New Beginnings: Stories about starting over

This week, we present two stories about fresh starts and new beginnings in science.

Note: This week's episode is sponsored by Audible. Go to Audible.com/collider or text COLLIDER to 500-500 for a 30-day trial and free first audiobook! We recommend these titles from past storytellers: I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong; High Price, by Carl Hart; Where Am I Now?, by Mara Wilson.

Part 1: Mari Provencher's family is rocked by changes -- starting with her mother's decision to become an entomologist.

Mari Provencher is a Los Angeles based photographer who's spent a decade exploring the contemporary circus boom. Her work has been featured in Variety, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Time Out Chicago, The LA Times, and more. Her photos have also been featured in the ad campaigns for two international circus festivals, Circuba and Festival Internacional Circo Albecete. In her spare time she volunteers with the educational nonprofit 826LA, teaching writing to students K-12. She loves to take in stories in any format, and is a voracious reader and podcast listener. Raised by a boundlessly curious entomologist mother, she and Story Collider were bound to cross paths.

Part 2: Three years into a great faculty position, psychologist Amber Hewitt realizes her passion lies elsewhere.

Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D. received her doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University Chicago in 2013. She also received her undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Southern California and masters’ degree in psychology from Boston University. Her predoctoral internship was completed in 2012 at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston Medical Center where she completed a neuropsychological assessment rotation at a center for infants and children with complicated medical conditions. She served as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology from 2013-2016 at the University of Akron. Her research program examines the gendered-racial identity development of Black adolescents, critical consciousness development, and prevention programs that foster resilience and optimal development in children and adolescents. Hewitt’s policy interests include access to mental health care, psychological development of children, infant mortality, health disparities, and psychosocial determinants of health. She’s the 2016-2017 Jacquelin Goldman Congressional Fellow, a position funded by the American Psychological Foundation. I She is currently a AAAS fellow at the National Institutes of Health and recently accepted a position as a Manager of Policy & Advocacy in the Corporate Advocacy Division at Nemours, a children's health system.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Mari Provencher

This is the story of my weird family and the way my mom led the charge to all of us living our most authentic lives.  

When she was in her early thirties, she thought her life was pretty much settled.  She was married and had a kid (me), and she had a job as a gardener in our small town in Massachusetts. One day, she was at work weeding a garden and she pulled up a clump of weeds that came up way too easily. She went flying back and dirt went everywhere - and then she realized it wasn’t dirt.  It was yellow jackets, a huge swarm of yellow jackets, furious that she had just yanked up their underground nest.  

 Mari Provencher shares her story at our January show in Los Angeles. Photo by Gregg Lawson.

Mari Provencher shares her story at our January show in Los Angeles. Photo by Gregg Lawson.

She took off running and the swarm took off chasing her.  The neighbor’s Great Dane saw this and also started chasing her, thinking that this was the funnest game.  

This is one of my favorite mental images of my mother: her running cartoon-like across a stranger’s yard, being chased by a swarm of wasps and a giant dog, laughing maniacally at her own situation.  

Eventually, the yellow jackets went back to guard their nest. So having escaped them, she now had to figure out how to deal with them.  She did some research and found out the best thing to do would be to fumigate at night, so she came back later and took them out. For anyone else that might have been it, but her interest was piqued, and she decided to make it official and get a degree in entomology.  

I loved her metamorphosis into the bug lady. I was so proud as a kid of all the weird things we did for fun at my house. I didn’t know anybody else that would spend their Saturdays kayaking out to the middle of a swamp so they could collect pitcher plants, take them home, cut them open and identify all the half-digested bugs inside.  

And I never heard my dad disapprove either.  We were both in it to win it for whatever this insect-ridden ride had in store for us.  

But that was okay, because pretty much everyone else disapproved on our behalf.  My mom’s excitement meant that dinners with our big Italian family were often punctuated by, “Lisa, stop talking about maggots at the table!”  

One time, the cops showed up on suspicion of Satanic rituals because she had staked down some roadkill in the woods behind our house because foxes kept dragging it off while she was trying to study the bugs that were eating it.  Also, neighborhood kids threw away our Halloween candy one year because she thought that it was very whimsical to let her pet Madagascar hissing cockroach wander around in the Trick-or-Treat bowl. (In her defense, the Snickers bars were individually wrapped and that cockroach lived in a very clean fish tank and ate sweet potato for dinner, not garbage.)

When I was a seventh grade band geek, my grandfather imperiously warned my mother that if she went back to school, I would fall in with the bad crowd and get pregnant. That did not happen.  She got into her program at UMass Amherst and spent the next four years driving over a snowy mountain getting her degree.

To deal with the long drive and the long hours spent alone in her office, she got a guinea pig, because what else are you going to do? You need company.  So she spent all that time getting her degree, working in labs, and dealing with all of the fun misogyny that late ‘90s academia had for a kooky mom going into science in her late thirties.  

It was around this time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I was old enough to know that this was bad and scary but young enough to be kept from the worst of it. She kept it casual in front of me. I remember she once struck a Doctor Evil pose while she was bald in front of an Austin Powers poster, because that’s what was going on in pop culture at the time.  Very relevant. She and my dad had me completely convinced that everything was going to be okay.

Miraculously, it was okay and everything went back to normal.  

By the time I graduated high school, she had three science degrees.  My dad’s degree is in fisheries and wildlife. (Which I had to Google. I didn’t know that was a thing.) But when I announced that I was moving to Chicago to be a circus photographer, there was no problem.  Nobody batted an eye. There was no hand-wringing about the distance or concerns about how I’d make a living as an artist.

And then when I graduated college and announced that I was moving to Los Angeles to be a circus photographer, that was fine too.  They really supported every decision that I made.

So everything was fine for a few years and then, one day, I went home to visit my folks and I could tell something was very wrong with my dad.  They wouldn’t tell me what it was, but there were vague mentions of doctors’ appointments and I was sure that it was cancer.

When I got back to Los Angeles, my mom called to tell me what they couldn’t bring themselves to say in person.  She chose her words very judiciously and I was bracing myself. My mind was racing wondering what kind of cancer is it, how long we had together.  

So when she said, “Your father has always known that he was a woman,” my mind just kind of shattered.  

Completely unprepared for this left turn, I sputtered something along the lines of, “But he's not... dying?”  

She reassured me that this was not the case and that they were going to stay together (“I guess I'll just be a lesbian now!”)  And she kept me calm as the shock set in.

The strain of keeping the secret was what was making my dad so sick, and it couldn’t be kept anymore. This was 2010, which was right before Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, when trans wasn’t really part of the everyday lexicon like it is now.  The news took everybody by surprise.

But my mom handled it really well.  While I...needed a minute.

The next few days were kind of a blur.  Shock is a fascinating thing. I would find myself in these weird places, like sitting between the couch and the wall all scrunched up, and I'd have no memory of how I got there. There was one day where I started to cook lunch, realized I was missing an ingredient and just walked away without turning the stove off.  There was a lot to wrap my head around, and all of my processing power was going there.

But it only took four days for me to get used to it and come to terms with the idea because, unknowingly, my mom had been preparing our family for this our entire lives. She had gotten us ready for the idea of making a big change later in life. We were already used to being the weird family that nobody really understood, and we all were ready to explain ourselves to everyone we met, whether it was explaining what an entomologist is or what the structure of the modern American circus looks like...or what it’s like to be one gender when society insists that you're another.  

My dad and I didn’t know that all years that we were supporting her dreams she was setting us up to accept our own dreams and our own paths.  My mom isn’t just a mom, a wife, a scientist: she's a trailblazer.

Thank you.

Part 2: Amber Hewitt

I was about three years into a tenure-track faculty position when, unexpectedly, I came across the call for the American Psychological Association and AAAS Congressional Fellowship Program, which funds a psychologist to spend a year on Capitol Hill.  The opportunity sounded amazing, but it didn’t quite fit into what we psychologists call a cognitive schema. 

You see, I was actually on my professional society’s website researching grant-funding opportunities when I came across the call.  I remember telling myself, “Amber, you're in a tenure track position with great job security.”  It was like I had this golden ticket that lots of research PhDs aspired to, so I reminded myself, “You're going to retire in about thirty years as a tenured full professor.” 

 Amber Hewitt shares her story at our show with AAAS's Science and Technology Fellowship Program in October. Photo by Victoria Ruan

Amber Hewitt shares her story at our show with AAAS's Science and Technology Fellowship Program in October. Photo by Victoria Ruan

I even received full feedback from a colleague who said, “I thought you wanted to be here?  Why don’t you wait until you publish a few more articles and then apply?  Wouldn’t they respect you more?” 

Now, at this moment, I had this overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety come over me.  I thought having a tenure track position that came with some prestige and status was like this coveted prize that I should hold onto, or was it? 

Then my mind became flooded with a series of somewhat irrational thoughts and questions like would I be letting my students, particularly students of color down by leaving my institution?  What would my friends and family think?  And most importantly, what in the world was I going to do after a one-year fellowship in Washington, D.C.? 

I finally decided it probably wasn’t the best idea to continue to vet this decision to every friend, family or colleague that would hear me out so I took some quiet time just in my apartment to quiet my thoughts and just reflect.  I thought about my identity as a counseling psychologist and our social justice values.  I thought about how my research program answered the call of former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, where he challenged stakeholders to devise strategies to eliminate obstacles and create opportunities for boys and young men of color.  I thought about my recent attendance at city council meetings and town halls and my advocacy at the state and federal level. 

So why was I holding myself back?  Why was I letting self-doubt take over? 

Then I remembered something my father always says.  “An intelligent person has the right to change their mind” -- or path, in my case.  And it couldn’t hurt just to apply, right?  So I did. 

Now, I must admit I was in a temporary state of disbelief, yet elation, when on the same day as my fellowship interview I received a verbal offer.  My graduate school advisor was one of the first people that I called. 

I discussed with her my fear about taking such a big risk and my anxiety about making the wrong career move and she reinforced points that deep down I knew to be true, such as I wouldn’t be letting my whole ethnic community down by leaving the academy with one less black woman faculty.  I think she even said, “Why do you even think you have to hold the weight of the entire community on your shoulders anyway?” 

Another important point she said was, “There is more than one way to be a scholar.” 

At that moment, I felt free.  And with that freedom I did something I never thought I would do.  I didn’t just take a leave of absence or a sabbatical.  I resigned.  I straight up resigned from that tenure track position because I finally decided to listen to my heart and my desire to serve and be a scholar in what some may consider a non-traditional way. 

So when I arrived in D.C. in the fall of 2016, I knew I wanted to work in an office that valued diversity and inclusion in an area of health policy.  And I knew I wanted to work for a senator that valued and spoke up about social injustices. 

Now, I had no idea what was in store for me or the state of healthcare policy when I placed in the office of Senator Cory Booker last October.  It felt like an extreme privilege to be invited to work in the United States Senate.  I would go home and watch the news and actually recognize all of the political lingo.  But I don’t think I turned to Fox News too many times. 

I would even scroll my social media feed and sense the frustration and sometimes helplessness of my friends and colleagues by the threat of the ACA repeal, and be surprised when I would get occasional messages of, “It makes me feel just a little bit better knowing that you are there.” 

I couldn’t have imagined working anywhere else during that historic presidential year than in my office.  The opportunity to see history in action, like senators Kamala Harris, Catherine Cortez Masto, Tammy Duckworth roaming the halls of the United States Senate, helped me to realize that I can and deserve a seat at the table too. 

When going through these encounters, I realized that I wasn’t just a fellow on the Hill, I was a part of history.  I was a part of the change process.  I was helping to create change in ways that were before only a theoretical exercise. 

Being a change agent isn’t a new legacy for my family, though.  My time on the Hill brought me to a deeper appreciation of what my parents endured coming of age in the deep south during the civil rights era. 

I remember being home around 2015 ten years after my mother died.  I found this box of letters and one of the letters was written by my mother’s childhood best friend, Rhona.  Rhona described how my mom got in trouble by speaking up in class about the Black Liberation Movement.  Apparently, she was caught raising her right hand in a fist, but got back in the nun’s good graces by baking her a German chocolate cake. 

Now, I was a little puzzled after reading this letter because it’s easy for me to remember the kind, selfless woman who also happened to be a great baker, but I never felt like I got a chance to meet the activist who was the same woman that I called Mama. 

I also remember my father telling me stories of how he saw whites- and colored-only drinking fountains or how he had to be served at the back door of his neighborhood restaurant.  I remember listening to these stories in awe because they just didn’t seem real.  Those are things that I just read in books or saw in movies, but my parents lived through it. 

The same way that Congressman John Lewis lived through it, the same man who participated in the Freedom Rides and The March on Washington, the same man who organized boycotts and protests was about fifty feet in front of me on the U.S. capital steps. 

June 26th, the day after my birthday is a day that I will never forget.  It was the day of the Booker-Lewis Health Care Sit-In.  Now, this is an event my officemates and I had been discussing for a while but when I walked up to the capitol steps and saw Congressman John Lewis, civil rights icon John Lewis sitting on the capitol steps next to my boss Senator Booker livestreaming from Facebook, it almost felt like a divine amalgamation of the tireless work my colleagues and I were putting in to help preserve healthcare rights coupled with the civil rights work of my parents and individuals like Congressman John Lewis. 

There I was watching an older man symbolically pass the baton to a younger man as they called upon our country to recognize that healthcare is indeed a civil right.  At that moment, the countless meetings that I had with constituents and advocacy groups and, one that I will never forget, women diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer, it all made sense. 

In that meeting with those women I thought it was just going to be a run-of-the-mill meeting where an org rep comes and asks us to vote yea or nay on a bill.  But when those women came in and introduced themselves as being diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer knowing that there was a possibility that they would die before the next annual Capitol Hill visit, at that moment it all made sense. 

Towards the end of the health care sit-in, Senator Booker started to recite a poem.  It wasn’t until that exact moment that I realized I'd heard that exact Langston Hughes poem before.  While living in Ohio before moving to D.C. for the fellowship, I saw a familiar looking man in the audience of this jazz performance.  That man got on stage, introduced himself as Senator Cory Booker and recited these lines from that Langston Hughes poem. 

“O, let America be America again --

The land that has never been yet –

And yet must be…

…the land that’s mine – the poor man’s, the Indian’s, the negro’s, ME --

…the land where every man and woman is free. 

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hands at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.”

As I recite this poem I can feel the pain that my parents and my ancestors and my mother, who I know is here in sprit, endured in their fight for America to live up to her name.  Standing in front of you today I now recognize that that same courage, resilience and strength that lived within my parents and ancestors lives within me too.  Now, it’s my time to take up that torch and help in that arc just a little bit more towards justice.