Exploration: Stories about facing new challenges

This week, we present two stories of exploring new territory, from communicating with chimpanzees to swimming in the Red Sea.

Part 1: While working as a schoolteacher, Jeff Braden gets a phone call out of the blue from a renowned chimpanzee expert.

Jeff Braden is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of Psychology at NC State University. Prior to becoming dean, he was a professor and director of school psychology programs at NC State, University of Wisconsin—Madison, San Jose State University and the University of Florida. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, a member of the National Association of School Psychologists, and an elected member of the Society for the Study of School Psychology. He has presented more than 300 papers at state, national, and international meetings and published more than 175 articles, books, book chapters, and other products on assessment, school psychology, intelligence, and deafness. He recently completed a grant to evaluate adaptive courseware from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Part 2: Biologist Latasha Wright is forced to confront her fear of the ocean when she visits the coral reef she's been studying.

Latasha Wright received her Ph.D. from NYU Langone Medical Center in Cell and Molecular Biology. After her studies, she went on to continue her scientific training at Johns Hopkins University and Weill Cornell Medical Center. She has co­authored numerous publications and presented her work at international and national conferences. In 2011, she joined the crew of the BioBus, a mobile science lab dedicated to bringing hands­on science and inspiration to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The BioBus creates a setting that fosters innovation and creativity. Students are encouraged to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, and design experiments. Through the BioBus, Latasha was able to share her love of science with a new generation of potential scientists. Everyday that she spends teaching students about science in this transformative environment helps her remember that science is fun. She loves sharing the journey of discovery with students of all ages. In 2014, the BioBus team launched an immersive, un­intimidating laboratory space called the BioBase, a community laboratory model. At the BioBase students are encouraged to explore their scientific potential through in­-depth programming and hands­-on experimentation. Latasha has lead the efforts in establishing this community laboratory model, and hopes to build on its success in other communities. The efforts of the BioBus’ team to promote science education to all communities in New York City has been recognized by numerous news outlets, including the WNYC science radio program Hypothesis. Additionally, Latasha has been featured as NY1’s New Yorker of the Week.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jeff Braden

So in spring of 1977, I was a student teacher, and I had just sent my first- and second-graders out of the classroom to go get on those yellow buses when, over the intercom at Mabel C. O’Donnell Elementary School, I hear, “Mr. Braden, Mr. Braden.  You have a long-distance phone call.”

Now, for those of you who have always dialed ten digits, you have no idea how big this was.  Back in 1977, it was a big deal to call a number outside of your area code, much less across state lines. 

So here I am, this little student teacher, and I’m like walking down the hallway and everybody is going, “Ooh, long distance phone call.  All right.” 

As the secretary hands me the phone, she says, “It’s long distance.” 

I said, “Hi, this is Jeff Braden.”  And I heard on the other end of the line, “Hello.  This is Allen Gardner from the Psychobiology of Language Project at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I wanna offer you a full scholarship and admission into our PhD program in experimental psych.” 

That struck me as odd for, really, three reasons.  First, in 1977, Allen Gardner was one of the most well-known scientists on the planet.  Allen and his wife, Trixie, had raised a chimpanzee named Washoe, and she was the first non-human primate to acquire a human language naturally.  In fact, Allen and Trixie were in the middle of a struggle with a linguist named Noam Chomsky. 

Professor Chomsky said chimpanzees use language the same way a chicken can fly.  In other words, he was disparaging.  Noam Chomsky’s position was only humans could acquire language, and the Gardners said, “Well, we have this research to show otherwise.”  The media was full of these images of chimpanzees walking with Allen and Trixie across this grass and announcers gushing, “Now, we can talk to the animals.”  All this kind of stuff.  So I thought it was pretty unlikely that one of the most famous scientists on the planet would be calling me.

There was a second reason where I thought it was unlikely.  I had never applied to the University of Nevada, Reno.  I had never contacted them.  I hadn’t even looked at graduate school.  My game plan was to get married that summer and start my career as an elementary school teacher in rural Wisconsin.  So I thought it’s pretty unusual to have a world-famous scientist call me out of the blue -- I've never talked to him, never contacted him -- and offer me a full ride to get my PhD. 

But the third reason that really convinced me it wasn’t Allen Gardner was that voice.  I mean, really?  We didn’t have a word for it back then, but I was convinced that one of my friends was punking me, because that’s the kind of friends I have. 

So I said what I think any logical person would say and I said, “Yeah, who the fuck is this really?” 

There was a pause, and then I heard, “This is Allen Gardner from the Psychobiology of Language Project at the University of Nevada…” and I’m like, No. 

Well, you probably can guess I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t Allen Gardner from the University of Nevada, Reno, offering me a full ride to get my PhD in experimental psych.  How he got to me is kind of an interesting question, which I will say I will get to directly, which in the South means I'll get there eventually.  But within two months my wife, Jill, and I had filled up every possession we had, stuffed it into a two-door Dodge Colt and we were driving across country to Reno, Nevada. 

Now, I don't know how many of you have actually met a chimpanzee face-to-face.  I have.  I've also met a lowland gorilla, but it’s pretty interesting.  It’s kind of freaky, actually.  I started at the Psychobiology Language Project with a chimpanzee named Moja.  She was a four-year-old female.  She's about ninety-five pounds, had arms about as long as my legs, and I can show you the exact size of her mouth.  It’s this moon-shaped scar that I carry right here. 

And the whole point of Allen and Trixie’s research was to raise Moja and two other chimps, Dar and Tattoo, in a language-rich environment, which pretty much was middle-class children’s existence.  So they had their own jackets, they had bathrobes and all this other stuff.  The idea was you tried to make every possible event a language-mediated event.  And sure enough, they signed. 

They said things like “play chase,” they said things like “want,” “eat,” “run,” “bird,” all kinds of things.  We worked with them, but, as Noam Chomsky frequently pointed out, their signing tended to be pretty concrete.  Naming things.  Action, eating, going to the bathroom, whatever it might be. 

So a couple of us decided, you know, we really need to expand this.  We really need to try and help Moja develop more abstract language.  And we thought it would be useful to teach her how to express annoyance at someone else’s actions.  So every time she did something that annoyed us, like she ripped the toilet off its moorings and water spraying over everywhere. She’d do things like bite me, other kinds of things, we’d go like this, which is to express annoyance at another person’s actions.  And for the people who might be listening to this, I just extended my middle finger.  So we worked a lot with her and we did this. 

Well, a couple of weeks after we started this, Allen had Dar and one of my other colleagues had Tattoo and I had Moja, and we took them outside.  They were playing and running around.  The downside of raising chimpanzees like children is if they want to run away, you can’t catch them.  They'll go right up on a roof, and forget about it.  So Moja decided she was going to take off and she went off on the big roof of the big house. 

There's something really paradoxical about chimpanzees.  To get them to come back to you, you scare them.  When they are frightened, they seek physical contact with the dominant person in the group. 

And so Moja took off. Allen looked up and he goes, “Okay,” and he picks up this rock and he goes [makes monkey noises] and he throws the rock, not at Moja but near Moja so that the sound would scare her and she would come running back. 

And Moja went like this. [Raises middle finger.]

Now, the other guy and I are falling on the ground laughing and Allen goes, “What did she sign?  What did she sign?”  Because a chimpanzee actually doesn’t do this.  They don’t have opposable thumbs.  It’s more like this.  And so we were just dying with laughter. 

Now, this is science.  We couldn’t count that as the usable word until it happened the second time in an appropriate context independent of the first observation.  We never saw it again.  So that event never made it into the annals of science. 

Well, I will tell you I didn’t stay with the project very long.  I left after about a year.  But that project, in many ways, changed my outlook and changed my life.  I learned a couple of things, really, about not just chimpanzees but about myself.  I learned that I could pick up things about as quick, maybe even quicker than some of the other grad students.  I learned that learning about behavior was fascinating.  I learned that I had the disposition to observe dispassionately and try and link the behavior I saw to a series of behavior and motivation. 

So about eight years later, I got my PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, one of those blue and gold schools, and I went onto a career where I either held tenure or tenure line position at four different universities, worked with probably over a hundred grad students along the way as a social scientist. 

So I did tell you that I would get to the point about how Allen found me, and this is how it happened.  I was teaching American Sign Language at my first alma matter, Beloit College, a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, and one of the fellow students in my class had applied to work on the project and listed a professor of psychology as his reference.  Now, that professor of psychology and I knew each other because Beloit is a small community in a very small town, but I never had him for class.  I never did any work with him. 

But when Allen contacted him, he said, “Well, the guy you're talking about is really good, but the guy you really ought to be talking to is Jeff Braden.”  Allen tracked me down at this elementary school in Illinois and made that call. 

That act of unrequested, unbidden kindness and advocacy on my behalf changed my life.  So when people ask me, “Did working with chimpanzees prepare you for a career teaching undergraduate students?” I say, “Eh. Not really. But it was invaluable preparation for my two terms on faculty senate.”

What I don’t often say is it also taught me that, very often, the greatest influence that professors have on future scientists is outside the lab and outside the classroom.  I've tried to remember that throughout my career. 

Thank you.

Part 2: Latasha Wright

So after four years of college, got a BS in chemistry, six years of graduate school, got a PhD in cell and molecular biology, three years of postdoc-ing -- yeah, I know -- and another two years, because one postdoc wasn’t enough.  I needed to do two because I’m an overachiever like that.  So after fifteen years of trying to become a research scientist, I realized that I’m really a science enthusiast.  Not really.  Yeah, I don't have what it takes, you know?

Those research scientists they have to like dig in like lasers, like, “This is the point between the point in between the point,” and I’m more like that dog in Up, you know, like, “Global warming! What?  What?  Huh?” 

“Photosynthesis! What?  Yeah, yeah.  I wanna do that.” 

“Particle physics! I can do that.  Yeah, I got that!” 

Nah.  That’s not what I was.  So I decided to use this great talent of mine and really parlay it into another career. 

So I joined the BioBus because it’s like science outreach.  And when I joined it was an actual bus.  It looked like something out of The Partridge Family.  It’s got all kinds of colors on it and little kids are in there like, “Hey, the hippies are coming,” and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s me, man.”  I started wearing tie dye, and we were all in there and doing science and I was a scientist with the kids and kids are looking up to me and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m a big deal, you know.” 

So I started that and we were doing it for a long time and then it was successful.  You know, a scientist who loves science teaching kids.  Yeah, that worked. 

Then we got a phone call one day.  Stay with me because it gets weird a little bit right now.  So it’s from the U.S. Forest Service.  Yeah.  And they're like, “Yes, so could you guys like consult with us and teach us how to do this in other countries with other NGOs?” 

And we’re like, “Yeah!  Go to other countries, I got that, yeah.” 

So this woman whose name was Natasha -- she's super sweet, even shorter than me -- and then Christina from the Forest Service so they showed up. And then they brought with them this man from Egypt.  His name was Omar. 

I don't know if you've ever met somebody the first time you meet them you're like, “Are you my daddy?”  Because he was just such a force of nature and he was just so passionate and everything, and I was just like, “I just want your approval.”

Yeah, let’s not talk about that. 

So then, after all of this work, he was like, “Yeah, you guys should come to Egypt and help us.”  So they were getting a BioBoat.  Like a yacht.  A yacht, guys.  A yacht in Egypt. 

And I was like, “Yeah, I can help you.  Yeah, I could do that.” 

So he wanted me to develop a marine biology curriculum for the Red Sea.  I got that, yeah.  Because I've always wanted to go to Egypt, right?  When I was little, I used to think about like, Oh, I want to see the pyramids and ride on the camels.  I used to watch Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea.  I’m from Mississippi, guys.  Sorry.  I was like totally going to go like this when I see the Red Sea, and I'll see what happens.  I don't know.  It might part. 

So we get there and then I get into his office because I really worked hard.  I YouTubed and I did all that science stuff.  I’m ready.  I got my PowerPoint, ready to tell them how wonderful I am and show him this curriculum, and he's like, “Wait.  Hold on, hold on.  You can’t develop a curriculum about coral reefs in the Red Sea without seeing them.” 

I’m like, “Uh, but I did.” 

And he's like, “No, no, no.  I understand what you did, but I want you to see the coral reefs.” 

And I’m like, “Oh, this is awesome.  Yeah, I love boats.  Cool.  No prob.  Yeah, this is really cool.”

So the next day, me, Natasha, Christina, my peeps from the Forest Service, we go to the docks and we’re getting on a boat and I realize they have their bathing suits on.  I’m like, “Wait.  This is an underwater thing?  Hold on.”  I’m like, “Wait.”

As you know, as we heard earlier, open water, that’s where sharks live.  So I don't actually go in the ocean.  I’m getting so nervous because there's a lot of anxiety, right?  Because I’m like, “What?  You want me to go in the water?  Oh, okay.” 

So we get there and we’re on the boat and I’m with my colleagues Natasha and Christina.  They're all super happy and they're like, “Oh, it’s so sweet that Omar did this.” 

And I’m like, “Yeah, sweet.  So he's very sweet.  Yeah.” 

So then I started trying to think what are my escape plans, because I really love boats and I just want to hang out on the boat and stuff, but I can’t really tell Christina and Natasha that I’m really, really scared because I’m their coral reef expert who’s so scared to go in the water.  That’s probably not what they want to hear. 

So then I just started trying to be cool and be like, “Hey, guys.  Just so you know, I’m not a strong swimmer.” 

They're like, “Oh, no, that’s fine.” 

“Okay.” 

So we get more people going on the boat and I’m like, okay, and we’re going out further and further in the water, and I hear Omar’s voice, “You can’t make a curriculum about coral reefs if you've never seen a coral reef.”  And I’m like, “Okay, so what am I gonna do?"

And like my mom’s voice is like, “Stay on the boat.  You know, you should stay on the boat.” 

So there's this, “You can’t make a curriculum,” and my mom, “Stay on the boat,” and I’m like, “Ahh!” 

So then we go out further, we go out further and then I started getting really, really nervous.  I say, “Hey, guys, you know I've never been snorkeling.” 

They're like, “Oh, it’s pretty fun.  It’s just easy.  Just, you know, stuff.  Get in there.  Water, float, you know.” 

And I’m like, “Okay.” 

So then they start kind of looking at me like, “Why is she making all of these excuses?” 

So then I was like, “Hey, this is a beautiful sunset.  Hey, let’s take pictures.  Selfie, selfie… who wants to do a selfie with me?”  Just so that I could look kind of like I’m cool and stuff. 

So then we get closer and closer.  We’re in the middle of the water.  I can’t see any land.  Then our guide comes up to us and we start mooring, because he says, “Everybody, the water’s really choppy.  Really, really choppy.  So if you can’t swim well you need to stay behind the boat.” 

And everybody’s like, “Yeah, okay.  No problem.”  And I’m like, “Oh, God.”  And I was like, “Okay,” so I nod my head like a lemming and I get in the line like everybody else, got my snorkel. 

So then I say, “Sir, can I please”—because I noticed that no one else has on a lifejacket, and so I go to there and I’m like, “Hey, sir, may I have a lifejacket?” 

He looks at me like I said the most ridiculous thing that anybody’s ever said to him.  So he yells to this other guy and they come back with this lifejacket that… I’m not sure it was a lifejacket.  It was just like in its previous life it was like one of those shirts, since I was like a bottle.  And I was just like, “Okay.” 

So they put this lifejacket on me then everybody starts looking at me because they're like, “Okay, this one is gonna be trouble.” 

And he tells me, “Oh, if you get in trouble, just raise your hand when you're in the water.” 

I’m like, Is this elementary school?  What do you mean, raise your hand?  When I’m drowning?  That’s what you mean?  I’m gonna be like, “Oh, I’m drowning.  Please help me.”

No.

So I’m like, Okay, so what are you going to do?

Then I get in the line and I see the moment of truth.  What should I do?  I hear Omar’s voice in my head saying, “You can’t do curriculum for the Red Sea if you've never been in the Red Sea.”  And I hear my mom saying, “You better stay on that boat, girl.” 

Then I like see the ladder, others climbing down.  So I get to the edge and I’m looking at the water, and this looks like the Jaws are down there or something.  I don't know.  I was just so scared.  But instead of taking the ladder, because I can’t force myself to do that, I just jump in the water. 

I could hear while I’m jumping all of the people on the boat going, “Ohhhh!” because they thought that I just slipped off the ladder. 

Then I submerged, then I came back up.  I started panicking because I could still hear my mom’s voice in my head like, “Get back on the boat!  Get back on the boat!”  And Omar’s voice like, “Uhh, I don't know why I trusted you.” 

Then something miraculously happened.  Natasha jumps in, she looks at me and she says, “Just look down.”  

It’s amazing, but I just look down and all the voices stopped.  It was just silence.  And I saw the most beautiful sight that I've ever seen.  I saw the colors, I saw little fish coming at each other.  I just wanted to be immersed in this world.  It was almost like a religious experience.  And all of the fear that I had went away and it was completely, completely worth it. 

Thank you.