NOTE: This post describes events prior to the coronavirus epidemic.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – It is snowing again, and I turn to look through the bus window as it slowly pulls into the final stop. I hide my face in my scarf, hoping to stop the cold air sneaking in. It has been almost six years since I moved to the Midwest from Taiwan, but I still cannot deal with winter and snow. Once off the bus, I follow footprints to the Wildlife Veterinary Epidemiology Laboratory and push open the glass door.
In the office, undergraduate students Kelsey Martin and Kaylie Dyer are working on the master inventory with graduate research assistant Evan London. In the back room, undergraduates Jake Putty and Spencer Stirewalt are looking through the freezers for a new bag of samples to process. Undergraduate students Roshni Mathur, Shannon Callahan and Rachel Lupas are standing around the lab bench handling deer fetuses for our vertical-transmission project. We’re are in the laboratory of Illinois Natural History Survey principal veterinary epidemiologist Dr. Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, using a technique she taught us.
As I put on my lab coat, I watch them work and I think about how different we are, and yet how well we blend into a dynamic team. Our diversity is not just about skin color and cultural background. As our other mentor, animal sciences professor Jan Novakofski, once said, our lab works like a wolf pack: We each have our individual strengths and roles, and we work together to maximize each person’s productivity and potential, contributing to the group’s overall success. Our differences – in character, age and experience – blend to create an unexpected chemistry.
I join my colleagues for sample processing. We talk about life and schoolwork, but inevitably come back to the subject of food. Together, we are exploring world cuisine. Yesterday, we debated what is considered traditional American food. This quickly transitioned into a Barbecue 101 lecture by Jake.
I mention the Chinese hot pot on campus that I’ve been craving for a while. I find it amusing to watch the others’ expressions when I tell them about unusual food combinations – similar to my reaction when I first heard about fried pickles. During the discussion, Roshni chimes in, sharing her own experiences with spicy food in an Indian family.
Suddenly, I have an idea. “Maybe all of us can explore Asian food together?”
It is now 5:20 p.m. and we are sitting around a long table inside a small Korean restaurant on campus. I’m shocked that the entire lab came with me to try Korean food. It is pouring rain outside, but the restaurant is dry and warm. Now that we have successfully overwhelmed the shop owner with 10 orders at once, there is a warm and fuzzy feeling inside my heart as I look around the table.
For once, my background is not a gauge of my worthiness or an obstacle to communication but an amalgamation of experiences and culture that I can share with my colleagues. These are people who accept me as I am, patiently sharing their experiences and guiding me through my own. I am so grateful that they are willing to try new things and step out of their own comfort zones to learn about me. This evening will forever have a special place in my memory.
The sun has set and we are all stuffed and sleepy after this adventurous dinner. Roshni points at the Indian restaurant next door, suggesting that we visit there the next time we go out for dinner.
Today is an ordinary day, but it’s filled with heartwarming lessons. Our differences don’t make us feel distant from one another. Instead they help us grow closer together and become stronger every day. The connection we’re building will not end with a sunset but will continue to support us through difficult times.
I am learning that the way to demolish misunderstandings and stigma is to accept that we each are unique. By learning from our differences and embracing new experiences, we can build a powerful team.
*Yi-Ying Tung is a James Scholar. She and her colleagues are involved in a project, led by INHS principal veterinary epidemiologist Nohra Mateus-Pinilla, that explores the transmission of chronic wasting disease from white-tailed deer to their offspring. The researchers test samples from deer harvested by Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists and hunters in Illinois. This post describes events prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The INHS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the U. of I.
Kaylie Dyer, Kelsey Martin, Evan London, Roshni Mathur and Spencer Stirewalt were undergraduate students in the department of animal sciences at the time these events occurred (winter 2019). London is also affiliated with the INHS. Jake Putty and Shannon Callahan were undergraduates in natural resources and environmental sciences. Rachel Lupas is in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Dyer, Martin, Mathur, Putty and Callahan have since graduated.
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