My first PI (the “Principal Investigator” is the “Big Boss” of research laboratories, in charge of all research direction of everyone else in their lab) was Dr. Bruce D. Hammock, PhD at UC Davis. Shortly after meeting me, he suggested I read the book “Breaking Trail” by Dr. Arlene Blum, PhD because he thought “I’d have a lot in common with her.”
It took me almost a decade and my entire PhD later before I made my first big climb – Mt. Webster and Mt. Jackson up in NH. Everything clicked and my wife and I have spent as much time as possible backpacking and hiking our way through the 48. We’re about halfway through now and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking back to “Breaking Trail”, thinking back to the parallels between myself and an iconic, inspiring scientist, activist, and mountaineer.
"Arlene . . . that child will amount to no good . . .Tears begin to blur my eyes. I curl up on the ground, hug my knees, and shake with silent sobs. I hate my aunts words. I hate my aunt. I hate myself."
- Breaking Trail, Arlene Blum
I almost stopped reading the book right then. It was too close to home. I think the only reason I continued onwards was the promise of a happy ending. I already knew that the sad, crying little girl would transform into the powerful scientist whose research in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley lead to safer regulations on children’s clothing, the activist who would co-found the Green Science Policy Institute, and the mountaineer who would lead the first successful American ascent (all women) of Annapurna.
When she was rejected for being a woman and told she didn’t have a place on a mountaineering team, she proved them wrong (and she did it with an all female team). I’ve been focused on channeling this energy with my current dilemma of coming out as non-binary professionally.
Coming out (again) is what spurred this rediscovery of Dr. Blum, because I liken it to summiting a mountain. It’s an exhausting uphill battle for what seems to be unending miles and when you reach the summit, there’s a temporary reprieve of ineffable beauty. But then you must come down.
The reality of my current situation sometimes scares me. I never thought I’d be in this position. When I first read of Dr. Blum, I didn’t think I would survive to pass “the 27 club” let alone have aspirations to parallel hers. And it’s all the little reasons why I have made this beautiful life doable that fuels these aspirations.
I never thought I would make it and I want to help others surprise themselves. I want to be a part of the change, because I do believe that there is a better way to go about our health and wellness. I believe it’s deeper than biochemical, it’s spiritual. And I believe if I share the things I’ve learned, others usually agree. So I do aspire to be a scientist, an activist, and, yes, a mountaineer.
But above all else, I aspire towards her mindset. She didn’t accomplish those ridiculously lofty goals to “be someone,” she did it because it was the only thing that made sense to her. It was her purpose and it drove her further and harder than any external factors.
My purpose is never clearer to me than when I’m at the summit. This journey is my attempt to honor and prioritize it.