Science Saved My Life: Stories about life-saving passion

This week, we're presenting stories about passion for science that keeps us going, even in the face of overwhelming struggle. 

Part 1: When Cailin Gallinger struggles with her gender identity in college, her volunteer position in a plant lab becomes a lifeline.

Cailin Gallinger is a Master’s student in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. She studies the geophysical processes of planets in our solar system, from impact craters on the Moon to volcanoes on Mars and beyond, and has performed in several scicomm events in Toronto, including the LGBTQ-themed Science Slam at Glad Day Bookshop and David Hamilton’s Solar System Social. She is currently soliciting submissions for a forthcoming zine, Corona, focusing on queer and trans scientists living and working on the margins, and hopes to continue combining her passions for both science and art in her post-grad life.

Part 2: In the midst of homelessness and abuse, Rose DF dreams of a life in science. 

Rose DF is a born explorer with a passion for accessible and inclusive science and education. A first generation scientist born and raised in the Dominican Republic, currently pursuing studies in Biophysics. After opening up about her life for a feature in "Stories in Science" Rose's social media presence has increased since, and she now uses it to raise awareness in the topics of inclusivity and diversity in STEM as she constantly challenges some of the stereotypes associated with being an "non-traditional" academic and a Latina in the US.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Cailin Gallinger

When I started university back in the fall of 2011, I was lucky enough to get the chance to live in residence.  I was so excited to be downtown and to experience the fast pace of campus life away from home for the first time in my life.  But, unfortunately, I also happened to get into the only Catholic college on campus which, of course, meant gendered dorm floors. 

I did my best filling up my roommate application listing all my favorite musicals and hoping that my gay powers would just be so obvious and overwhelming that they’d have to stick me on the girls’ floor or at least bunk with another glamorous queen like me.  As it turns out, between all of the hazing-happy jocks and loud, drunk bros that they could have stuck me with, I did get a relative softball, this sweet international student from Malaysia who I played music with and was able to be open about my attraction to men around. 

But even as I was worrying about being surrounded by straight men all the time, I was also on the verge of one of the greatest opportunities of my life.  You see, I've always known that I wanted to be a scientist.  Since I could read, I dreamed of digging into the dirt to find evidence of ancient life, or going dancing on the surfaces of planets and moons beyond our own.  I wanted to find something about life or solar system or a universe that nobody else had discovered before and add my small light to the glowing torch of knowledge that had been passed down since the dawn of our species.  Lofty ambitions for a pimply eighteen-year-old, for sure. 

So I Googled ‘U of T lab volunteer positions’.  Now, if you know anything about how science is done in our modern world or how a typical science lab is run, you'd realize how ridiculous this should have been.  I mean, there's not many groups that would want to take on the task of training a complete newbie with no experience or grant funding in extremely difficult and highly technical techniques and using equipment that cost thousands of dollars and who would probably either break something or just get bored and leave after a semester anyways.  Right?  I mean, that would be legitimately insane. 

But I got lucky.  I found a website of a lab in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, a plant lab, where they had just completed some field work over the summer and needed some hands helping with the mind-numbing but not especially technical task of weighing and counting seeds. 

The species they were working with, the wild mustard plant was a common organism used for studying various aspects of plant reproduction and they wanted to understand how flowering time was inherited based on climate change, so we counted seeds.  We counted so many goddamn seeds. 

But it was actually really fun.  I got placed with this group of final-year undergraduates who were completing their thesis based on the work that was done that summer and we got along so well.  I mostly work with this one student, Yana, tweezing apart flowers and preserving them in ethanol to examine under the microscope later. 

It was slow and methodical work but also weirdly relaxing.  We played Simon & Garfunkel on the loudspeakers and talked shit about our families and regaled each other with tales of our relatively mundane lives.  Me, about starting school and feeling weird living in an all-male residence, her about immigrating to Canada with her family and the hilarious misadventures with their adorable dog and cat.  That work, more than anything else, carried me through one of the darkest periods of my life. 

A couple weeks into the semester, my best friend at the time introduced me to one of her housemates from her college.  He was smart and funny and very, very attractive.  He was this handsome, brown-haired boy who was studying classics and hanging out with a bunch of cool philosophy and linguistics nerds and, to top it all off, he was also a swimmer.  I know [whistles]. 

And I was still just an awkward feminine dork who felt like nothing next to him.  But we were both taking Latin and had an excuse to be in the same room together so study dates.  We kind of hit it off and as the temperatures began to plummet we went from making out in the parks to finding an unoccupied room in one of the residences that we could sneak into at night. 

Eventually, inevitably, those study dates turned into something a little heavier.  Things got more intense than expected one night after going over the declension of cupiditas and he pulled me down onto the bed and started moving his hands all over me.  I was nervous.  Into it, but unsure of how far I would be willing to go and just trying to appear more confident on the outside than I actually felt. 

Then he took off my underwear.  I burst into tears.  “I can’t do this,” I told him. 

“Why not,” he asked.  “You're so hot and I want you.” 

“I don't know.  It just doesn’t feel right.” 

“Just go along with it.”

So I did. 

That moment still haunts me to this day.  I couldn’t get that skin-crawling feeling out of my body or my mind that I had been forced to be something or someone that I wasn’t entirely for somebody else’s pleasure.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time that that would happen but it did spur something that I'd been slowly becoming aware of over the previous months.  I couldn’t exist as a boy anymore. 

That was rapidly becoming obvious to him too.  “I don't want to date a boy who dresses like a girl,” he told me once.  I want to date a man. 

Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Photo by Stacey McDonald.

I came out to my best friend at the time shortly after.  I didn’t get into the details of what happened only that I had finally figured out what had been plaguing me for so long and I needed to do something about it fast.  She did her best to be sympathetic and supportive but there was only so much you could do back then when being trans wasn’t on the national news and nobody I knew had any first-hand experience. 

A few days later, I broke up with my boyfriend over Skype telling him that I couldn’t be the man he wanted me to be because, well, I wasn’t one.  He didn’t reply.  We never spoke again. 

Then winter set in and I slowly felt the grip of testosterone taking over my body and truly more into the future that I thought I would never have.  I started going to the gym and starving myself even though I was on a meal plan because, unless I could alter it surgically or chemically, I felt like I had no other way to control my body. 

I counted calories and took pictures at night from as many different angles as I could, trying to find the best one that minimized my brow bone, my jaw, my increasingly gone cheeks. 

But I was still working at the lab.  During the winter break that year, we went up to the research field site where they have this beautiful house and several small cabins on the university property.  We held a New Year’s bash with old wine and delicious food and wonderful conversations with kind and silly and intelligent people who had so graciously accepted me as their equal. 

During this party, the postdoc who was overseeing the undergrads came up to me and asked me a question that rocked me to my core.  Would I like to run my own experiments?  I couldn’t believe it.  She commented how diligently I had been working even though I was just a volunteer and thought that I would be capable of handling the task of designing a protocol for testing different pollination techniques in the greenhouse.  I couldn’t believe that this early in my career, not even having finished a year of university, that I was being trusted with so much responsibility. 

But I said yes immediately and ecstatically went back and told my friends at the cabin later that night.  I spent that whole night just vibrating with anticipation over the first real science that I'd get to do on my own. 

So for the next four months, every few days, I'd go to the greenhouse, I'd divide up the plots, take either a feather or a cotton swab or some other tool and transfer pollen from the anthers of the donors to the stigma of the recipients, tag them, wait a few days for them to set to seed, snip them off and preserve them in ethanol to examine later.  And on the other days, I would go to class, go back to my dorm, count calories down to the single digits and go to the gym to burn off any excess, stay awake all night wracked with hunger, dreaming of the person that I might someday be.  I was in hibernation, afraid that I might never get the chance to sprout. 

But even though I could only talk to a couple of people about it, even though I felt lost and helpless with the way that testosterone was taking over my body, even though I spent hours sitting at my window sill staring out, wondering what it would be like to just jump and finally, finally be free, I still felt obligated to those seeds, to that work, to the friends I had made and the people who trusted me.  If nothing else, I had a responsibility to my piece of the puzzle no matter how small it was. 

In April of that year, I sent an email to the psychologist that I had been seeing since before I started university and I opened up to her about what I had been feeling.  I asked if she knew anyone else who had gone through something similar or if there was any way she could help at all. 

She was great.  She got back to me right away and did her best to direct me to resources, both medical and group that I could attend.  I'd have to go to these on my own and shoulder them under the radar while I waited to come out to my family and the wider world but, at last, there was a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunlight reaching down into the dirt, ready to awaken what lay beneath. 

At the end of the semester, as I finished up my classes and started applying for summer jobs, I also finished the last of my counting and cataloging.  I gave my results over to my supervising postdoc and she said she was proud to have me be part of their team.  I’m pretty sure I cried. 

I don't actually know whether anyone ended up using those results, whether anyone looked at my data at all after that point, but just last year a paper came out with the results of the flowering analysis and I felt proud of my part in it no matter how small it was. 

It would be over a year from that point until I was finally able to get on hormones, transition and come out to my friends and family, and many more difficult and painful experiences to endure because of the world that, even now, struggles to accept and empower queer and trans people. 

But science has always been there, in the backdrop of it all, driving my curiosity and gifting me a scaffold to hang my hopes and ambitions on regardless of what anyone does or says about my body or my life.  And at the back of that lab, right next to the table where I counted seeds and pipetted sample tubes to the group of the kindest, funniest nerds you will ever meet, there's a bright blue frame of pressed wildflowers hanging on the wall, a small gift I made for them when I left.  A token of gratitude for the hope that they gave me in a time when I thought I would never have anything else.  Because I can honestly say that, that year, science saved my life.  Thank you. 


Part 2: Rose DF

It’s 2008 and I’m standing at a train station in downtown Manhattan waiting for my train.  I wasn’t really waiting for it to board it.  I was waiting for it to jump in front of it.  That’s because I had just come out of Family Court and I was feeling much defeated, like I didn’t really have a reason to try anymore. 

The reason for that is because my son at the time, that was very small, was being used against me in court because I sort of made the mistake of thinking that I could do something more with my life than being somebody’s wife.  And that’s it. 

So things didn’t go the way I planned it.  I went because the rights for my son were taken away for walking away from a very, very abusive marriage.  There was a lot of sexual abuse involved.  There was physical abuse, there was financial abuse.  And I walked into Family Court thinking that I was going to get help and what I basically got was, “Maybe if you weren’t out working or studying or whatever you were doing, he wouldn’t be so upset.  What are you doing out all the time?  Who’s taking care of your son?” 

It was just hell so that’s basically all I wanted.  I just wanted to jump that train. 

But while I was at the station, it kind of hit me that if I did that my son will grow up without a mom, something that I didn’t really put together at the time.  So after a few trains came by, I sort of snapped out of it and walked out. 

It didn’t get any easier because the thing is I was born in the Dominican Republic and I live between the two countries here and there.  I was very confused about my duties as a woman because you're pretty much told a lot that if you don’t have a man, you basically failed in life.  So to me getting married was a big thing.  That’s exactly what I did. 

When I came here, I got into that marriage right out of high school.  I did not know who I was at all and the only good thing that came out of that marriage was my son.  I walked out of the marriage and basically became the first woman in my entire family line to walk away from a marriage, so I had no support at all. 

Pretty much everybody turned their backs on me.  The father, because he had the apartment and I had nothing, he was given temporary custody of my son.  I ended up homeless. 

I was sleeping in New York City train stations for a couple of months, I would say.  And, while I was doing that, I came across a newspaper that said that they were looking for help for Home Health Aide.  I had no idea what that was at the time.  But they said that they would train you and you could pay them with your work after. 

It seemed something I could try so I cleaned myself up in a public restroom and went over there the following day and sort of applied and talked to them.  I was like, “Oh, how long is the training?”  It’s something very short.  They said it was going to be a month or so. 

Thankfully, they told me that we needed to wear scrubs which they would provide.  That basically meant I had something to wear every day.  So like clockwork, I was wearing those scrubs every single day, going to the training and sleeping on the train stations.  Nobody knew. 

I finished the training and the people who basically hire you said in order for you to get credibility you have to take any shift that they give you.  Because I didn’t have a place to live and I still wanted to recover my son, I started working six days a week, twelve hours a day, and I saved enough money to get a room in Queens, New York. 

I was sleeping on the floor.  I didn’t really have anything so I used to lay down black plastic bags and that’s what I used to sleep.  In between doing that, I went back to court because we were basically being called every two months or so to mediate.  And once they figured out I had a place, the whole thing was like, “Oh, is it a safe environment,” or whatever so I would be doing a lot of just working and trying to meet my core obligations. 

While I was staying at that room, I was somehow getting eaten alive at night by what they told me was bedbugs.  I don't know how that happened because I did not have a bed, but to this day I’m still trying to figure that out.  Just every night, I used to lie down on the floor on the plastic bags and think about how, when I was younger, all I wanted to do was science. 

In the DR, I didn’t have any exposure to science.  I didn’t know what science was.  There was nothing.  I just knew that I was an explorer.  I wanted to know the why and how of everything.  I wanted to know why the moon was up there and then why it would give way to the sun in the morning.  I wanted to know why the plants were the color that they were, why the animals were different, everything.  And because I never had the answers to anything, because nobody was either informed or nobody cared, I became very anxious about it.  But throughout my life, I sort of put that on the side because you have to survive and stuff like that. 

Once I was in Queens, I thought about it all the time, how I just love science and I wanted to do that.  So I figured that maybe I would move along to something that paid a little more, because my job was paying $7.25.  It was seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, which is why I had to work so much.  

I ended up recovering my son which was great.  Once that happened, I decided I’m going to finance my studies by still seeing patients.  So I decided to go for medical assistance because I was told that I will get paid a little more. 

The pay didn’t really get that much so I took another approach.  By that time I already knew that I needed to stay within the field that I knew.  So because I knew medicine, I was like, “So, I’m going to try to go for medical school.” 

So I found out about MCATs and pre-med classes and whatever I needed, and once I saw the price tag on my plan, I was just, yeah, that’s not going to happen.  So I just stayed basically taking care of patients. 

A little settled in with my son throughout the whole thing I was like, “Okay, what I’m going to do is I’m going to use the money and instead of actually trying to go for something I don't want to do, I’m going to try to go for science regardless.” 

So I started looking for schools.  I kind of wanted to go to a private university because I thought that would be better because of the prestige.  Well, once I found out the price of that, I let that go too. 

So I was like, “Okay, let me do the practical thing and find a public institution.”  So I found one and I went in and I was super naïve.  I was very wide-eyed and, “Oh, my God.  I want to do science.” 

Everybody started asking me, “What area of science do you want to do?”  “What do you like?”  “Are you sure you want to do this?”  “That sounds like it’s going to be too hard for you.  You're a single mom.  Are you sure?” 

There was so much doubt right away that I was starting to doubt myself.  Not only that, but I didn’t know how to answer the question because, since I never had exposure to science, I wasn’t like a lot of people here where they see that, they get exposed to it since a very young age so they can say, “I’m going into that field,” “I’m going into this field.”  I had no clue.  All I knew is that I wanted to explore. 

So after talking to an adviser and getting tons and tons of discouragement, I decided not to listen and I enrolled anyways. 

The first time I actually went into a lecture hall for biology, I cried.  That was my crowning moment for that because I had no idea what was happening.  There were like 300 people in there.  Nobody realized that I was having a moment because, to me, it was just like, “Wow, I made it!”  So I thought. 

So everything was fine.  I was settling in with my son.  I was finally paying for school.  Things got a little rough at some point.  I didn’t have enough money to pay for the classes so I basically resubmitted myself to the abuses of the person that I was with just so that I can have a roof over my head without having to pay money for rent so that I can save to pay for school. 

The abuse was too much.  I started realizing also the amount of trauma that I was carrying.  I started understanding more that I had PTSD, that it wasn’t going to work out, that I didn’t want to have my son around that environment and that it wasn’t worth it.  So I gave up school just so that I could focus on moving away from that abuse and not having to submit to it. 

That was really painful for me and the people who know me know that because I value education a lot so it was like I had a whole period of mourning.  I got depressed, my GPS dropped, it was just a complete mess. 

Later on I tried to move on with my life.  I said, “You know what?  I cannot do it.  I'll wait.” 

I ended up moving from taking care of patients for the city into a private company, which was paying me a little more.  They were a bit more strict with the way they take care of you as a caregiver where they wouldn’t just send you to any place.  They will make sure that you went into safe places.  Because I got hurt a few times while I was working with patients.  I was sent into a lot of bad areas. 

Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

So this company, because it was private, it was more careful.  So I started working and I started putting my school dreams away for a little bit.  I was like, “Let me focus on my son right now.”  But at night I was always dreaming about it.  I just want to do science.  I would read about every single field.  I would just sink into it because I wouldn’t let it go.  That’s how I knew that I loved it. 

So after a while working for this company, I realized that I was in a steady place in my life and that I could go.  So I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try one more time.” 

The year that I was going to do that was 2017, because I have worked for them for the whole 2016 and I have money saved.  On January 2017 coming from work, I get hit by a car crossing the street.  So I had to be out of work for the entire year. 

A couple of surgeries after and everything like that, during the recovery period, that was the whole 2017, I was going insane.  So what I did was I had this Twitter account that I never use and I decided to use it.  I was like, “Let me see what’s going on.”  Once I got in there, I noticed that they had these little communities where, say, science Twitter and all these scientists talked to each other. 

So I was like, “You know what?  Maybe I can use this for something good in the meantime while I recover.” 

And I've met a lot of great people there.  I’m basically enamored with the idea of people doing science communication and how you can just sort of share what you love with people.  Even though I've gotten a lot of discouragement also online, I notice that you can take pretty much every struggle that you have and you can use it to inspire other people. 

By last year, I had already realized painfully, because I was very naïve even with everything that I dealt with, that I was some sort of Latina stereotype.  I’m the single mom.  I’m the person who doesn’t have the PhD.  Somehow people look at me and automatically thought, “I don't think you can handle that.” 

I don't know how to quit so I sort of learned that perseverance can be basically your greatest superpower.  I don't have anything.  When people ask me, I always say there's nothing special about me other than the fact that I don't give up.  And if I can give that to someone then I want that.  I want people to see that if I can do it, they can do it too.  You just need to push yourself. 

So I use my Twitter account now for that.  I use it for STEM communication, I use it to talk about the importance of representation.  The fact that you can’t really look at someone and say, “I don't think that person is that,” “I don't think that person can handle that.”  You just never know. 

People look at me and they have no idea what I came from.  They either assume that I had a very straight path or they assume that I have nothing, or that I know nothing based on race, based on me being a single mom, based on a number of things. 

So that has basically become my goal.  So that now that things are slowing down, I’m finally settled, I've recovered from the accident and everything like that, I’m pursuing biophysics.  That’s what I’m going to do. 

I never really got a specific dream when it came to science.  I just wanted to be a part of it.  It’s not because of the prestige.  It is not because of the names.  None of that stuff matters to me.  It’s just what used to move me when I was younger.  And I notice through time that that’s part of what kept me alive.  I’m just dreaming about science every night, so that’s me. 

Thank you.