Danger: Stories about life-threatening situations

This week, we’re presenting two stories from scientists who found themselves in potentially life-threatening situations.

Part 1: Ralph Bouquet goes off script during a psychology research study with uncomfortable and revealing consequences.

Ralph Bouquet is the Director of Education and Outreach for NOVA, the PBS science documentary series produced by WGBH in Boston. At NOVA, Ralph’s team supports science educators through the creation of free classroom resources and finds creative ways to engage new audiences for NOVA’s broadcast and digital productions through science communication events around the country. Before NOVA, Ralph taught high school biology and chemistry in Philadelphia and then spent some time in ed-tech at a Boston-based startup. Ralph received his B.A. from Harvard University, and studied secondary science methods and urban education while completing his M.Ed. at UPenn.

Part 2: Ali Mustafa finds that the scars of war stay with him even at his new job in the lab.

Ali Mustafa is an undergrad student for a second degree at Boise State University, in the Material Science and Engineering program, expected graduation is spring 2020. He had earned honors from the dean in Materials Science & Engineering program for the spring 2018 semester. Ali’s first bachelor degree was in chemical engineering with emphasis in chemical industries from the technological university – Baghdad, Iraq. Ali has joined the magnetic shape memory alloys research team at Boise State University, in February 2018, and he had been assigned for the crystal growth research team using Bridgman method to grow Ni Mn Ga single crystal. Ali worked in technical business development, sales, management and engineering professional with 10+ years of experience with multinational companies like HITACHI heavy machinery, and he worked in the technical engineering support office for BASF chemicals in Dubai - UAE. Ali is also a volunteer at Community Trust Partnership Program - Boise Police Department, Boise, ID (2017).


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Ralph Bouquet

It’s an unusually warm and clear spring day in Cambridge.  I’m a sophomore in college balancing a burger in one hand and a stack of playing cards in the other.  Members of to black Harvard student groups organized their annual tradition of a spring barbecue in the Quad, the Harvard Quad.  It’s one of the grassy fields in the north part of the campus. 

Now, in this scenario, I am the vice president of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum and we’re one of the organizers of the event, along with our sister organization, The Association of Black Harvard Women and we’re having a good time.  But unbeknownst to us, while we’re playing our games of three-legged races, hopscotch, dodge ball, spades, of course, there are a couple of emails. 

There's an email for it happening in one of the neighboring dorms.  Essentially, several white students have begun to ask why a group of non-Harvard people from Dorchester, of course one of Boston’s historically black neighborhoods, had decided to invade the Harvard Quad and host their event there.  Now, the emails began to pile up and, eventually, somebody decides to call the police.  So we’re there and police show up. 

I've had to prepare myself for interactions with the police at several points throughout my life and every single time there's a complex mix of emotions that I experience.  The first most obvious and palpable emotion that I feel is usually fear, like the fear that I felt when I was ten years old watching a police officer interrogate my dad for having an out-of-state license plate.  We were on a family road trip driving through Indiana, officer made my dad step out of the car.

Occasionally, I also feel this weird mixture of shame and embarrassment.  I felt that a few years ago.  I was driving home from the movie theaters with my two younger sisters when we got into an accident.  This elderly, old white man hit us.  It was a slow collision.  There wasn’t that much damage but he turned.  It was clear he seemed to be a little bit disoriented and confused. 

The officer who shows up on the scene begins interrogating me aggressively, even despite the fact that this old man has repeatedly said that it was his fault that he shouldn’t have been driving at night. 

Sometimes occasionally I feel anger as well.  I felt that anger two years ago.  I was in New Orleans with a couple of friends.  We were at Essence Fest, on our way to the concert.  I remember a police officer almost slammed the door of our car on the leg of one of my friends.  Apparently, we were getting dropped off in our Uber in one of the spots that wasn’t a designated drop off and so, rather than use his words, a cop decided to push the car door close as we were attempting to get out. 

And every single time when these events happen, I’m also cycling through all the speeches and the warnings that most black men at some point in their lives have heard from their parents.  Yet, even after all that, nothing still prepares me for that feeling of seeing two cops on motorcycles park and walk their way towards us, me and my group of friends. 

So the cops show up.  They start asking for some IDs.  We show them IDs.  We show them our paperwork.  Harvard clearly knows we’re supposed to be there.  In fact, the Harvard University Dining Services are actually preparing the burgers and the hotdogs that we’re eating during the course of the event, in between the three-legged races and the games of spades and dominos. 

Ralph Bouquet shares his story at a Story Collider show at Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA in October, 2018. Photo by Kate Flock.

Ralph Bouquet shares his story at a Story Collider show at Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA in October, 2018. Photo by Kate Flock.

They leave.  Everything is okay.  But we try to get back to our festivities but it’s kind of hard to have fun after something like that happens to you.  The mood has totally been soured.  Everything has sort of changed.

We get back home, back to the dorms and everybody starts to see those emails and so we’re like, “You know what?  We got to motivate.  We got to get together and do something.” 

So we do a demonstration and we organize the I Am Harvard Campaign.  The premise of this is the radical notion that black students exist at Harvard and deserve to exist there.  But even despite that, we do our campaign, we actually set some demands to the university some of which are still in place.  We ask for more tutors of color, more facilitated discussions around race and discrimination during the freshman year, more diverse administrative staff.  But even after all this, that fear that I feel still stays with me. 

In college, I major in Psychology.  That means I’m involved in quite a few research studies.  In this case, I’m actually working as a confederate in these studies.  Not that type of confederate.  So in psychology, a confederate is a person, usually an actor, who pretends to play the role of a subject in a research study, but in actuality they are actually working alongside the researcher but the other participants usually don’t know that. 

So it’s a year later now after this incident on the Quad and the PI, the principal investigator of the lab that I’m working in approaches me and asks me if I’m interested in a summer job.  She describes what the experiment is.  She's investigating whether increases in cortisol, which is a stress hormone, in response to a stressful social interaction, affects decision making, particularly around threat-related decision making. 

So I’m like, “All right.  That sounds pretty cool.  That sounds good.”

She then lets me know that, in fact, the stressful social situation that she's investigating involves racial bias. 

I’m like, “Okay, interesting.” 

Then she reveals to me the population that she's studying, police officers. 

So I’m like, “All right.  I don't know about this.  I’m a little interested but I’m also a little bit anxious, because here’s an opportunity to do something really cool, to do some really cool research but by engaging in stressful interactions with members of an organization that I've spent my entire life trying to avoid as a black man.” 

But, man, money talks.  When you are broke, all financial aid in college, sometimes you end up picking up some weird jobs. 

So first day of the study, here I am in the Cambridge Police Department.  Got my suit and tie on ready to do this study.  In this study, I’m not a confederate this time.  I’m actually an actor in a role play scenario.  So I’m engaging with police officers in a role play.  They play the role of sergeant who has to deal with a complaint and I’m a young lawyer who’s coming to the police department to make a complaint about another officer who mistreated me poorly.  Let’s call this officer Officer Jones. 

So I walk into the room, and there's always a police officer there hooked up to an EKG and several other physiological monitors.  In addition to cortisol, which is taken via saliva sample, we’re also looking at their heart rate.  We’re measuring their blood pressure as well during this experiment. 

So here’s the role play scenario.  I walk in and I’m a young lawyer.  I describe the scenario and I make my complaint to them.  Here’s my complaint.  A couple of nights ago, I was walking from the bar with a couple of friends.  We just had a few drinks, good time, walking down the street we’re making jokes.  We’re laughing.  Somebody decides to call the cops on us. 

Okay.  I split off from the group and then, while I’m walking away from the group, the police officer who’s called on the scene sees me, approaches me, calls me a drunken son of a bitch, slams me against the car.  He's really aggressive, verbally and physically aggressive with me.  So that’s my complaint. 

Now, usually the police officer there gives me sort of the canned department response, right?  You know, “Sorry about that.  We’re going to look into this.” 

And I retort, “You know what?  What are you all looking into?  I mean, we have witnesses who saw what happened.  Here I am telling you the situation.  Like you all need to do something about this.” 

So we sort of engage in this back and forth, and this is sort of the key stressful interaction. 

Then I flip the switch.  So I have a script that I’m working off of that I memorize and here’s the key line in the script where things really start to get a little testy. 

So at one point I go, “You know what, sergeant, you and I both know this.  Officer Jones treated me the way he did because of my race, because I’m black.  Whoever called the police they called the police because they saw a group of black men walking in their neighborhood and they got nervous.  But guess what?  This is our neighborhood too.  We live here too, okay?”

Now, range of responses happens after I say this line, ranging from reluctant apologies to open antagonistic sort of responses.  I remember in one particular case, this one officer, after I say that line, he looks at me and he rolls his eyes and he goes, “Come on.” 

So then I press him.  Next line is, “Sergeant do you honestly think you would have treated me this way if I was white?” 

He completely shuts down.  He goes, “Okay, buddy.”  Shifts back in his seat, completely checks out for the rest of the role play. 

I’m like, “All right.  Interesting.” 

And it’s one of those interesting moments where I sort of realize that, in many ways, many police officers operate under the full impression that the law will always be on their side because they're in a situation where when one of their own does something bad they get to investigate one of their own. 

That study ends and it’s now my senior year of college and I’m doing what most college seniors do.  I’m trying to live it up.  I've got last bit of college freedom and fun left. 

So I’m at a party.  Maybe the party is a little bit loud.  The music is a little bit too loud than it should be.  Maybe it’s a little bit too late.  Maybe we’re a little bit too close to some other residential housing and so somebody makes a noise complaint and they call the cops.  This time the situation is a little bit different because I’m in a mix-race group of friends.  I've got some of my white male friends with me.  We’re at this party. 

Now, engaging with the police when you’re with your white friends is always a pretty interesting situation.  I’m always baffled by this sudden increase in patience and the second chances and the warnings that seem to get conjured out of thin air. 

In this scenario, I’m really shocked because I’m listening and these white boys are arguing with the cops.  They're yelling at them telling them that they have lawyer dads who will come and do this, who will take their badge numbers. 

And I’m like, I try to be a rational reasonable person.  I’m like, “You know what?  Guys, we’re kind of clearly in the wrong here.  It’s 2:30 a.m. on a Thursday night.  Let’s just wrap this up, pull the plug and go inside and play Smash Bros.  What are we doing here?”

So I decide to, all right, I’m going to go outside and I’m going to see if I can sort of deal with this situation because I happen to be the most sober person in the building. 

So I walk outside and I’m like, “Officers, I’m really, really sorry for this.  Totally we apologize for this.  We’ll shut the music down.  We’ll shut the party down.  We really apologize for causing a disturbance.  This won’t happen again.” 

Ralph Bouquet shares his story at a Story Collider show at Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA in October, 2018. Photo by Kate Flock.

Ralph Bouquet shares his story at a Story Collider show at Oberon Theatre in Cambridge, MA in October, 2018. Photo by Kate Flock.

Then one of the officers looks at me, pauses for a second and he goes, “Hey, aren’t you that asshole from that experiment last summer?” 

In my mind I’m like, “Damn.”  I’m completely shook. 

And in the back of my mind I’m running through all these stories of police retaliation that I've heard growing up.  Of course, this is before smartphones are ubiquitous, before all the faces and the names of the dead black men and women that you now see on your screens used to only be on t-shirts and murals in the communities where I’m from. 

So I’m speechless.  I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to say next and then the officer sort of continues talking and he goes, “You know what?  This prick almost gave me a fucking heart attack last year.” 

The other officers start laughing.  I take their cue and I started laughing too.  I’m nervous.  I’m doing nervous laughter. 

And they start badgering me with questions asking me, “Oh, so how much do you get paid to scare cops, huh?”  I’m just terrified but I’m answering their questions. 

As we start to talk I realize, all right, the tension has started to deflate a little bit.  Maybe I might be able to get out of this.  This might be okay.  But, at the same time, this is one of those moments where I truly begin to realize that this confrontation and the fear that I feel really reveals the freedom and the power that these police officers have to do whatever they want. 

So I apologize.  I go back inside.  My group of friends were inside.  They're completely stunned at what just happened.  But I’m shaking because I don't like these interactions at all.  I wish I could say that after that interaction that my fear of police officers suddenly disappeared but if you've been paying attention to the news, it really didn’t.  It never has for me. 

So I’m inside the house and looking outside the window making sure to see if they’ve left.I hear them laughing as they walk back to the squad cars, pull up and drive off into the night.


Part 2: Ali Mustafa

I used to work with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq as a civilian contractor back in 2006 until 2012.  I did a lot of data analysis and logistic support for our troops over there.  My office was an underground bunker and I spent most of my time facing my laptop and reading emails trying to fix a lot of screw-ups that we did over there.  

One day, I was running upstairs and holding my super hot, microwave lunch, so excited and so determined not to waste any minute of my precious lunch time.  It’s my time with the Middle Eastern sun, the sun that will make you one hundred percent sure that the global warming is not a hoax. 

I didn’t care how hot and how dusty it was.  I just enjoyed it.  I enjoyed seeing these soldiers struggling with their gears and their armors.  I’m counting how many Black Hawks landing and taking off.  I just freaking love that. 

While I was talking to two new officers and I was actually briefing them about their mission in the Red Zone, the sirens went off.  It was so loud and so disturbing. 

Somebody shouted “Incoming.” 

I said, “Who’s coming?” 

One of the soldiers shouted at my face, “It’s mortars, you moron.  Run, run, run!”

I didn’t have time to think.  I just ran to nowhere because I couldn’t hear the explosions.  I just felt the buff in my chest, and a lot of them.  I didn’t know where to go or where to hide until I saw one of the birds not far away from me.  So I threw myself underneath it, crawled to the middle, hugged my legs and squeezed my neck into my body armor trying to protect myself. 

But I didn’t know the bird was already on fire.  It was a direct hit.  Until I started to smell the plastic.  The metal was deforming and it’s cracking.  Heat just started to rise up.  I turned my head into the ground and started to dig a hole by using my fingernails.  I tried to bury my head there but I wasn’t fast enough.  The heat rate was so fast. 

Ali Mustafa shares his story Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise, ID at a Story Collider show produced in partnership with Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering in November, 2018. Photo by Lauren Branch.

Ali Mustafa shares his story Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise, ID at a Story Collider show produced in partnership with Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering in November, 2018. Photo by Lauren Branch.

I didn’t know what to do so I unbuckled my body armor and held it up and tried to protect my head from the dripping, molted metal that started to drip as like hot, red lava inches away from my head.  Suddenly, I felt like I've been struck by thunder in my hand as one of the drops hit my hand and burned it. 

I've been trained to control pain mentally and not to show any emotions.  I was like blank.  But I know that’s it.  This is it.  This is the end and I’m done. 

So I told my Shahada or my prayers and tried to escape away from the moment and I just started to think about my lunch and how the bugs and the explosions are going to ruin it for me now.  Then everything went blurry and I stopped feeling the pain on my hand.

Actually, I don't remember when the medics pulled me out, but I surely remember like when I looked up and I tried to see the sun, but it was so dark because of the smoke coming out from the helicopter.  I tried to answer all the silly questions that the medics tried to ask me, like ‘What’s your name’ and ‘What day are we in’. 

There was one dude.  He would start poking me with needles everywhere in my body and asking me if I felt them. 

I was like, “What the fuck, dude.  Just stop hurting me.”  It just pissed me off. 

I didn’t feel happy when they pulled me out.  I felt my life was going downhill.  I don't know if they pulled me out or I’m still there.  I didn’t feel it. 

I couldn’t see my son for two years after that.  I tried to quit my job and become a civilian again.  I moved to the U.S. and tried to get away from Baghdad madness and escape to a city where there are no sirens and there are no incomings but the dark smoke followed me to Boise.  I was stuck in low-pay jobs and no employer will accept my degree in chemical engineering.  There's no fun, no life.  I go to work, go to bed.  That’s it. 

But deep down I know I can make the future.  I’m a fighter.  It’s a war and I have to win it.  This is nothing for me.  For God’s sake, I survived a mini holocaust by only a small scar on my hand. 

So I decided to go back and do a second degree in engineering at Boise State and, during my second semester, I applied for a job, a research assistant job with one of the most distinguished professors at BSU. 

I know I’m not going to get it.  It’s far away from me but, anyway, I did the interviews, I applied, I did whatever he asked me to do and I just like forget about it.  It’s not going to happen.  I just focused more on my classes. 

While I was studying for my midterms at the library, I received an email from my PI.  He said, “You got the job!” 

Ali Mustafa shares his story Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise, ID at a Story Collider show produced in partnership with Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering in November, 2018. Photo by Lauren Branch.

Ali Mustafa shares his story Jack’s Urban Meeting Place in Boise, ID at a Story Collider show produced in partnership with Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering in November, 2018. Photo by Lauren Branch.

I was like no emotions.  That’s my training.  I literally walked down from the library and crossed the street to the church and started jumping like a kid.  I couldn’t believe it. 

I love this job.  It opened a lot of doors for me and it’s an opportunity for a new life here in Boise. 

So my PI assigned me for a new experiment where we will cast single crystals and I have to melt my alloys to 1200 centigrade and cast them into a mold.  The first time I did the experiment, I turned on the furnace and I see the material getting hotter and hotter and it turns into bright yellow, thick liquid dripping into a mold. 

A flashback hit my brain when I remembered the melting metal of the helicopter dripping inches away from my head and suddenly the scar on my hand started to hurt me again.  I panicked.  I freaked out.  I turned off the furnace and stepped back.  I didn’t know what to do. 

But I have to do it.  I have to prove myself.  I’m not a quitter.  This is my life now.  I've survived everything.  I've survived car bombs.  I've survived mortars.  I've survived hostile environment, discrimination, language barriers.  You name it I survived it.  So why should I stop? 

I kept doing it.  Next day, I went back and tried again and tried harder.  But it’s not happening.  We’re not getting what we are supposed to get.  The science, the math, the saying we have to get it, but it’s not doing it. 

So I went back and I asked my professors very stupid questions and I didn’t care.  I flipped every stone and I just tried and tried and tried.  Two months later, BK, my research teammate and I were doing an x-ray imaging for one of the latest ingots that we got and, boom, we got something.  My eyes froze on the monitor.  I couldn’t talk. 

I turned to BK and told him, “Dude, we got it.” 

I went back and I started to take my lunch outside my lab near the Engineering Building.  The dark smoke is going to fade, is fading and soon I’m going to see my sun again. 

Thank you, guys.