Listener supported W NYC Studios'. Before we start to let you know, there is a moment or two of strong language in the story. Wait, U.S.. Listening to Radiolab radio from WNYC. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. This week, we want to share a story that really caught our attention. It's a story told by this guy.
My name is Brandon Bunu. I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University.
It's a story he told on stage for the podcast Story Collider, which is a live storytelling show. Huge thanks to them for letting us borrow this story that, you know, touches on.
All the things that we're all thinking about right now, takes it into some new territory. Brandon started the story when he told it onstage with an incident that happened to him in college when he's living in D.C.. Rule number one. When you see the lights at your back or in your eyes, and they are unmistakable. Stop moving. Raise your hands slowly from their side. Five fingers extended so that they know that there's nothing in your hands. Stop.
Wait for instructions. You see, you have to think about the police report. You don't want it to say that he lunged or he reached for something that looked like a weapon or the mysterious. He made a menacing gesture. No, officer, I am not carrying any weapons. That's rule number two use officer early and often. Why you have to let them know that, you know, the power dynamic. After all, they got the badge and the gun.
You you were just born with the wrong set of physical traits. Officer number one stood with the gun loaded, pointed towards me. Ready to go? Ready to be a hero. Officer number two approached, are you carrying any drugs? Sir? Sir, I guess I respect that. No, officer. After a third row search and I mean Tauro. The interest turns the concepts of my backpack, a black Jansport that had some bad graffiti on the small pocket.
I was a senior at Howard University, a chemistry and mathematics major at the time. And like most people at that stage, my backpack told a lot about me. They were some moldy potato chips bag. Some sketch pads. No pads, copy a source magazine. Mixed tapes. I mean, real mix tapes, not the stuff that you guys.
And much, much more. Officer number two had to sift through the contents and I heard all roughly. Eventually, Officer two emerged with an objective interest and slandered on the hood of the car and under the flashlight it went. Leiningen Nelson and Cox Principles of Biochemistry, Second Edition. Officer to. Was persistent, however, and raised the book and shook it up, trying to find the contraband. And after two were successful. Down when several no cards.
They were placed in the chapter on McKale Isman Kinetics. Officer number two was persistent still and referred to the contents of the bag and emerged with another card. Another item a little bit smaller, it on the hood of the car. A draft of my senior thesis, highly annotated with the title. The Liberation of RNA.
Now, the story that you tell begins with the sort of, oh, so familiar, pulled over by cops, right.
When was that? By the way, late fall of 2001, that producer saw and Wheeler and I ended up calling up Brandon, asking a few questions about story.
I mean, just to add a little bit of context. This is around the time of the Amadou Diallo case in New York.
It's like a couple of years after that, probably interact MELOR where there has been a part of my license, really? You know, right after your early adolescence. So the liberation of RNA, this thesis they find in your bag.
What what kind of work were you doing at that point?
So I was a chemistry major in math. I studied math a lot. So I was math chemistry. And I had joined Susan Guardsman's lab more on her in a second in college.
She had made this discovery of these RNA molecules that kind of regulated genes. And my work was focused on one of those small RNA molecules, these autonomously functioning RNA molecules that are responsible for switching genes on and off. And that was a pretty new discovery. RNA, we thought RNA was just this information intermediate between DNA and protein. But I think in the 90s, we learn that RNA actually does things in a cell. It can actually function like an enzyme.
It's doing things in a cell. Now, this is kind of common knowledge. But back then, that was a pretty new discovery, that this this stuff is really active and is an important part of the way life functions across the biosphere.
So when you say liberate RNA, you mean let's give RNA its due. That's right. That it's not that it needs to be elevated. Yes. Yes.
We have historically put RNA in a box. But RNA was bigger than that.
And so you describe in your story that RNA was in a box. I wonder, did you see RNA as a kind of what's it what's the not dumb way to ask this as a, like, analogue to your own life?
Well, really, I mean, I think I absolutely use my science, as, you know, I do my science biographically, I mean, in all of my science. Even now, I find a personal connection to the essence of the question, which is why was writing a thesis called The Liberation of RNA?
And as when I wrote about the liberation RNA, there was nothing explicitly political in that it was about RNA, right. It was totally a biochemistry thesis. But nonetheless, I definitely saw that thread that, you know, Susan Geissman and colleagues had discovered this set of molecules that were that were kind of that kind of had expanded our appreciation of what was possible.
And I kind of felt like that was a little bit of a metaphor for my whole life at that point.
And did you feel like I mean, because you identified with RNA and, you know, the orthodoxy is DNA is everything. You are your genes. Did you then have a adversarial relationship to DNA or is that.
No, I didn't have an ad. I didn't have an adversarial relationship with DNA. I still loved DNA. And I think DNA almost got to be for DNA DNA.
But I think the great molecule molecule, a lot of my best friends are DNA. But but I do I from earlier at that point, I was politically where it's scientifically aware. I was aware of things like, for example, like scientific racism. That was definitely something I was aware of. And I was definitely aware of the ways that DNA was weaponized in scientific racism even at that stage.
Yeah. All right. So maybe we should circle back to Susan Gottesman, whose lab you're working in at that point.
I conducted this research in the laboratory of Susan Gottesman at the National Institutes of Health to this day, one of my truest scientific heroes. Both may maybe the nicest and the smartest person I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, let alone working with. She might have stood five foot three, but she towered over the field. Her work used bacterial genetics to understand kind of basic questions in bacterial physiology. And recently she had discovered several small RNA is in bacterial and E.coli.
And I focused a lot of my work on my lab on that. I owed a lot to Dr. Gottesman. She saw talent and me before I did. She believed in me and gave me an opportunity and a lot of the greatness of Dr. Gottesman came out in my failures. I was coming from chemistry where, like, you might have an explosion, but there was no contamination.
Right. And so I had fairly, fairly heavy hands in the laboratory and she would say things like.
You being smart is not going to make a correct bacterial growth curve, Brandon, or even better. Yeah. I think you'll be a good theoretician when the.
But I owe everything to Dr. Gottesman. I was young and naive at the time, but I understood that I was working for somebody very special and I was honored to be connected to her. 15 or so years later. So you jumped forward 15 years. Can you just before we get to that next scene. Connect the dots. Who were who who were you in the interim?
So after leaving Susan's lab, I actually did a Fulbright in Kenya where I studied malaria. You know, I come back. I enter medical school at Yale.
Well, then I switched into a P. D program where I did my page, the virus evolution at Yale. And I haven't looked back. So I may at this point, I'm a professor.
I'm sitting on a sectional couch in front of a 60 inch HDTV forte.
Now, it's January 2019.
I got. I love Tump, not humous, khilafah, wood chips and a local rootbeer.
And I'm tuned in to watch. Of a movie. PBS American Masters Decoding Watson. This documentary was about James Watson. Now, James Watson has been an asshole for decades, right?
Which probably say that James Watson is part of the duo that discovered the double helix structure of DNA. He has made racist comments at several points during his career.
And gotten in trouble for it, and presumably I was tuning in because, you know, this is a good series that decoding the Masters, American Masters have been good and you can learn is always something interesting to learn about people. But really, I confess that I was tuning in kind of like most people tune in when they're watching boxing. You can say what I want to see a massive star. But you want to see a knockout. Right. You get you get you want to see something kind of dramatic happen.
And James Watson delivered. We'll pick up the story right here after the break. It is loopy from Euless, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at w w w Sloan, dawg.
Jab. Radiolab. Back to Brandon and the story he told on stage and also talk to Soren and I about afterwards where we left off with the story of 2019. Brandon was Professor Brown sitting on his couch watching a documentary about James Watson, the guy who is sometimes given credit as co discovering the double helix structure of DNA. One of the biggest discoveries in the history of science as he was watching, Brennan was expecting James Watson, as he is want to do, to say some outrageous things.
And James Watson delivered.
Doubling down on his 2007 comments. Where he said, though I hope people are equal, people who have to deal with black employees don't believe this to be true. He had further things to say about black people and white people differences. He attributed to genetics. My visible demeanor oscillated between kind of horrified, shuddering and kind of uncomfortable last. But inside, I was already. So I had been keeping up with James watching through the years, just because I had read all the stuff, I had read biography.
I knew a lot about him. I think what was jarring about that experience for me was everything else I had read that he said I had actually never seen him say any of these troubling things before I was. We really made my skin crawl. And in the end, it became personal. In an odd way when I heard him say it.
Interestingly enough, however, those comments were not the most. Notable part of that documentary film, what I noticed was several notable female women scientists. Right. We're in the filming and had passed through. Right. His lab at various points, we're talking about famous people. And I was like, wow, this is very interesting, given Watson's very similarly problematic past when it comes to gender. So I said that doesn't quite fit my narrative. That's pretty interesting.
And to his credit, none of the women scientists said that working for him that the environment was particularly toxic. They kind of had interesting things about, say, about his personality. But I found that to be very, very interesting.
So then the question emerged in my head. I wonder. How many other famous women scientists worked for James Watson? I took my inquiry to Google. James Watson, academic family tree. Now, you know, they are right. There are Web sites dedicated to being attract a genealogy academically the same way you do with your family. And there's a site, academic family tree dot org.
I believe I click on it at the top of the page. One of those classical James Watson photos with the insufferable smile and the bad headline.
My eyes went down the page and it said children. And the first name in the children's section. Susan Gottesman, research assistant. Now, my response was in my mother tongue, a highly technical language.
Get the fuck out of here. Away can't be true. But it was Joe.
There was no section that read grandchildren, because if there was and there was no section because his grandchildren likely number in the thousands at this point, but if there was, one of them would have been an evolutionary system's biologist, Brown University.
Who likes long walks in the park in open world video games?
Whose mother experienced the Jim Crow South and whose great grandmother was born a slave. When you when you saw that you're only one person away from him, what did you how did that compute?
Well, a couple of things he said. He said these racist things. I bet he didn't think, you know, kids from public housing. We're going to end up being his, you know, being in his pedigree. When you have the views that I have and who promote the things that I promote in science and who say the things that I say and hold my views, here I am eating my olive tamponade, hummus on my comfortable couch, watching my nice television.
And I'm James was his grandson. And he can't do none about it. And I got my home and I got a whole career in front of me where I'm going to make it. I'm going to embarrass those kind of ideas. And so it did it cause a lot of reflection.
But what are academic connections anyway, really like? I don't know him. I hope I never known the connection is kind of nebulous and tenuous in these types of ways that kind of don't matter. Right.
But the connection between me and James Watson is about more than the profession and the connection between all of us. And James Watson is about more than science. James Watson was offices number one and number two. James Watson is why you feel unwelcome in your job. James Watson makes you feel like an imposter. And more broadly, James Watson tells people they're illegal. James Watson separates families. James Watson puts children in cages. James Watson, my academic grandfather.
The contents of my backpack were spread all over the police car at this point. I heard the police car at this point. Officer number one and number two looked at each other with a look like, what the hell do we do now? Eventually, officer number one said, you can do two things and go. Now, this was supposed to be humiliating. He I am minding my business and I have to stop and put all my things back into the bag.
But sometimes resistance is best dealt quietly. And so I figured out a way to make this work. Me. I'd took my sweet ass time. Gotten my materials back into that bag. One by one. And with it, I was saying two things. A bomb has your bag on them. Guns could help me put these things back in this bag. And be the things I'm putting in this bag. The idea ideas, they contain some mind, some mothers.
Are valuable. I have people in the world who love me. I have dreams of one day being a great professor. And I had to be at work in the morning in the Goffman lab. As I was completing the process of putting things in my bag, I looked at the last item that this is the liberation of our name. And I put it in the bag and zipped it. I didn't miss the opportunity for one last slam dunk. I turned my head to the officers, said, have a good night.
I slung the Jansport around my shoulders. I eased into a deep New York strong. On a road. To a career in science. A very rugged fitness landscape full of peaks and valleys, successes and failures. Friends and enemies. Susan Guardsman's and James Watson's.
Have you ever talked to Susan Gotterson about this and said, hey, I saw on this Web site, what was that? I told you Vertebrate broached it with her. So unfortunately, I haven't. But I think I think you might be interested to hear why some ways in some ways that would be making an assumption that he's, like, significant to her. Right. Like, she's built this life and career, that image. I mean, I don't know him personally, but I read alive his work.
I mean, she's smarter than he is. All right. I mean, no, I think that I I'm confident saying that, you know, in terms of obviously that the size of his discoveries are gigantic and enormous. But, you know, I'm saying. But the you know, the work, the cleverness and the way she's understand it understands nature in which he's done. And always multiple ways, I think is more impressive. Its symbolism kind of like as it's like maybe finding some way.
Yeah. Like, it's almost like the fact that she worked for or with him anymore or in some way.
Right. That was like the most in like an impressive thing of her career.
It's just not it's just not at all. And that's why she didn't report to me. So I wonder why she didn't mention it. He didn't mention it cause it didn't matter.
I'm tempted to make a connection between that decision not to talk to her about him. And you slowly putting the papers back in your bag. Do you see a connection there? I mean, I think I think I think, you know, I mean, I you know, I thought that's not a connection that I actively made at the time. But I think it it's. It's a theme with how resistance works. And when you are dealing with something and comfortable with life and this is this transcends the black experiences, when you're dealing with something uncomfortable like that, you can't do anything about and you can't do anything about who your family is or academic or other.
And in this situation, I can't do anything about the fact that I have been right. I've been stopped and I'm dealing with this racial profiling incident. You look for little ways. And I think you're right. I think in not having a coffee conversation about him in a weird way, like I honored her more. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing or the most subversive thing you can do is just focus on the right things in life. That's sometimes really, really hard.
And I think this goes back to something that Tony Moore or Toni Morrison, one of her many myriad of incredible quotes, talked about the function of racism is to distract you, right? That's really what it does. I mean, it just it just kind of like it takes your eye off of it makes you do things that you shouldn't be doing. You you want to prove people wrong. You want to prove you have a language when to prove that you're smart and you do.
And. Right. It's so that's such it's so chillingly, you know, true that sometimes the most powerful thing you can just do is to be like, you know, be aware of what the situation is, but not give it that power over you and the things that matter most. Huge, huge thanks to Brandon Bunu for sharing his story with us. And with Story Collider, his story was recorded last June as part of a story collider show at the 2019 evolution meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.
Story Collector, a nonprofit group that puts on live storytelling events and also puts out a podcast. Thank you. Two story collectors, Aaron Barker and Liz Neily for letting us play Brandon's story. You can find out more about Story Claitor at Story Claitor Dawg, and you can subscribe to their podcast through Apple or wherever you get your podcast from. In this moment, we're thinking a lot about who we are listening to and we're very proud to have some shows made by our colleagues at WNYC Studios that are having the kind of conversations we all need right now.
So we'd encourage you to check out shows like Come Through with Rebecca Carroll and United States of Anxiety can find out more about those shows on our Web site, Radiolab Dawg or WNYC Studios dot org. Or, of course, you can download them from Apple or Google Play or wherever you get your podcast from. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.
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