Proving Myself: Stories about fighting distrust

This week we present two stories from people who have to prove themselves in science academia.

Part 1: When there's an explosion in the chemistry lab, graduate student Chanté Summers springs into action.

Chanté Summers is a research chemist at Pfizer Inc where she supports the development of conjugate vaccines. Chanté first became interested in science during high school. Pursuing that dream, she completed a MS in Chemistry from SIUe where her thesis focused on the synthesis of potential biologically active compounds. Outside of the lab, Chanté is proud to engage the community through volunteer work, promote diversity within the sciences, and inspiring local youth to explore STEM fields. With all that extra time, Chanté enjoys traveling, being outdoors, and unwinding with her dog.

Part 2: When Adriana Briscoe's professor accuses her of cheating, she scrambles to save her reputation and her spot on the biology lab's field trip.

Adriana Darielle Mejía Briscoe is an evolutionary biologist and lepidopterist. Her research has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. News and World Report, National Geographic, Scientific American, and on public radio. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences, and was recently honored with the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, the first woman and third person overall to have been given all three of these awards. She is working on her first book, a memoir about butterflies.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Chanté Summers

“You're thinking with your amygdala too much.  To do well in this class, you need to be logical and use your frontal cortex, not the amygdala.” 

My professor told me this as I sat in his office expecting to discuss my upcoming physics exam.  For those who might not know, the amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions.  So my male physics professor had just told me I was being too emotional in such a pseudo-intellectual and confusing way that I almost forgot I was pissed.  Almost. 

A year later, I’m sitting in a different office talking to a different professor about my interest in the chemistry graduate program.  He told me, “It would be really challenging for you.  It’s a difficult program and it takes a lot to juggle all of the moving pieces.  And I've had women sit in my office crying, emotional, generally, just overwhelmed and they end up dropping out.  I wouldn’t want to see you go through that.” 

Chanté Summers shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in October 2018. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Chanté Summers shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in October 2018. Photo by David Kovaluk.

As you can imagine, this set up an expected love-hate relationship I had with my department.  I loved the research and the work that I did, but the people that I worked with, I grew to ignore a lot of them. 

When I was accepted into my graduate program, I wanted to make a difference, a lasting impact.  I wanted to challenge the department that had longstanding stereotypes against women to show competency in my lab research and to show that I can maintain composure and professionalism while juggling the responsibilities of completing my coursework, research and to teach labs with a bunch of undergrads who have no idea what they're doing in a room full of potentially dangerous chemicals. 

So when I participated in the required training for grad students the week before the semester started, I was focused and driven.  I met with the local fire department, professors, I reviewed labs and I got a lecture from the department’s lab manager, Ben.  Ben gave a general overview of safety practices and evacuation and showed this really crummy video that hasn’t been updated since the 1990s, with terrible acting that included scenes of somebody spilling chemicals and accidentally tripping and falling. 

The whole thing kind of felt like a joke, but chemistry wasn’t a joke to me.  I strived to teach my students good lab practices and I challenged them to do more than the bare minimum. 

Inadvertently, my confidence in teaching and apparent tone I use with colleagues and students was seen as aggression.  I developed a hard-ass take-shit-from-no-one reputation so much so that I was shocked when a fellow TA asked me if I paid my significant other to be with me.  The TAs own discomfort with my assertiveness and confidence was off-putting and made me undesirable in his eyes, I guess, because, you know, women’s only goal in life is to shape their behavior so that men find them desirable. 

However, this reputation did lead Ben to choose me as the department’s lab manager assistant.  Ben was over-managing labs.  He was finishing up student teaching so that he could complete his education degree and find another job.  He was going to be gone a lot and needed somebody to hold down the fort.  It turns out that was me. 

Part of this job included rounds of visiting entry-level labs to give a general overview of safety practices and instructions, like how to evacuate from the third floor.  You know, Ben’s job. 

Finishing with one of these morning rounds, I’m sitting in my office listening to some music to unwind.  It’s through that music that I hear it.  Boom!  And I can feel it in my chest. 

Just as I remove my ear buds, the door opens to my left and a lab mate simply just says, “Explosion,” grabs her purse and runs for the stairs. 

I run in the opposite direction towards the explosion to find blood outside the door of a research lab.  Peeking through the window, the room is just a haze.  And I really don’t want to be the adult here so I look for Ben in his office and my undergrad workers remind me he's not here today. 

It now makes me nervous.  I don't want the responsibility of this but my job is lab safety and time is wasting.  I guess I am the adult. 

Running back, I find the source of the blood, a fellow grad student who I know but I rarely spoke to.  And he's incoherent but I am able to manage that something went wrong and that a distillation had gone wrong in his hands. 

I tell a nearby lab mate to call 911 and I look for the first aid kit located inside every lab, the first aid kit that I had just pointed out to six labs full of undergrads not thinking we or I would ever have to use one.  And I’m distracted by the scene inside.  A soot-covered hood, more blood, a fire extinguisher, sparks, sparks from an electrical outlet, sparks caused by water pouring into the electrical outlet onto the floor, mixing with the blood.  First aid kit, right. 

I discover that it’s completely useless.  There's nothing but some Tylenol and burn gel.  But I need gauze or wraps, anything but these pathetic finger bandages to stop the bleeding. 

Improvising, I grab a lab coat and I turn it inside out making a tourniquet around the student’s mangled hands.  Now, all up in his personal space, I can see small details, like his blue collared shirt and the dust in his hair and on his face, and small bits of glass, but mostly just blood.  And as I apply pressure, I can see the pain on his face.  I could hear it in his voice as I try to understand what the hell went wrong. 

My mind is drawn to the lab, though.  What was he doing and how did it go wrong?  And is that outlet still sparking?  Where is the water running to? 

I’m pulled from my thoughts by Ben, who should still be gone, strolling down the hallway, Classic Ben, nose in his phone.  Annoyingly, he takes in the scene with the calmness that doesn’t really match the urgency of the situation.  And as I relay the story, we agree that we need to pull the alarm and evacuate. 

Chanté Summers shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in October 2018. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Chanté Summers shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Ready Room in St. Louis, MO in October 2018. Photo by David Kovaluk.

But to all of those students doing first-day lab work, this must have seemed like a drill from that bossy woman, me.  I then had to manually enter each lab to ensure that the alarm is taken seriously and everyone clears the building. 

Once outside, the fire department shuts the entire building down for about three hours until it’s safe again.  This leaves all the time in the world for me to relay the story way more than I'd like.  Everyone wants to hear it: the department chair, my advisor, local law enforcement, students.  It’s draining.  So when we’re finally allowed back inside, I retrieve my stuff, ignore everyone around me and I head to the gym. 

Working out was something I did daily and I needed normalcy on this day.  Standing in the locker room, I begin to change my clothes.  I notice there's not a single drop of blood on me.  How is it that there's no trace of what happened today, that there's no proof that I did something?  Did this actually happen? 

And when I get home, everything is just as I'd left it.  But as the adrenaline fades, so does the composure I had to maintain.  I break down.  Curling up in my bed, I cry.  It was the second day of my new job, a job that was supposed to be smooth.  And the student, he was just doing research, what I have been doing every day, what I will be doing everyday for the next year.  What would my year look like and what would my future career look like?

Morning arrived and it’s a day that involved everything that should have happened yesterday, calling roll, showing a video, reading safety procedures without incident.  As I begin to process what occurred yesterday, I realize I never questioned myself.  I never wondered are my peers taking me seriously, or if I was capable enough to respond to an explosion. 

Instead, I remembered all the times I've previously gotten pushed back, I remembered all the times that I faced obstacles, and will face obstacles as a woman of color in this field, that there are people who won’t advocate for me, they won’t help me succeed.  Instead, they question if I would make it.  They question my ambition because I won’t be more than a technician in the end, right? 

But let me spoil the ending for you.  My ambition led me to graduation and my confidence pushed me to accept challenges that other people wouldn’t.  My ambition brought me to a career that impacts patients every day.  I fucking made it. 


Part 2: Adriana Briscoe

I’m standing on a mountain, looking at a meadow of alpine tundra with a butterfly net in my hand.  I've stopped to look at the flowers at my feet and at the pine trees in the distance and I think, “I could spend the rest of my life catching butterflies.” 

Standing in that meadow, I’m so grateful for that moment because, less than a few weeks before, there seemed to be someone with power and a grudge who didn’t want me to be there. 

I was a junior in college.  I had just started working in a lab, learning new techniques so I could apply to graduate school.  But I was also taking too many courses, two in Biology, two in Philosophy, and one in Physics.  Why was I taking so many courses, I don't know.  I was young and foolish.  But I knew if I passed them at the end of the term, I'd have something amazing to look forward to. 

My biology professor, Dr. Watt was taking his entire lab, which included me, to the Rocky Mountains.  I had heard the mountains were spectacular so I was excited.  It was going to be my first time chasing butterflies in the wild.  I couldn’t wait to get out there net in hand. 

There was just one thing standing between me and my first paid research gig, and that was passing my five courses. 

I wasn’t worried.  Actually, I was worried, especially about my Philosophy as Science course.  This course was taught by a visiting professor.  Let’s call her Dr. H.  I was worried about this course because Dr. H seemed angry all of the time.  The way she talked down to students in class made me uncomfortable. 

I tried talking to Dr. H after class without success.  I was pretty sure she didn’t like me, which sucks because I had a paper to write for her. 

To finish our final papers, my friend Miranda and I stayed up all night working side by side in the campus-wide computer cluster.  The next morning, Miranda finished first.  She walked across the room to the printer queue, found her paper, printed it out and left to turn it in. 

I stayed for a few more hours and, when I was done, I did the same thing.  I walked across the room to the printer queue, I found my title page and text, I printed them out, I stapled them together and I left to turn them in.  Yes, I was one step closer to the Rocky Mountains. 

That weekend, I packed up my dorm and put it away into storage and went to stay with another friend.  The next week, I was in lab when Dr. Watt walked in and said, “Dr. H just called and wants to speak to you.” 

I thought, “Oh, my gosh.  This can’t be good.” 

I excused myself and started running to her office.  When I arrived, my teaching assistant was sitting in the office with her.  Dr. H said, “Just a moment,” and shut the door. 

I was standing in the hallway catching my breath, wondering what this was about.  The door opened, I walked in. 

Dr. H handed me my paper and Miranda’s paper and said, “How do you explain this?”

I looked at both papers and felt myself flush with embarrassment.  They were identical, except for the cover page. 

Adriana Briscoe shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles, CA in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Adriana Briscoe shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles, CA in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

I said, “That’s not my paper.  I must have printed out a copy of Miranda’s paper by mistake.”

And she said, “I don't buy your story.” 

I said, “Please, let me go find my floppy disk with the copy of my paper on it and give it to you.”

And she said, “I don't want to look at it.  I don't want to have anything to do with it.  I’m handing this whole matter over to the Judicial Affairs Office.” 

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and so I ran out of her office across campus to my friend’s dorm room where I was staying and looked for my floppy disk, a piece of technology that doesn’t even exist anymore.  And I couldn’t find it. 

To make matters worse, the rest of my things were packed away for the summer in a dorm called the Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  I had to go find someone in the Enchanted Broccoli Forest with a key to open up the storage room where my things were held.  And when they opened it, I tore through my boxes and there was no floppy disk. 

I could see the Rocky Mountains slipping away from me.  I needed to calm myself down and think.  Where else could I have put it?  What if I threw it away? 

So I went behind the dorm and jumped into the dumpster.  I was that committed.  I was going to go to the Rocky Mountains.  But I didn’t find my floppy disk and ended up smelling and feeling like trash. 

I was in tears at this point, out of ideas so I called home.  My father answered the phone.  He's not always the most patient of men. 

He listened to me tell him that I had turned in Miranda’s paper as my own and yelled, “Adriana, you have screwed up.” 

I got off the phone as quickly as I could, feeling abandoned and alone like the screw-up my father said I was. 

I was hysterical.  I decided to walk to Dr. Watt’s lab and tell him what I had done and I ask him what I should do. 

When I arrived, he took one look at me and said, “I already know what happened because Dr. H called me.”  And, apparently, all my other professors too. 

When I heard this, I was mortified.  I wanted to sink into the ground and disappear.  I was convinced there was no way I was going to graduate school.  My reputation was ruined.  My career was over. 

And he said, “But I believe you.  I know you wouldn’t do something like this intentionally.” 

And hearing those words, for the first time since my nightmare began, I felt grateful and relieved.  It was so nice being believed. 

Adriana Briscoe shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles, CA in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Adriana Briscoe shares her story with the Story Collider audience at Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles, CA in February 2019. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Later that evening, even though I looked there a million times before, I looked in my backpack and found my floppy disk.  I was delighted. 

I called Miranda and Dr. H and arranged to meet them in Dr. H’s office the next day.  I told myself, “Everything is going to be fine.” 

I went to sleep exhausted but optimistic. 

The next day, Dr. H didn’t show up.  After waiting in front of her office for two hours, Miranda and I asked the department secretary to call her.  And when Dr. H answered the phone she said, “I have decided to turn the whole matter over to the Judicial Affairs Office anyway.” 

She hadn’t bothered telling anyone she wasn’t coming in.  That’s how little she thought of me. 

The next day, I turned in my floppy disk to the Judicial Affairs Officer who examined the text, the dates, and the time stamps.  A few days later, Dr. H agreed to grade my paper.  I got it back with an A together with a stern letter of warning from the Judicial Affairs officer. 

Here’s what Dr. H said about my paper.  “This is quite a good analysis.  You've elaborated and clarified an important point made in class, unfolded it into a coherent, well-written, sensible essay.  Too bad it was such a hassle getting it to me.” 

That summer, I collected butterflies for the first time as a member of Dr. Watt’s lab, butterflies which I continue to study nearly thirty years later and which fly freely in my greenhouse today. 

I’m a professor and I get to teach people how marvelous butterflies are, how they sail through rainforests, navigate long distances and are critical indicators of the state of our environment.  And when I think back to that alpine meadow and what it took to get me there, I know the most important lesson I learned that summer was the emotional support and confidence I received from a professor was more important than any grade.  I strive to do that now with my students.  Thank you.