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MiSciNet Shero--Joan Esnayra

Joan Esnayra

It was late September 1990. The tide was turning, and an orange sun hung low in the clear Pacific sky. The entering graduate class sipped Corona and Negra Modelo, laughing and mingling with one another, as shark?s flesh roasted over an open grill. The faculty welcomed us with warmth and fattened us with flattery. I felt free and euphoric that afternoon. New friends were everywhere and the future was anything I could imagine it to be.

We had come from all over--Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Caltech, Brazil, China, India, and England. We were the crème of the crop, they said. I was sure they weren?t talking about me. My American classmates could just have well been foreigners. Their parents were medical doctors, university professors, and prominent lawyers. They reminisced about youthful summers in Chattauqua and Cape Cod, winters in Aspen and Jackson Hole. Should I tell them I?ve been arrested three times? I went for a walk on the beach instead, reflecting on the strange twists of fate that brought me to this Beach Boy paradise.

Somewhere between my father?s drunken rages and beatings, my mother?s kleptomania and suicide attempts, my brother?s murder, and countless childhood rapes, I emerged--fairly scathed--the youngest of eight American Indian children. My father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, completed his junior year in high school, and my mother, a nurse?s aide, completed the third grade. We were a military family, even though my father left the army years before. He ran a gas station by the base, and his hands were permanently stained with grease.

By the age of 10, I knew that an education was my singular ?ticket out? of the difficult environment I came from. Without it, I could count on pregnancy, marriage, a few beatings now and then, divorce, and economic hardship. I was determined to leave on my own two feet--under my own steam--and never come back. And that is exactly what I did.

School was easy for me. I excelled in the arts, sciences, extracurricular clubs, and athletics. I was generally popular, but few knew the realities of my home life. These were the days before advanced placement, and I credit a few gracious math teachers, who left me at the back of the room with a textbook all year saying, ?Just go at your own pace. Let me know if you have questions.?

The demographics of the schools I attended were predominantly White and Indian. In sixth grade, I was bullied by some eighth-grade White kids. They called me derogatory names, spit on my clothes, and threatened to beat me up. I cried to my father about how scared I was. Unsympathetic, he told me, ?Never back down from a bully. They?re all just cowards, anyway. If they want to fight, then you fight ?em, and you better kick their butts!? He taught me how to make an old sailor?s weapon called a ?neckerchief.? It consisted of a medium-sized rock sewn into the corner of a handkerchief. When swung upon an opponent, it will bruise and break facial bones (hardly the kind of advice parents would give to children, nowadays). The neckerchief gave me confidence, and throughout my junior high years, I developed a reputation for being a fearless and tough fighter. Little did I know how important these skills would become in graduate school.

It didn?t take me long to realize that my ticket out would depend upon achieving doctoral-level education. I knew that to become a doctor, I would have to do well in high school, college, and medical school. No one told me to do so, but by ninth grade I started developing my CV. In high school, I wanted to study oceanography and travel the world, like Jacques Cousteau. This very specific fantasy emerged from one of the most formative experiences of my life.

Some years earlier, my father had bought an old wooden sailboat and taught himself to sail. His boyhood dream to sail around the world was soon within reach. For 7 years, my father and I sailed in segments, until we had circumnavigated the globe. Each segment lasted 3 to 5 months, and this resulted in my missing significant amounts of school. Exposure to the sea and its marine life, as well as a visit to a remote oceanographic research station in the northern Great Barrier Reef of Australia, energized me to pursue advanced studies in this field. Neither my mother nor my siblings participated in these adventures. My father?s drinking and violent rages were too much for them to take. I had no choice but to go and was charged by my family to look after my dad. Nonetheless, the entire journey changed my outlook forever.

My desire to become an oceanographer carried me until my senior year in high school, when I took a job with the local hospital pathology laboratory. It was here that I discovered my passion for medicine. Although I enjoyed the thought of helping people, truthfully, I was taken in more by the science. The doctors I worked for recognized this hunger for learning and gave me a key to the medical library. On weekends when my parents were fighting and threatening to kill one another with guns or knives, I escaped to this temple of reason and read medical textbooks and journals, until I fell asleep.

When it came time to apply for college, I had no clue what to do. Furthermore, there was no one in my life that had any more clues than I did. So, I did what seemed logical and applied to a single college, 60 miles down the road. Little did I know that my grades and accomplishments could have gained me admission to almost any school in the country. I was offered early admission at the University of Washington, Seattle, and invited to join the honors program. My parents advised me to forgo the honors program, because they thought it would just be more work for me. I followed their advice, and that was a mistake.

With my eyes set on becoming a medical doctor, I took the usual premed requirements while majoring in philosophy. My father had since disowned me, so it was necessary for me to work--a lot--to pay for college. I always took lab jobs so that I could continue to develop my knowledge of medicine. I thought researchers were strange people, but the draw of logical inquiry sustained me through their foreign culture. By my junior year, I figured out that medical school is like a 4-year survey course, and research is where the real excavation of knowledge is carried out. I therefore altered my course and decided to head for graduate school.

My grades in college were a continuous source of consternation and shame for me. I felt that my grades did not reflect my level of knowledge, and I could not figure out why they went up and down, and up and down. A 4.0 one quarter became a 1.0 the next. What was going on? Was I just stupid? I knew that good grades are required to gain admission to the best graduate programs. So, I decided to supplement my roller coaster scores with 3 years of full-time research employment. This would surely tell me (and a graduate admissions committee) if I had what it takes to become a scientist. Meanwhile, my relationship with my family became more and more distant. We had little in common any more, and they viewed me as strange. My mother?s suicide was the final blow to our dwindling connection. After I finally gained admission to a prestigious graduate program, I left them (and their dysfunction) behind me forever.

I won?t tell you where I got my graduate training, because I want to tell you the truth about what really happened to me while I was there. Libel and slander are things one does need to care about these days. I wish I had paid more attention to the warning signs I received during my interviews at this school. Out of the 10 faculty I met that day, two made inappropriate racial remarks and one made an inappropriate sexual advance. I figured this was par for the course. It is a man?s world, right?

I did very well my first year and sailed through my qualifying exams. The doubts I had about my intelligence were finally laid to rest. I could not relate to my classmates, though. They came from privileged backgrounds and did not understand race politics in America. A nearby Indian reservation became an important source of support for me during in those early graduate school years.

For my dissertation research, I chose to study AIDS. After 8 months of working in a lab environment fraught with experimental sabotage and sexual harassment, I left. Wanting to get as far away from AIDS research as I could, I started over in the field of fruit fly genetics. The new lab turned out to be worse than the first. On a daily basis, I was called sexually explicit and derogatory names. I became quite depressed and decided to file a sexual harassment complaint. This marked the end of my research career at this university. I left the fruit fly lab and attempted to find another, but no one would take me. I had become a ?whistleblower,? or in other words, a troublemaker.

I ended up in yet another fruit fly lab, this time studying neural development. The PI was a strange man, prone to dark moods and occasional tirades against his people. The lab atmosphere was tense, and no one was happy. I worked there for 2 years, until I was finally hospitalized for major depression. Soon thereafter, I attempted suicide. Upon my return to the lab, the PI fired me, saying he was tired of looking at my depressed face. I filed a disability discrimination complaint with the Department of Education and won.

A second hospitalization resulted in the diagnosis that would change my life, put my college grades in perspective, and explain the difficult home environment I came from.

I have bipolar disorder, or manic-depression, as did both of my parents.

Frequent manias resulted in high levels of productivity and achievement. Depressions resulted in just the opposite. Now, in my sixth year of graduate school and starting my research all over again, I began a series of medication trials. These made me very sick for 2 years. In the meantime, my department rescinded my office, my mailbox, and my funding. They raised the bar as high as it could possibly go. In order for me to graduate, I was required to complete my doctorate from home, without funding, and without any additional time in the program, regardless of my disability needs. Furthermore, my doctoral committee was denied the autonomy of signing off on my dissertation. My work would have to be specially reviewed by a departmental representative. I?m sure that such treatment is reserved for only the most recalcitrant of whistleblowers. As my father told me back in junior high school, ?Never back down from a bully. They?re all just cowards, anyway. If they want to fight, then you fight ?em, and you better kick their butts!? This is exactly what I did. I graduated.

Soon thereafter, I took a job with the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. I am very happy now, doing science policy at the national level and learning how the big decisions in science are made. When I reflect back on the faculty in my graduate program, I realize they were just little fish in a little pond. I, on the other hand, have become a fearless and tough fighter. And I am afraid of no one.

Dr. Joan Esnayra is a program officer at the National Academy of Sciences. She was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. For further information, please send e-mail to

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