Metamorphosis: Stories about radical change

In this week's episode, we bring you two stories of scientists experiencing radical change, whether at home or in 1980s Berlin.

Part 1: Nadia Singh decides she doesn’t want children, believing it will detract from her scientific career, but then her husband issues an ultimatum.

Nadia Singh is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University and an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Oregon. She earned her BA in Biology from Harvard University, her PhD in Biological Sciences at Stanford University, and did a postdoc at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the genetics of evolution, and she relies primarily on fruit flies as a model system. Outside of work, she enjoys running (ok, jogging), cooking (ok, eating), drinking IPAs (no caveat here, it’s a true story), and playing board games with her two daughters (but not Monopoly because that game is awful and she doesn’t want to raise a pair of mercenary capitalists).

Part 2: Kinari Webb’s philosophy as a scientist is shaped by her experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a teenager.

Kinari Webb first developed the vision for Health In Harmony when studying orangutans in 1993 at Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia. There she encountered not only a beautiful and threatened natural environment but also the dire health needs of the people surrounding the National Park. After this experience, Kinari decided to become a physician and return to Indonesia to work together with local communities both to improve their health and to preserve the natural environment. She graduated from Yale University School of Medicine with honors and then completed her residency in Family Medicine at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, California. Kinari founded Health In Harmony in 2005 to support the combined human and environmental work that she planned in Indonesia. After a year of traveling around Indonesia looking for the best site for this program (unmet health care needs, forest that could still be saved and a responsive government), Kinari helped co-found the Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI, which means “harmoniously balanced”) program in West Kalimantan with Hotlin Ompusunggu and Antonia Gorog. She is also an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur and Rainier Amhold Fellow. Kinari currently splits her time between Indonesia and the US.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Nadia Singh

So when I was in grad school, the dean of the school of earth sciences was this woman called Pam Matson, and she told the story about how her six-year-old daughter came home from school one day and said, “How come you don’t make brownies like all the other moms?”  For me, it was a really powerful and poignant example of the struggle we all face trying to balance our personal and professional lives. 

I decided that I was never going to be that mom.  I actually decided I was never going to have children because I didn’t want to compromise my professional career.  

A few years into my marriage when I was a postdoc, my husband and I got into a massive argument.  He accused me of being too ambitious, of working too hard.  He wanted kids.  We were at a crossroads.  It was divorce or children.  I loved my husband and I loved our marriage, so I agreed to have kids. 

I went off birth control and a few months later I was pregnant.  My cycle had been so bizarre because I'd been on birth control for so long that I didn’t know I was pregnant.  It didn’t even occur to me that I might be pregnant.  I had some irregular bleeding and so I went to a clinic just to get checked out, just to make sure that I was okay. 

The doctor checked me out and he left the room, ran some tests and he came back and he said, “Congratulations!  You're pregnant.”  I burst out crying.  The doctor told me that was not the normal reaction, and I told him he was an asshole. 

Matt, my husband, was in Cambodia at that time doing field work and I knew he would be thrilled.  I just didn’t want to tell him over the phone and so I decided to wait until he came home to tell him in person. 

About a week or so later, I was at work, it was a Friday, and I started to bleed more heavily.  Matt was still in the field.  I had walked to work that day so I didn’t have my car and so I went to my friend Brian’s office, who was a dad already, and I told him what was happening.  He drove me to the emergency room. 

They took me back and a man came in and did an ultrasound.  Then he left and he pulled the curtain closed and he had this very hushed conversation in the hallway with a woman.  Then the woman came back and she did an ultrasound and then she left.  A third person came back and told me that I had miscarried.  She said I should follow up with my doctor on Monday and that she was sorry, and she asked me if I would like some apple juice. 

Brian drove me home and I took a scaldingly hot bath and I drank the better part of a bottle of white wine.  Matt called me the next day from Cambodia and I told him that I had miscarried.  He hadn’t even known I was pregnant. 

I followed-up with my doctor on Monday and she didn’t think I had miscarried at all.  She thought I was still pregnant.  Sorry, what?  Like it didn’t even compute, right?  She thought it was too early to see anything on the ultrasound and so what she wanted to do was draw blood every couple of days and track my hormone levels.  If the levels were increasing at the correct rate, I hadn’t miscarried at all. 

It turns out, she was right.  I was still pregnant.  I was shocked and I was relieved.  And then I was shocked that I was relieved. 

I started going to the obstetrician every two weeks for a checkup and an ultrasound.  Matt would come with me to all the appointments.  At six weeks we heard the heartbeat.  Deafening.  At eight weeks, we saw the heartbeat on the monitor.  It looks like a light flickering really, really fast, and that for me is the moment my pregnancy became real.  I had a heart, like a beating heart that wasn’t my own inside of me. 

At ten weeks I went in for a now-routine ultrasound.  It was so boring at this point Matt didn’t even come with me.  It was a Friday, right?  Of course, a Friday.  And the ultrasound technician, she couldn’t keep a poker face.  There was something wrong, but she couldn’t tell me what it was.  I called the doctor and left a message saying I wanted to know the results. 

The doctor called back that evening.  Matt and I were having dinner at Chili’s for some reason.  Sorry, it’s true.  I wanted the doctor to tell me the results, but he said he couldn’t.  He had to tell me in person.  I could see him on Monday at his office.  You know, protocol. 

I don't know what I said but he caved.  “The embryo is not viable,” he said.  “You've miscarried.”  I ordered a beer and I haven't been back to Chili’s since. 

When you miscarry, one of two things happens.  One, your body realizes that the pregnancy is no longer viable and it will rid itself of the pregnancy and unneeded tissue.  Another case is your body never figures out that the pregnancy isn’t viable and it will continue to invest in the pregnancy, so the embryo isn’t growing but everything else still is.  In that case you have to have surgery to remove the embryonic and placental tissue. 

Matt and I waited for a couple of weeks hoping my body would wise up, but it never did.  So surgery it was. 

The procedure is called a D and E.  It’s for dilation and evacuation.  They dilate your cervix and they evacuate your uterus.  To warm me up for the surgery, they had me take a drug called Pitocin, which induces labor.  What that really means is that before you even go in for a surgery you've expelled all of the tissue and all the doctors really have to do is go in and clean you up. 

This drug is not taken orally.  For maximum effectiveness, it’s delivered straight to the source, and then you wait.  Before you know it, you've gone from zero to full-on labor in about sixty seconds.  It’s excruciating and it’s horrifying.  I spent the night before my surgery in our bathroom moaning and weeping and expelling about twelve weeks’ worth of pregnancy. 

Being a scientist, I saved some of the tissue and took it with me to the surgery.  I wanted them to karyotype it.  I knew that there was a genetic explanation for my miscarriage.  Some chromosomal abnormality made the fetus not viable.  I wanted to know which one.  I wanted an explanation for the miscarriage. 

They looked at me like I was crazy.  “We don’t do that here, ma’am.” 

“Why not?  You would learn so much about the genetic basis of miscarriage if you just did this with every spontaneous abortion that comes in here.”  Like more crazy looks. 

I asked if there was a private company that I could send it to, to run that kind of diagnostic.  “I don't think so, ma’am.  It’s not your typical request.” 

I had my D and E on December 31, 2008.  It was New Year’s Eve.  Matt and I rang in the New Year watching movies in bed.  Matt bought a Mylar balloon and wrote, “Fuck you, 2008!” in purple Sharpie on it, and then… then I got pissed. 

For as long as I can remember, I have not responded well to being told what to do.  if you tell me what to do, I will do the opposite just to spite you.  I used to not wear my seat belt because the law told me I had to and I don’t need the law telling me what to do with this body.  So do you think I'd just sit back and let the universe tell me I couldn’t have kids?  That I would listen to my body when it told me no?  Hell, no.  I was going to have kids, dammit!  And I wasn’t going to let the universe or my body or anyone or anything get in my way. 

I got pregnant with a vengeance, and I vowed to be the best goddamn pregnant person and the best goddamn mother in the history of the world.  I exercised, I took my prenatal vitamins, I even wore my seat belt.  The problem was that I sucked at being a patient.  I had so many questions about the science, about the statistics, for my doctors and they never had any answers.  And they didn’t like me because of it. 

When you’re pregnant they screen you for gestational diabetes.  The first screen is very error-prone, and if you fail the first test they make you do a second, more accurate test.  I failed the first test because, of course. 

So I asked my doctor, “Well, what’s the error rate on this first test?” 

“Oh, it’s high.  That’s why we have a second test.” 

“Yeah, I got that actually.  Like but what is high?  I wanna know how high is high.  What does high mean to you?  Is it five percent?  Is it ten percent?  Is it thirty percent?  How high is the false positive rate?”  I wanted to know.

She had no idea.  If anyone wants to know, it’s actually fifteen percent.  I looked it up. 

Early in my second trimester, we went to the anatomy scan.  That’s where you can start to see the skeletal development of the fetus.  The 4D ultrasound technology is totally mindboggling.  The things you can see are incredible. 

I remember the articulation of the spine coming up on the monitor and Matt and I both just gasped audibly.  We saw the four chambers of the heart starting to develop.  We took a picture and sent it to my brother, who’s a cardiologist.  You can see all kinds of things with this imaging.  You can see, for instance, that this thing you've affectionately been referring to as “Sprout” actually looks more like Skeletor. 

You can also see the sex of the fetus, and the ultrasound technician asked us if we wanted to know if we were having a boy or a girl.  We said no, we didn’t want to know.  The truth of the matter is that I come from a long line of difficult relationships between mothers and daughters and I didn’t want to have a girl.  I didn’t want to perpetuate this cycle of dysfunction.  And I knew that if they told me I was having a girl at that moment I would spend the rest of my pregnancy being anxious about meeting my soon-to-be daughter. 

But if they told me when she was born, I would just be so excited that she was there I wouldn’t care that she was a girl.  And that’s exactly what happened.  When Isabella was born, I was so happy that she was healthy, and that she was out of me, that I didn’t care that she was a girl. 

I wish I could tell you what it was like to see her for the first time or to touch her for the first time, but the truth is I don’t actually remember.  I have flashes of memories.  I remember meeting Matt’s misty eyes with my own and exchanging this silent look of, “We did it!” 

I remember swelling with pride when I got to introduce my daughter to my father, who had showed up at the hospital when I was in labor. 

I remember the nurses placing Izzy on my chest and thinking how tiny she was.  And I remember holding her, this tiny, sleeping, swaddled bundle and knowing, really knowing, that everything was going to be fine.  I was not going to fuck this up. 

I have two daughters now.  Nikki is three and Izzy is six.  And is divorced from science as my three pregnancies felt, my life now is inextricably linked with science. 

I’m a professor of biology.  The students and faculty and staff at my home institution see me as a scientist, they see me as a researcher, as a teacher, as an editor, as a leader, as a member of the scientific community.  But they also see me as a person.  They see me as a mother.  They’ve seen my kids at seminars, in my class, in the hallways, in my office.  I like to think that it’s a good thing for some of our students and staff and faculty to see a successful person who is defined by more than just their career. 

For Mother’s Day last year, the school made a video of our kids answering questions about us, and they asked Nikki, my three-year-old, what my job is.  She said, “Her job is to keep me safe.” 

If you ask Izzy the same question, she’ll say that I study flies.  They're both right.  They see me as the scientist who goes to work every morning and the mother who snuggles them at night. 

As for me, I still have aspirations of being dean someday.  I still strive to make breakthroughs in science, to innovate, to educate, to integrate research with training and teaching.  I still try to think creatively about how to foster crosstalk between scientists and the public.  And I try to be a role model for my daughters, to teach them to work hard and play hard, to be kind and to be grateful, to respect themselves and to respect others, and to laugh and to love.  And I teach them how to make brownies.  We make a lot of brownies in my house. 

Thank you.

Part 2: Kinari Webb

It is 1989 and I am a sixteen-year-old exchange student from the U.S. and I have just walked up to the Berlin Wall for the first time.  My hands traced the giant graffiti letters in front of me that say, Weg mit der mauer. Get rid of the wall.  But that wall is so solid.  It is hard concrete. 

Behind me, I go up on a viewing platform so I can see to the other side.  On the western side, it’s just a green park that goes right up to the edge of a colorful wall.  But on the other side, there is just this desolate no-man’s land.  And the wall on the other side has not a speck of graffiti.  It is all gray.  There are soldiers patrolling with orders to shoot to kill, and I am horrified. 

So the reason I’m in Berlin is that I have this amazing opportunity to go with my host sister’s class on a rare trip into East Germany.  So the classes had the history explained to us about how Germany was divided after World War II into four occupied zones including Berlin, which was in the soviet section.  But then millions of refugees were flooding out of the east bloc so they closed the border and then they built a wall around West Berlin, creating an island within East Germany. 

And one of the only ways through that wall is called Checkpoint Charlie.  So all the students, we line up there and we are getting ready to go through and wind your way down to this kind of steel box where the doors close on both sides.  Then this soldier examines my paperwork and he's looking through my passport and he's just glaring at me.  I think he's just taking so long I think there is no way he is going to let me through.  But finally, with one last glare, he stamps me into the country and I emerge into a foreign world. 

It turns out that it isn’t just the other side of the wall that is colorless.  It feels like all of East Germany is gray.  The buildings are covered in coal soot, the only two types of cars just come in muted colors, and even the clothing just is drab.  But over the coming days as we get to know people, I realize that the bleakest part of the landscape is people’s souls.  People tell us about their despair and their hopelessness.  Then they ask us for ballpoint pens because those don’t occur there.  The whole situation feels completely absurd to me. 

Then one night we stay in a youth hostel and there's an East German class staying there as well and we end up staying up late into the night hearing their stories.  In hushed voices, they tell us their hopes and dreams. 

One young man in particular, Mikhael, seems to develop a little bit of a crush on me especially when he finds out that I’m from New Mexico and I even ride horses on mesa tops.  He has somehow acquired a poster of the American southwest and he wants nothing more in life than to be able to see those beautiful, stark, wild open spaces.  But he knows that that is impossible, that never in his lifetime will he be able to travel, and that he can be punished even for wanting that. 

That night, I begin to know my freedom in a way I had never even come close to before. 

A few days later, we meet up with Mikhael again, and the designated meeting place turns out to be this giant communist square.  So my host sister and I show up and there's thousands of people in the square, and we think there is no possible way that we are going to find him.  But then suddenly he emerges out of the crowd and we said, “How did you find us?” 

He says, “It was easy.  No one in East Germany wears purple.” 

So that was May of 1989.  In July, I return to New Mexico.  Shortly after arriving, I sit my father down at the kitchen table and I tell him, “Dad, we have to do something.  There is a wall, to keep people in.  This is not okay.” 

My father just kind of laughs at me and holds up his hands, and he says, “But you know, I don't think that there's anything we can do and I’m quite sure that nothing is ever gonna change.  And you know, it’s really kinda complicated.” 

But to my sixteen-year-old brain, it does not seem complicated at all.  It seems totally clear and simple.  The wall is wrong and my friend Mikhael is on the other side. 

So Mikhael and I are writing letters to each other and each one takes about a month to get through.  But I have to tell him that I’m actually in love with someone else, but he's fine with that and we enjoy having a friendship that crosses this terrible divide.  Initially, his letters are just filled with more despair.  But then in September he starts to write about political unrest and protests.  And then his letters start to have hope creeping in. 

But still, in November, on the ninth, when the evening news says the East Germans can now cross the border, we are all in total shock and delight.  So Mikhael and I join the world in just elation. 

At Christmas, I return to visit my host family in West Germany and then I go to Berlin for New Year’s.  On the 31st, I arrive, I drop my bags, I hop on a train, head to the wall, I get off at the last stop, and from afar it is the noise coming from the wall.  You just couldn’t believe it.  It was like fireworks exploding and popping of champagne corks and laugher and delight.  As you got closer and closer it got louder and louder, until suddenly there I am on the wall and this time it is totally different. 

I slap my hands on the wall, and then a moment later I get boosted up onto the top of the wall with hundreds of other people.  It’s been cleared off and I look down on the eastern side and there are these soldiers looking up at us clearly having not a clue what to do. 

All along the wall, people are using hammers to break off souvenirs, but shortly we all begin to feel that this just isn’t enough.  So the barricades, these metal barricades get kind of ripped apart and become makeshift sledgehammers, and then we just start bashing away at the wall. 

In our section, we take turns and, after a while, we have a hole big enough that we can peer through and we can greet the guard on the other side who just looks back bewildered at us.  Then, after a while, we have a hole big enough that I reach through and I grab four East Germans who have ventured across the Death Zone and they step through. 

Then a group of us take them on their first tour of the west.  And in one neon-lit bar, I remember West Germans competing with each other and buying them colorful cocktails and kissing their stunned faces. 

The next day I just stride over the remains of the wall and get on a train to go visit Mikhael, to go surprise him.  There are no phones so I can’t warn him, but I just show up that afternoon at his door and start knocking on it.  From all around me, behind curtains, are these wary eyes watching me.  But when Mikhael opens the door he is elated. 

And then, six months later, Mikhael returns the surprise and I come home one day in New Mexico and find him delightedly swinging in my hammock. 

So we have remained friends over the years and it has been fascinating to watch his life evolve.  At one point, he told me about this thing that happened, that they broke into the Secret Police headquarters and sent everyone their Stasi files.  His contained everything he had ever done on his birthday for his whole life, a copy of every single letter we had written to each other including some that never made it through, and exact details of every single meeting we had.  I still feel like I want to vomit when I think about how much the wall reached into every single part of their lives. 

But for both of us, the wall coming down changed everything.  For Mikhael, it meant that he then started his own business and he has had this great life where he's travelled all over the world.  And for me, no one could ever tell me again that change wasn’t possible, or that it couldn’t happen unexpectedly fast.  I often wonder what impossible thing is going to happen five months from now.  You know, the political structures that we think are as solid as concrete can literally be smashed under our hands. 

In 1993, I was again a student in a foreign land.  This time, I was studying orangutans in Indonesian Borneo and I saw the forest disappearing around me.  I heard the stories about how the reason that they were logging was because they needed the money to pay for healthcare.  But I remembered my experience in Berlin, and I knew that change was possible if enough people wanted it and you attacked the problem from enough different directions. 

So I founded a nonprofit called Health In Harmony and, together with thousands of people, we have had the joy over the last ten years to watch the number of illegal loggers go from about 1,350 logging households down to just a hundred and eighty individuals now.  At the same time, health and wealth have dramatically improved.  We reached through and grabbed those loggers and discovered that they were the same as us, trapped in an impossible situation and wanting out. 

So it has been a joy to be part of that bright spot in the world, but in the bigger picture I often wonder whether or not we are going to survive as a human species.  Are we actually going to do something about the fact that a healthy planet is absolutely necessary for human life and for the life of all the amazing biodiversity we share this planet with?  Can we break down the barricades that divide us and find a way to create a sustainable future together?  I believe we can, and I want us all to dance and drink champagne on the crumbling edifice of that wall as well. 

Thank you.