Strength: Stories about searching for what makes us strong

This week we present two stories of scientists having to find a strength within themselves.

Part 1: Biologist Heather Hamlin leaves the safety of the lab for her first field assignment: tagging alligators.

Heather Hamlin earned her BS in Biology, and an MS in Marine Bio-resources from the University of Maine before working as a Senior Biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota Florida. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2007, and then worked as a post-doctoral scholar at the same institution studying the effects of environmental pollutants on the endocrine system of aquatic animals. In 2010 she joined the Medical University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor examining how contaminants can alter maternal-fetal health. Eager to get back to Maine, she returned in 2011 to the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, where she is an associate professor. Heather’s current research seeks to understand how human-induced changes in the environment, whether it be climate change, ocean acidification, or pollutants can affect the reproduction and development of aquatic animals, many of which are important to Maine’s economy.

Part 2: As an unconsenting "face of diversity" at a statistics conference, Dan Simpson contemplates the role of his gay identity in his academic life.

Dan Simpson is a statistician. He left Australia for Europe after his PhD in 2009 and is currently an Assistant Professor and the Canadian Research Chair in Spatiotemporal Modelling at the University of Toronto.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Heather Hamlin

A number of years ago I was part of a research group that studied American alligators.  That probably sounds really exciting but the most exciting part of that for me was being able to work with Lou.  He was the head of the lab.  To say I worshipped him is probably a bit of an understatement and it wasn’t because he was a great scientist, it wasn’t just because he was famous in his field, it wasn’t because he won the Heinz award, which is like the Nobel Prize for environmental research.  It was really because he was an amazing mentor.  When he said we were family, he really meant it. 

So he lovingly liked to refer to our group as the innies and the outies.  The innies basically spent all their time in the lab and studied the alligators from the skin in.  The outies spent all of their time in the field and studied the alligators from the skin out.  So I was an innie through and through, a complete lab rat.  And although I really appreciated hearing the stories of the outies, it was well outside my comfort zone. 

These things, they could kill you.  And so people would say, “Oh, you work with alligators.  That must be dangerous.”  I kind of laugh because by the time I saw them they were in test tubes and I’m analyzing some part of their blood or something like that.  So unless I’m wearing open-toed shoes or violating some other lab safety protocol, I’m probably going to make it through the day.  So that’s good. 

But this day was a little bit different.  I was part of research group that we were trying to understand the effects of space shuttle launches on surrounding wildlife.  The Kennedy Space Center is smack dab in the middle of Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and so we were trying to understand if any of the rocket launches and the rocket fuel, etcetera, and all these things that could happen. 

Heather Hamlin shares her story with our Story Collider audience at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, ME in September 2018 as part of Maine Science Festival. Photo by Mike Perlman.

Heather Hamlin shares her story with our Story Collider audience at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, ME in September 2018 as part of Maine Science Festival. Photo by Mike Perlman.

This particular day, all of a sudden Lou decided that I would make a good outie.  So they were missing a person so he kind of went through the lab and he was like, “Oh, so you can come help us out in this field research.” 

In this particular research we were studying adult alligators.  Our mission, as he was explaining it to me, is that we were going to take these barbless grappling hooks, so if you're like a robber and you're going up a building, so imagine that, and then they're attached to Kevlar rope so we have this whole thing tied up in a bucket, we’re going to take this and we’re going to throw it and we’re going to hook an alligator.  We’re going to pull it onto the land and then we’re going to hold it still while we take blood samples and we’re going to let it go. 

I’m like, “What could possibly go wrong, pray to God.”  But it’s an opportunity for me to spend time with Lou so I said, “Yes.  Certainly, I'll do this thing.” 

Our team consisted of Lou and matt, his grown son, his adult son who had done many of these before and was clearly a really competent outie, and Russ who was our NASA collaborator who was in charge of all of the field expeditions that we did and was, by all accounts, fearless.  So even though this seemed dangerous, I was really excited to be a part of this really competent crew. 

So I listened really intently to everything they were telling me and everything that was going to happen because I wanted to make sure where am I going to basically be able to be the most help.  I was really good at bleeding alligators so I’m just trying to figure, “Okay, where can I be helpful in this group?” 

But the whole time I’m thinking, “How on earth are these guys going to wrangle an alligator?”  I mean an adult male alligator is like 10 or 11 feet, 500 or 600 pounds and all these guys are big but they are not alligator-big.  So I’m like, “All right.  It would be really interesting to see what happens.” 

And what we were doing on that particular day was something called running ditches, which is about as glamorous as it sounds.  Merritt Island is covered in all these dirt roads.  It’s a high-security area so that vehicles can access basically all the landmass.  And all along these dirt roads are tons of these really deep and wide ditches.  So we were running these ditches to find alligators to take samples from. 

So we’re driving along in the truck and the very first stop of the day, we look across this big ditch and on the other side there are five or six maybe smaller adults and then one huge alligator.  As soon as the truck doors open, the alligators just take off into the water. 

I grab the bucket with the grappling hook and the Kevlar rope thinking I'll carry this for someone.  I get out of the truck and I stand there and, within seconds, I’m all by myself.  The guys have taken off in either direction.  I can’t see them anymore.  They're in the brush somewhere presumably trying to find, maybe predict, where these alligators went.  I was like, “Okay, there must be some kind of competition who’s going to catch it first.” 

So I stood there and I went, “Well, the blood sample stuff is in the truck so I guess I'll just kind of wait here until they come back and then I'll be helpful.  In the meantime, I’m just going to hang here.” 

I’m standing there and I’m looking at the water and all of a sudden I see this giant alligator head 20-feet from me just kind of pops up.  I’m like, “Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.” 

Presumably, it’s that big one that everybody was trying to catch so I’m like, “Guys, guys,” they can hear me, and I’m like, “I see it.  It’s right in front of me.” 

I’m super excited and I hear Russ from off at a distance and he says, “Well, catch it.  You idiot, what are you yelling to me for?” 

I waited for a second.  I was expecting to hear like a thunder of feet or the snapping of branches or any indication that he was just kidding and that they were on their way back to help me.  I know Lou heard it.  Nothing.  Complete silence. 

Then it occurred to me.  They actually expect me to catch this thing.  Then I thought about it more and I’m like, “Lou is really smart.  This must mean I can catch this thing.”  I’m like, “I’m going to catch me a gator.” 

So I grab my bucket and I walk over and I take my grappling hook.  I’m like, “Okay, I paid attention, right?”  I had really paid attention to what they told me to do.  

So I took this thing and I swung it like I was supposed to and tried to hook it right where I was supposed to.  As soon as it hit the water, the alligator went down.  So I pulled it back, I pulled it back, and I threw it at about the same place it was because I was thinking if that whole group of people didn’t make this thing move, I certainly wasn’t. 

So I threw this thing and I kind of felt a little bit of a tug, so I just pulled back for all it was worth.  As soon as I did that, the rope just starts flying out of my bucket and I’m like, “Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.” 

I have these leather gloves on and I’m gripping as hard as I can.  It’s like I am not even there and the rope is just flying out of my bucket.  I can tell that the rope, where it is in the water, isn’t moving its position and so the alligator is death rolling.  So it’s death rolling under the water and it’s just wrapping itself on this rope. 

As it slows down a little, I try and wrap my hand around it so I can pull something back and then I just hold on and hope for the best.  By the time it stopped, I was a little closer to the water than I was comfortable with, so I kind of grab and dug in and went back up onto the land as far as I could until I really couldn’t move anymore but I was pretty impressed with the kind of headway I made. 

Then I was like, “Russ, I got it.” 

All of a sudden, I hear, “Holy cow!”  Then all of a sudden I hear all the sounds of things that I was expecting before.  I hear the thunder of feet just crashing from both directions and they came up and then everybody grabs the rope.  It took four of us pulling as hard as we could.  Now I really understand why they needed four to pull this thing up. 

As it’s coming up, you can start to see it break the water and then you can start to see how big it is and it was huge.  This was a 10-foot alligator.  Matt, the one that was helping us out was like, “Nice!” 

I’m like, “Yeah, I did that.  Whatever.  It’s fine.” 

So we pull it up and Russ jumps on it and clamps its jaws shut so someone can duct tape it then we bring it up onto the land.  We’re bringing it up and so I’m really excited that we’re going to get to bleed this.  Then Russ starts to stand up and he's like, “All right.  Hop on.  Keep this thing stable while I go get the supplies.” 

I look behind me and there's nobody there.  He was talking to me.  I’m like, “Okay.”  And I was like, “Well, why me?”

Heather Hamlin shares her story with our Story Collider audience at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, ME in September 2018 as part of Maine Science Festival. Photo by Mike Perlman.

Heather Hamlin shares her story with our Story Collider audience at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, ME in September 2018 as part of Maine Science Festival. Photo by Mike Perlman.

Then he was like, “Well, it’s your gator.” 

I’m like, “Yeah.  It’s my gator.” 

So I walk over and so the protocol with what you're supposed to do to maintain its position to keep it stable is just to straddle it, which I did.  You straddle its back then you take its feet and you put it over your heels.  So you're kind of like this, your heels up in the air, and so you take that and you put its foot over yours.  Both feet.  I was amazed at how heavy their feet were when I was doing this.  Then you just take your hands and cover its eyes. 

So I’m laying there with its feet up and I’m stretched out across this.  I can feel its thick, bumpy skin on my belly.  So I’m covering its eyes and I’m laying there and I’m like, “I’m doing this.  I’m doing this.”  Then all of a sudden I feel I kind of lift up a little and then jump forward. 

I’m like, “This wasn’t in the protocol.” 

Then I look back and, apparently, the protocol only works if your feet are bigger than their feet, and my feet were not bigger than their feet.  What it was, it was able to get its toes in a little bit and kind of push itself forward. 

I was like, “Okay.”  I was like, “Russ?”

He's like, “Yeah?” 

He's not that far from me and I was like, “It’s moving.”  And we’re making bunny hops all the way to the water and so I’m like, “It’s moving toward the water.” 

He looks over at me and he said, “You're going to have to think heavy.”

So I look over at Lou and he's just smiling and prepping his stuff, not moving, and I was like, “Okay.  I see how this is.  All right.  Game on.” 

I think to myself, “Okay, towel.  Somebody throw me a towel,” so they threw me a towel.  I put it over the alligator’s eyes and I rear back and basically reach up on its feet as much as I can.  I’m pulling on them as hard as I can and I’m standing there, really sitting there in this awkward position for what felt like forever until the guys come and sample.  I was sure the whole time the alligator was just going to turn and I'd get squished but that didn’t happen.  It didn’t move and they got their sample. 

So back in the truck, and actually many times since then, I've really thought about what it was that made me think that I couldn’t do it and why someone else’s opinions of what I can and can’t do were so much more powerful than my own and, in fact, what could happen when that’s reversed.  What if someone doesn’t have faith in your abilities? 

So that was really a watershed moment for me in understanding what my limits are.  I really think, from that point on, I've been relatively fearless not only in science but in other aspects of my life.  Now that I’m a mentor to my own students, my own graduate students, I think my greatest aspiration is really teaching them how to think heavy. 


Part 2: Dan Simpson

“Of course we've got diversity.  Two of the guys who spoke yesterday were from Quebec.”

It’s a bold piece of rhetorical ground to stake out as a position in a discussion professionally about representation, because I was somewhere in Canada, there were moose, I don’t know where I was, and it was cold.  We were drinking cheap red wine and it was a statistics conference, because that’s what I do.  And we were having the conversation that everyone is having at the moment, the conversation that, for some reason, when a group of men stand together to select a group of people to speak, they somehow forget that women exist.  And that’s bad, quite bad. 

And it didn’t help by somebody staking out the ground that some men from Quebec were good enough.  So you think, “Okay, we've hit the low point of the conversation.  Now, starts the learning.” 

Because then the next thing he said was, “And we've got Dan.  He's gay.” 

And I am 100%.  Sweet.  Congratulations. 

“Also didn’t talk at the conference.”  So sort of a side issue and I was annoyed, a little bit annoyed.  I didn’t appreciate being used as somebody’s human diversity shield.

So I looked at this guy, put down my coffee mug of wine and hissed, “Just because I suck cock doesn’t mean I’m diverse.” 

Dan Simpson shares his story with our audience at The 519 in Toronto, ON in July 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Dan Simpson shares his story with our audience at The 519 in Toronto, ON in July 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

And it doesn’t.  I’m, give or take, the second least diverse person in any room.  I’m a cisgendered white man.  I've got all the privilege.  That I’m gay just makes me slightly less annoying, but only slightly. 

So I was angry.  But I wasn’t angry about the thing I should have been angry about.  And I was standing.  Mostly, I was sitting.  I was drinking.  I don't know what I was doing.  I was prone.  I was prone by a fire.  And I was in a professional context and some middle-aged, straight guy just decided to declare to the room that I was gay, which is not even surprising.  It’s not even surprising.  It happens constantly.  Constantly. 

Conferences, dinners, hallways, work events.  My last two fucking job interviews, somebody is going to tell me that I’m gay - well, tell me, I already know - tell everybody else that I’m gay.  You just get used to it.  There's no GDPR up/down straight people.  They're fucking obsessed with telling everyone your identity. 

And I don't care anymore.  I’m very out at work.  I could explode into a glitter bomb and I'd blast out of work.  But at some point I did care because I remember the first time it happened to me. 

I was 20.  It was 2005.  I had just started my PhD.  I’m from Australia.  I’m from a small town in Australia.  They make aluminum and, apparently, at least one gay, but not anymore.  We’re not made out of aluminum.  And I was at this conference.  It was somewhere not that far, relatively speaking, from where I grew up in a place, a small town that didn’t make aluminum.  It made an army base, so another safe space. 

And I'd never been to a conference before.  I knew nothing.  I knew no one.  I was a deeply closeted, 20-year-old, Catholic, self-loathing guy.  I did what you had to do.  I went out and met people.  I went to a kegger.  We had a kegger because that’s what conferences happen in Australia.  They put kegs of beer in wheelie bins and took them to events.  This was the tropics.  The beer was warm. 

But anyway, not the point.  Went to this kegger, and it was great fun.  Met a bunch of people, it was wonderful.  The next morning, I went to lunch, stumbled out of a session, totally not a hangover.  100% totally because I didn’t really drink then because I was a deeply-closeted, gay guy.  And you don’t drink when you're deeply closeted because shit leaks out and leakage is the enemy of the closet. 

So I went and I sat down and I said hi to people I'd been talking to all night.  There were several people I didn’t know there as well and this girl said, “Ah, hi everyone.  This is Dan.  Dan’s from QUT and he's gay,” and I fucking died.  I died.  It was the worst-case scenario because it was everything I didn’t want to happen. 

And I did what you do.  [giggles], except not that because that gives it away.  I was cool with it.  I made my face look like I hadn’t heard what they were talking about the night before.  I made my face look like I couldn’t see them when she told them and their feelings.  I sat through that lunch and I smiled and I laughed and I talked about maths, and then I got the fuck out of there.  I did my best to never see them again. 

That put me back into the closet for so long because I was sure I could never be out at work. 

Flash forward to a more recent time.  A couple of weeks after the thing with the mousse and the wine and the diversity shield, I was somewhere and there was a phone call.  I was invited to join a teleconference because they needed more guys.  The thing that’s never ever, ever happened in the whole history of STEM, there's never been a meeting with like, “Shit, we need more guys.  Can we find them?” 

But this was one of those things because it was a meeting about women.  It was a meeting about safety.  It was a meeting about problems that had been happening in the community with sexual assault at conferences and trying to work out what we could do about it. 

So I said, “Sure, I can spend some time on that.  I can spend an evening trying to solve these problems.” 

So I signed on.  It was at 11:00 at night because I was in Australia and it’s a terrible time zone.  I just sat there and we talked and good things happened, very positive things came out of it and then, eventually, it happened.  Someone on the line said, “Dan, you're gay.  What’s it like being a gay in statistics?” 

“A gay.”  And I didn’t know what to do because that wasn’t why I was on the phone call.  I was on the phone call because I was invited.  I wasn’t on the phone call because I was gay.  It’s a different part of my identity. 

And, more than that, it wasn’t the fucking topic.  Misogyny and homophobia are sisters.  They're not twins.  So, to a large extent, my experience as a gay in statistics was not massively relevant to the conversation we were having. 

So I did what I always do when I panic when straight people ask me things.  I just said some shit and hoped it would go away.  I did and it did and good things happen.  And I've been thinking about that since because no one had ever asked.  I never really thought about what it was like to put my head down before. 

And I don't know how to answer the question because I don’t know how to tell a bunch of people that I’m scared when I meet new statisticians that I don't know how it’s going to go.  I don't know how to tell them that I think I’m going to die when I’m waiting for a conference dinner because I’m so nervous.  I don’t know how to tell them that I fucking lie and say that I am devastatingly seasick on boats so that I never have to be trapped with my colleagues on a boat, which is an issue that comes up.  I don't know how to tell them what it feels like. 

Dan Simpson shares his story with our audience at The 519 in Toronto, ON in July 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

Dan Simpson shares his story with our audience at The 519 in Toronto, ON in July 2018. Photo by Stacey McDonald.

When I see some young guy who I know is gay smooth himself out because he's not sure about his company, I don't know how to explain what it feels like when I see somebody seeing me do the same thing.  I don't know how to explain that years and years after that last story, years, I finally found, I don't know what, the courage or the boredom or the whatever to finally put some of my identity into the way that I communicate at science.  That immediately as I got off the stage a croaking chorus of middle-aged, white men came up to me and told me I was doing it wrong. 

I don't know how to explain to somebody that hasn’t fucking done it what it’s like to give an invited talk at a conference and have it go great.  Have it go great, and then spend the two hours on the train home, just twice as long as I talked for, having some senior professor tell me how to do it again but straight, like I wasn’t in the closet for 24 years, like I fucking know how to lie. 

I don't know how to explain this stuff.  I don't know how to explain that I’m the wrong person to ask this question to because, when I was 24 and I finally started coming out, I didn’t come out at work.  I’m not an idiot.  I had ambition.  I pushed down everything that I thought was too faggy.  I pushed down my hope.  I pushed down my humor.  I pushed down my empathy.  I pushed down my joy and my love so that I could maybe do my job well. 

You know what?  That works.  Leaning on your other privilege works great.  By the time I was 31, I had a job offer as a full professor at a decent university in England.  And I got it the bad way, because that hurts.  But not me.  I was dead inside years before.  That hurt other people. 

Because do you know what it’s like to stand there and interact with other people, with junior people, with marginal people, with vulnerable people as somebody who is just tamping down all of their humanity so that they can be better at fucking statistics?  Do you know what that’s like?  I wasn’t a monster.  I was an absolute raging dickhead and so many people had to survive interactions with me. 

How do I explain what that feels like?  I don't know.  How do I explain that I actually have a really good answer to the question?  I know what it’s like to be a gay in statistics, but I don't want to give it because it’s too clean.  It’s too clean for straight people.  It’s too pat.  It’s too nice.  I don't know how to tell them that to be gay in statistics it to not be supposed to be there. 

There's a reason we’re constantly being outed and it’s because they're fucking shocked that there's a gay.  No one is expecting it.  Statistics is a place for middle-aged, straight, white men and people who are willing to pretend to be them.  The reason why those professors, those men, would come up to me after I tried to just be myself and tell me how to do it again but straighter is that it didn’t even occur to them that there were more than one experience, more than one way to tell a story, to express yourself, to communicate facts and to communicate science.  It never occurred to them. 

How do I tell people that?  I don't even have any hope left because I know the gatekeepers in my community, I know the next round of gatekeepers in my community, and I know the fucking round after that.  And I know that we are not a diverse set of people.  I know that these experiences and these opinions are not going to arrive from somewhere.  How do I explain, but I just don’t know what to do.