Dreams: Stories about ambition

This week, we're presenting stories about scientific ambitions and dreams -- and the ways in which they meet reality.

Part 1: Planetary geologist Sara Mazrouei misses out on a dream opportunity -- because of where she was born.

Sara Mazrouei is a PhD candidate in planetary geology at the University of Toronto. She’s also a science communicator with a passion for sharing the wonders of the universe with the public. Sara is a big advocate for women in STEM. One day she’ll go dancing on the Moon. 

Part 2: Working in conservation, marine ecologist Madhavi Colton faces down despair as the challenges feel overwhelming.

Madhavi Colton is the Program Director at the Coral Reef Alliance. She oversees an international portfolio of community-driven conservation programs that are addressing local threats to reefs, including over-fishing, poor water quality, sedimentation, and habitat destruction. Madhavi is also spearheading new scientific research into how ecosystems adapt to the effects of climate change and is applying this knowledge to develop innovative approaches to coral conservation. Her expertise lies in building partnerships between academic researchers, non-profit organizations, governments and local communities to implement durable conservation solutions. She has worked in California, Hawai‘i, the Mesoamerican region, Indonesia, Fiji and Australia. Madhavi has a Ph.D. in Marine Ecology from the University of Melbourne, Australia.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Sara Mazrouei

Since I can remember I've always had a fascination with outer space.  I remember vividly standing in our backyard staring at Comet Hale-Bopp when I was ten years old, night after night, wondering why everyone else wasn’t out there staring at it.  After all, a comet that bright with such a shiny tail was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see, or at least that’s what I kept hearing. 

I saw my first total solar eclipse through a cheap pinhole projector, which was basically two index cards, one with a whole poked through, in 1999.  I remember the sky getting dark and birds flying home as if it was nighttime. 

Out of these unique, spectacular, out-of-the-ordinary events fueled my passion for space.  It wasn’t like everyday life. 

At the age of thirteen, my family and I emigrated to Canada.  My parents wanted to give my sister and I the chance to study whatever we wanted to and to become whoever we wanted to, something that wasn’t always possible in Iran where we were born. 

Moving across the ocean, leaving family and friends behind, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture and the huge transition of high school all made for a big challenge.  But now that I was Canadian, I could dream big and I could become anything that I wanted to. 

So I dreamt big.  I wanted to become a rocket scientist and work for NASA.  So I worked hard and I graduated the top of my class with a bachelor’s in Space Science from York University where I went on to do my master’s. 

I still remember the first time I got to sit in on an OSIRIS-REx team meeting, the space mission to an asteroid, the one that Canada is currently contributing to.  I was in a room full of intelligent people talking about why they wanted to send this spacecraft to an asteroid, how they were going to do it and what instruments they were going to use.  It was such a high.  My heart was beating so fast and I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. 

As I was finishing my master’s, I got an interview with the European Space Agency for a young graduate trainee position for a year.  Usually, one Canadian a year gets selected for that position. 

I still remember the 4:00 a.m. phone call about an invitation to go to the Netherlands for an interview.  I was so thrilled about even getting an interview or going to Europe for the first time that I barely heard the lady apologizing for getting the time zones wrong.  And I still get dizzy remembering running around my department screaming, “I got it, I got it,” a few months after when I got offered the position.  It was such a great feeling, such a joy.

And my parents, as expected, were over the moon too.  Their emigration wasn’t in vain.  Their daughter was going to work for the European NASA. 

I still relive the year that I spent in the Netherlands.  Sometimes, I feel like it was a dream, working alongside mission scientists, getting to see space missions up close.  It was there that I was sure I wanted to go on and become the chief planetary scientist of a mission. 

So I returned back home to Canada, my land of opportunity, to pursue a PhD in planetary science. 

In the summer of 2016, I got selected as the only Canadian and one of the few interns for an internship with the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute in Houston.  This would be an internship in collaboration with NASA Johnson Space Center.  I was getting one step closer to my dream.  I was going to work with NASA.

So that summer, I packed up my suitcase, put on my luggage tag that reads, “One day I'll go dancing on the moon,” and headed to Houston. 

Unfortunately, that excitement was so short lived.  The first day of the internship was meant to include a half-day visit to NASA Johnson Space Center to see the lunar rocks that the Apollo astronauts had brought back.  During the morning training, they told us that all non-U.S. citizens, meaning the one Australian intern, the three European interns and me, would need to be accompanied by a NASA employee at all times, even if we wanted to go to the bathroom.  That all sounded bizarre but I could live with it.  After all, I was going to NASA. 

So after lunch, as we were packing up to go to the parking lot to go to NASA, an assistant walked up to me and said, “I’m sorry, Sara, but your security clearance hasn’t come through yet so you won’t be able to join us.” 

And when I asked why my security clearance was the only one that hadn’t come through yet, she said, “I don't know.  Sometimes it takes longer.” 

But I knew why.  I had read on the NASA website that if you were born in certain countries you might require additional in-depth security checks. 

So as everyone got to go to NASA to see the lunar rocks that the Apollo astronauts had brought back, I sat at the library and went through a full range of emotions: anger, sadness, disbelief. 

Sara Mazrouei shares her story at Tranzac in Toronto in January 2018. Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

Sara Mazrouei shares her story at Tranzac in Toronto in January 2018. Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

But I kept following-up, asking when my security clearance would come through.  Finally, after a couple of weeks, that same assistant walked up to me, pulled me away from my intern friends and asked if I could walk to a different room to talk.  That walk seemed like the longest walk of my life as she kept making small talk about my delicate cardigan and giving me alternatives to hand washing it. 

As an introvert, I hate small talk.  That day, I hated it even more as I could feel my heart at my throat, nervous about what she actually wanted to talk about. 

The little chitchat carried on until we got to the room.  It was one of those important looking boardrooms with a long table in the middle and fancy leather chairs all around.  I picked the chair closest to the door anticipating that I would need more air. 

She finally pulled out a piece of paper and said, “I’m really sorry but you didn’t get a security clearance.” 

My heart dropped to my stomach and tears started to roll down as I read this single line that was written on that piece of paper.  “Her security clearance is denied because she's a citizen of a country that supports terrorism.” 

I tried to explain to her that I’m a Canadian citizen, that I've lived in Canada since I was thirteen, that I’m a good citizen.  I pay my taxes, I recycle, I try to help those in need, that I was born in Iran.  That I had purposely not gone back since emigrating, that I didn’t take the chance to say goodbye to any of my grandparents nor did I get to celebrate any of my cousins’ weddings or graduations with them, all because if, one day, I got the chance to work with NASA in the U.S.  I didn’t want to have to say I visited Iran. 

The reason I chose space and astronomy was to get away from the politics and wars that dictate our world.  I thought, in pursuit of studying things outside of our planet, international collaboration without any bureaucracy would come into play.  And even though NASA was a government agency, I thought that science would trump all, especially in the Obama Era. 

She said that it didn’t matter.  I mean, when you look at our pale blue dot from space, none of this matters.  But now, here I was.  The one thing I was trying to get away from all these years was the one thing standing between me and my dreams. 

So I went back to my desk with puffy eyes and a red nose and told my intern friends and they were all angry and in disbelief.  Then I called my parents and I cried.  Then I took onto Twitter and wrote about it asking Justin Trudeau, Chris Hadfield, and Anousheh Ansari for help. 

NASA Watch picked up on it and retweeted.  The next day I got pulled into a room with the head of HR, my supervisor there, and a man red to his ears out of anger.  He was from NASA.  Apparently, my tweet had made a lot of people angry.  They even told me that I was there by mistake, that had anyone caught the fact that I was born in Iran I wouldn’t have been offered the internship.  They told me to be more honest next time. 

As if I hadn’t clearly indicated my country of birth on my application, as if the person requesting the U.S. visa for me hadn’t typed in the words “Iran” or Iran as they call it in my place of birth. 

So I called up my PhD supervisor in Toronto and told her I wanted to come home, that I didn’t want to be in a place by mistake, that all my dreams had been shattered.  That if I can’t get somewhere or be selected for something, I want it to be because I’m not good enough.  I don't have a problem with not being good enough.  I can always work harder and be good enough.  But I can’t do a damn thing about where I was born. 

She said that I could come home or that I could stay and try and make the best of it.  She reminded me of the reasons that I went there in the first place, to make new collaborations, gain new skills, put something valuable on my resume.  And she reminded me that NASA wasn’t the only place that I could work at. 

So I stayed the entire ten weeks and worked my ass off just to prove to those people that I deserve to be there just as much as any of the other interns, and that I was there because I’m a good scientist, and that my place of birth wouldn’t take anything away from that. 

No one from my intern group got to go back for another visit to NASA JSC.  And no one talked about it.  They said there just wasn’t enough time.  But no one talked about it and no one really blamed me, but I blame me.  Maybe if I hadn’t raised so much hell over not being able to go with the other interns, they would have been able to go back for more visits. 

So at the end of that internship, I came back to Toronto to continue my PhD.  But I came back a completely different person.  The plane ride back felt so different than the plane ride there.  My heart felt so heavy. 

I tried talking to a few people about it when I got back but no one really understood the significance of it, other than my parents and my sister.  They could also feel my sadness.  The door to my dreams had been shut not because I hadn’t worked hard enough but because of politics. 

Now, I always knew that working at NASA was a big dream and maybe even just that, a dream, but it always served as motivation to make me work harder.  The thing that used to be a source of joy and brightened my mood was no longer a source of it.  I was and still am in a love-hate relationship with my PhD.  How can I sit there day after day using data from NASA to try and make new discoveries when they wouldn’t even let me step foot on their facilities?  How is this fair?  What am I doing all of this for? 

In the midst of my sadness and struggle, I found something else that gave my life a new goal and meaning.  It mainly started when I went to watch the movie Hidden Figures with some friends from school, hearing everyone be amazed at how things were done at NASA before and how much things have changed, I couldn’t help but laugh about it.  Yes, we've come a long way but we have an even longer way to go.  And why does it matter where you were born when you're trying to study things out of this world? 

It was after watching the film that I realized the true importance and beauty of science communication.  I realized just how important it is for me to get up there and talk about my research and exciting science stories.  I no longer wanted to hide the fact that I was born in Iran.  It’s important for me to get up there and talk about science and the excitement of space and have people hear it from me, a woman of color, a woman who was born in Iran with the goal of helping people realize that gender, race, or place of birth doesn’t define a human being. 

Now, I made my peace with my sadness.  I made a special place for it in my heart and I carry it with me every single day.  Some days it still comes out in the form of tears.  But most days, it comes out as fuel and passion.  Fuel and passion for educating others, sharing the excitement of science, and putting a new face to scientists. 

Thank you.


Part 2: Madhavi Colton

So in seventh grade, I won the math prize.  Let me tell you that winning the math prize in seventh grade is the least cool thing you can do.  No one wants to be friends with a girl who wins the math prize in seventh grade.  So, like many young girls, I start to hide.  I hide my smarts.  I downplay my abilities.  I say that I’m doing less well than I actually am.

And this becomes a habit then it becomes a comfortable space to live in.  But the one thing that those mean kids in seventh grade can’t do is take away my optimism.  In fact, my family nickname is Miss Enthusiasm.  

So Miss Enthusiasm goes off to college, because Miss Enthusiasm, because me, because I am going to save the world.  I have fallen in love with wild places.  I love huge mountains and rocky coasts with big waves and the immovable expanses of deserts.  I am going to college and I’m going to study Biology because Biology is the science that tells us how the world works.  By understanding how the world works, I am going to save the world.

The first job, conservation job, I get after I graduate is at the Natural Resources Defense Council.  Really cool.  I’m the assistant to the office manager but, hey, I’m working at NRDC.  I am going to save the world.

So there’s an older, wiser woman at NRDC who I take aside and I admit my ambitions to her.  She says, “Look, if you’re serious about doing conservation science, you need a graduate degree.”

So I get a master’s.  Then I realize the older, wiser woman wasn’t specific enough and that if I wanted to be serious about saving the world through conservation science, I actually need a PhD.  So I spend hundreds of hours underwater in the Southern Ocean trying to count fish.  

I lose a very expensive camera to a shark.  I lose my breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the ocean swells.  I almost lose a diver.  My GPS craps out on me in the middle of crossing a surf zone and I run a boat aground, twice.  I get hypothermia, I get a PhD.

And now, I’ve got it.  I can go out and I can save the world.

About five years ago, I got my dream job.  I got a job at the Coral Reef Alliance which is a small international nonprofit organization with a mission, an ambitious mission that is uniting communities to save coral reefs.  Get that, save coral reefs.  I am going to work for an organization and I am going to save coral reefs.  

I remember showing up my first day, walking down this narrow, cramped hallway and the carpet was a hideous shade of blue.  And I walk down this narrow, crowded hallway and I open the door to my office.  I have an office with a door!  I have made it.  The office has a door and it has a window, and the window looks out on a brick wall of the neighboring building.  But look, I’ve got a door.

The catch is I don’t actually know much about coral reefs at all.  I studied fish in the Southern Ocean, and so I get to work reading and I get to work learning.  I’m the kind of person that I need to touch the things I read so I start printing out scientific papers and I start stacking them on my desk.  Each of those papers, I write earnest notes in the margin and I highlight them with a yellow highlighter.  And these stacks grow in my office.

All of my reading tells me that coral reefs are in trouble.  The models are saying we have 30 to 50 years until the negative effects of climate change are happening so frequently that the reefs can’t recover between those negative bouts.  And everybody is saying, “Oh no, 30 to 50 years.”

But Miss Enthusiasm is like, “30 to 50 years, I can make a difference.  I can save coral reefs.  That’s a timeframe that I can work with.”

A little over two years ago, waters around the world started to heat up.  And when the water around the coral reef gets too warm and it stays too warm for too long, the corals expel the tiny algae that live in their cells and they turn bright white.  This process is called bleaching.  Those algae provide the corals with food and so when the corals kick out the algae, they start to starve.  If that bleaching event goes on long enough, they start to die.  

And the news started coming in from everywhere around the world.  It was coming in at conferences.  It was coming in through news centers.  It was coming in through emails.  The New York fucking Times had as its headline that reefs were dying.  In the backdrop, there’s me.  And I get up every morning and I get dressed and I go to work.  And I’m going to work because I’m going to save coral reefs.

Madhavi Colton shares her story in Washington, DC, in November 2017, after a three-day Story Collider workshop.

Madhavi Colton shares her story in Washington, DC, in November 2017, after a three-day Story Collider workshop.

I have a daughter and I wake up in the middle of the night, at first to feed her and, then later, in an absolute state of panic about the world we’re leaving her.  And I get up in the morning and I get dressed and I go to work.

That seventh grade voice gets louder and louder until I believe it, until I know that I can’t do shit.  No one can do anything.  And I get up and I get dressed.  And I go to work.

In April of this year, I brought a group of researchers together and we’d all been working and thinking about how corals deal with climate change.  We had three very different modeling frameworks to try and understand how corals can adapt to or how corals can evolve to deal with climate change.

At this workshop in April, we got some early results that suggest that, actually, the rate of evolution for corals can be fast enough to keep up with climate change if we have certain criteria in place.  Those criteria are things like the coral population sizes are large enough, they have enough diversity, those diverse, healthy reefs are connected to each other by the movement of baby corals.

The thing is that we can actually control some of those things.  We know that improving water quality for reefs, reducing overfishing helps those populations grow.  It helps them get to sexual reproduction and that’s when you start shuffling genes together.  We know that those baby corals can take those new genetic ideas to new places.

Starting in April of this year, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something that we can do.  Maybe, just maybe, our actions can actually make a difference for coral reefs.  It’s only in the last two weeks that I felt like maybe I can make a difference.  Maybe my actions can actually help.

Thank you.