Fight or Flight: Stories about confronting threats

This week, we present two stories about confronting threats -- whether it’s actual physical danger or a threat to your career.

Part 1: Climate scientist Kim Cobb is exploring a cave in Borneo when rocks begin to fall.

Kim Cobb is a researcher who uses corals and cave stalagmites to probe the mechanisms of past, present, and future climate change. Kim has sailed on multiple oceanographic cruises to the deep tropics and led caving expeditions to the rainforests of Borneo in support of her research. Kim has received numerous awards for her research, most notably a NSF CAREER Award in 2007, and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2008. She is an Editor for Geophysical Research Letters, sits on the international CLIVAR Pacific Panel, and serves on the Advisory Council for the AAAS Leshner Institute for Public Engagement. As a mother to four, Kim is a strong advocate for women in science, and champions diversity and inclusion in all that she does. She is also devoted to the clear and frequent communication of climate change to the public through speaking engagements and social media.

Part 2: Neurobiologist Lyl Tomlinson is startled when he's accused of stealing cocaine from his former lab.

Lyl Tomlinson is a Brooklyn native and a post-doctoral researcher and program coordinator at Stony Brook University. He is also a science communication fanatic who often asks: “Would my grandma understand this?” Using this question as a guiding principle, he won the 2014 NASA FameLab science communication competition and became the International final runner-up. In addition to making complex information understandable, he has a growing interest in science policy. Lyl meets with government representatives to advocate for science related issues and regularly develops programs to tackle problems ranging from scientific workforce issues to the Opioid Epidemic. Outside of his work and career passions, he seems to harbor an odd obsession with sprinkles and is a (not so secret) comic book and anime nerd.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Kim Cobb

It started as a low and distant rumble and my mind raced to find what was going on, the origin of the noise.  Was it an airplane?  No, we were far, far, far too deep in the jungle for that.  Was it a truck?  No, that was coming, coming from inside the mountain.

I was a baby postdoc at the time.  I just started my new job in the last couple of months focused on reconstructing climate from cave stalagmites deep in the jungles of Borneo.  Scientifically, I was totally psyched. I was thrilled at the opportunity to fill a really important data gap in the history of climate on our planet Earth from the remarkably data-poor region.

And personally, I couldn’t be more excited at the opportunity to throw myself into the tropical jungle and duke it out with the rainforest.  I’d honed some pretty serious field skills as a graduate student in the deep tropics already so I was ready.

But, as it happens, Mother Nature doesn’t let go of her best-kept secrets very easily.  And so it happened that I found myself on a 72-hour plane to the middle of the jungle where I took an even smaller plane and smaller plane and smaller plane, smaller plane, four planes later and landing on a grass field on a small plane with 10 seats on it.  We’re met by a caravan of eight SUVs that took us eight hours over logging roads in the interior of Borneo and dropped our team and our gear off.  Base camp was nothing more than a couple rusty tin sheets held up by rotting beams of trees.  

So there I was.  I would spend the next three weeks literally in the middle of the jungle with twenty other men.  Nineteen of those people were perfect strangers; one of them was my boss. We’d hired six American cavers to help us through this adventure.  These are guys who had done this many, many, many times.  They knew every crack and crevice of those caves.  They’re the only people in the world to put certain leads in those caves back into the depths.

And so they were nimble and agile and excited and fast and I was terrified and slow and clueless and useless.  Yeah, we got off to a great start.

So every day, we’d trek out in the morning in our clean-ish clothes and we would hike through the jungle about a couple hours to traverse something that was no more than 400 meters or so.  We’d have to hack our way through the jungle, our Malaysian guides wielding the machetes in front of us while the rest of us tried to pick our way through, scanning each other’s legs and arms for leeches.  It was definitely something.

And the cave entrances were not easy to find.  The jungle had reclaimed all of the old trails that they had used just a couple years before.  And their entrances themselves were tiny holes stuck into the cliffs behind the wall of vegetation, completely invisible until it hit you in the face, basically.  

So most the cave entrances we found right away, within a matter of half a day, a day of sweat and labor, but one cave eluded us.  Its name was Mojo Cave.  It eluded us for days, actually.  It was backbreaking work, cutting our way through the jungle to get to a wall of cliff over and over again, and it was heartbreaking for our team.  

And as they got ground down, there were open rumblings from them.  “Maybe we just don’t need this particular cave, Kim.”  “Maybe we can just call this one a day, Kim.”  And I became more and more resolved.  I was going to get to Mojo if it killed me.

And the guys actually ponied-up, really went above and beyond the call of duty.  One of them even risked their life one day, falling down the cliff only to reach up and grab a root, save himself and come back white-knuckled and shaking and ready to go back and do it again.

I said, “That’s it for the day, folks,” and so we limped back to camp and had some scotch and muttered, “Oh, bad Mojo.  Yeah.  Ha-ha, bad Mojo.”

So we went and back and back and back to cuss another couple days, but we found that entrance.  I was so excited I was bouncing through the cave like I was on the moon, it’s like no gravity.  We were doing our science which meant walking six feet, stopping for half an hour and collecting waters and mud and rocks.  And everybody else sat around staring at me like, “When is this possibly going to end?”

So we science for the day and then we ended our cave in record time and we got back out to the entrance and took off our helmets and we got ready to traverse back through the jungle on just what was to be, of course, a very, very lovely day in my scientific life having conquered that mountain.

The last thing I remembered before it happened was my friend posing with his Mojo energy bar and a wide smile on his face.  You see, I was just as happy.  See, my joy was not being in the cave.  My joy was getting out of the cave at the end of the day.  I lived another day.  For me, the darkness was the danger and the light was the safety.  It was all about to turn the tables in about an instant.  

So it began as this low, low, low rumble.  In two or three seconds it was a lot louder.  In two or three more seconds the ground was shaking beneath our feet.  Our eyes were passing back and forth in confusion to each other.  Nobody had an answer.  

I was in full fight-or-flight mode as my brain raced through the thousand-ish scenarios that could be occurring, extraterrestrial and terrestrial alike.  At that point, I was basically just paralyzed.  We were all paralyzed.

Suddenly, my Malaysian cave guy yelled, “Rock fall!”  And he started running towards us with his arms outstretched frantically as if to sweep us up in his arms as he pushed us to safety.  And we turned and we scrambled back across the entrance boulders as fast as we could, just scrambling over each other, over rocks, desperate as the first baby rocks pinged across the entrance.  Ping.  Poing.

We were scrambling back and forth and we turned just in time to see a thick wall of debris obscure the entire entrance to the cave.  It was deafeningly loud.  These huge boulders the size of houses were pinging across the entrance, crashing into the cave as dust enveloped right over our heads.  

For me, fight-or-flight went to fear, definitely, but resignation and awe.  It was like a front row to Geology on speed, right?  I just was mesmerized at the situation.  Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew that anything could happen.  The cave entrance could be closed.  The cave itself could squish us like a pancake.  These became kind of abstract thoughts as I was in this situation. 

I remember the only coherent thought I could muster was that if I did die, I hoped my family knew that I died doing what I loved in just outright awe of Mother Nature and grateful for all the experiences that accumulated and that I would never have it any other way.  Of course, eventually, after a minute or two, it ended just as it started, a couple little rocks pinging across the entrance.

We sat there in stunned silence until somebody shouted an expletive.  But there is no time for post-processing at that point.  It was decision time.  What do we do?  Do we stay in the cave, kind of balancing our odds of a recurring rock fall?  Or do we go and risk another rock fall outside the cave in the debris field we would have to traverse?

Kim Cobb shares her story at BB's Stage Door Canteen at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

Kim Cobb shares her story at BB's Stage Door Canteen at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

So we couple of geologists, we sat down for a couple minutes and weighed these things based on pure anecdotal experience and no data at all.  We came to a complete stalemate.  Shocker.  And we turned to the guy who had saved our lives and we said, “What should we do?”

And he said, “You go.”

I said, “Why?”

He said, “Because if you stay any longer, you may never leave.”

I said, “Yes.”  So wordlessly, we put back on our helmets and we started leaving the cave through the thickest cloud of dust, the noxious barrier to daylight and safety.

But there was more danger on the other side.  When we got out there, the landscape was unrecognizable.  The mountainside had been wiped clean like a slate.  All the trees had been cut down.  We’re looking at a debris field about 300 meters across, the dust still hanging over it, tree roots jutting into the air all over and our route to safety was right across that debris field.  We had no choice.

Wordlessly, we picked our way across the loose debris field and I silently marked the place that was the point of no return.  If a rock fall came at that point, we were toast.  

We didn’t talk on the way back to camp that day, but when we got there, there was an outpouring of emotional retellings.  “Oh, my God, what did you think” and, “I thought we were gonna die,” and, “I was sure we were gonna be okay.  Some guy said it was gonna be fine.”

Our Malaysian guides sat there smiling silently.  And there may have been some extra scotch consumed that evening.  There may or may not have been an unsolicited phone call to my husband over the satellite phone that my advisor asked me about later.  And the next day, we took the day off and we took the time to discuss whether it was safe to go on, whether we had our wherewithal physically and emotionally to go back into the jungle, into the caves again.

The next day, we just wordlessly geared up and go back out to the jungle without even discussing it.  The pull of the jungle, the pull of the caves, the pull of its secrets proved too much even after all of that.

And the expedition would the first of ten for me.  I’ve been back many times.  And the rocks we collected on that expedition formed the basis for 500,000-plus years of climate history from one of the most data-poor regions on our planet.  Over twelve publications later, and many, many grants and PhDs and postdocs, etcetera, it has been the joy of my life.  

But the gift of Mojo is much, much, much more than those grants and publications and all of those data points that I’ve analyzed.  You see, I earned some serious science Mojo that day.  So what I learned that day is that when I forget how important humility is in our survival, nature will remind me.  I learned that when I am clueless and afraid, my friends will save me with their wisdom and their life experience.  I learned that when I must act in the face of uncertainty and profound danger, I can and I will muster the courage.  

So to all of those that would attack climate scientists and the data sets that underlie our science, to all those who think that we don’t have the chops for the political blood sport surrounding the future of our planet, I say, “Bring it!”

Part 2: Lyl Tomlinson

It happened about two years after I graduated from college.  I was trying to get into a neuroscience PhD program so I was checking off all the boxes on the competitive candidate checklist.  I was working in the lab, I was learning new techniques and I was doing experiments to try and publish a research paper which is basically the currency of academic science.

And so as I was doing this, I was getting really invested in science.  I really wanted to sort of get into a bunch of different places but, really, the only place I was actually interested in was the institution I was currently working at.

One of the reasons why I really wanted to get there was because I really liked the environment, but there was a bit of a problem.  I had submitted an application months ago and it was taking a long time to hear back from them.  Honestly, like I wasn’t really worried because I had a great reputation in two of the labs that I was in, so Dr. Janice’s lab where I’d done a summer project with another undergrad.  I mean, I was doing really well there.

And then the lab that I was currently working in at that time, Dr. Balboa’s lab, I was also getting a great reputation.  I was working hard, I was doing like amazing things in that lab, so that was fine.

On top of that, I also had done really well in a biochemistry program or a biochemistry class that they give to their first year students in that same program.  

Then lastly, my boss or mentor or whatever you want to call them, Dr. Balboa actually had money for me to work for all the five years that I would be in the program, so I was pretty confident this would happen.

So basically, one of the issues that sort of came up was that, as I was trying to get into the program, again, as you know, like I hadn’t heard back, I had… even though I hadn’t heard back, I was still really obsessed with getting in.  One of the other reasons why I was obsessed with getting in was because I was really close with my mentor, Dr. Balboa.

Now, just so you know, he was the kind of boss who would call me in after shootings of unarmed black men and ask me how I was doing and how I was feeling, and it’s because he really cared.  He was really good at picking up on that global anxiety and that anger that happens after situations like this in the African-American community.  

I think that one of the reasons why he was particularly good at this was because, being a gay man in science, he had his own unjust situations and experiences to draw from.  Just for example, he was very bold in talking about these things and so we shared a deep connection on that.  He would go out to different audiences and speak about his lab and the interest that the lab was forwarding. 

And he was not ashamed in saying that the basis of his lab’s research was actually the brainchild of his husband, and depending on what audience we were in, you might hear the crowd get a little quieter when he said the word “husband."

So he would talk to me about this and we would share experiences back and forth.  And because we shared such a close bond, I definitely wanted to stay in that lab.  

One day, I was walking into the lab, totally normal day, and I opened the door to the corridor that the lab is in.  And just for context, the lab is housed in a corridor but it’s all the way down at the end and there are like two or three other labs in that same corridor.

So I’m opening the door to the lab and then, all of a sudden, I hear Dr. Balboa from all the way down there, saying, “What the fuck is this?  How can they believe this shit?  This is ridiculous!”

Honestly, I wasn’t really all that surprised because he cursed a lot in lab, but one of the reasons why I knew that this was actually uncharted territory was because he was doing this with the door open.  He usually had the peace of mind to close the door when he was upset about some careless or costly mistake that had been made in the lab, but at this point the door was wide open, everyone in the corridor could hear it.

But he and I were close so I wasn’t really afraid of walking into the lab and talking to him because, one thing, I wanted to know what was up, and the other thing is I wanted to see if I can make him feel better. 

So we have this normal, like caustic back and forth with jokes so I walk into his lab and I’m like, “So you finally found out science wasn’t gonna make you a millionaire?”

No response.  Then so I constantly throw out these one-liners that I would humbly describe as comedic gold and he was not amused, not at all.  

Eventually, I just get to the point and I’m like, “So what’s up?”

And he proceeds to say something that, for the rest of the day, I would think as a joke.  He says to me, “They think you stole cocaine.”  

And I promise you, I promise you, the first thing I did was I laughed because, to me, that is such a ridiculous statement.  Like, I am the guy who was staying in lab on the weekends and not going out just because I want to finish the project.  I am the kind of guy who has this borderline unhealthy obsession with anime.  I am also the guy… sorry, did I get too personal?  I’m also the guy who’s playing Dungeons and Dragons like every other weekend.

So yeah, yeah, I don’t want to get too involved in that, but, yes.  So I am the guy who’s playing Dungeons and Dragons every weekend and I’m not out stealing cocaine for parties.  Mind you, though, I am familiar with the concept of a party which, in my world, usually involves four people, somebody’s using magic and demons are being fought or whatever.  But I am familiar with the concept.

So one of the other reasons why I thought this was so ridiculous, and I have to give you some context to this, is that, basically, who thought I stole cocaine, which is probably one of the things that you guys are wondering, is that the person who made the decisions for the graduate school actually thought that I was the one who stole cocaine.  And the reason why he thought that was because Dr. Janice, the lab that I’d worked in over summer, had actually accused me of stealing cocaine from the lab.

So for context, Dr. Janice’s lab, they did a lot of really interesting experiments on how cocaine and marijuana affected the brains of rats.  They were trying to sort of model what teenagers might do at a party and see how it affected their cognitive processes and development. 

However, I, along with another undergrad, white dude from Staten Island, were hired on a separate project to figure out how novel experiences could enrich the brain and possibly make rat moms better parents.  So we were not anywhere near the cocaine.  The cocaine was locked up in a freezer.  We never had access to it.  And I don’t even think he and I ever even saw the cocaine.  But that did not prevent these accusations from being lobbed my way.

One of the other reasons that you guys have to know that one reason why I thought this was absolutely ridiculous was because they noticed the difference between my work ethic and his work ethic.  I was actually given a thousand dollar check at the end of the summer rotation, which he and I did the same exact amount of time in, because I had done more work than he had on this project.  I was also asked to give a presentation solely to the clinicians about all the research that we had done on the project.  But for some reason, this wasn’t enough to allay their concern so he and I, same amount of time, I did more work, the only real difference is he was white and I was black.

Lyl Tomlinson shares his story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Lyl Tomlinson shares his story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

So I’m sure you guys are all thinking, because I was thinking it too, like, you know, was this racist.  I’m going to tell you right now I really don’t think it was racist, to be fair, but I do think that it was prejudice.  I don’t think there was intentional racism because, honestly, if anybody in that lab had like a concerted idea in order to keep me back in some way, shape, or form, I don’t even think they would have accepted me into the lab, but I do think there was prejudice involved.  Whether or not it’s because I was young and black or whatever the fact is that I may never know, I was actually stripped of an opportunity.

Basically, I felt powerless because nobody came to me and asked me for my side of the story.  I felt powerless because prejudice in these situations acts in such an insidious way where you kind of have to be a lawyer who is omnipotent and has all the evidence at the ready in order to prove to all of your accusers that you didn’t do this.

But most of all, I felt powerless because even in the minds of scientists, the most likely explanation was glossed over to rush to my guilt, which was that in light of the uncommon amount of rat deaths they were having that year, somebody was probably just giving the rats too much cocaine because they sucked at math or measure.

So the story isn’t all bad.  At the end of the day, I did get my power back because there was a rush of confidence and support that I felt from Dr. Balboa because he was just as angry as I was about the situation.  Furthermore, he even pushed me to apply to programs or accept the exceptions from other programs even though I was dead set on waiting to hear back from that institution.

Luckily, thanks to him, I did end up going to graduate school and I graduated in August.  I got my PhD in neuroscience, which is fantastic.  Thank you.  

Since my time in graduate school or during my time in graduate school, I actually got a number of different awards for research.  I also got an award that you guys heard about for Science Communication from NASA, and I did a bunch of other amazing things. 

But honestly, at the end of the day, from all the experiences that I had, I really learned from Dr. Balboa that it’s not actually the research that makes a good researcher but it’s the emotional support and confidence you provide to that research along the way.  Thank you.