Responsibility: Stories about leadership

This week, we're presenting two stories about responsibility in science. Whether we're working in a classroom or the White House, we all have some level of responsibility for others. And sometimes we have to ask ourselves -- are we doing enough to live up to those responsibilities? Both of our stories today explore this idea. 

Part 1: On her first day working in the White House under President Obama, microbiologist Jo Handelsman receives some bad news. 

Dr. Jo Handelsman is currently the Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a Vilas Research Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. Previously, she served President Obama for three years as the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). She received her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Molecular Biology and has served on the faculties of UW-Madison and Yale University. Dr. Handelsman has authored over 100 papers, 30 editorials and 5 books. She is responsible for groundbreaking studies in microbiology and gender in science.

Part 2: After a confrontation with a student, math teacher Sage Forbes-Gray begins to question whether she's the ally she thought she was.

Check out video from our show with Math for America>>

Sage Forbes-Gray has been an educator for 15 years teaching middle school pre-algebra, high school algebra and English as a second language in Spain to a variety of ages. Sage is the Restorative Justice Coordinator at her school, supporting students and staff in resolving conflict and building community. She is currently in her third fellowship as a Math for America Master Teacher and has been an active community member for the past 9 years. In her free time, she and her spouse, Amber, can be found running, biking, or exploring the world near and far with their kids, Dante, 6, and Elio, 3.

Note: This June, The Story Collider is celebrating Pride Month by highlighting stories about the intersection of science and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues. Each of our five weekly episodes this month will include one of these stories, and you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram this month as we also share highlights from our back catalog as well. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jo Handelsman

I wanted to tell you about the winter of 2000… I'll start my story in the winter during a three-foot snowstorm in Connecticut.  It was right after Barack Obama had been elected for the second time.  In fact, right after inauguration. 

I couldn’t get out of my driveway so I was working at home in my study and the phone rang.  It was John Holdren, the key science advisor for President Obama and he very calmly said, “The President and I would like you to come to Washington, serve in the White House as a science advisor and direct the Science Division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Now, don’t say no.  Read the president’s Science Agenda.” 

Well, I said no anyway very quickly.

I said, “Thanks so much, John.  Wonderful offer, but I’m afraid I have the best job in the world.”  You see, I was a professor at Yale at the time.  And I had these wonderful students.  I had a lab full of researchers and I owed them a lot.  I owed them my support and my advice and my guidance.  I said I can’t just walk out on them. 

So we cordially hung up and I was watching the snow fall and my husband, who was also snowed in came into my study and he asked what the call was about.  So I told him.

And he said, “So you're going to do it, right?” 

And I said, “You're kidding, right?” 

And I looked at him and I couldn’t believe it because this is my husband who knows me so well and knows how I love my science, I love being in the lab and I love my students, and I have a sense of responsibility.  Anyway, why would he think that I would want to hang out with boring, bureaucratic scientists in the government? 

He shook his head and he walked out of my study and he said, “When your president calls, you listen.”  And I knew he wasn’t kidding. 

So I felt like my patriotism had just been questioned and I know I had to take this offer a little more seriously, so I thought more about it.  One thing really lasted from what my husband said.  He said, “When your president calls…”  This was my president.  This was President Barack Obama who not only was brilliant and sweet and funny and I thought a great leader but he loved science.  He was every scientist’s president so how could I just say no so quickly.

So I went down to Washington and I met with John Holdren and I asked him, “Why me?  Out of all the thousands of scientists you could have in this country, why would you want me?  I know nothing about policy and I know even less about politics.”

He said, “Don’t worry about that.  Leave all that to us.  We’ll teach you that.  I want ideas.  The president needs ideas in science.” 

And he proceeded to describe a job where I could set my own agenda.  I could work on any aspects of science that I wanted and I could teach the president about those aspects of science.  That started sounding pretty cool so I had to think seriously. 

I went back home to Connecticut, I thought some more and eventually I accepted the position.  But then even after I accepted it, I withdrew twice because the White House Ethics Office gave me a hard time, first, about publishing papers. 

They said, “You cannot publish papers.  That’s a conflict of interest.  Can you just see the headline in the Washington Post, Science advisor to the president publishes in the Journal of Bacteriology.”  I couldn’t quite figure out why this was a problem, but we worked that one out. 

Then they said I couldn’t visit my students.  I said, “Well, you're asking me to actually create a conflict of interest.”  Eventually I said, “Well, I just can’t do this job.  I would not compromise.” But eventually they compromised. 

So it was very satisfying.  I countered my nemesis in that case.  And I went to Washington and it took a long time for the senate to finally confirm me not because they didn’t like me but because they didn’t vote.  They eventually did.  I was confirmed.  And I went to work and I got sworn in. 

In my first morning after I was sworn in, 45 minutes later, I was sitting at my big desk in this gigantic Victorian office with these high ceilings and the desk, for the first time in my life, was completely clear.  This enormous, mahogany, shiny desk had nothing on it. 

So I immediately started musing about all the things I could do.  Should I start with my agenda on science education or should I try to save America’s soils or should I work on precision medicine? 

Just as I was thinking about this, my staff member Mei-Jou knocked on the door said, “How do you like your job so far?” 

“Well, first 45 minutes have been pretty okay.” 

Host Ed Yong adjusts the mic for Jo Handelsman when she takes the stage at our first ever fundraiser in May 2018. Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

Host Ed Yong adjusts the mic for Jo Handelsman when she takes the stage at our first ever fundraiser in May 2018. Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

She said, “Well, I hope you still like it when I’m done with you.” 

She came in and closed the door and Mei then told me about the Ebola epidemic that was mounting in Africa.  And she told me about this epidemic that was characterized by people dying in blood on the streets and healthcare workers dying from doing their jobs because they caught Ebola from their patients.  She described it as a growing epidemic that was threatening the world and needed the United States to take leadership. 

All of a sudden, my job had gotten a lot harder and a lot scarier.  I pushed my own agenda off.  I knew I was delaying it but I postponed it to work on this much more urgent and very scary issue. 

I knew nothing about public health when I started.  I was a microbiologist for decades but I didn’t do the kind of microbiology that was needed to solve the Ebola crisis.  So my first thing to do was to pull together people who actually knew something and so I asked members of 26 federal agencies to come to a meeting at the White House and talk about their plans for Ebola. 

When I walked into the room and found that every single person I had invited at all of these agencies had shown up, and these were leaders of CDC and USDA and NIH and all branches of the military, I knew I had acquired a super power and it resided in the line, “Hi.  I’m calling from the White House.”  That’s all it took to get these people to a meeting. 

Well, my task force pulled together.  They had lots of plans for how to screen at airports and keep the epidemic out of the United States, when we should be moving into Liberia with help and support, and many, many other issues that I could never have handled. 

After we got started then I started hearing things as much through the news as I did through my email at work, things like President Obama announced that the military was moving into Liberia.  The army was taking over the logistical part of Ebola.  And I thought, “What does the army know about infectious disease?  I’m the microbiologist.” 

But sure enough, I learned exactly what the army knows about infectious disease a couple of months later.  We were at a meeting in the Situation Room, which by the way doesn’t look anything like what you see on television, and we were having a conversation over video link with the general that was running the Ebola operation in Liberia. 

There he was, this big guy in his camouflage fatigues kind of all sprawled out looking very relaxed and told us in exquisite detail all of the great things that the army had done to launch the Ebola response.  Mainly, it was setting up the Ebola Response Units that allowed people to be treated.  They didn’t have any place for people to be treated and they set up these units across all of Liberia. 

So I started asking a lot of questions thinking, “I’m going to stump this guy,” and found that, no, he was extremely knowledgeable and could answer all of my questions. 

I suddenly became really impressed and was so grateful to the men and women of the army who had taken that first step.  They were the first boots on the ground in Liberia and they had no idea what they were facing.  They didn’t know if they were going to get Ebola, if they were going to be exposed, and there were very few healthcare workers to treat them if they did. 

But they did an incredible job with military precision, you might say, of setting up these treatment units and preparing for the rest of the Ebola response. 

As I walked back to my office, I sort of lost track of the general’s very calming and reassuring voice and the stark reality started hitting me again.  We may have all those beds but what are we going to do if we don’t have the trained personnel and we don’t have the supplies?  We knew that many of these treatment units didn’t have even running water.  A quarter of them didn’t have any running water and most of them didn’t even have gloves and masks, the basic equipment that healthcare workers needed to treat Ebola patients.  So there was a long way to go. 

What was needed was an act of congress, and we all know how hard that is.  We didn’t have the money to buy and there was no allocation to buy the supplies or train the personnel.  So there was a request in front of congress and we were waiting for them to approve it.  Every day we would hear about the horrors of Ebola and we would see the really grotesque pictures of people dying and the tragedy that was going on.  Every day, the consequences of the stalling of congress would be felt in lives lost. 

But they kept stalling because they felt no real pressure.  They dragged their feet saying that it wasn’t important to Americans because this was happening in a country far away that probably most Americans couldn’t find on a map. 

So that was a pretty discouraging aspect.  Here was this crisis of human suffering and congress had the ability to do what needed to be done and they wouldn’t do it, which was blocking our ability to do what we needed to do.  So there was a lot of despair during that time. 

Photo by Getty Images, provided by Jo Handelsman.

Photo by Getty Images, provided by Jo Handelsman.

I remember I would walk home every night late from the White House to my dark, lonely apartment and on the way I would think about all the things that I hadn’t been able to do, all the things that we couldn’t fix.  And I felt so inadequate.  I looked at these pictures everyday and there was one day I remember in particular this picture of a Liberian woman on her knees reaching out toward a stretcher which had a corpse on it that was being carried away by masked healthcare workers.  It was so tragic and so painful and these came at us everyday all the time.  And everyone felt like a reproach for what I couldn’t do. 

I started to feel like an imposter, like I didn’t really know my job because I couldn’t fix this.  And I started thinking, well, if I knew more of I had had more experience or I was just better at this job, I would be able to do it. 

So one night after one of these long walks home, I came into my apartment and the phone was ringing.  It was my husband and I sat there talking to him in the dark for about an hour and I told him how I was feeling, that I was just not good at this.  That maybe I shouldn’t be doing this job because I wasn’t being able to solve this Ebola crisis and even make it better. 

And he very wisely said, “You're not supposed to solve it by yourself.  This is a group activity so be part of the group.” 

All of a sudden, there was real safety in numbers.  There was a real sense of being part of something larger.  We had already seen what our friends in the military could do that we never would have been able to do from the White House alone, and that started reassuring me. 

Sure enough, soon after that, the political machine in the White House started working very hard on congress and finally, congress passed the bill that funded the Ebola initiative.  So even the politicians had our backs. 

So I learned a really important lesson there about working as part of a big machine.  That big machine really pulled together to get a job done. 

Well, it didn’t look so rosy right away.  I wish it happened faster but it didn’t.  And we still got these reports of deaths and these horrible spreads of the infection to new areas.  There was one day where we got a report of 113 deaths in a single day and the numbers were mounting and it was quite discouraging. 

Around November, I pulled together my big task force and asked for reports.  All of a sudden there was this ray of light.  I started thinking maybe there's actually hope here.  Because I found out that we had 4,000 trained healthcare workers in Liberia that hadn’t been trained a few months earlier.  We had more bed than patients in these Ebola treatment units that the army had set up.  And now we had ten labs fully equipped with modern equipment and state-of-the-art techniques for detecting the Ebola virus to do diagnosis.  There had only been one when we started.  So we suddenly had the tools to begin to handle this epidemic. 

And the president of Liberia, President Sirleaf issued her Ebola Must Go campaign that took the country by storm and led to all sorts of innovations, including things like giving cellphones to tribal leaders so that when there were outbreaks in the rural areas, they could call them in and get healthcare workers to come to them. 

By December, we were down to ten cases per day.  And then down to a trickle and we started to think maybe Liberia could become Ebola-free. 

We waited through the beginning of 2015, we waited and I counted the days because it takes 42 days to become Ebola-free with no diagnoses of new cases.  We thought we were going to make it and then in March, a woman got sick in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and she died a week later.  So we had to start the count again. 

We had several false starts.  Finally, in September, September 3, 2015, Liberia was declared Ebola-free. 

And it was quite a moment but we couldn’t celebrate because we knew that this virus was so unpredictable that it would pop up again someplace, sometime and we didn’t want to be premature in our celebration.  But that was the beginning of the end of the Ebola crisis.  Even the other countries where it had spread to began to see a diminution of cases. 

So I learned an enormous amount from that process.  I learned to appreciate what this government could do.  I was so proud to be part of our public health system even though I was this tiny little part, I was a cog in this gigantic thing.  This thing that we call government is this unruly and kind of floppy thing that nobody seems to truly understand.  I certainly couldn’t comprehend but it somehow gets really hard jobs done.  And the people who do those jobs are not boring, dull, bureaucratic scientists.  They became my heroes. 

Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

Photo by Carly Hoogendyk.

I learned a lot also about humanitarian issues and just being human.  One of the people that taught me the most about being human was Barack Obama.  He always brought the human side to events and one of the things that he always taught us was, “Don’t lose your humanity,” and, “Part of being human is having a sense of humor”. 

So at the height of the Ebola crisis when cases were coming in all the time and we were all distracted by how deathly, literally, this epidemic was, I went to visit the president one day delivering a group of scientists who had gotten awards and he was greeting them.  We went to the Oval Office and I waited until these scientists trickled out. 

I lingered behind and I placed the president right in front of me so that the secret service couldn’t see through him.  He was big enough to block because I knew I was going to do something that was illegal and the secret service would probably tackle me if they saw.  I was going to give something to the president, which you're not supposed to do. 

I pulled out of my pocket a little fluffy, stuffed microorganism.  It was a streptococcus, a beautiful, little, red furry thing, and it was the flesh-eating bacterium. 

The president was quite enthralled.  He loved the flesh-eating bacterium.  We had a very serious conversation and he wanted to know all about the lifestyle of the flesh-eating bacterium and what it would eat and actually how to keep it at bay. 

He said at one point, “I’m going to keep my eye on this guy.” 

When we were done, I started walking out thinking, “Did I just disgrace myself by giving a toy to the President of the United States, the leader of the free world?”

Then I heard his voice behind me and I turned around and he said, “I need one of these for Ebola.” 

And I said, “Coming up, Mr. President.” 

That night at dinner, I had his chef place a stuffed Ebola virus on his plate and I heard that the president had a very good dinner that night. 


Part 2: Sage Forbes-Gray

We’re about the same height, maybe she was an inch taller.  Mia was about three inches from my face and she was screaming, “Get out of my face, you gay ass white bitch!” 

I looked up in her young brown face and tried to maintain my authority.  See, I was her queer eighth grade math teacher and I was afraid of her and I was ashamed of myself for it. 

I was her confident queer math teacher, or so I was trying to convince my 23-year-old self with one year teaching experience and six years out of the closet.  I'd begun to get over the illusion of myself as the white savior but I'd yet to do the work to position myself as a meaningful ally for my students. 

Disappointingly, I still thought, despite my complete lack of experience, that I was selflessly saving them. 

And yet, I was afraid of this child, of her homophobic remarks, of the gang she was affiliated with.  I didn’t want to get to know her.  I didn’t want to challenge my fear.  I wanted to validate it.  I didn’t want healing or a solution.  I wanted support. 

I called home.  Her parents threatened me.  I went to the school administration and I was told if we make a big deal out of every time a student threatens a teacher, we’d be doing it all day.  That was my assistant principal silencing me.  It was her word against mine so they weren’t going to move forward with the suspension.  Maybe I was overreacting. 

Then I made the great decision of going to the police.  As I was sitting there waiting to talk to an officer, I looked up at this board of crimes in the community.  One paper said, “Bag of body parts found under park bench.”  What was I doing? 

I really thought I was contributing to a safer school environment where intimidation didn’t rule.  They told me I could not pursue a restraining order on a child.  I could on the adult.  I left. 

The students knew I was scared.  Every day after school one or two of them would just appear outside of the building to lead me to the train.  We never discussed why.  About a week later, Carla, a friend of Mia’s went to the administration and said that she had threatened me.  When the police and the administration would do nothing, her brave testimony allowed them to move forward with a suspension. 

Mia’s parents opted to transfer her to a different school since I was the only eighth grade math teacher at that school.  Not once did anyone suggest that I actually sit down with her and have a conversation. 

I knew what was happening.  It was white privilege at work and yet I was shamefully grateful that Mia, a child, was leaving. 

Years later when the gay-ass-white-bitch incident was in my distant memory, I got a Facebook friend request from Carla.  I saw that she had a girlfriend.  I think she wanted me to know.  I was just so proud of her, so impressed that at thirteen she was able to stand up for queerness and me.  She took a risk despite my completely un-nuanced understanding of the racial tensions and the situation.  She felt connected to me because of my queerness not in spite of it. 

When the police, the administration, my fellow teachers would do nothing, she acted as if the world was what she already hoped it would be.  She, a child, was my ally.

Years later, a parent to my own child Dante, I was now working in a high school.  A group of students from the Gay-Straight Alliance approached me about speaking at their meeting about my family.  I was thrilled.  I happily agreed.  I was proud of the family that I'd created and I felt like I wanted to be the teachers in my ‘90s high school who were there for me.  These students of color were proud to name me one of them, a member of the queer community. 

And then my straight, white principal at the time called me into her office to express some concerns.  What would the parents say?  What if I got pigeonholed?  I felt my face flush with a mix of embarrassment and rage. 

Math for America Master Teacher Sage Forbes-Gray tells her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Math for America Master Teacher Sage Forbes-Gray tells her story at Caveat in New York City. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Before I could say anything, she stopped herself.  She said, “Am I overreacting?” 

Now, I’m not really known for holding my tongue and I'd grown in my confidence in my queer self so I took a deep breath and I said, “I don’t mean to offend you but, yes, I think you're overreacting.  The DOE regulations protect me.  I’m not afraid of the parents.  I know how important it is to be visible for these students.  They'll ask questions, I'll respond to the appropriate ones.  It’s going to be fine.”  And I smiled, still a little nervous about what she was going to say. 

To her credit, she let me do it.  It was wonderful.  The kids asked great questions.  They fawned over my child Dante.  It was wonderful.  I felt like I was repaying the gift given to me by my queer role models in high school. 

And yet I was conscious of my privilege, my whiteness, my financial security, my access to healthcare.  These are all part of my journey.  How would my students overcome these challenges?  What can I do to make family planning and family making more accessible to them?

A few years later at the same high school, a tenth grade trans Latina girl named Kay was fighting for her right to use the girls’ bathroom.  She had had some pushback from school aides, her parents were semi-supportive and her plan, as of now, was to just try to go to the bathroom at home as much as possible. 

I really thought she had this right in New York City, like that was my understanding, but a group of administrators and teachers decided to sit down and figure out what to do.  “What if a boy claims trans identity to look at girls in the bathroom?”  “What if this is a phase?”  “What are the parents going to say?” 

I was acutely aware of being the only gender non-conforming person in the room and so I knew I had to say something.  I took a deep breath and I said, “I just don’t see any high school boy risking their fragile masculinity to go in the girls’ bathroom.”

“I think our responsibility is to our students, not their parents, at least first.  I know this is not a phase.  I’m a hundred percent certain that Kay has been working up the nerve for weeks, months, likely years to ask us for this basic right to go to a bathroom where she feels comfortable.  I, for one, want to go home tonight, look myself in the mirror and know that I did right by a trans girl of color.”

As I sat there hoping that my advocacy had convinced them, I thought back to the numerous times that my gender queer identity had been ignored or dismissed.  Filling out forms and having to write male or female as my gender, crossing out father and writing parent on my kid’s school forms and complaining, I do often complain, but actually explaining to countless students and teachers at my school why it is I prefer ‘FG’ instead of ‘Miss FG’, and that I was there at the table advocating for Kay as an act of self-love, fueled by the support of my given and chosen family past and present. 

They went ahead and let her use the bathroom she wanted.  I remember the next time I saw her walking towards the girls’ bathroom, I caught her eye and I smiled.  Again, adults were weary of the changing times and the children had to lead. 

A couple of years after that, I was in my classroom with a group of queer students and this one gay boy, Wyatt comes up to me and he says, “Everyone is queer.  It’s so cool.  I don't have to explain anything to anyone.” 

Even though it had been 20 years since I had come out, I knew exactly what he meant.  Even after all that time, I rarely find myself in entirely queer spaces, especially socially, and it’s something that I cherish. 

I had the opportunity last semester to go facilitate a professional learning team at Math for America along with two non-cis queer educators called affirming LGBT students in the STEM classroom.  That first night, almost everyone was queer and there was just this energy, this joy of us all being together.  Even after all this time, I still need that.  Like Wyatt, I need that feeling of togetherness. 

Looking back I wish I'd gone to Mia who called me a gay ass white bitch and I tried to talk to her instead of demonizing her.  I wish I'd said, “I know we’re both hurting.  What can we do to make this better?” 

I wish I'd thanked Carla for her bravery. 

I wish that I'd gone to Kay after the trans-bathroom incident and I celebrated with her.  I celebrated her strength at overcoming systemic messaging about her right to exist in order to advocate for herself. 

I wish I'd thanked Wyatt for reminding me of the joys of being in queer community. 

I see these kids, Emma Gonzales, the youth of Parkland and numerous other students nationwide who get far less press standing up for their right to safer schools with youthful raw and unapologetic power, and I’m inspired. 

Just recently, a couple of queer students at my school came to me to talk about coalition building with other high schools to create more safe, positive queer environments through restorative justice practices.  They had specific goals, plans to make it happen.  I need to support these young people soon to be adults, not control them. 

What can I do to be more open and accessible to them?  What can I do to allow them to lead, to push our ambitions on reimagining the world?  Thank you.

Listen to Sage’s story on Soundcloud.