Ai Weiwei Asks Brooklyn: What Does Your #Activism Look Like?

“What does your #activism look like?” Ai Weiwei asks us in his new art exhibit up at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, through August 10th, 2014. His question made me stop and think. As an author, my activism looks like books, Brindle 24 and Stream & Shale. I wrote these about the degradation of nature and human health after toxic gas extraction known as fracking in the United States. Writing the books helped me deal with the pain and inner turmoil I felt reading news and watching documentaries like GasLand, about people suffering nearby fracking sites. It also helped shine a light the ongoing issues we have with fracking here.

Ai Weiwei’s activism is art, and it looks like another world at first, but it is our world too – each piece of art is made with everyday materials like steel bars, backpacks, and even bicycles. His extraordinary exhibit comes to us from China, though the artist cannot. Ai Weiwei lived in New York for ten years. Now, he is denied his passport by the Chinese government, after his art studio began investigating and exposing the deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

In “Straight”, Ai Weiwei collected and straightened steel rods from collapsed buildings after the earthquake, arranged to create fault lines. This massive sculpture is part of the artist’s activism, showing how faulty building techniques were connected to the collapse of China’s schools during the Sichuan earthquake which killed thousands of school children.

Straight by Ai Weiwei

Straight, by Ai Weiwei

I thought Ai Weiwei was with me as I looked at his exhibit’s installation of the names of school children who perished.  He is touching people all over the world with his art exhibits. The lists of children take up the entire wall of a large exhibit room, and more than a number can, each unique name tells a story of loss that he wants us to know and share. The act of exposing these names on his blog was the catalyst for the artist’s persecution which he documents in his film, So Sorry.

Ai Weiwei school children names

Children who perished in the 2008 quake, by Ai Weiwei

One of the strangest pieces in the exhibit is He Xie which has 3,200 porcelain crabs, meant to symbolize harmony in the community. The artist used the symbolic crab in his art, and also in a public feast to protest the destruction of his studio by the Chinese government. His struggles with creating art while being under surveillance, detained, and beaten are documented in the film, Never Sorry.

The beauty of Ai Weiwei’s art is the strangeness of it, to me. Every piece of art left me with a question about not just Ai Weiwei and China, but my home in the United States, and myself. He reminded me that art connects us and is part of social responsibility. Find out more about Ai Weiwei’s art and activism at his site and on twitter.

Photo credit: Sophia Rodriguez

Ai Weiwei

Sophia Rodriguez at the Ai Weiwei exhibit, According to What? Brooklyn, NY

Because Our Father’s Were Soldiers – On Memorial Day

Because our fathers were soldiers, on Memorial Day some of us – and I – will think of lives lost in the wars today. Memories flood in of family, friends, and strangers too lost in the conflicts of the past, and risking their lives in the ongoing military campaigns of today.

Sandham - the March of Time

The March of Time – By Henry Sandham (1842-1910)

Because our fathers were soldiers, we think about war. I think about my father’s and his brother’s self-sacrifice when they went into World War II. My father survived, but his brother lost his life in Germany, as 15 million did throughout the world in battle deaths during that war. I can’t imagine that I understand their decisions and what it meant to them as men to join the war as soldiers, but above all I think that they must have put something – hope – out in front, ahead of their own personal lives. They valued and acted on a purpose valued above even their own survival.

My father would tell us how he and the family heard through the media and letters home about atrocities going on in Europe, things that they could not ignore. There must have been a determination inside them to make the world better, to make things right.


On Decoration Day – By John T. McCutcheon

When I remember the soldiers in my family, a host of nightmares comes along too, like a cloud – because when my father survived the war he brought his impressions and stories back with him, as much a part of him as his own skin. While he served, he learned about other places and cultures – Japan and the Philippines –  during his time in the army. But because this time was one of collecting the pieces needed to heal fragmented lives of the ending of a war, those days were remembered as tragic. The tales he told during my childhood were not of making things right, or of honour, not of success – but of horror. Wartime experiences most often came up after dark, when he was tired. And as a child I came to fear the dark, but more than anything, to fear war.

My father’s wartime stories also came out during the bright daylight hours when visiting with his friends who were World War II survivors like him. After a trip to a junk yard where my father and another man walked slowly and discussed old car parts, I remembered the short, older man’s hands and how his fingers were thick and the nails looked odd. When I asked him about it on the way home, my father told me that the man had, with only his hands, dug his way out of a concentration camp under a fence during the war, in Germany – and escaped. That day, I remember how they were so relaxed, standing in the sun together, so free.

At that moment, looking up at this weathered face in the sunlight, I understood that freedom had everything to do with why my father went to war. He gave up his own freedoms for those years, but was thinking about someone else’s.

Mothers in an Industrial World

On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to all the mothers who live in our industrialized world.

During pregnancy, we mothers are the home for the new generation. Inside us, new beings miraculously develop from a single cell to a newborn baby. This internal, intensely private home is influenced by all the things around us from our world, things that make their way into our bodies through the air, water, and our food.

Bonnie Brown, Jennifer Brown, Lillian Rodriguez - 3 generations of women.

Bonnie Brown, Jennifer Brown, Lillian Rodriguez – 3 generations of women.

We mothers are vigilant about what drugs we take or don’t, what food we eat or avoid. But many of the things that make their way into our bodies are out of our control in the moment of our greatest need, and by this I mean the chemicals that surround us from industrialization.

Just as the birds needed, and still need, protection from chemicals in the environment that weakened their eggs shells in the era when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, we mothers need protections now as well. Our tiny egg has no real shell to see, but within it, the DNA that carries the instructions for the new life to come is as vulnerable and fragile, dependent on us to safeguard it from harms. As a mother and a geneticist, I’m deeply concerned with the chemicals around us that act as mutagens to create health problems in the next generation.

Mother and baby in gas masks, 1941, England.

Mother and baby in gas masks, 1941, England.

In my newest novel, Brindle 24, the character Charlotte is a mother living in a chemically contaminated rural area of New York, who is pregnant with her second child. Through her eyes, I travel the path of a mother who wants to protect herself and her unborn child from toxins all around her. When industrialization comes to the area we live in and affects our air and water, not all of us can move – and those who stay are as connected to their environment as the unborn child is to the mother during pregnancy.

I hope that all mothers will have safe pregnancies with access to pure water and healthy, uncontaminated food. And I applaud the many women who speak out about safeguarding our health. Thank you to Rachel Carson for her books, and to a hero in our own time, Sandra Steingraber for her book Living Downstream for her activism.

Mothers everywhere, I wish you a healthy and happy Mother’s Day.

Dallas Buyers Club Makes the HIV Epidemic Personal

Original posted in my Film Annex Science in Film blog, I’m sharing my thoughts about the Oscar nominated Best Picture, Dallas Buyers Club.

Dallas Buyers Club takes the painful issue of the HIV AIDS epidemic in the United States and makes it personal. This great movie tells the extraordinary true story of Texan Ron Woodroof. He’s a straight southern cowboy who knew nothing at all about the HIV virus when he was first told that he had it. He had the shock of a lifetime. This is gut wrenching and educational.

We discover along with Ron what it means to be labeled HIV positive in a country that was far from understanding the AIDS disease, the U.S. in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I was a research scientist at that time, and briefly worked in a lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in New York, on experiments to uncover how the DNA of the virus controlled viral growth and reproduction.

HIV was a mystery to us, treatments weren’t working, and infection was lethal. Years later, I wrote a fictional novel about HIV infection, called Vector A Modern Love Story about a young woman who catches HIV from an older man.

The Changing Face of an Epidemic

When HIV was first identified as the cause of AIDS, people who were infected could only expect to live another year at best. Because of better treatment, now people with HIV who are treated, live nearly a normal lifetime.

Things have changed, mercifully. The anti-viral treatment for HIV is safer now and easier to take than in the past. Now it is as simple as one pill a day. It used to be many pills along with injections for combination therapy that worked against the virus, but was also dangerously toxic to the body. Today medication can drastically cut down the amount of HIV virus in a person’s blood, without major side effects to the rest of the body.

The photo is of the talented actor who plays Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey, at the premiere of the film.

The Epidemic Rages On Without the Fanfare

Without nearly the attention it used to command, the HIV epidemic rages on. More than 35 million people are now infected with HIV worldwide. Many do not know they have the infection, any more than Ron Woodroof did. The only way to find out is to get tested, a quick and inexpensive test any healthcare provider can give.

Just yesterday a homeless young man holding a sign: HIV Positive – Desperate – sat in Union Square subway station where I commute to work in New York City.

In the United States, over 1 million people have an HIV infection, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , CDC. Of these, CDC estimates that 180,000 people have HIV but don’t know they are infected. Getting tested for HIV is important for health and to prevent the spread of the disease to loved ones. Each year about 50,000 more people are infected with HIV and about 15,000 people with HIV die. HIV infects both men and women, gay and straight. Now, about 3/4 of people living with HIV in the United States are men, and 1/4 are women.

I highly recommend Dallas Buyers Club as a dramatic movie that shines a light on how an epidemic affects an individual man. Matthew McConaughey brings the story to life with force and authenticity. His business partner in the story is equally fascinating, played by Jared Leto. Would this movie have your vote for Best Picture at the Oscars 2014?

Change 1 Thing for New Years

What would it be, if you could change one thing in the New Year?

This is a question I ask myself at the end or beginning of a year, before New Years, at birthdays too.

My friends’ responses to the question this year ranged from the personal to the political, and even global:

  • look in the mirror and say kind things about myself
  • change my hair color
  • sensitivity
  • have publishing luck
  • fewer attacks on women’s rights
  • get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan
  • wish the world would stop fracking their brains out
  • act on climate, that’s the big one

In the last year, I worked on the issue of fracking by writing a documentary of my trip to the heart of gasland in PA on a Citizen’s Tour. The story that came out of the trip is now published as Stream and Shale Coloring Storybook for children and families.

For my part, this year I would like to remember more of my dreams and act on them.

Dreaming can be deeply personal and individual or it can be idealistic and aimed at the whole world, but I mean dreaming in the literal sense of what goes on when I’m sleeping. By starting small, keeping a dream notebook by my bed, I’m hoping to bring my two worlds closer together. The waking world and the dreaming world seem so far apart. These are complicated to put together into one experience of who I am, what I’m hoping for, and what I’m capable of actually doing.

Dreams have always fascinated me from as long as I can remember. Even in childhood I often woke up remembering vivid dreams. But strangely I came no closer to understanding my own dreams when I read about dream interpretation, the likes of dream dictionaries, Freud, and Jung.


The Doctor’s Dreams, my newest book is two novellas about two kinds of dreams, the ones that we have while sleeping, and the ones we hold onto while awake. Coming out early in 2014, this new book is my first try at writing novellas. The first story, The Doctor’s Dreams, follows an exploration of a secret dream book that was left behind by a doctor who went mising on New Year’s Eve in New York City. And the second, After The Layoff, shows the changes a scientist goes through after being laid off from her job, a time when reconstructing a new life seems like a dream, or nightmare. I’m working on ideas for the book cover as the manuscript goes through final edits, and came across this design of bats which I like, as a glimpse of the strangeness of the dream life.

What do dreams mean to you?

Best wishes for a Happy New Year, and may your good dreams come true.