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Robert Neubecker

A toxic colleague wore me down—until a bear gave me confidence to confront him

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.

I grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and spent much of my childhood hiking, skiing, and otherwise exploring outdoors. I was fascinated by the mountains, streams, and canyons, so I decided to study geology at college. I loved my program and was excited when I had the opportunity to participate in summer field research. One summer, I spent nearly 3 months hiking every day and living in a rustic cabin. It was a great experience. My other summer in the field, however, was not.
I was hired to work alongside my supervisor and one other undergraduate field assistant. Before we went into the field, I overheard the student telling others I was a slow hiker and that he hoped I wouldn’t show up. It wasn’t the first time he had disparaged my physical or intellectual abilities. Our supervisor didn’t know our history before hiring us for the project. I desperately wanted to tell him about it, but I needed the research experience and I did not want him to second-guess hiring me.

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.

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