Boiling point: Stories about reaching points of crisis

This week, we present two stories of scientists reaching points of crisis, whether it's in their work or their personal lives, or both.

Part 1: Rashawn Ray’s trajectory as a sociologist is forever changed by the murder of Philando Castile.

Rashawn Ray is Associate Professor of Sociology, the Edward McK. Johnson, Jr. Endowed Faculty Fellow, and Co-Director of the Critical Race Initiative at the University of Maryland, College Park. Formerly, Ray was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Ray’s research addresses the mechanisms that manufacture and maintain racial and social inequality. His work also speaks to ways that inequality may be attenuated through racial uplift activism and social policy. Ray has published over 40 books, articles, book chapters, and op-eds. Currently, Ray is co-investigator of a study examining implicit bias, body-worn cameras, and police-citizen interactions with 1800 police officers with the Prince George’s County Police Department.

Part 2: Ecologist Marcelo Ardón Sayao turns to both science and religion when his wife is diagnosed with cancer.

Marcelo Ardón Sayao is really into swamps. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NCSU. He obtained his BA in Biology and Environmental Science from Gettysburg College, his PhD from the University of Georgia, and did a postdoc at Duke University. His research focuses on how wetlands and streams transport and transform water and nutrients. He spends most of his time outside work with his wife and two kids. They enjoy dancing, building sandcastles, and spending time outside, though he hasn’t fully convinced his kids of the beauty of swamps.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Rashawn Ray

I’m a sociologist.  As a sociologist, I study why we think what we think, why we feel what we feel, and why we do what we do.  Over the past fifteen years, I've done research on men’s treatment of women and the ways we might prevent sexual assault and rape and violence against women.  I've done research on the experiences of undergraduate and graduate students at universities and how their experiences with their advisers vary by race and gender.  When I was at UC Berkeley, I did research on physical activity and obesity and actually exploring race, gender, and class differences as it relates to the middle class.

However, all of that changed for me last summer, and it had kind of been building up. So I was on my way to a park that I go run at.  On Mondays, I go on my thirty-minute Monday runs after I've eaten stuff with my kids that I probably shouldn’t eat over the weekend, and I get out at the park and go for a run.

Well, as I was on my way to the park, I was walking to the park, I receive a text message from one of my colleagues and closest friends, Dr. Keon Gilbert, who is a professor at St. Louis University.  He’s been at the center of what’s been happening in Ferguson with the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.  He sends me a video link, and the link didn’t work.

Then he sends me another link, and I’m like, “This link is defunct.  What are you trying to send me?”  And he said, “It’s the killing of Philando Castile.”  Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota.  He was pulled over for a routine traffic violation, for a broken taillight. The officer asked him for his ID.  Philando, per law, said that, “I have a concealed weapon and I have a permit for it.”  Seven bullets were fired into the vehicle.  Philando was killed.

As I’m watching this video at the park, it made me think about other killings that unfortunately have become all too common.  Whether that be Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina, whether that be Oscar Grant in Oakland, whether that be Freddie Gray in Baltimore, whether that be Laquan McDonald in Chicago, whether that be John Crawford III in Cleveland, it made me think about all of these different cases.  Eric Garner in New York, Amadou Diallo, and what it had me thinking is that taxpayers have spent over forty million dollars paying out for wrongful death suits, but rarely are police officers ever charged, prosecuted, or convicted for these wrongful deaths. 

I also thought about my own life and how Philando could have been one of my friends, could have been one of my relatives, could have been me.  I've been pulled over over thirty times in my life by the police.  I've been thrown up against the wall, thrown on the ground.  I've been arrested.  I've had to go to court, and I don't have a criminal record.  And I have a PhD and I work in one of the top universities in the country. 

But you know what?  That shouldn’t even matter.  Because, unfortunately, watching that video just crystallized for me that our blackness becomes weaponized.

And despite the fact that violent crime has significantly decreased over the past two decades, even though when I watch the news I’m like, “Oh, my God, it’s so bad out there.  I have to protect my kids.”  Then I actually go look at the data and I see that violent crimes are almost at an all-time low than it’s been over the past fifty years. 

But the problem is that police killings, police killing citizens, has significantly increased over that same time period.  What’s even more troubling is that according to FBI data, what we know is that blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the police.  And then these data actually show, these are police reports, that blacks are actually less likely to be attacking a police officer or have a weapon at the time that they're killed.  This means that whites are actually less likely to be killed by the police when they're attacking an officer or when they have a weapon on them. 

So all of these things are running through my head when I’m watching the video.  But, see, that’s not even what made that video unique on that sunny day.  What made the video unique was that it was actually being recorded and uploaded to Facebook Live by a third party, and that third party was narrating the video as it was going along.  And that third party was Diamond Reynolds, who was Philando Castile’s girlfriend. 

She was pulled out of the car, she was handcuffed, she was thrown on the ground, she was put in the backseat of a police car.  She was never charged. Philando was never charged.  Again, it was a moving violation, which is not a criminal offense, even though I found out later that the officer, Officer Yanez, who ended up being charged with second-degree manslaughter and is currently on trial, actually pulled Philando over for having a wide nose that fit the description of a robbery suspect.  But when he approached the vehicle, he didn’t approach the vehicle as if it was a robbery suspect. 

These are the ways these kinds of things play out.  So I’m looking at this video, listening to Diamond Reynolds yell out to God, “Lord, please save him.  Lord, please don’t let him die.”  And I’m looking at Philando Castile’s bloody body as he is gasping for his last breath.  Then I hear a faint voice say, “Mommy, don’t cry.  I’m here.” 

“Mommy, don’t cry.  I’m here.”  It was at that moment, as tears are running down my eyes at the part that I’m forever changed, because the person who said those words was Diamond Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter.  And I thought, Wow!  Her innocence is forever taken. 

It made me think about Korryn Gaines in Baltimore, who was killed in her home by police and her five-year-old son was shot by police.  I remember reading a report afterwards that said the five-year-old is expected to make a full recovery.  In what world do we live in where a five-year-old is shot by the police, sees his mother killed by the police, and we expect that that child is going to make a full recovery?  Even if physical wounds heal, emotional and mental wounds will persist. 

And all of this came to its head for me because, at that time, I had a four and a five-year-old and all I could do was think about the time when my kids wanted to go outside in the backyard and play with a Nerf gun and my wife and I had to look at each other then unfortunately tell them no because just months before twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in a park with a toy gun in Cleveland.  That is my reality. 

So I’m sitting at this park and I’m like, as an academic, I’m not doing enough.  I thought I was making a change in the world, I’m contributing to society.  I mean, I’m doing this for pure research’s sake.  When you're an academic, you're supposed to do it for the knowledge.  That’s it.  And I realized that that wasn’t enough anymore. So I had to start engaging in risky science, because when you're an academic, you don’t get rewarded for doing any type of public research.  But instead I had to step out and make a decision that that was what I had to do. 

So I made a commitment to do three things.  First, I decided to start disseminating all my research publicly.  I created a website, rashawnray.com, where people can get all of the research that I've published and some of the research that my colleagues are publishing and make it public. 

The second thing I did, that I committed to sitting there watching that video, as I was literally in mourning for Philando, for myself, for individuals who are similar to us, is I decided to create a vlog called The Daily Thought.  And every week, I post a video, a link to all of my social media accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and my handle @SociologistRay, and I disseminate a video, a short video about what’s happening in society.  Everything from the rise of Trump to the fall of Clinton to why we need to pay attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline and Native Americans, why Colin Kaepernick’s protest is something that we need to pay attention to as it relates to the First Amendment. 

The other thing I did was I figured out ways to help sociologists better disseminate research.  As a sociologist, I’m pretty good at doing research.  Unfortunately, we aren’t trained to disseminate information.  So I decided to be one of the co-editors of Contexts Magazine, along with Dr. Fabio Rojas, who’s a professor at Indiana University.  This is a quarterly magazine sponsored by the American Sociological Association.  What we've committed to doing is, for the next three years, we’re going to have yearly symposia on Capitol Hill where we can tell policy makers about what sociologists have to say about everything from climate change in the environment to education, healthcare, and even race and policing. 

The third thing I did was I committed to working with police departments to help change police culture and also do implicit bias training.  As a social psychologist, what I realize is that implicit bias, I learn on the first day of a class I took.  It’s the first thing I teach when I teach social psychology class.  It’s simply the associations, the unconscious associations, that we make between two seemingly unrelated objects, like, which store has the best fruit?  Is it Whole Foods or your local store? 

Well, per my five-year-old, 7-Elevens have the best donuts.  I do know that for a fact. 

So what we committed to doing was doing implicit bias training with police officers.  By the end of 2018, we will have conducted implicit bias training with all eighteen hundred officers in Prince George’s County. 

And we are bringing those officers to the University of Maryland for a College Experience Day.  These aren’t normal lectures.  Instead, what we do is we engage them with computer scientists and theater performance where we have social experiments, virtual reality simulations, dramaturgical performances to help them discover, acknowledge, realize, and reduce their own implicit biases, because see, all of us have implicit biases.  And it’s only when we acknowledge that they exist that we can actually do something about it. 

The other thing, we are evaluating their body-worn camera program.  Myself and my colleague, Dr. Kris Marsh who is a professor at the University of Maryland, we’re actually running an experiment where we have a hundred officers who have body-worn cameras, a hundred officers who don’t.  We are comparing their outcomes.  Use of force, harassment claims, positive interactions with citizens.  Because at the end of the day, police officers are putting their lives on the line and citizens might also be putting themselves at risk because implicit bias goes wrong. 

So I gathered myself together that day and I went to pick up my kids from school.  I could then look my kids and their friends in the eyes knowing that I was doing everything to keep them safe, to help protect their innocence, and to also aim to make sure that their race, social class, gender, or sexual orientation would not be used against them in interactions with the police.  Because that day, my purpose crystallized.  See, when your purpose crystallizes, it becomes very uncomfortable.  It’s difficult to deal with.  And what you have to do is you have to step outside of your comfort zone and aim to use your skill set for doing something greater.  That’s what I committed to doing that day by engaging in risky science, to step outside of the Ivory Tower to actually try to make a change in the world and keep kids safe.  Thank you.

Part 2: Marcelo Ardón Sayao

So that morning in October 2012, I had promised myself I wouldn’t swear, but when the doctor said, “small cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer,” I swore.  Now, I don't swear very often so my wife got worried.  I swore because, as a scientist and as a nerd, I had spent most of the previous night reading the technical literature, reading scientific papers about the different kinds of cervical cancer that we thought my wife might have.  Of those that I read about, small cell cervical cancer was the worst one. 

It’s a very aggressive form of cancer, it’s very rare, and, according to the papers, my wife, Erin, had about a 10 percent chance of living five years after diagnosis. 

My wife, Erin, is an amazing woman.  She was an accomplished horseman jumper.  She graduated at the top of her class from Cornell.  She did her dissertation research hugging trees in Costa Rica.  Yes, she's a professional tree hugger.  She learned how to salsa dance in Costa Rica, and when she dances, she doesn’t just dance.  It’s more like she glides over the dance floor.  She's fought off vampire bats that were attacking her students and she gave birth to our daughter without taking any pain meds. 

We have a very good separation of duties in our marriage.  So Erin is in charge of the small day-to-day decisions.  So she decides what we have for dinner, even though I’m usually the one who cooks.  She decides what Netflix show we’re going to binge on next.  I’m in charge of the important, the long-term decisions.  So we've been married for eleven years and we haven't had an important long-term decision come up yet, but I know one will. 

So Erin has an amazing capacity of forming lifelong friends everywhere she goes, and those friends have been important. 

So we’re both ecologists trying to balance life and academic careers, and things started getting weird around March of 2012 soon after we found out that Erin was pregnant with our second child.  That pregnancy was not like the previous pregnancy.  She kept having pains and she kept having bleeding, and the doctors and the midwives didn’t really know what was going on. 

Then we have this weird prenatal test result.  So we were excited to use these new, cutting-edge technology, noninvasive, second-generation sequencing tests that all it required was a blood test from Erin to see if there were any genetic problems with our developing son.  The tests came back saying that there were two chromosomal abnormalities, which meant that the baby was not viable.  So they did the test again, and again they came up with these chromosomal abnormalities. 

So they did another test and they put this really big needle in Erin’s belly, and then those tests showed that everything was normal.  So the doctors decided that they didn’t know what was up with those results. 

Erin, being the smart cookie that she is, thought that maybe having abnormal DNA floating through her blood stream could indicate that she had cancer.  And she told me, “Maybe I have cancer.” 

At the time, it was such a weird thing to think about.  Erin had always been healthy.  She always ate right.  She always exercised.  The thought of her having cancer was just such a remote possibility that I didn’t think that was the case. 

So I said, “No, that can’t be.”  And we told the doctors and the doctors said, “No, no, no.  We just don’t understand these genetic tests yet.” 

Well, Erin was right.  If there was ever a time that I wish she hadn’t been right, it was this one.  And those doctors actually wrote a paper later on about using these prenatal tests as a way to detect metastatic cancer. 

So our son Jax was born in October 2012 and the birth was magical.  It was beautiful.  After all those months of uncertainty and bleeding and pain, the birth went through with no problems and Jax came out and he's beautiful.  I swear, he was smiling, and he's still smiling now, and he's kept on smiling this whole time. 

But then that night, the pain meds wore off and all the pains that Erin had been having came back with a vengeance.  So they did all these tests and an MRI.  Erin is claustrophobic so she didn’t like that tunnel.  We had doctors coming in and out of our room as we were trying to get to know our newborn son.  And they told us that they had found tumors in Erin’s pelvis.  The pain had gotten so bad two weeks earlier because she had actually fractured her pelvis just sitting writing thank-you notes with our daughter after her third birthday party.  This is why I don’t write thank-you notes. 

After we got the diagnosis, Erin started doing chemo and radiation treatments.  If you've never been to a chemo infusion room, one of the cancer survivors we met along the way described it best.  She said it’s a lot like a party.  You have comfy chairs, you have music, you have snacks, and you have drugs, lots of drugs.  But the mood is a little different there. 

When Erin learned of all the treatments she was going to have to undergo, her first concern was not that she was going to lose her hair or the nausea or whether or not she was going to be able to tolerate all these treatments.  Her first concern was that she wasn’t going to be able to breastfeed our son, Jax.  So being the go-getter that she is, she got on Facebook, she got on email, she called people.  And before we knew it, we had a chest freezer full of donated breast milk and Jax was able to breastfeed until he was almost one, or bottle breastfeed. 

So that night when they told us the small cell results, I went back to the literature, reading the papers, and I got scared.  It was scary to read about the poor prognosis and the low cancer-specific survival rates and that the average patient only lived to one or two years, at most, after diagnosis.  But as I sat there thinking about those papers and those results, I started seeing a glimmer of hope.  All of those numbers were about average patients and average people.  As you've heard already, Erin is not average. 

So I knew that she had a good chance to fight this.  She was very healthy before all of this started.  She had good access to very good medical care.  She had insurance to pay for this very good medical care.  And she had a positive attitude.  All things that are important for cancer survival. 

Reading the papers was also helpful to make sure that the doctors were recommending the treatments that we were reading about because Erin’s health is too important for us to just leave it up to the doctors.  So even though this science knowledge gave me courage and gave me some hope, it still didn’t quite let me understand or fully comprehend what was going on.  Science is a very powerful friend, but it’s not a very nurturing friend. 

Having grown up in Costa Rica, religion has always been a part of my life.  Costa Rica is a predominantly dominant Catholic country and I attended thirteen years of Catholic school.  So while I wasn’t one that would attend church every Sunday, I always prayed at night.  But those first few nights after the diagnosis, I had a hard time praying.  I was mad.  Why would a God, a benevolent God let this happen to us, to our family? 

So right around that time, I started reading about mindful meditation.  And while I never did it according to the way they say to do it, spending an hour or however a day, I would only spend five or ten minutes every day, and particularly before bed, and just sitting there focusing on breath and focusing on that anger and those questions.  Rather than trying to answer them and just letting them sit there, somehow I made them lose their power. 

So around that time, I also started saying the prayer of Saint Francis or Peace Prayer.  Now, I have repeated that prayer every morning during the thirteen years of Catholic school and at that time, it didn’t mean much.  But it’s a beautiful prayer and it’s a beautiful prayer for caregivers.  It’s about seeking to understand those around you as opposed to seeking to be understood.  It’s about bringing hope where there is despair, about bringing light where there is darkness, about bringing joy where there is darkness.  And saying that prayer right before going to sleep always helped me go to sleep.  It helped me get through those long, long nights. 

Now, the past 4 and a half years, the cancer has gone and come back numerous times.  Erin is still undergoing chemo treatment and teaching five college courses.  With grace and courage, she keeps moving on.  I do my best to support her and support our little kids. 

Our family has been vital in supporting us through all of this but so have our friends and scientists and people that we met along the way.  We've received everything from donated breast milk to rides to meals, and all these groups of people have been amazing in supporting us. 

I don't know if my prayers have helped Erin directly.  I don't know if the prayers of all of our friends and scientist friends have helped Erin directly, but I do know that Erin is still here.  I know that science and religion have both been important coping mechanisms for me.  Both have given me hope when hope was hard to find. 

There's a lot that’s been said about science and religion being opposites.  I think they're complementary and I think we need them both.  Our family needs them both as we face cancer every day.  So we keep reading papers, we keep praying, we dance, we laugh, we love, and I try not to swear at doctors’ appointments.  Thank you.