Trials by Fire: Stories about difficult paths to science

This week, we're presenting stories from scientists who faced unusually difficult paths to science. We all know it's hard work to become a scientist. But for some folks, even getting to that point where you can pursue your science education can seem like an impossible dream.

Part 1: When Evelyn Valdez-Ward discovers that she's undocumented, she fears her dreams of becoming a scientist are over. 

Evelyn Valdez-Ward is an undocumented, Latina, scientist and PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. For her thesis, she studies the impact of California's drought on the ways that plants and their soil microbes (fungi and bacteria in the soil) communicate and interact with one another. In addition to doing research, she's extremely passionate about advocating for undocumented students in STEM. She recently published her story "I'm an undocumented scientist fighting for my Dream" in Science, and was invited to speak at the March for Science rally in DC to advocate for Dreamers in STEM. She has been awarded a UCI's Dynamic Womxn's Award for Outstanding Social Justice Activist, and the Svetlana Bersahdsky Graduate Student Award for her lobbying and advocacy efforts. She plans to continue lobbying and fighting for her undocumented community after graduating, and work in science policy, where she can continue to advocate for both science and minorities in STEM.

Part 2: Samuel Achilefu's experiences growing up during the Nigerian Civil War inspire his passion for science. 

Originally from Nigeria, Samuel Achilefu is the Michel M. Ter-Pogossian Professor of Radiology at Washington University School of Medicine.  He also holds joint appointments as a Professor in Medicine, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, and Biomedical Engineering and serves as the Chief of the Optical Radiology Laboratory (ORL), Director of the Molecular Imaging Center, Director of the Center for Multiple Myeloma Nanotherapy, and a co-leader of the Oncologic Imaging Program of the Siteman Cancer Center.  His lab harnesses the power of light to develop methods for understanding, diagnosing and treating human diseases and is made up of biologists, chemists, engineers, medical scientists and physicists.  He enjoys biking, playing tennis, and travelling.  Samuel lives with his wife and they have two college-aged children.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Evelyn Valdez-Ward

I am an undocumented scientist.  I study the way that drought affects the interactions between plants and their soil microbes.  I do this because I’m helping solve the nation’s top challenges.  See, by 2050, earth’s population is expected to double and that means that agricultural production has to increase by 70% or more.  That’s a lot for us to figure out how to feed everybody.  But we can’t do that unless we understand the way that climate change is affecting our plant ecosystems. 

I love what I do and I love plants, obviously, but I almost didn’t get the chance to fall in love with science.  My parents brought me to this country when I was only six months old.  Growing up in Texas meant that the first words I ever heard in English in school were, “Speak English.  This is America.”  I was only four. 

Still, school was everything to me.  It was the one thing that I was good at.  It was the one thing that made sense so, obviously, in high school I knew that my next step was college.  College was the place to be.  I know.  What a nerd, right? 

But when I brought my college applications to my mom, the first question that it asked was social security number.  That’s when my mom looked at me and she started to cry.  She told me that I was undocumented. 

I didn’t make much of it.  I didn’t know what it meant because up to that point my parents had protected me from my status.  I didn’t know the fear behind it.  I didn’t understand it until I asked my teachers for letters of recommendation. 

When I went up to my teachers and I asked for my letters of rec and then I shared with them my new status, suddenly things, changed.  They all told me the same thing.  That I should just give up.  That as an illegal, I was never going to be able to do anything with my life.  That I didn’t matter.  How did I go from being this great student to, all of a sudden, I don’t matter?  I was dehumanized in an instant. 

My world came crashing down.  I was so upset I stopped going to classes, stopped turning in assignments, my grades started slipping and I fell into really deep depression.  I stopped eating.  I stopped caring.  I stopped living. 

I was so sick that I was hospitalized and the doctor told me, “You have to eat to live,” and I thought, “What for?  What’s the point?” 

It seems so silly because, within a few months of knowing my status, I couldn’t handle it and look where I was.  But my parents had been doing it for such a long time.  They risk their lives everyday just to go to work and to provide for us and to provide for a better life for us and yet I couldn’t handle it.  How did they do it? 

When I came back to class, it seemed like no one noticed.  No one noticed I was missing for school, except for one person, my calculus teacher.  In the middle of class he took me down to the side and he was like, “What’s going on?  What’s wrong?”  I just started crying and I told him everything.  I told him that I didn’t care anymore.  And then he started crying too.  Now, we’re both just crying in the middle of math class. 

Until he approached me, he hugged me and he said, “Don’t worry.  We’re going to figure this out.” 

That was the first time since I found out about my status that I felt safe again.  I had found my first ally. 

My parents were my biggest cheerleaders.  In that time, there were these secret meetings where parents would gather to figure out how do we help our kids apply to college when they're undocumented?  In these secret meetings they found out that instead of using your social security number, you use your tax ID number.  Yeah, we pay taxes.  Did you know that? 

So when I finally got my application together I sent it out and then I waited.  Then I got back my first acceptance letter into the University of Houston downtown.  I was so excited I ran to my mom and we’re just crying.  She hugs me and she goes, “I knew you could do it.”  But we still didn’t know how I was going to pay for classes. 

That summer, we were gathered at my grandma’s house.  We go to my grandma’s house a lot because it’s the kind of place where you gain ten pounds after one meal.  We were all eating together and we had the news on.  That’s when we watched as President Obama took the stage and announced DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a protective temporary status from deportation. 

Oh, my God.  This was it.  This was the answer.  Everybody started crying.  Everybody is hugging me.  I start shaking.  I’m like, “Oh, my God.  This is it.” 

But the application was a different story.  See, for the application, you have to turn in a lot of information about yourself.  Your history, your background, when did you get to this country, when did you enter, who did you enter with?  It wasn’t just about me but about my parents as well. 

And knowing that this was temporary, what would happen if they ended the program?  Were they going to target me?  My parents?  Were they going to deport us?  It was terrifying.  But if I got DACA that would be the answer to everything, because in Texas if you don’t have any kind of documentation you can’t get a license. 

Evelyn Valdez-Ward shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion in LA. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Evelyn Valdez-Ward shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion in LA. Photo by Mari Provencher.

So I was taking a bus to school.  I would have to wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. just to get to school, go to classes all day, come back, if I was lucky be home by 10:00 or 11: 00 and then start all over again.  I was averaging like three hours a night and I didn’t have any money to pay for books or any of my school supplies. 

As a family, we decided together it was worth it.  It was worth the risk to apply. 

Part of the application was proving your presence in the country from the moment you entered until they announced DACA.  Do you remember where you were every single day of your life in this country?  Because I had to prove that.  In between all the obvious free time that I had, I had to go to every single school and collect any kind of sample that they had with any kind of dates that was possible.  I saw old writing samples, old math worksheets and I got to say I was pretty bad at coloring inside the lines. 

Finally, we got all the application materials together.  The next hurdle was the application fee.  $465.  Who has that laying around especially as a college student?  But somehow my amazing parents got the money together and we sent the application out.  Then what came was the longest waiting period of my life.  We waited and waited.

Then finally I got something back in the mail.  I had to appear to go do my biometrics appointment.  You don’t say no to the government for these kinds of things.  So I go up to this building and it was called Application Support. 

I walk in and it was the creepiest place I had ever been.  It is a really cold, white building.  There's nothing on the walls.  There's a lot of immigrants there too.  You're not allowed to talk.  You're kept quiet and then the officer calls you up.  They swab your cheeks, take your fingerprints, take your picture and then send you home.  Then I waited again. 

Until, finally, I got it.  My DACA approval and with it my work permit.  I was so excited to finally do normal things.  I went, I got my social security number and then I decided that I was going to get my driver’s license.  So in between studying biology and physics, I was studying real hard core for my driver’s exam.  I had no idea which one was harder but I passed. 

When I finally got my license I was like, “Yes, I can finally drive myself to school and drive my family around,” because no one else had a license.  It was so exciting. 

Then I applied to my first job, Kroger as a cashier.  I was real bad at it particularly charging people for produce.  Like lemons and limes in Spanish is just limon.  I couldn’t tell the difference so I definitely charged people for the price of limes when they should have been charged for lemons.  Sorry, Kroger.  

Everything seemed to have been going well until my grandma broke her leg in three parts.  Someone as fabulous as my grandma of course has to break her leg in a fabulous way.  And being undocumented meant that she didn’t have health insurance.  She was also diabetic.  So we all decided as a family we were going to pitch in that summer, work, make money to pay for her medical bills. 

Then my mentor approached me and asked, “What about a research as a job?”  I was like, “Research?  What is that?  No, no.  I’m fine.  I'll just continue at Kroger.” 

Then he emailed me and he said, “Would you like to go to California all-expenses paid to study plant water transport?” 

I was like, “Eww, plant water transport?  Who the hell would ever care about that?”  It turns out that that was me because this all-expenses paid trip to California was to Bakersfield, California where there's nothing to do but research and I fell in love with plants.  That’s where I found my love for science and that was only possible because of DACA, because he was able to hire me as a researcher to work with him, and I was able to travel because I now had a license. 

But now, DACA was rescinded and currently we live court decision to court decision.  We have no idea what’s going to happen next and we’re living in limbo.  But science has given me a voice and I’m no longer going to live in fear.  Now, I use my story and I try to uplift others to show just how important undocumented people are, because I matter and my undocumented community matters.  I am an undocumented scientist.  Thank you.


Part 2: Samuel Achilefu

You know, I did not know exactly what caused the event.  What I clearly remember that one night in 1967 my life was changed. 

My parents and I lived in Idah, a calm, beautiful, middle belt city in Nigeria.  My mom was a homemaker who really enjoyed outreach activities and my dad, a surgical nurse practitioner who spent countless times attending to his patients and visiting the sick people.  With so many friends and many toys to play with, enough food to eat as a child, I lacked for nothing, really. 

However, that sense of security and wellbeing was shattered at the age of five when my parents woke me up one night, bundled me to a small van and, before I knew what was happening, we are taking the boat to the other side of the riverbank.  The earliest relation that made sense at that time was we were in danger and we had to escape for dear life. 

Shortly, as I looked around, there were many other Igbos, the tribe we come from from the eastern part of Nigeria debarking from different boats at that time.  The scene was chaotic.  Crying, sleep-deprived children, adults and teenagers, frantic parents all trying to make sense of this situation. 

It was the beginning of Nigerian Civil War in 1967, a tribal war that saw the slaughtering of many Ibos from the eastern part of Nigeria that lived in the north.  It was a war that was waged between the Nigerian Army, that were predominantly from the north, and the Biafran Army, that was created to protect the Igbos and a territory that was then called Biafra in the south-eastern part of Nigeria. 

So a lot of the Igbos were bundled into a truck like sardines so that the drivers can take them to safety.  We were heading home, without dad who had to stay behind to complete his clinical duties.  Unlike in the U.S., in Nigeria, home is not where you were born or were raised or you've lived all your life.  Home is the ancestral home of your parents.  So we are heading home to the place that we will become strangers. 

The journey home was very tortuous.  The truck that we used really was uncomfortable and the local roads we took was not paved.  A journey that could have taken only few hours took a couple of days, but somehow we made it home. 

Upon arrival at Osaa Ukwu Village that is now part of a state we call Abia State in Nigeria, we were happy to be home. 

Several years before this event, my dad had built a house in this village in anticipation that one day we would go to visit our home.  As soon as we arrived, we hoped to go in there to live.  But to our big surprise, another family had taken over our house.  All of a sudden, we had no money, we had no food, we now have no house of our own.  We became refugees in our own country. 

That was the state of affairs as a five-year old I started wondering why did we leave the comfort of our home in the north to become refugees in the east?  The thought of losing all my wonderful friends was unfathomable.  And truly, this was a war, something that was caused by adults who do not know how to take care of the young ones. 

As time passed, all these frustrations and anger started giving way to exciting events.  Our kinsmen came together to welcome us and promise to help us in any way they could.  I started replacing my old friends with new ones who taught me how to pluck fruit from trees.  That was wonderful.  I even had the opportunity to run around on barefoot without my parents scolding me, which was really difficult at that time.  Not because my mom, who was with us, didn’t care, it was just because there were more important things to worry about. 

So as good and as wonderful and welcoming as my uncle who took us in during this period was, we wanted our own house.  With the help of our kinsmen and many others around the village, within less than a few months we built a house. 

The house was made of clay and thatched roof.  The house was beautiful.  It had a window through which the air would blow through in the hot summer days and give us this cool air-conditioned room without air conditioner.  It was just a place that for the first time we appreciated having a roof over our head and a place to go in at night to sleep. 

So things were beginning to change.  As such, we know that during this period, the moments of joy were always mixed with the thought that where is dad?  Is he still alive? 

As the war raged on, all channels of communications were lost.  No letters, no telegrams, no words.  The absolute silence was really deafening and, as such, we were wondering what’s going on today. 

We remember several days later or months we heard rumors that he had escaped the northern part of Nigeria and made it safely to the east and that he was recruited to help treat some of the wounded Biafran soldiers.  In those days, rumors were very rampant.  People told you what you wanted to hear so that you will feel good about yourself even if it was a lie.  But this time, even if it’s a lie, we believed it was true and we accepted it for what it is. 

Looking at that, the whole event that was happening in that time, my mom took on the additional role of being our protector, our provider, our doctor and our consoler in chief.  That was a lot to ask for and, with limited resources, it was difficult to ask her to use our resources to buy toys for me.  But I really did miss my toys, especially my toy car. 

This probably was one of those first events that led to many of my failed inventions.  I remember going with a friend and we found this flat wood that was really suitable to serve as the base of a car.  Then we looked around in the villages, in the dumpsters and found tin cans that you can drill holes in between both edges and they became tires.  Rounded woods from the forest that you can then use to insert between them and, wonderful, you have a car. 

And that car was speedy.  It could run as fast as I could pull it.  That’s possibly why I became a sprinter in school.  It’s true.  That car was pathetic.  And I used it, one day, as we were walking down, I saw there was this bluff and as a child, all of a sudden I was excited to climb on my car and let it drive me downhill.  Guess what happened?  It broke apart.  My invention has failed me when I needed it the most. 

But however, as pathetic as my car was, we figured out by the way how to fix it by using woods and solid things and it worked better.  But as pathetic as it was, it taught me that the fact that I can make something from pieces of neglected materials was really empowering.  That was one of the beginning of my life journey in trying to make things out of nothing. 

So as we made that car and life was beginning to take shape in a way that we really appreciated it, but then all of a sudden we started seeing the influx of refugees into the Osaa Ukwu village.  What’s going on?  The war is now coming closer home and there were countless parents, children, orphans with nothing but a piece of cloth on their back knocking on doors hoping that somebody will let them in and give them shelter. 

We did.  So did many other families that opened their doors to these refugees.  But there were so many that we couldn’t accommodate all of them.  Then we found out sooner than later, we suddenly see the Biafran soldiers themselves also flooding the village in search of their own safety.  Tanks, guns, and all types of motorcycles covering the villages home schools were seized and converted into military camps. 

Samuel Achilefu shares his story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Samuel Achilefu shares his story at the Ready Room in St. Louis. Photo by David Kovaluk.

It was a terrible time.  The peace and the life that I used to have in this village had eluded me.  Once again we have to flee for safety.  We were lucky that we could walk, because the elderly and the sick that couldn’t walk were left behind at the mercy of the soldiers. 

This time, unlike the first one when we did escape, we had no truck, we had no boat, even worse we had no destination.  All we have was a burst of hope that somehow we’ll keep on living. 

So we started moving along, the whole family and everybody walking along the way, sleeping anywhere we find space in the evenings, maybe in the fields.  Or sometimes some people will welcome us to stay at their homes as we got near to flee for safety. 

This was a time that I wished my dad was around because we missed him.  My mom had taken this role.  She's such a powerful and strong woman that tried not to show any emotion so that she can keep us safe.  But at that time, I still remember one day that she missed him the most when she saw somebody that looked like the semblance of my dad and she broke down crying uncontrollably.  “Where is my husband?” 

That was consistent.  Those breakdowns were very rampant in the camps because there were always news, sad news of lives cut short by bombs or bullets or even hunger.  We could have died of hunger ourselves but we are fortunate that in the process the Red Cross workers as well as Igbo philanthropists were able to give us food when we needed it. 

The journey to nowhere really was painful.  I still remember one day when we got up wondering what next to do, where are we going next, all of a sudden there were shouts of joy and jubilation across the different refugee camps.  “The war is over!  The war is over!  We are going home.” 

This time, we are going home to a destination.  What a joy!  Before we knew it, we are taking so many paths, we are walking back and we are approaching our home.  Then this sudden thought came to mind.  Did dad make it?  Are we going to see him? 

Before long, we got the answer from a young guy that said, “Your dad made it.  He's home waiting for you all.” 

What a joy!  All of a sudden, the unification gave us such a happy period that we forgot all the pains and sufferings that we faced during the war.  We had a second chance at life and living and, boy, did we take it all.  It was a wonderful thing. 

The Nigerian Civil War left devastating effects, consequences that remain until this day: mistrust, tribalism, and apprehension.  And we see that everyday wherever you go.  But also the war did reveal the good and the worst of humanity.  One day we had all that I thought we needed and then the next day we had nothing and we were in search of something to support our lives.  That has helped me to see work today as a privilege and opportunity to do the best while I can still work.  It allows me to see my family as precious commodity to treasure, my friends and colleagues at work as partners to be able to solve pending problems that we can do today. 

You know, the worst moments of my life did help shape me into the scientist and researcher I am today.  I take on my work with the same intensity and tenacity that reminds me of the Nigerian Civil War, that frustration, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of quality of life and even sometimes death will one day give way to the hope that cancer will come to an end.  The fact that Nigerian Civil War did come to an end and is part of the history books today gives me this burning hope that one day cancer too will become history.  Thank you.