This week, we’re presenting two stories from scientists about the people and places that inspired them.
Part 1: Just before she leaves for her dream opportunity to teach marine science on the Red Sea, Latasha Wright gets a call that puts her plans in jeopardy.
Latasha Wright received her Ph.D. from NYU Langone Medical Center in Cell and Molecular Biology. After her studies, she went on to continue her scientific training at Johns Hopkins University and Weill Cornell Medical Center. She has coauthored numerous publications and presented her work at international and national conferences. In 2011, she joined the crew of the BioBus, a mobile science lab dedicated to bringing hands on science and inspiration to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The BioBus creates a setting that fosters innovation and creativity. Students are encouraged to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, and design experiments. Through the BioBus, Latasha was able to share her love of science with a new generation of potential scientists. Everyday that she spends teaching students about science in this transformative environment helps her remember that science is fun. She loves sharing the journey of discovery with students of all ages. In 2014, the BioBus team launched an immersive, unintimidating laboratory space called the BioBase, a community laboratory model. At the BioBase students are encouraged to explore their scientific potential through in-depth programming and hands-on experimentation. Latasha has lead the efforts in establishing this community laboratory model, and hopes to build on its success in other communities. The efforts of the BioBus’ team to promote science education to all communities in New York City has been recognized by numerous news outlets, including the WNYC science radio program Hypothesis. Additionally, Latasha has been featured as NY1’s New Yorker of the Week.
Part 2: Growing up, Sheena Cruickshank's teenage older brother inspires her love of science, but then one summer he returns from university with a lump on his arm.
Sheena Cruickshank graduated in Biochemistry and Immunology from the University of Strathclyde and did a PhD in Immunology with Cancer Research UK at the University of Leeds. She is now an immunology Professor in the University of Manchester and also is their University Academic Lead for Public Engagement. Her research aims to understand how the immune response distinguishes harm from benefit e.g. parasitic infections versus the friendly bacteria that live in and on our bodies. She has a focus on using her research to help develop tools to improve patient diagnosis and management. Sheena is passionate about communicating her research with the public and her public engagement work is very closely linked to her research. She co-developed resources to help educate about parasite infections and their impact with a set of resources called “the Worm Wagon” and focuses on enabling access to science for non-native English speakers. She also co-developed a UK nationwide citizen science project to understand allergies and the impacts of pollution (@BritainBreathing). She was a AAAS Leshner Fellow and has received awards and commendations for her outreach from organisations such as the Royal Society of Biology, BBSRC and NCCPE and has presented her work in the media including the radio and television.
Part 1: Latasha Wright
I've always loved the ocean, the sights, the sounds, the tastes. You know, when you can take a deep breath and go [inhales] and you have that taste in your mouth. I love that. I love it a lot.
I’m from Mississippi. I’m the youngest of five children. I have four rambunctious brothers. And so when we were young and rowdy, when we got really excitable, let’s just say, my mom and dad would pack us all in the car, just one car, you know, before seatbelts. It’s okay. We’re in Mississippi, it doesn’t matter. And take us all to the beach.
My brothers and my dad would put crabbing lines out to catch crabs and I would just run wild on the beach and go crazy and just kind of primal. I would think about all of the animals in the water and I would fantasize about them. I would think about what they are doing, who were they hanging out with.
And I was obsessed with dolphins. I love them. I thought they were beautiful, they were smart, obviously, just like me. So I wanted to be one. I wanted to be one so bad that I had a dolphin name. And don’t tell anybody. This is a total secret. But I had a dolphin name that was a lot of clicks and whistles, and I made my whole family call me by this name. So don’t tell anybody. I can trust you.
Then that just meant I was going to be a scientist because I was not this Flipper crap, you know, like a real thing.
So fast forward, I did become a scientist and then I started working. I moved from Mississippi to New York. I learned that I was on the bench doing real science and then I decided I didn’t really like it, but I liked talking about science a lot and communicating science. So then I started working at a science outreach organization called the BioBus.
We basically were a couple of hippies. We got together on this 1974 bus and we just kind of went to schools and we’re like, “Hey, guys. Come on aboard.” It’s much more polished now, trust me, ten years later.
Then as we got bigger, we got Laura, we kind of stopped wearing tie-dye every day, people started taking us seriously and I got this opportunity to go to Egypt to do BioBoats on the Red Sea. Actually, when I first thought about it, it was like, “Oh, it’s going to be like a barge.” But when I got there it was a yacht. I was like, “This is what I deserve.”
So of course I had to keep coming back. It was so horrible. I was like, “I’m not sure this is the right outfit. I’m going to come back.”
So it was really a lot of hard work. This is a secret, total secret. Don’t tell anybody. So it was like we outfitted it all and we were ready, so after three years I was ready to go back to launch this boat. So this is really my thing.
Then on February 13, 2007, my mom and dad they woke up together, they had breakfast and then my mom was like, “I’m going to grocery store.” He was like, “Okay.” Then when she came back, my father had passed away. She found him just laying on the floor because he had had a heart attack.
And you have to understand my dad was like this person who was never sick, who was always like, whenever you saw him, he was kind of the macho dude-ish kind of guy. Whenever I was like, “How are you feeling,” he's like, “Well, strong as a horse, baby doll. Strong as a horse.”
My mom was the one who was always sick. My mom had cancer twice, she had all of these things, like in 2005 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. At that time when she was diagnosed, the survival rate was 30%. That was ten years ago so it was really like everybody was excited that she was… we were all focused on my mom.
But I remember getting the call because I was in a meeting and my brother called, and he never calls. He just kept calling because I kept cutting. Dismiss, dismiss. Then he kept calling so then I was like, “Okay, this must be something.”
So I went out and I was like, “Hello.”
He was like, “Dad died.”
For me, it was like hit in the head with a sledgehammer. I was like, “But I’m going to Egypt on Friday.”
There was a pause from him and from me because, in my mind, two things couldn’t happen at the same time. I couldn’t have this great thing that I've been working so hard for and a super great accomplishment in my career and my dad dying.
Then he just said, “Latasha!”
And I was like, “Oh,” And things kind of rearranged themselves in my mind and I was like, “Okay, I'll be there tomorrow.”
Then I just spent the next half an hour on the floor of the bathroom crying. Then I’m texting my colleagues and they brought my stuff to the bathroom for me, and then I left.
I got home. I made my reservations for Mississippi and I changed my flight for Egypt from Friday to Monday.
You don’t understand. This is my first time experiencing loss as an adult, because my grandparents had died when I was a kid but it wasn’t the same. I remember thinking very vividly, “Do people really wear black at a funeral or is this like TV?”
So then I threw my black dress, my black shoes in a bag and I went to the airport and I came to Mississippi. Then my brother and my mom were there to pick me up. I remember seeing my mom and my mom looked so fragile. Then immediately things changed in my head and I was like, “Okay. My job is I’m not a daughter here. I’m my mother’s support. I’m helping her through this process.”
And we did all the things that grieving families do. We went in to pick up the casket, we found their right flowers and wrote the obituary, and all that kind of things. We were all together. I had four brothers and they're all married and they all have children, so it’s tons of people in the house and it’s loud. But there was just a voice missing, because my dad was always the loudest and he wasn’t there. So it was like some vacuum that was missing.
So the day of the funeral, when I get there, again, we’re in Mississippi so I’m just going say that so people were saying to my mom, “Oh, I thought you were going to die first.” And she was like, “Me too.”
After the funeral, I come back. I fly back to New York and none of my friends, none of my family could understand why would I do that. Why wouldn’t I take time? Why did I want to go back to this thing that I had planned? The reason why, I'll just be honest, is that I wanted to be Latasha, not Latasha whose dad just died.
I was in the BioBus. As you can imagine, we were all hippies. They like to hug you and touch you, and I didn’t want all the touching and the hugging and all of that. I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to be like it didn’t really happen. So I wanted to go to a place where I could be myself and I could escape this and my dad didn’t die.
So I went to Egypt and it was amazing. The launch was great. There were wonderful children. They were all Egyptian and none of them spoke English. And I didn’t speak any Egyptian but we communicated through like, “Oh, look, oh, ah-ah.” You know, universal language of science, pointing and going like this.
So we did a bunch of plankton tows. It was amazing. And then we also did the universal language of selfies. So we took tons of selfies.
At the end of the day, we went to the back of the boat, because that was prime selfie place, and there was this pod of dolphins that was playing in the wake. There were adolescents, there were moms and dads and babies just doing their thing. They were so beautiful. And I was with all of these wonderful kids who had such a great time and we saw this pod of dolphins and it felt like family.
Part 2: Sheena Cruickshank
One of the funniest things I ever saw was my teenage brother Ian trying to catch a flatfish with his bare hands. He was standing in a rock pool and he had rolled his trousers all the way up his legs and he was frantically trying to catch something that was basically invisible and moved like a streak of lightning. He had absolutely no chance. And within minutes, he was flat on his back, soaked, and I stood at the edge laughing, as you do.
I was about seven or eight at the time and my brother had taken me to the beach to go rock pooling because he was mad about marine biology. He was absolutely fascinated by it. We happened to live about a mile or so from the beach. So we would walk down to the beach, and I probably moaned and I was probably a pain but he put up with me.
We would get to the beach and he would explain everything that was in the rock pools with so much detail. He'd tell me about the creatures that were living there, how they lived, how beautiful they were, everything about them. And we even had a tank set up at home and that tank enabled us to take some of these things home with us so we could study them even more and he could explain even more about their lifestyles.
We had blennies, guppies, we had velvet crabs and sea anemones, and my favorite things, this has dropped very slightly, were the hermit crabs. We had two hermit crabs.
The reason I like them so much was because they looked exactly like a normal shell but then these little legs and claws would appear and they'd scuttle away, and I just thought that was brilliant.
One day, we came down to look at the tank and there was only one hermit crab and an empty shell. Ian explained that what must have happened is that the hermit crab had outgrown its shell and it removed the shell that it was inside and gone to look for another one. Now, in a rock pool there would be lots and lots of shells around so it could have easily found one. But of course in our tank there were no shells around and there were hungry fish. So hermit crab became fish food.
I was gutted. I didn’t want this to happen again to our other hermit crab and neither did Ian so we had to do hermit crab rescue mission really rapidly. We went back to the beach to find some shells that we thought might be just suitable for our hermit crab to move into.
We set up a second tank and we popped the hermit crab in it with our array of shells and some tasty, tempting morsels of chopped up earthworm. They liked those. After a while something came out of the shell and it was so weird. It was kind of pinky, fleshy colored and if I'd seen Alien, but I hadn’t at the time because I was way too young, I think that would have been my reference point because it kind of curved around like the head of alien in a kind of domed way. It made its way and investigated the shells until it found the shell that it wanted. It popped it on and it disappeared. We had saved the hermit crab and my love of biology was sealed. I was going to become a biologist just like Ian. I was so excited.
We kept that tank up all the way through my primary school and his high school, but when it came for me to go to high school, Ian went off to university to study marine biology. We come from the very remote part of the Highlands so he couldn’t be anywhere near us for his studies. He was in the city about six to seven hours away so I didn’t see him so often once he went to university.
He kept in touch, told me what he was doing, very typical student stuff: gigs, beer, girls, more girls. He was having a great time.
And he came up one holiday and he showed us something on his arm. He had this lump on his arm. And Ian, being Ian, he gave it a name and talked about it in the third person. I thought it was really cool. I wanted a lump like Ian’s. But of course he had to get it investigated so he got it biopsied.
It was cancer. Ian had cancer. This meant that he was going to have to get the lump removed and he was going to have to have some treatment. He couldn’t have that where we lived because we didn’t have those hospitals, but he could have it where he was studying at university. So mom and dad did the journeys to go and be with him and I was shipped around from house to house.
I stayed in succession of my parents’ friends. In fact, I stayed at one house so often that the owner actually talked about doing up the spare room for me to make it girly, because she thought I'd like that. I really didn’t care.
I was pretty confused. I didn’t really know what was going on with Ian. Mom and dad didn’t tell me very much. Ian’s tumor kept coming back. He kept doing rounds of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and mom and dad just looked tense and grim all the time. I was scared and I also felt that I really needed to be just quiet and really good because I couldn’t do anything to upset them anymore. They were under so much pressure.
So I was very withdrawn. I think I kept myself very much to myself so that nobody really noticed me.
Ian kept up with the girls, amazingly, through all this therapy and his studies. He was so pleased when he could actually start growing his hair back because you could imagine he was about 19 or 20 at this point. Although he was still tall and good looking, he was very thin, he was very pale. He had scars all the way up his arm and all the way down his leg where he did surgery and skin grafts to repair the wounds.
And he was bald. I think that was the bit that annoyed him the most because he wanted to have a cool haircut and wear nice clothes. We really didn’t have many fashion shops back in the Highlands where I came from so this was something pretty aspirational for us.
So he was delighted when he had a break in his chemotherapy and his hair grew back and he could finally grow it and cut it and style it. He came after Christmas to show us his new look, and he was so chuffed. He was really pleased.
We all sat down at dinner and we’re chatting and I noticed something on the side of his head. I don't know why but I said, “Ian, what’s that?”
And Ian reached up and he pulled. It was his hair. It was a large chunk of his hair. And he screamed and he cried and he pulled out more of his hair, and more of his hair. And I just felt like such a bitch. I couldn’t believe I had been so insensitive. I really wish I hadn’t said it. I know I was only about 13 but that really didn’t feel like an excuse.
He distracted himself from all this therapy by getting some pet gerbils. He had one brown gerbil and one white gerbil, an albino. They're supposed to be males. They weren’t. Gerbils breed really, really fast. But this was an opportunity now for Ian to start teaching me about genetics and it seemed way more exciting to see cute fluffy animals than read about pea plants in a book.
So the albino gene was clearly recessive and we could see the one-in-four chance of getting albinism through the gerbils. Interestingly, also the male albinos had a balance problem and they'd sway like this, but the female albinos never had it. So we could construct an idea that maybe this was both linked to being an albino but it might be on the y chromosome. Obviously, we’d need a lot more gerbils to test that and we weren’t about to test that.
Ian kept his studies up and got an ordinary degree in marine biology. But just after his 21st birthday, he came back to live with us. I didn’t know that it was because he had just been given a few months to live and I’m not sure he knew that either.
I was just 14 when Ian died and that whole period that he was sick was one of the hardest things I've ever been through and I was so mad. I was so confused. I didn’t know what was happening for that whole time. I couldn’t understand why his body didn’t reject the tumor, why his immune system didn’t fight back, what was going on? Why did the chemotherapies not work and why did his hair fall out?
I was also hearing about AIDS which was another disease where your immune system didn’t seem to be working. Why was that happening? I had no reference point to find out about immunology at all in my high school studies so I began to get really curious about this idea studying immunology.
This took my parents rather by surprise because as I investigate the courses for immunology, it dawned on me that this was such a new subject, or considered so at the time, that there were very limited options to do it. I was going to have to do a joint honors degree, i.e. double work. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student, and I wasn’t top at science. In fact, I was quite musical so I think mom and dad though I might go and do that.
But I was fairly determined I was going to go and study immunology even if it was going to be double the work. They were terrified that it was just because I was trying to live out Ian’s ambitions of being a scientist and a researcher. I brushed this aside. They were also terrified that it was because he was sick. They may have had a point there but I wasn’t about to tell them that.
So I went to university miles away from home again, and I loved it. I loved it when we did the immunology. I'll be honest. I didn’t like the other joint honors part so much, but I loved the immunology and I knew it was the right thing for me. I liked all the scientists that I was mixing with, hearing about all the different experiences, but I also liked the fact that most of my flatmates were Humanities students.
Although it kind of pissed me off that they only had three lectures and I had 15, I still really enjoyed hearing about their courses, hearing about what they were doing. I loved hearing about it. It reminded me all the things I was interested in. And I couldn’t work out why they didn’t love hearing about my course. They didn’t want to know anything about immunology. They said science is too hard. It’s not for them. It’s just for geeks.
And I thought, well, that’s not right. Science is so beautiful. It’s everywhere. It’s all around us. It’s part of us. Then I realized they didn’t have Ian. I had Ian telling me, spending hours with me telling me all these wonderful stories about science, getting me excited about science. And I knew that I'd been so lucky having that. I think that was the point that I realized that I would be really keen to do science communication as well.
Now, it’s a long time, a very long time since I was a student. I’m really lucky because I have my own immunology lab and I’m doing research that I love. And I do science communication too through my public engagement work so I’m really lucky that I've got to live that dream.
I also go rock pooling again now, but with my children. And I've been that person flailing around in a rock pool, up to my waist in water, trying desperately to find something cool for them to see. And you know what? No matter what I do, I will always find them a hermit crab. Thank you.