock, and then the next week I’m looking at bones that Teddy Roosevelt collected.  It was just super surreal.  It’s like living in this dream world for nerds, I guess. 

But at the same time, so that’s the work routine.  That’s going really well.  But the other side, the home routine is starting to get a little weird.  Basically, what’s happening is that every time I come back from work, on the way home I stop at this chain restaurant called Potbelly, which doesn’t exist in Jersey.  So to me, it’s like this amazing five-star restaurant. 

So I’m getting all these sandwiches at Potbelly, going home and eating, and that’s what I’m doing, my kind of daily routine, though, I guess, that’s not the weird part.  The weird part is after that.  So I’m sitting in the room and, again, that whole move-in time I’m thinking if I just clean this room, if I settle in, I'll feel okay.  But the problem is I never felt okay.  Even every day after that, every time I came home, I felt that stress.  I felt that the room, just something wasn’t right about it.  I was thinking about how to explain this.  I think probably the best way is via example. 

So I was kind of going into this circle around the room of cleaning and organizing and making sure everything is just so, because the room was wrong.  It was like a fact of the universe that the room was wrong.  One of the things I noticed right away, which I think all universities hire the same really sloppy paint people to paint the rooms in between years, because there's just paint on everything.  All these little paint flecks.  I really got bothered by this so I figured I will just take this flathead screwdriver that I had for some reason, and just kind of get the paint off all these cheap furniture.  So that became part of my cleaning process. 

And that helped a little bit, but it still didn’t feel right.  The room was bothering me every night after work and I was using pretty much all my free time, even though I’m in Washington, D.C., to make this room just so.  So it gets just a little bit weirder, and this is where the garbage can comes in. 

So one day, I just started noticing the garbage can, which is like you never notice a garbage can.  I’m noticing the garbage can.  It’s not so much the can itself as the stuff that’s in the can, like literally the trash.  It’s just something about the way the trash is sitting in the can no longer sits right with me.  I’m really bothered by it. 

So I actually spend, I’m spending several nights rearranging paper towel rolls and stuff in this trash can to get it just so.  A few nights go by after work and I’m like this is really annoying, but I finally have this aha moment.  Like if I just cut the trash into little pieces it would be really nice and homogenous and then it won’t bother me. 

And it worked.  It was great.  The scissors were great and I cut all this trash into little pieces.  I cut the paper that wrapped my sandwich up into little pieces.  I had a system for the potato chip bag that I bought every day, was I cut the bottom off, cut that into pieces, then I have like a sleeve left, cut the sleeve into halves, the halves into strips and then the strips in little pieces.  So it was working great.  And every night, I’m coming back and this is more or less what I’m doing. 

And I kept thinking, I remember thinking over and over again, if I just get this done, if I just do these things, then I'll be able to go do… I wanted to do stuff.  I wasn’t happy to be doing that.  I wanted to go do those things.  Just these things had to be done.  These are like the first steps towards the rest of my time, the rest of my life in D.C. 

But that feeling never really came, actually.  Believe it or not, I spent the whole summer doing that.  As a result, I missed out on a ton of stuff.  I only ended up going to about a third of the spots that I wanted to go to.  I never made it to the Archives, or to the American Museum.  I think I only went to two restaurants besides Potbelly.  Just not good.  It’s like going to McDonald’s and two other restaurants in a new city.  It’s not really what you're shooting for. 

One night in particular, I remember I was in kind of suite with several other people, other roommates, and they threw a party in the suite.  So we’re talking like two feet away from my door.  That did not extract me from the room.  I was still in that room even if there's a party going on right there. 

I remember walking to the bathroom and being like, “Yeah, have fun, guys.  I need to go chip paint off of the bed.” 

So that was how the summer ended and, not surprisingly, things didn’t really get too much better after that.  So I returned home still feeling like this is annoying, but it’s more so annoying that I just have to do it.  It’s like a fact. 

And I go home, finish up my college degree.  I graduate, move to New Haven, and all the while these things are not going away and increasing.  As I get here, I’m finding I’m feeling increasingly depressed, increasingly anxious, and these behaviors that feel like facts, the fact that the room is wrong, has just remained true for those however long, how many years. 

Eventually, the excuses that I was throwing at myself like, “It’s fine.  You're still going to work.  You're still getting things done.  You still go out sometimes.  That’s good,” those things started to fall away.  I started missing meetings and I started not getting that much work done. 

And the people in my life started noticing and it kind of went from being like a joke to like maybe you should go do something about this. 

So finally after a good amount of reluctance, I started shopping for a therapist, which is always fun.  There's no Yelp for therapists.  You kind of just have to try one and see how it goes. 

Eventually, I found someone who’s really great.  And almost like maybe the second session she was like, “Yeah, maybe you've got some issues.  You have obsessive-compulsive disorder.”  Definitely.  No doubt.  A hundred percent.  Coupled with mild depression and anxiety, which usually kind of lurks behind these things.  So it’s like, okay, that makes sense. 

So what do we do about it?  Right away she's like, “Let’s start something called cognitive behavioral therapy,” which is this really great approach where you basically attack the behaviors and the thoughts that are bothering you.  But you don’t do it like tomorrow I’m just going to be fine magically.  It’s much more of like an incremental thing where you say next week I want to reduce the behavior two or three times, or something to that effect. 

So I’m happy to say now that it’s been about a year or so and it’s gone pretty well.  I’m definitely much less depressed and anxious, though I still have OCD.  It turns out it doesn’t go away.  It’s not like, I guess, having a cold. 

So I still have OCD.  It’s still my core problem.  I dealt with it this morning, I'll always deal with it, but now I’m aware of it and I’m working on it. 

And the one big thing that hit me recently was that only now do I look back at that summer and see the litany of red flags that were just waving in the wind right at my face.  At the time, none of those things felt abnormal.  They felt annoying, but they didn’t feel like the behavior itself was the problem. 

So I look back and I see all that, and I guess going forward, what I've realized is that I just need to be hyper-vigilant in that way.  I need to watch out for the red flags when they're hitting me in the face and do something about it, constantly work on it, constantly go to therapy and constantly make sure that I can push towards the life that I want to lead.  Because I think we've come pretty far as a society, I think, when it comes to mental health, but it’s still super stigmatized.  It’s super easy to normalize.  I mean, it was super easy for me to normalize all those behaviors. 

So I just come away from this realizing how vigilant I need to be and that my mental health and happiness are worth something and I should work towards it, because I definitely, definitely don’t want to spend another two months staring at a garbage can when I could be staring at the Lincoln Memorial. 

Thank you.

Part 2: Deena Walker

As a child, I knew two things about growing up.  One, I would be a scientist, and two, I would never be a woman.  I know.  You all are looking at me right now and you're thinking to yourself, well, you've obviously failed at one of those, but I can assure you I am indeed a scientist. 

You see, women, in my perception, were weak and they were a nag and they were something that men had to take care of.  And because of those characteristics, I assumed that that’s why women were excluded from so many male-dominated events that I wanted to be a part of.  So to remedy this for myself, I decided I would emphasize everything masculine about me and suppress anything feminine. 

Most of my friends were boys and I engaged in rough and tumble play well into adolescence.  In fact, I remember this one game that we would play where one boy would sit on the ground and another would walk in a circle around him.  The one on the ground would punch the person walking in the thigh screaming, “Walk!”  The longer you walked, the tougher you were. 

So when it came time for me to walk in that circle, with every cycle and with every punch I just kept saying to myself, “Come on, Deena!  You can do this just one more time.”  Because, after all, what could be more masculine than being able to take a punch? 

Despite my reluctance to accept anything womanly about myself, I do remember the first time I felt powerful as a woman.  I was fourteen and I was with my sister at a nearby lake and her friend pulled up on a boat and asked us if we wanted to go for a ride.   And of course we wanted to go for a ride. 

So when we got on the boat, I was taking off my clothes to reveal my brand new two-piece bathing suit and I happened to catch her friend’s eye.  And the look he gave me was intoxicating.  I remember thinking, Holy shit.  I think men might do things for me because I look good in a bikini.  That feeling was then sustained by the fact that he started to pursue me, and I loved the attention.  I was also a little bit scared because he was substantially older than me.  But I calmed those fears by telling myself that I must be really, really special if he was willing to risk so much to be with me.  And I really loved feeling special… unlike most fourteen-year-old girls. 

As the flirting turned into a relationship, that feeling just continued because he was always telling me things like, “You're fantastic.”  And I was such a great girlfriend because I was really more like a guy, a compliment I've heard many times in my life, by the way.  We would watch sports together, we went hunting together.  And because I was so much younger, we had to keep the relationship secret.  So most of the time that we spent together was after I had snuck out, we would hang out with his friends late at night drinking and smoking pot.  And in those groups I would find out secrets about those guys, like who was having an affair or who was still smoking pot even though their wives thought that they had quit.  I was anything but excluded and I loved it. 

However, as time went on and I started expressing some of my own needs, like wanting to go to college or wanting to be a scientist, it didn’t take very long before he started to treat me like a woman.  I was seventeen.  It was about three years into our relationship and we were fighting again about me going to college and whether he was going to come with me.  I got out of the car to walk home to try to stop the fight, like I had many times before.

But this time, he got out of the car and came walking after me screaming at me about what a baby I was and how I should just calm down.  And he pushed me into a pile of rocks.  I was stunned.  I stood up, blood dripping down the right side of my body, and I turned around and walked back into his house.  I locked myself in the bathroom and started to cry. 

His mom came in to check on me, and as she was helping me clean the blood off my arms and legs, she said, “Ugh, I hate it when he does this to you girls.”  And I thought, Girls?  Plural?  There were rumors that he had been abusive to his ex-girlfriends and his friends had tried to warn me that he had a temper on him, but I really didn’t think it would happen to me.  I thought I was special. 

After that first violent incident, I decided that I would deal with it the way I thought a man would and I would fight back.  So when he hit me, I hit him.  When he called me names, I came back with something just as mean.  I justified all of this by telling myself that this was just how people fought.  In the end, we decided that he would come to college with me. 

So we moved a thousand miles away from our hometown together.  All the while, I was thinking like, Why can’t he just ask me to marry him so we can break up?  The distance didn’t really... being that far away from our families didn’t really help our fighting, by the way.  I remember one time, we were arguing because he had made me hang out with his ex-girlfriend the night before, something he never would have put up from me, by the way.  And he just kept saying like, “Stop being a baby.  Calm down.  You're overreacting,” which just made me so angry that I finally just hauled off and punched him in the face.  I looked at him and realized that made him angry. 

So I scrambled into the backseat to avoid his reach.  So he's driving with his left hand and he's reaching behind into the backseat trying to grab me with his right.  All of a sudden, he just lets out this horrible scream and swings his arm around back into the front seat.  As he does that, his hand catches my nose and blood just pours out all over my clothes.  He had dislocated his shoulder. 

So we paused our fight so that I could take him to the hospital.  And as they were setting his arm the doctor came to me and pulled me aside, pointed to the blood on my shirt and said, “You know, once things are bad more often than they're good, it might be time to leave.” 

I politely explained to her that things were fine and this was just an accident, all the while thinking, “Whatever, lady.  I’m sure your relationship isn’t perfect either.”  But what I was feeling was an insane amount of shame and embarrassment that she had figured out what I was letting him do to me. 

So meanwhile, I’m in college and I’m working towards that second goal of becoming a scientist.  You all had forgotten about that, haven't you?  So I had done some undergraduate research and through that I had developed a passion for molecular biology and I had also perfected the art of suppressing anything feminine about me.  I never wore makeup, I always wore jeans and T-shirts, I rarely did my hair, and I tried my best to exclude other women from the academic environment. 

I did this the same way a lot of men do.  I talked to men more, I collaborated with men more, and I judged those women who wore dresses or pink or high heels as incapable or childish. 

But that passion for molecular biology had also solidified my ambition to want to be a scientist and the fact that academic science seemed like a pretty masculine endeavor, made me feel pretty comfortable with my chosen career path.  So when my boyfriend came to me and told me that he wanted to move to another state and transfer schools, a school that didn’t offer a molecular biology program, I refused to go with him.  The thing that had initiated the physical abuse was now serving as a way out for me. 

So we didn’t break up right then.  In fact, we stayed together for another year.  But because it was long distance, I had a little bit of space to sort of take a step back and see what was really going on.  And in that year I had so many voicemails saying things like I was a slut because he couldn’t reach me on the phone, I was an idiot because I didn’t know that his flight was delayed, I was selfish because I wouldn’t change my major.  I was so fucking book smart and why didn’t I have any common sense. 

And even when he was apologizing, when the violence injured me, he still found a way to make it my fault.  He was sorry that I was so small.  My body was too small to withstand the punishment.  Those comments, which had seemed totally normal when we were living together, now, with just a little bit of distance, seemed completely insane.  So after a year of harassing voicemails and a lot of support from my labmates, I ended the relationship. 

But if that relationship did one thing for me, it reinforced the idea that women are weak and that the best way to be successful was to be as masculine as possible.  And in the years since, I've had to work really hard to overcome that way of thinking.  I've done individual therapy, I've done women’s group therapy, and I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter and a rape crisis center.  All of that has helped me redefine masculine, feminine, strength, and weakness because survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are some of the strongest people I have ever met regardless of their gender. 

But even after all that time, I still struggle.  I’m still more comfortable suppressing my feminine attributes when I’m at work.  And there are times when I am really uncomfortable being seen as a woman in the lab.  For example, I gave birth about five months ago.  [Applause.] Yes, you guys should cheer that.  Biology.  But if there is one state that screams feminine, it is carrying a living being in your uterus for nine months.  Pregnancy was dizzying for me because there was no escape.  I woke up every morning with this huge reminder that I was a woman. 

And now I’m a mom, and I’m raising a little boy.  And after learning how to be a woman and how to accept both the masculine and feminine in me, I have to teach him to do the same thing.  Because what I really want is to raise my son to be the boy and man I wish I knew growing up. 

Thank you.