Breakfast with An Unexpected Hero

I am hung over. It’s 8:30am and I stayed out way too late last night. However, I have more than the obvious alcohol-laced regret pounding through my head. Brooke Borel, my soon-to-be coffee guest, wrote a book explaining how bed bugs “Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World”, including my waking hours. As I wait for her to arrive at The Bean on 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street, I force my fuzzy brain to strategize how I plan on maintaining my composure while balancing questions between bed bugs and the rest of her career.

According to the NYU Journalism website, Borel, who is an adjunct faculty member, “will probably always be remembered as ‘that bed bug lady’ but she’s okay with that.” Still, I don’t want to fall into the “typical” category of Brooke Borel interviewer, making her recount her entire bed bugs odyssey like the rookie I am. Placing my coffee and sesame seed bagel and peanut butter sandwich just out of reach from my sensitive nostrils, I swallow back down my vomit and spot her walking into the establishment.

Her approach is steady, while in her arms I notice: multiple bags, a large coffee, a flaky pastry and no signs of a single fumble. The distance between us grows smaller and smaller and I can now see her frosty gray bifocals, curly hair — pulled back into a loose bun — and wide, albeit exasperated grin. “You’re hiding back here!” she says as she gracefully and purposefully unloads her cargo onto and around the couch I saved for her. Our seats are mismatched, not unlike the rest of the furniture at this Bean location. Eclectic art adorns the walls of the café and a loud mix of Latin fusion and Motown jams provides an almost disorienting soundtrack to our meeting.

I ask, “How’s the day so far?” “I don’t know, I’m tired. It’s been a really, long day. I’m very glad it’s the end of the week.” It’s not yet 9 a.m. and quite sleepily, I nod in agreement. Although it’s clear that I can relate to her exhaustion, I’m also convinced that this is where most of our commonality ends. Borel went to school in Boston, Massachusetts, where she studied Biomedical Engineering (BME), and her father is a doctor. “You did your research!” She seems shocked that I know this information.

While researching Borel, it did not take long to discover that she is a science journalist. Not only does she write about science in and out of the laboratory, but she also has an engineering background. I’m assuming she loves science. That’s a mark for only her side of our Venn diagram.

I’m a child of immigrants who studied chemistry and hated every minute of it. Now, as a journalism student, I have received numerous pieces of advice; the most resonant of such counsel being: write about what you love. Another piece of advice I’ve received is, let your reporting challenge your assumptions. But here at the Bean, I was prepared to prove that Brooke Borel loved being a scientist so much that she wanted to tell the world about all things science in conjunction with doing all things science. She takes me back to her high school years, half the time looking at me and the other half, staring out into space, with pieces of pastry sticking to her fingers.

“What made you choose biomedical engineering?” She replies, “Why BME? I mean, there’s not really a satisfying answer to that. I don’t think that people who are 18 years old, for the most part, know what they want to do with their lives. I think our education system is setting kids up to spend a lot of money and time on things that might not even interest them. And that’s kind of what happened to me.”

WHAT??!

Meetings with my own high school academic counselor flash across my mind. There I was, 3.9 GPA, high average ACT score, and a bevy of extracurricular activities, sitting in a cramped office in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. After presenting my list of colleges to my counselor, she told me that I “shouldn’t shoot so high.” These were not the last discouraging words I would receive as a young student. Surely, Borel’s path to Popular Science, NYU and countless other opportunities could fit neatly into a sterile box?

“[My high school counselor] just sort of read me like a crystal ball,” Borel recalls. “I didn’t know any better. I started looking at BME programs because at the time I was thinking about medical school — my dad’s a doctor and I have a lot of medical people in my family. There was some pressure there…overt and covert.”

Between large gulps of coffee and deep breaths, Borel refers to her path as “weird” and “unconventional;” “a long story,” even. She never wanted to study engineering and in fact, she almost gave up on the major in favor of English. Unfortunately, her parents held some serious marionette-like strings of control on her life at the time, as they were paying for her tuition. They often cautioned against any drastic changes in academics. In this way, the luxury of a debt-free college education was a gilded ruse that masked Borel’s hidden anguish: “I finished the degree; totally burnt out.”

My stomach begins growling and I thankfully reach for the lukewarm bagel wrapped in semi-insulating aluminum foil. Borel’s words hit a little too close to home; the fact that we have so much in common is tough to swallow. I toss back some coffee and continue digesting her story.

After graduating with a degree in Biomedical Engineering, Borel worked as a legal assistant. In her spare time, she wrote fiction and short stories. Listening to her, I take frequent, small sips of coffee out of distress — as a chemist, I dreamt of being and doing anything else. My window to the outside world was a pixelated one — specifically the LCD screen of my work computer. How else was I going to survive my days, burning the midnight oil at a job that I hated? I used to Google graduate writing programs. Borel went straight for the professional jugular, not mincing a single word with the search engine gods.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any mentorship and didn’t know anyone who did that kind of job. So, I was looking up things on the internet, like, “How do you be a writer?” She mimes herself typing on an imaginary keyboard, for emphasis. This was a time of literary engine stalling — not a single story of Borel’s was published.

Possibly sensing a need to more actively bridge the gap between Google searches and actual bylines, Borel applied to several graduate school programs. At NYU, Borel found what she’d been “craving” as an engineering undergrad — social sciences. Writing for these classes lead her to a long-awaited epiphany.

“Oh! I can write about…science.” With this statement comes a cartoonish look often found on animated characters, a light bulb going off overhead. She continues, “From there I was trying to figure out how to make a career out of it. I was looking around and realized journalism could be an outlet.”

Writing has always been my self-centering creative outlet. However, making the transition from scientist to journalist also meant that there was no shortage of discouraging words through which I had to wade. At times, my biggest dissenter was my father and like Borel, I kept my head down and submitted to his and others’ nudges in the wrong directions. Coming into this breakfast, I believed that Borel and I were extreme opposites when really, we are closer to being parallel versions of each other.

I jolt myself out of my inner sci-fi narrative and back to reality on Earth. Borel is still hovering over flaky crumb remains and her coffee is near empty. I feel my gut telling me to act. Or throw up. Or both. Either way, our time is limited and now is as good as any time to talk bed bugs. I have held out long enough. In addition to having a new set of deadlines, Borel has recently moved into a new apartment. I seize my opportunity and ask, “So you’re in this new place. That’s good. And there are no…bed bugs?” She laughs heartily. “No bed bugs.”

I tell Borel that I’ve made it through about a quarter of her bed bug book. Being fed this apparent compliment, mid-drink of coffee, almost causes her to spit it all out. “Mmm! Thank you for making the effort!” Before discussing the book in question, “Infested,” it’s important that I recount to Borel my journey into the school library to procure her work. “Well okay. So your book, it’s at Bobst, the library? It’s this dreary, gray, textbook looking book. I had to get on a ladder and reach for it, alone in the stacks.” To this she lets out an uninhibited belly laugh. “I figured that after all this spooking, the book must be worth it. And yesterday, after digging into it, I couldn’t sleep.”

“Oh noooo, hahaha, I’m really sorry!” she nervously laughs through this offer of consolation. In “Infested,” Borel tracks the biological and sociocultural history of bed bugs, and how they’ve phased in and out of the public eye as a nuisance. Her research led her to destinations across the United States and overseas. From reading the veritable bed bug bible, called “Monograph of Cimicidae,” she was able to track down a major entomological hero of the 1990’s. This man had raised thousands of bed bugs (cimicidae), feeding them with his own blood, using a contraption he built to affix the hungry critters to his arm.

These bugs’ DNA had been isolated from the public (much like their keeper) and therefore hadn’t developed resistance to the pesticide DDT, unlike their more evolved counterparts.

Borel found Harold Harlan, the bugs’ famed caretaker, is his Maryland home and included photos of Harlan feeding his bugs in her book. “Did you get to the part with the pictures of Harlan and bugs strapped to his arm?” Ugh. “Yes…I did.” This image was not the only apparition haunting my sleep of late. In “Infested,” Borel does a great job of detailing the various signs that can point to bed bug infestation. I started detecting some of these signs, like: a “sickly sweet smell” and strange black flecks (seemingly of cimicidae fecal matter) on my bedsheets. The only vital thing missing? I didn’t have any bites. After laughing at me, yet again, Borel assures me that without bites, I’m probably fine. Besides the paranoid thoughts and night sweats, sure, I’m probably fine.

Borel’s lighthearted attitude towards my neurotic shortcomings was not a coincidence. “Infested” is a serious book about a serious topic, but from the pages also emerges a funny writer who finds a way to artfully re-introduce the public to their old nemesis. I didn’t expect this underlying tone at all. I ask Borel if this use of humor in her book was a conscious choice. Her answer is simple. “I like to joke around. I think a lot of my personality is in that book. Which is the nice thing about writing a book — you have a lot more control over writing it however you want.”

On the flip side, she adds, “There’s a lot of mental health issues wrapped up in having bed bugs. You also don’t have to make it a big joke the whole time, because it can be serious. I do think it makes it a little easier to read about, thought, having a sense of humor about it.” The book is filled with anecdotal padding to accompany the slew of scientific jargon, but it indeed goes down easy. To this point, I tell Borel, “So your book is really important and weird.” “Haha, yeah that…I wish I could use you for advertising.”

Unaware that I’ve been indulging in extreme introspection throughout our entire conversation, Borel says she wants to talk about me. “It seemed like from your email that you were not interested in writing about science.” The room grows suddenly hotter. I’m worried that my sentiments on science and science journalism have somehow offended her profession. I explain that like her, I wanted nothing to do with my undergraduate degree, that I had always wanted to be an artist, that writing is my art. Furthermore, my experience working in science made me privy to so many displays of male chauvinism. Everything about it was wrong. Borel then shared with me one of her trade secrets.

“People will underestimate you as a journalist, no matter what you’re writing about, but especially if you’re writing about things people feel are for men: science and technology or finance or whatever. You can use it to your advantage, though. If they think you don’t know what you’re talking about, they’ll say a lot of things in front of you…that you can use in your story!”

Speaking directly to my science background, my inherently methodical ways of thinking and my tumultuous time as a chemist she concludes, “You have a unique and important perspective that will help you understand the context of story and recognize things that are happening that another reporter might not.”

Borel would never claim to have everything figured out. Of all the things she’s shared with me, this is the most important. She has accomplished much and has learned even more, in the process of establishing herself. Yet, she is preparing herself for a future grounded in constant personal and professional growth. Regardless of the many twists and turns she took to get to her current standing, she regrets little and is happy making a habit out of continuing to captain her own life. As she runs off to teach her morning class, she shakes my hand. “This was great,” she exclaims.

She has no idea.

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