When I saw the black bear emerge from the trees, I knew I shouldn’t turn around and flee. So I held my ground in spite of my fear. It was a moment I’d been dreading for months. I’d been hired as an undergraduate field assistant to do geology work in an area with healthy populations of bears and cougars. I went into the summer not wanting to be alone in the field, fearing I’d encounter a potentially deadly animal. But bears and cougars turned out to be the least of my problems. I spent 6 weeks working alongside a male colleague who constantly belittled my abilities, leaving me mentally exhausted and questioning whether I belonged in the field. My encounter with the bear, in contrast, turned out to be empowering.
Once we were in the field, the other student never missed an opportunity to play the game of one-upmanship. He argued with me constantly. No matter what I said, he voiced an opposite position. The more it happened, the quieter I became. After a few weeks of misery, I could see that my supervisor was starting to have doubts about me, mistaking my silence for incompetence. Sensing his disappointment in me, I began to believe I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist.
Although I felt deeply uncomfortable with our team dynamics, I didn’t want to work alone. We were in a remote area with rugged terrain, and I worried one of us might get injured and need help. I was also uneasy about encountering the locals alone. One man we had crossed paths with earlier in the summer had muttered something about seeing a woman and joked that he thought my rock hammer was a weapon.
I realized that if a wild animal feared me, I wasn’t powerless after all.
But when our supervisor left a few weeks early, the other student suggested we split up to cover more ground. I protested, telling him I was uncomfortable working alone. But he countered that I was paranoid. I felt I had no choice but to agree.
A week later, I spotted the bear. At first I was terrified. But when it quickly ran away, simply because I was standing there, my feelings started to change. I realized that if a wild animal feared me, I wasn’t powerless after all. I went back to camp with the confidence I needed to stand up to the real threat I faced that summer: the other student.
That evening, after he criticized the way I was setting up the camp table for dinner, I threw the table legs down and told him how disgusted I was with how he’d treated me. He didn’t apologize, but I felt better after getting it off my chest. I realized that in the future I need to address problems head-on rather than internalizing them and letting them affect my self-confidence.
I am now in grad school, thanks in part to a supportive female mentor. I haven’t faced any other dangerous beasts, but I assume I will someday. And the next time I do confront a bear, cougar, or menacing colleague, I won’t turn around and run.