by Bridget Salzameda, PhD
Dean, Natural Sciences, Fullerton College
From the ground, a family sees my body clinging to the side of a mountain, about two-thirds of the way to the top. My arms are feeling weak as I grip two rocks wedged into the caked dirt. Thankfully my legs are firmly planted on two more wedged rocks. But I’m worried about my newly painted, bright red nails. OMG! What’s wrong with me? Focus, Bridget. How did I get here, and what’s my plan now?
I was forty-three years old and free solo climbing a mountain—really a shallow hill—with my climbing partner just a few feet across from me. I looked over, and he was gone. I looked down. He wasn’t there. I called for him and heard no response. I assumed he was around the curve. He was, and climbed back down. I thought about returning to the bottom but badly wanted to reach the top because I was so close. I was tired, my arms were weakening, and I convinced myself to finish because I had witnessed a ten-year-old climb to the top an hour earlier. This made the task possible. If I hadn’t seen it, I might not have continued. Civil and children’s rights activist Marian Edelman’s words bombarded my mind: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I made it to the top. I was out of breath, but content. Now I understood those words.
The first time I fell in love I was about eleven years old. I fell in love with my at-home chemistry kit. I was enamored by the brightly colored solutions evolving into different-looking substances in a thin, delicate test tube. My parents, who emigrated from Sri Lanka, gave me this toy, not realizing that it would help guide the trajectory of my career from student to chemistry professor to dean of natural sciences.
My wonder grew in my high school chemistry class in Mission Viejo, California. I was mesmerized by chemical reactions and reliable math problems and solutions. As a chemistry major at the University of San Diego, my uncomfortably direct academic advisor, Dr. Pat Traylor, called me into her office and told me I must get a PhD in chemistry. I had no idea what a PhD was, but I was certain I would get one, because Dr. Traylor said I must. It was an important lesson in believing in others so they may believe in themselves. I worked hard in college and was accepted into several PhD programs, but I chose to earn my degree in biochemistry, not chemistry. Perhaps it was the rebel in me.
In graduate school, I met my muse. Dr. Christine Cremo, Department of Pharmacology, was my research advisor and a professor at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. She possessed the most important qualities that I wanted—the ability to produce and expect high-quality work, set high standards for herself and others, and demand rigor and intelligence in her research laboratory. She was organized, analytical, and direct. I was productive in the laboratory and blossomed as a research scientist, authoring scientific publications and making new discoveries to advance science. I earned my PhD and obtained the title of mother along the way. Others believed I would continue my research career and lead my own lab, but I had an internal calling to follow another path—to teach college chemistry (which I did for close to fifteen years).
Most would assume that the biggest challenge of being a mother and a professor is balancing work and family life. This is far from the truth. I have marvelous children, a supportive spouse, intelligent colleagues, and strong friendships. All of these, combined with efficient planning, allowed me to feel present in all I did at work and at home. This combination of skills, passion, and support is reflected in my most recent recognitions, receiving an Inspirational Professor Award and being a finalist for the Faculty of the Year award at our college.
But new challenges faced me in the last five years. Because my children were older, I took on more responsibilities at work, and as an administrator, I had time to pay attention. I was less naïve and less immune to blunt racism and microaggressions. I noticed my colleagues and friends experiencing it daily and began recognizing it from my past interactions. I am wholeheartedly thankful that I was naïve for my own emotional and mental protection—I had the luxury of focusing on science, not realizing there was anything standing in my way. As I work with students who are more aware of these topics, I am learning about the difficulties that underrepresented minorities experience. It’s challenging to navigate my leadership role to ensure that all colleagues and students feel seen and heard. I understand the importance of surrounding myself with people who think differently so I can maintain a balanced perspective.
Representation is also important. All people deserve to see themselves in all areas of success, and science is no different. The outcome of my climb might have been different if I hadn’t seen that ten-year-old completing it. This textbook will reach you differently because it incorporates lessons from a group of diverse scientists. The author followed his inner voice—probably the rebel in him—to thoughtfully communicate with students. It’s not a boring textbook. It’s fun, magical, and will allow you to learn and grow. You may find yourself smiling and smirking while reading this book, all while growing intellectually. Have fun falling in love!