It was over lunch talking about the central idea of this project, making portraits and telling stories about inspiring women, that I found out that Vicki knows Gordon Moore. Gordon was Vicki’s boss during her time as the Chief Program Officer of Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. I still wonder what the expression on my face must have looked like when, after asking her about who Gordon and Betty Moore are, what the foundation does, I put it together. There we are, at a two-top, in the Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco in the early afternoon, and she’s casually answering my question explaining how, in addition to being her boss, Gordon co-founded Intel, was part of “The Traitorous Eight,” and it’s hitting me that she’s talking about that Moore. As in Moore’s Law. So, chances are, you know Gordon Moore too. I share that because one of the topics we discussed over lunch was the concept of how successful people get to be successful because other people helped them. In an era where women are still discriminated against in America (which is absurd in the face of both common sense and decades of bludgeoning the ignorant with proof that women are every bit if not more capable than men) it doesn’t negate the very significant role men can play in removing the barriers that their gender helped erect in the first place. Or tried to, anyway, which brings me to a small, but crucial detail, about a college counselor that gives a specific shape to Vicki’s success.
Vicki wasn’t an obvious candidate for the role of a successful research scientist, one that would be appointed to The National Science Board for a six-year term by President Obama, that would be elected to The National Academy of Sciences. She came to science, and to the field of genetics, by way of an interest in scuba diving. It was her time under water where she developed a fascination for sea life, which led to an interest in marine biology. She also wasn’t an obvious candidate for college. By the time she applied to Foothills Junior College she was a single mother and, in case you aren’t sure about the statistics regarding the academic success of single mothers attending college, they’re not good. An article put out by The Atlantic in 2014 references the work of The Institute For Women’s Policy Research as showing that the demographic with the highest dropout rate is parents with dependent children. That’s not focused on single parents. And it’s not focused on single mothers trying to attend college in the 70s that were married with one child at 17 and divorced at 19 with two while working as a secretary. It also doesn’t focus on the counselor at the junior college that tried to scare her off from pursuing a degree in science (you know, because of all those science classes she’d need to take). Add all of that up and what you end up with are a lot of reasons to see Vicki Chandler as a blistering argument in favor of supporting young women that are interested in science and some insight into the persistent gap between STEM-related careers for women and men.
We first met on a shoot for The Minerva Project in the spring of 2014, where Vicki has since become the Dean of The College of Natural Sciences. The Minerva Project is the brainchild of a man named Ben Nelson, and an audacious experiment in the field of secondary education to “reinvent the university experience.” It’s worth reading about if you’re interested in the future of education. My job was simple- I was to come in and make a portrait of Vicki in the same style of a pre-existing group of images. Pretty straightforward. The week before the shoot I took some time to study up on the subject, a woman that they refer to on their site “as one of the foremost geneticists in the world.” I’m not quite sure what I read first about Vicki, but it was immediately evident that she had an impressive background.
I’d never heard of epigenetics and so I looked up some of her research and waded into it. My academic education is the product of a school known for its science programs. Somehow I managed to avoid all of them. I’m not proud of that. What I did end up with, though, was a strong and lasting curiosity for those that work in the sciences, and a decently developed ability to read and think critically. Essentially, epigenetics is the study of how cells behave as a result of gene expression as opposed to genetic alteration. In layman’s terms, our bodies, and what’s going on inside of them, are a combination of your DNA and environmental influences. Turns out that the environmental influences (like sun, or diet) affect molecules that tell your cells which genes to turn on, or off, which is called expression. Epigenetics (epi - Greek for over, outer, above) refers to how genetics function where DNA remains unaltered. DNA was long-thought to be the constitution of your system. It set all the rules and so long as you didn’t alter it, say, with radiation, it called the shots for everything from the color of our hair to how quickly we sunburn. Until recently there was no messing with DNA because it was a sure-fire way to ruin a human being. This is what makes radiation poisoning so vicious and awful. While the possibility of editing an individual genome might be changing with the advent of something called CRISPR/Cas9, epigenetics looks at how your genetic code remains intact while genes get flipped on and off, like switches. Vicki studies this process in maize, but it applies in human beings. Also, it’s important to note here that an understanding of maize, how it functions, how it evolves, as a staple crop responsible for feeding a massive chunk of the earth’s population, is critical to avoiding mass starvation. Not so minor a thing.
Let’s say you go on a diet. And eventually you give up the diet. Didn’t work out. What you didn’t realize is that the diet flipped a bunch of those switches that remained switched even when the diet stopped. The rules are all still written down but now some are being enforced and others are not. Your short-term diet might not have permanently kept the weight off, but it permanently changed the way your body metabolizes food. And that’s where it gets truly crazy. Turns out that your diet didn’t just permanently change how your body turns food into energy. It’s also going to change how your grandchildren digest food. In other words, maybe you went through a period as a kid where you were starved, literally, of food, or metaphorically, of affection. Two generations later your granddaughter is now experiencing the repercussions of that, physically. In other words, your grandmother’s diet as a child is making it hard for you to keep off the weight. Much like the constitution, the rules, it seems, are a matter of interpretation, and the interpretation in one life can fundamentally alter the course of the next.
Maybe none of that makes sense. That wouldn’t be surprising. This is a relatively small field of study and also relatively very new. We don’t know much about it because not a lot of people have studied it. And that’s important, I think, when you’re considering someone like Vicki, who didn’t just defy the odds to get an education, but also defied the odds in becoming a leader in a field that is changing our basic understanding of how life functions.
Eventually, she would transfer from Foothills to Berkeley and it was there that things really took off. A scholarship helped. A new marriage. An unflappable curiosity and commitment that would lead to a Ph.D. from The University of California at San Francisco and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford. Not too shabby for a woman that a small-minded counselor tried to intimidate into thinking wouldn’t be able to handle entry-level science courses. Imagine, if that counselor had succeeded in convincing her, even if his heart was pure and his motives were good, that she wasn’t capable. Imagine that. Now imagine the young woman who wants an education, who’s wandered into an administrative office of a community college, and is hearing that right now amidst the bureaucratic din, and just walked out because someone told her it was going to be hard, and what she heard was too hard for me. Not so hard to imagine, right?
Where talking about her work is concerned, Vicki exudes confidence, and has good reason for it. And, like many of the other women I’ve met during this project, she’s not boastful. To put a finer point on it, she talks about her work with a kind of typicality that I find both astounding and refreshing. What stands out, every time she and I have met for coffee, or lunch, or while discussing her background for this project, is how easily she normalizes an exceptional amount of accomplishment. It’s only through listening to her talk about her path that I can make sense of how she was able to achieve so much, which is to say, it’s something like putting one foot in front of another. Vicki didn’t start off knowing or hoping that she would end up being a nationally recognized geneticist. She had a child. She graduated high school. She had another child. She got a job as a secretary. She took care of her children. She had an interest. She applied to college. She was told it would be really hard. She took the class (chemistry) that she was told would be the hardest, first. She disagrees that it’s the hardest. Sure, it was hard work. There were failures, which are endemic to and necessary in scientific inquiry. Exciting breakthroughs that turned out to be artifacts in the data. She’s not saying it was easy. She just doesn’t dwell on talking about the challenges. There’s no question Vicki had help and she talks about that in interviews, too. A supportive network of other mothers also attending college for the first time alongside her. Her parents. Her colleagues. Gordon. But there’s something that stands out amidst all of that. Vicki believed in herself.
On paper it’s easy to assume what makes a person compelling. Their resumes will show you everything they’ve done but it won’t show you the grit, and determination, that it took to get it done. I find this underlying theme of this project intriguing. The only way of knowing what it took someone to arrive at whatever current station they find themselves in life is anecdotal. Sure, their partners, personal, professional, these people might have a good sense of what it took because of how it affected them. Their peers might understand the long days, the hard nights, the crushing failures, but they’ll only understand them through the lens of their own experience. Only you know what it took you to get to where you are. In this way, every person is an island, and humanity is the ocean.
This isn’t meant to wax philosophical, it’s the realization that comes through interviewing people, through looking at them and trying to capture something that attempts to reveal something about who they are, and who they’ve been, and how they’ve arrived at this point in their lives. What I know about Vicki the geneticist, and how I experience sitting with her as a person are two very different things. We walk down the street talking about her family. About the cabin in the mountains. About her hope that her knee will recover from surgery so that she can ski again. She really wants to ski again. About splitting her time between living in San Francisco and Arizona, where her husband has relocated to their home in the foothills, and where she teaches. I’ll never work with Vicki as the geneticist, but it’s her work in genetics, and my work as a photographer, that brought us together. That’s what this project is about- using my photography to find women that inspire me and trying to understand how they became inspiring people. In this way, I’ll better understand myself. Hopefully, in doing this, I’ll give others a chance, young people especially, to feel inspired too, and to consider what they can achieve if they set out to do the hard work of making their lives about being purposeful, and curious, and determined.
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