101 Days, 101 Strangers, 101 Stories: Day 90

This morning, I met for coffee and conversation with Sylvia.

I was welcomed to her table with a big smile, her laptop and papers spread out. She had gotten there early, as she was working on putting a lecture together. She’s an adjunct professor at UBC’s department of population and public health — among, I soon learned, many other things.

Sylvia has many  university degrees and achievements under her belt but before I tell you about those, I just have to say that she is lovely beyond belief. She is so down to Earth and genuinely happy that it radiates outward from her core. She loves adventures and traveling, hiking, NPR, and community. She once had a pet rabbit named Mr. Buns who she would take outside for walks. She enjoys meditation. She also loves to learn and is passionate about environmental and health issues.

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She grew up in Alabama, a first generation American, wishing from the start that she would get to live somewhere a little higher up, a little further west. Something she loved about her small town, though, was the friendliness she was surrounded by. People always greeted each other, strangers and all. She commented on how this isn’t how things generally are in big cities like Vancouver.

When she worked in energy policy and governance in Washington D.C., she was excited to finally be out of the South. But she learned quickly that people still consider D.C .to be a part of the South. She was so close yet so far away. Sylvia described living in D.C. as “transitory” – it never quite felt like home. Most people were working in government jobs and it had a very diplomatic vibe.

Sylvia just started a new job here in Vancouver working as the manager of drinking water safety at the First Nations Health Authority. It’s an area about which she’s passionate and knowledgeable, but beyond that, it’s a job that feels right. She described how the work that she does is very aligned with her beliefs. She learns a bit each day about the balance between sharing her expertise and learning from the advice and experiences of those around her.

Before this, Sylvia first pursued a degree in chemical engineering in the US, followed by a masters in environmental engineering at Stanford. Later, she decided to pursue a PhD in public health in London. She has spent many years working and consulting as an environmental health scientist and an environmental engineer. She’s deeply interested in the environmental determinants of health —  from chemical contaminants in the air to the effects of the spaces and places by which we surround ourselves.

She talked about how climate change and environmental issues are really at the forefront these days, but how, perhaps conflictingly, people are generally selfish — interested primarily in how they as individuals will be affected by the damage. And this is fair. It’s even innate. Sylvia explained how the field of environmental health merges at just the right intersection. It helps us understand the very real ways in which changes to our climate affect our health on a personal level and thus as a society, too.

I asked Sylvia about her experience being a scientist, especially in relation to her gender. She paused and explained that back when she was studying engineering, she was one of the only female students in her classes. This was at times challenging but never too discouraging for her. But she does recall certain job opportunities and interviews that were quite directed by her gender. One interviewer even said to her, “well, you’re nice to look at, aren’t you?” The gender imbalance is prevalent but she’s very happy being a woman in science and would recommend other women and girls to follow their hearts into science if that’s where it’s leading them.

We talked about society’s inclination toward “experts” — people who know a lot about a little. But where does this leave those who know a little about a lot? Sylvia describes herself as a “generalist”, or someone who’s knowledgeable about many different things. She doesn’t see it as a bad thing, though. She explained, almost poetically, the way in which being a generalist is a fundamental part of who she is. To put herself inside a box and one box only would be against who she is as a person. “And we need generalists”, she said. Being able to bring many different lenses to the work that you do, she explained, is so valuable. I found this reassuring as I’ve always considered myself to be more of a “jack of all trades” than a master of one. And I’ve been passively hard on myself about it even though, when I really think about it, the diversity of my interests is what makes me who I am. It was really refreshing to chat with Sylvia about this and to realize that generalists are important too, and can be experts in their own ways.

Between jobs and degrees, Sylvia has traveled to many, many places — from Asia, to Europe, to Africa. She spent quite a while in India, where she immersed herself in the culture and character of the land and the people. Sometimes, she would travel without plans which was, she explained, exciting but at times a little scary. There were some close calls, during which she was unsure of where she would sleep. She told me a story about one of these instances.

Sylvia was traveling through India during one of the big holidays without realizing it. As a result, all of the hostels and guest houses had been booked, and she was left searching frantically for a place to stay. Then, a family that was living in a small room offered her their hallway, taking the time and effort to set up a sleeping space for her. These people had barely any space to begin with, and yet they were so willing to share. Sylvia, teary eyed at this point, recalled her vivid memories of the family’s children even giving her peacock feathers they’d collected as a gift. She is still so profoundly moved by their generosity, trusting nature, and selflessness.

While in India, she also practiced some Vipassana meditation — meditating without speaking for ten whole days. Sylvia, a talkative and social individual, found this to be challenging yet clarifying. But, she admits, she would always volunteer to serve food and help out so that she could have some kind of human contact. She was very consciously aware of its absence during this time and learned about just how important it is to her.

Sylvia also spent a year in Uganda during her PhD researching water access in rural areas. The work was valuable, and she learned a lot, but it was a challenging experience for her, in the sense that the closer she became to the communities, the further she would realize she still remained, in the fundamental language and cultural and perspective barriers that were very much present.

Between it all, she’s spent quite a few years traveling, sometimes with company and other times alone. She’s experienced different relationships, their beginnings and their endings, and living and working in the different parts of the world she’s been drawn to, from Atlanta to the Netherlands.

Her advice? She recalled a Helen Keller quote that speaks to her, mentioning with subtle pride that Keller is from Alabama, too. It goes like this: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”

Sylvia was so captivating in her warmth and candor. I didn’t want to miss a second of what she was saying, to the point where I struggled to drink the chocolate latté in front of me, even though I had been craving chocolate for over a week, because the mug distracted me when I sipped and I knew I’d be missing something she’d said. The cold coffee I was left with was well worth it.

I’m impressed by what she does but I’m even more inspired by who she is. It was an absolute pleasure learning about her story today.

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