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Joan Esnayra

Joan Esnayra, PhD

Growing up in a home filled with alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental illness, I can identify with the organisms called extremophiles that live in harsh environments like Antarctica or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. I am truly a survivor of extreme conditions.I grew up in a small town near Olympia, Washington. Home was always a violent and unpredictable place, so school became my safe haven and I excelled in my studies. I participated in student government, wrote for the school newspaper, participated in the speech and debate club, and played all kinds of sports. I also had the unique opportunity of sailing around the world in a small boat, with my father. He was not a rich man, but he was creative. For three to five months a year, for seven years, we sailed to exotic ports around the world. At the end of each summer, we anchored the boat in a foreign harbor, flew home on military planes, and I returned to school. The following year, we picked up the boat and continued our journey around the world. Over the years, we sailed to Hawaii, Tahiti, American Samoa, Australia, Israel, Algeria and Gibraltar. Sailing the world inspired me to become an ocean scientist like Jacques Cousteau.
Even though I wanted to be a scientist, or possibly a medical doctor, I started at the University of Washington in Seattle and decided to major in Philosophy. I discovered Philosophy in the dark and dusty stacks of the library, where I started reading Plato and Socrates. When I began college I asked my professors how I could balance my love of philosophy with my passion for science. They recommended that I pursue my zest for philosophy while taking the minimum pre-medical school requirements. They said that once I started studying science at advanced levels, it would be hard to find time for anything else.
When I entered graduate school in biology at the University of California, San Diego I found out how right those professors had been. Graduate school was rigorous and demanding. It was also the first place I encountered discrimination for being a disabled Native American woman. Because of this discrimination, I began to doubt my abilities and myself. I felt insecure and unintelligent. Feelings of self-doubt were complicated by increasing feelings of depression, a dark and ever-present stranger that walked with me most of the time. Ironically, the many challenges of racism, sexual harassment, disability discrimination and mental illness (bipolar disorder), helped me to cultivate a sense of strength and self-worth.
Without knowing why, I kept finding myself in the role of victim. Bad things happened to me, but because of the trauma and abuse of my childhood, I was unable to defend myself. Over time, I learned to fight the discrimination I faced in graduate school. I learned to say proudly, “I am a disabled, Yaqui, two-spirit woman scientist. I am also a survivor.” I came to understand that I am strong and that I deserve to be treated with respect. I learned to take back the power that was taken from me at a very young age.
Part of regaining my power was in the diagnosis and treatment of my mental illness. I have a service dog named Wasabe, and he has facilitated much of my healing. In case you don’t know, a service dog is trained to help people with disabilities. There are physical disabilities like blindness and hearing loss, and psychiatric disabilities like depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder. Wasabe is able to sense when I need to take medication and he helps me when I feel depressed by being my constant and loving companion.
Through many years of education and personal healing, I earned my Ph.D. in Biology in 1999, nine years after I originally entered graduate school. In graduate school I studied genetics and my research was about how to create rules or policies for the development of new drugs. After graduate school, I started working as a program officer at the National Academies of Science (NAS) in Washington D.C. At NAS, I manage committees of scientists and scholars who advise the American government on matters of science and technology policy. I use my degree in philosophy as well, because I am interested in not only science, but also how we apply it to our lives, and the impact it has on our society and culture.
I am excited by the work that I do at NAS, and I know that it is working hard at school that got me here. My education has completely changed my life in a very positive way. It has broadened my world-view and allowed me to celebrate human diversity. It has taught me that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.