11 Questions for Dr. Sarah Durand

by Lucia Fuentes and Roman Senkov

Dr. Sarah Durand discovered biology at age 5 while walking through a salt marsh with Dad and a red bucket. The bucket had arrived empty but returned with a wild array of invertebrate animals - “pets.” When the pets succumbed to the inadequate circumstances of the bucket, ecstasy of discovery gave way to grief, guilt and curiosity: How did they live? What did they need? Sarah ultimately majored in marine biology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a dual BA-MA degree from the graduate division of Evolution and Ecology. She began her doctoral studies at Rutgers University as a field biologist studying Herring Gulls, but concluded with a doctoral thesis on the neural basis of vocal communication in doves, for which she received the PhD from the Center for Behavioral and Molecular Neuroscience. A subsequent post-graduate fellowship award from the National Institutes of Health supported her study of the forebrain vocal system of parrots at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Q#1: Hello Sarah, thank you for finding time for this interview. I guess we should begin by asking, how would you introduce yourself? Do you believe you're more of a biologist or eco-activist or a professor of biology?
Sarah: Biologist.

Q#2: We want to know about your experience as an undergraduate. What are the most outstanding recollections you have from your undergraduate years?
Sarah: What contributed to the impetus of the work I'm doing now was the opportunity to go to...

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Sarah: What contributed to the impetus of the work I’m doing now was the opportunity to go to a field station up in Maine and take a course up there. That brought me into the maritime world, both with respect to the communities of non-human organisms, and the community of human organisms that was interacting with it.

I was so taken with the Maine coastline, with its life, and how people engaged that life, that I went back there ultimately, and did a combined MA/BA. The university I went to had a sub-matriculation program that allowed you to get a dual degree, BA/MA together. So that’s what I did, so that I could go back after that wonderful experience of a summer course, and do some more research.

The initial love for biology came way before that, and for the intertidal community came way before that. When my parents, both people in the theatre who were always shocked that I went into biology, were doing summer stock – which is plays for the summer crowd, wherever that summer crowd may be, sometimes they ended up in a shoreline community. Dad would take me out at low tide if it was on the coast, and I would take the bucket, and we would collect these amazing life forms that I had never seen before. I would bring them home in the bucket, and my first time doing that I was shocked and dismayed and mortified that they had not survived the night, which at that point led me to a relationship of: “We have to care for these things. We have to care for these other animals. If we’re going to enjoy each other, there’s some responsibility there.

Roman: Although the times are different, based on your experiences, can you give some advice to the current undergraduate students?

Sarah: Yes. I was in a privileged position. I didn’t have to work. I was a full time student. Not everybody has that privilege. I was really fortunate that way, it gave me time to really devote myself to my studies.

You need to pursue what you love, what gives you reward, because then you will be good at it. So often we think we have to do something because that’s what we are told we have to do, but then you never realize your full potential because you’re doing something that maybe wasn’t exactly what you wanted most to do. It takes a lot of patience maybe, but if you are all the time doing work you are excited about and want to do, you’re going to be successful in it. If you are trying to fit yourself into something you think somebody else told you to do and should do, that might be more difficult to succeed in.

Roman: And it gives you some motivation or force to do hard work.

Sarah: Yes. You can do “hard work”. When it’s enjoyable, it is no longer hard. When you are enjoying it, you want to study, you want to learn and you want to become competent. That’s what your teachers want too, so everything works out.

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Q#3: So if I can continue then, at what age did you feel you wanted to be a biologist? When did you switch to birds and what motivated you to switch to studying birds?
Sarah: Yes. Even after I graduated, I wasn't sure if biology would be an avocation or a vocation...

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Sarah: Yes. Even after I graduated, I wasn’t sure if biology would be an avocation or a vocation. I was still very interested in the performing arts and musical theatre and drama. I did a lot of that in college, I did it in high school. I was actually a member of the actors union at age 11.

I loved performing and teaching is very close to performing. When you can tell a story about a biological system or a biological process, it’s much more interesting. “What’s going to happen next if you do this?” That’s what performance art is all about. Captivating an audience with: “What’s going to happen next”.

I always knew I loved the natural world. My life naturally led that way. I decided while I was doing some theatre I also would support myself teaching, so I taught part-time in the high school that I went to. From teaching, there was so much more I wanted to learn, that I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, but I always knew the natural world was what I wanted to study.

When I got to graduate school my plan was to continue as a field biologist. When I did my masters, I was already looking at shorebirds and how they partitioned between each other, the available life, foraging opportunities, prey. Pairs of birds who are raising a family together over at the colony also had their feeding territories that they cooperatively defended, and everybody had their place, and that was what I did my masters work on, up in Maine. So I thought, I’ll continue to do field work.

But then, when I was a graduate student, they were winding down the field program. I wasn’t working alongside other people. It was a lonely existence down there on the Jersey shore and I was always also interested in brain and behavior questions. In fact, before I went to graduate school, while I was still teaching high school, I took a course at City College and I took a course at Hunter. The course at City College was a graduate course in neuroscience and the course in Hunter was in computer programming. I enjoyed both of these.

Even though when I applied for the doctorate program I was thinking of still going back to field work, I was sufficiently interested in the brain-behavior question that when the field work wasn’t going very well the transition was fine for me.

In fact it was very funny, I did try to start and I ended up scaring all the birds away; I had a little cotton blind from where you’re supposed to watch the birds’ behavior, and all the birds left the blind area. It was like an empty circle around me.

I went in to study vocal learning pathways. At that point it was really looking at how the avian brain is designed to respond to communication signals. When you think about it, birds are very vocal and some birds are very similar to how we use vocalizations. They learn their vocalizations as they’re growing up, they learn the specific vocalizations of their social group and they can convey all kinds of information about themselves with their vocalizations, and that fascinated me.

How does vocalization change the physiology of an animal? So that was ultimately what my doctorate work was on. Looking at auditory pathways and their connection with parts of the brain that determine their physiological state.

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Q#4: If you can summarize this in a nutshell, what would you say is the main difference between a human brain and a bird brain? Preferably for people like me, who are not biologists.
Sarah: We have pretty much all the same functional capacities, but...

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Sarah: We have pretty much all the same functional capacities, but they’re arranged differently. Whereas the mammalian cortex like ours is arranged in layers, birds don’t have a layered cortex, they have different specialized functional regions. But we have that too, it’s just that maybe the output layer of one of our cortical layers is actually a cell mass some other place. Really they have all the functional capacities that we do.

I think more and more neurobiologists are realizing the amazing overlap in how nervous systems work. And this actually is being applied to invertebrate nervous systems. If you want a mesmerizing and fascinating experience into the invertebrate brain go to Netflix and find My Octopus Teacher.

All of these emotional states you thought were uniquely human – Oh maybe our pets have them and maybe some other social mammals...

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Q#5: When you came to LaGuardia, what was it that made you make the shift from physiology/behavior to ecology?
Sarah: There were several things going on. First, I was saddened...

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Sarah: There were several things going on. First, I was saddened to realize that there were no courses like the courses I had exposure to as an undergraduate, that offered an in-depth look at the natural world and of your own community. Here we are, a community college, and we weren’t going out to look at the natural world as part of our community. We had a general BIO course that touched on certain concepts, but didn’t give people the experience of their own natural community.

That had concerned me, although at that time I had what they call a CUNY collaborative grant with a colleague at Hunter who had a colony of birds, and I was continuing my work in brain and behavior. I was bringing students to work at Hunter, but it was time consuming and difficult for them and for me. We needed a lab at LaGuardia, and in fact, the first research lab at LaGuardia came out of that CUNY collaborative grant. It was M-234, which at the time, was a storage area for cleaning supplies.

The LaGuardia administration was very supportive about the idea of developing some research space for faculty. So that lab initially became a lab where we were looking at tissue, bird tissue that had been sectioned over at the Hunter laboratory facility. Then we would take the neural tissue and process it through something called immunocytochemical pathway tracing.

In fact we had the first student to win a “Best in” at an ABRCMS – Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, and this was a student who was doing this work, studying the tissue of Zebra Finches. The birds had actually been living at Hunter, but we processed the tissue in M-234, so it was very exciting.

During this time, as I was worrying about not having these classes, there was an opportunity. A grant came to establish new academic programs – a Cal MESA grant. This is how the Biology major and the Environmental Science major came.

Thomas Onorato wrote up a little proposal for a Biology major and I wrote up a proposal for an Environmental Science major.

Lucia: So you proposed the Environmental Science program with all of the courses and everything as a program, and it went through the approval process according to the governance plan, so through the Senate curriculum committee, the Senate, then CUNY and then the State?

Sarah: Yes. It went through all of those and you had to go in and defend, to the curriculum committee at the college, the course that you proposed. We all did that and it was fun, but in the process, my intention was: ok, the whole idea is to focus this course on community environmental issues. Professor Steven Lang at that point was already a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance.

It was Professor Steven Lang, who had made me aware that there was a body of water across the street from the college. Here I was with a major in Marine Biology and I was interested in setting up this Environmental Science program and I didn’t even know that we were across the street from the great New York/New Jersey Estuary.

That was by design of our capitalist system, that this body of water had been taken over for commercial purposes as a dumping space and transport space. You brought in raw materials and you sent out the product of those raw materials. It was a great place to get rid of the effluent in making those materials that you were then going to sell for a profit. All of these industries had built up cement cinder block walls and bulkheads and buildings. No one could see that there was a waterway there. It’s almost amazing.

Of course at this time the community was already taking action to recover their waterway. It was a beautiful coming-together of an environmental movement.

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Q#6: We know that you have a lot of projects going and that you’ve applied for and received several grants. I guess you’ve already talked about the student involvement, but maybe you could give us a concrete example of the process that you have gone through to involve students in those projects.
Sarah: Because of the work we were doing with the neurobiology...

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Sarah: Because of the work we were doing with the neurobiology of the avian brain, I had students who were already engaged in research projects that were supported by two lines of funding: the NIH Bridges to the Future and the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program. At that point I was directing the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, CSTEP. I was asked to direct CSTEP after the anatomy and physiology laboratory, and then I wrote a grant proposal for CSTEP that carried it from 2011 to 2015. I had options under both NIH Bridges which I was a part of, but not a project director of, and CSTEP for which I was a project director. Both of these grants, one state and one federal, supported the undergraduate research.

What happened was that we gradually modified the laboratory that was initially in use for tissue analysis, to an environmental science laboratory. At this point LaGuardia was gearing up and decided to make all of those 3 labs, the labs that had been anatomy and physiology- they decided hey this is working! Let’s put these labs together! So they became M-234, M-237, M-238. One became primarily a biology lab, and the other two became chemistry and environmental science labs.

I transitioned from having students working on analyzing labeled neurons in a certain region of the avian brain to students who were collecting water quality data: dissolved oxygen, salinity, pH. We were just trying to explore this great Estuary ecosystem in our backyard. People wanted to know about it. We started doing plankton tows and finding out, ok what about the microscopic animals in here?

Then I was educated by Professor Steven Lang about the existence of the Newtown Creek nature walk, which is just across the waterway from us at LaGuardia. You can practically see it, if you go up to the C-building and look out across Newtown Creek, our part of the Estuary, to the Brooklyn shore. You see these big silver eggs. And they are actually 6-8 story digesters that look like silver eggs. That’s the water treatment plant. The newest and largest in New York City. As part of that renovation, the community had been awarded a community access site to the creek, because that was one of the great complaints of the Greenpoint community. The industries and the city had taken over the shoreline and people didn’t have access to their own waterway.

A beautiful walkway had been placed there with steps leading into the water, intertidal steps. In those steps were cutouts in which sediment accumulated and you could see the life in the waterway as little living oases in those steps.

That’s when students who were with me discovered the mussels that were living there that became a big subject of our study. We discovered Soft-Shell clams, we discovered a tiny little American eel. All kinds of little crustaceans. There were shrimps, something called Gammarids. We saw shoals of little fish swimming under the water along the lowest step.

In fact, two years earlier I had heard a state official of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation refer to this waterway as a dead waterway. Hardly.

Lucia: So was this a group of students from your class or from your research you took to the walkway?

Sarah: This was before we even had the classes up and running. Actually the field program preceded the actual classes, because those take so long. Once we got approval for the class then we brought Holly Porter-Morgan on board to teach GIS, but then you’ve got that whole process of setting up a search committee for the person. The whole thing took a couple of years to get going.

Meanwhile we shifted to offering research options to students in NIH Bridges and the CSTEP Program. I learned a bit of what we could offer them by bringing in a new faculty member at that time. Queens college had just hired Gregory O'Mullan and he is now with the School of Earth and Environmental Science at Queens and oversees the graduate program there.

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Q#7: It would be really interesting if you could follow up on the observation of the mussels, that is fascinating.
Sarah: It is very interesting. During this time period when we were getting...

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Sarah: It is very interesting. During this time period when we were getting the program together, just starting students in the field, I got an email, along with a couple of other faculty interested in setting up the environmental science program from our president Gail Mellow. She was alerting us to a hearing introducing a community grant to Long Island City and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that was awarded to these two communities by the state, the State Attorney General’s Office in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Conservation. They were making this award on behalf of the fact that the city had violated the Clean Water Act.

The old water treatment plant had been a scourge to the Greenpoint community. The odors, the waste. This is why this whole plant had been renovated and redesigned. The community rose up and said, This is it! Can’t take this anymore! We don’t have access because of all of the commercial businesses along the creek, we can’t get to the waterway. And you’re filling the air with fumes and further contaminating the water!

Long Island City and Greenpoint got an award of 20 million and how the funds would be allocated was going to be presented to community representatives. A lot of people went to the headquarters of the regional DEC, which is very close to LaGuardia – only a 10-15 minute walk from us.

We listened to how the grant was going to be administered, how there were going to be community meetings in which proposals were going to be put forward on how to use the money. At that point we were all discovering the life in the waterway and realizing we’re seeing the larvae of a potential community in the plankton. We see that any place that sediment can accumulate, the larvae of these animals can settle and become adult nematode worms, soft shell clams, mussels, crabs, blue crab, green crab, mud crabs. They were all there in these little oases on the intertidal steps of the nature walk.

That’s where the idea was. Wow! If we could only write a proposal to restore the salt marsh habitat, which is the native habitat of our Estuary. Not only this but the salt marsh is considered an ecosystem by itself. The richest, biologically-speaking, ecosystem in the temperate climate. It rivals the tropical rainforest in the amount of living tissue produced per unit time per area.

What was an expansive salt marsh with a little river running through it became the urban waterway we know as Newtown Creek – walled in, filled in, no salt marsh left.

The idea was: wow if we could just bring back this habitat!

Ultimately there were many proposals put forward for these funds. A vote was taken in around December of 2009, and in 2010 we found out that we got an award. That was the beginning of the remediation/salt marsh restoration project.

So we got the money. We had no idea how to do it. What I had as a proposal was actually a design which you kind of see on the walkway of the nature walk. An engineer from New Zealand had designed these habitat units for me and I was able to pay him with funds from the grant.

We now have actual constructed salt marsh at the terminal basin and at the 49th St. Hunterspoint Bridge. This we owe to Eileen Mahoney, a government representative who saw the potential in close collaboration with the community and its education institutions.

She brought in the other folks in the DEP to realize this vision. We would have been progressing much slower if it had not been for Eileen, and Jim Pynn of the water treatment plant and the excellent scientists that the DEP hired to pursue the superfund investigations to begin to collect data on what was happening.

Thank gosh that the city is involved in this, because the other potentially responsible parties are not concerned at all about doing their job.

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Q#8: Some politicians don’t admit that there is a global crisis, and then people don’t believe in human-driven climate change, even among people in higher education. What would your response be to these people?
Sarah: Right now we have a government that is largely controlled by...

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Sarah: Right now we have a government that is largely controlled by the very corporations that brought us the disaster we’re in. So it’s not going to happen from the top. It’s going to happen from things like the fight in Brooklyn to stop the gas pipeline. There are a number of efforts right now to stop fossil fuel infrastructure from proceeding, and all of the banks have investments and all of the corporations have investments and they don’t want to lose their money.

It is to the benefit of the interests that control government, to treat the natural world as a commodity. To exploit for capital until exhaustion or collapse, if I may quote Chris Hedges.

The best way to get involved is actually by becoming familiar with the needs of your own local ecosystem and how to support the life of that ecosystem and find your collaborators. Find your collaborators in government agencies, and find your representatives who have pledged themselves to not take corporate money like Ocasio-Cortez.

Really, at the base of our problem is an economic system that is designed for personal accumulation, by whatever means necessary as long as it can be legalized in some framework. It is an economic philosophy that is inherently destructive from a biological perspective.

The western culture separates us and “nature”. And nature became under capitalism, something for us to use, to exploit and it’s become part of our thinking. Even in science journals, you read Experiments in humans and animals. What?! I have to remind students that you are animals, and you share 99% of your DNA with your other closest primate relatives.

The rediscovery of our ecosystem, that is our right, to protect and support all members of our community from exploitation and degradation. That’s our right, and when we don’t do so, we suffer the consequences of asthma and cancer and diabetes. This all comes from exploiting the natural world for profit. Most of our problems come from the culture we have adopted and adapted to.

The human mind is very good at developing rationalizations for what is comfortable. When you are making a great deal of money, and with it a great deal of privilege is accorded to you, you do not want to lose the money and the privilege. And that is where most of the democratic leadership and the republican leadership, within that way of thinking, we are part of privilege, and the system that is presently in place has provided us with that privilege. Economic and social and political privilege. So the motivation is not there.

Roman: As a scientist, as we understand what is going on, what can we do?

Sarah: We have a common cause. Scientists now need to be activists. We can’t have this boundary anymore. We’re in too much of a crisis right now. We have to learn how to share our knowledge and speak our knowledge simply and clearly so that it can be used by our communities to reverse the damage of the capitalist culture.

Lucia: I think sometimes there’s this divorce between what they’re studying in their science classes and the broader society. How can students make connections with their everyday lives and science, and how they communicate?

Sarah: Yeah. Giving them a sense of empowerment. What do you want to participate in? What can you say, “no I will not participate in!” You learn the effects of how food is used for profit, how medicine is used for profit, how we are made to think we need certain things for some corporation’s profit.

Use your education to start analyzing what you are doing because somebody else is profiting from it, but is actually hurting you.

We can then tackle what we’re eating and how we’re eating. We can tackle the plastics that we are using. How we’re choosing to transport ourselves. All of these things. How do you lead your daily life in a way that uses the information you are learning from class to better your community and health?

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Q#9: Maybe we can move on to a slightly different topic, Education. It’s related. To educate our students has become an extremely important task because they will continue to walk this earth with the knowledge that we provide them right now. So let’s look at a young person from an Environmental Science major. What are their future job possibilities and perspectives? Is it necessary to proceed to graduate school or a 4-year college?
Sarah: Certainly there are technical skills – we have government agencies...

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Sarah: Certainly there are technical skills – we have government agencies, federal, state, city, that require the skills people acquire in environmental science. Doing basic tests, like the concentration of bacteria in a certain volume of water.

One graduate (although this person went on to Hunter and got a BA) was working with the Army Corps of Engineers, doing surveys of birds in the local wetlands, doing mapping for any of these agencies, even agencies you would not think would mesh/match with environmental science. The Department of Sanitation, Composting program, and how our waste is organized and removed and processed.

Technical skills, laboratory technical skills, computer technical skills, field work technical skills. All of these. There are always job postings put out by governments, at the municipal level, state level and federal level. And at each level there are multiple agencies that may have a particular domain of expertise that perfectly suit the interest of the student. Also there are internship programs that are possible.

There are also a number of non-governmental organizations that look for young people. First to start off in internships and then to ultimately employ.

Just doing a search of environmental organizations from Environment New York, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Land.

Like any discipline, it is important, learning who is in the community doing the work you are interested in doing and integrating with that community, even if initially it is just to have experience. When you know the people in a community, that’s when opportunities develop for you.

Engaging in some way with people who are doing the work you are doing Is what you should aim for.

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Q#10: This actually leads us into the next question. What is your view on online education and do you think it’s possible to learn science effectively using exclusively online tools? How do you think it’s going to affect education and what can we do?
Sarah: Hands on skills, clearly are suffering...

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Sarah: Hands on skills, clearly are suffering. You can watch someone do something and it’s still not the same.

There is also a certain intimacy that might happen through the digital screen that we don’t have in a classroom, where you can have an exchange back and forth and lead people to think through an argument, think through a concept or cause and effect, using the digital format.

The people who are too afraid to speak, put their response in the chat. So you are both speaking in and reading a group discussion. That would be the one advantage – that you can take that discussion and build on it in some way, put forward a question to the class for them to think about and write a short paragraph.

Ultimately, you have to be with students in the natural world, together, to truly explore it and understand it. So where all of this is going to ultimately go I don’t know. I have to figure out how to engage the folks who don’t want to be seen. Are they following me? Are they even there? Maybe they’re in the other room just listening.

This is a disaster and I don’t see a way out of that aspect.

Roman: When I teach physics for example, I can feel the students look at me and learn from me. It’s almost physical. With distant learning you lose this completely.

Sarah: Yes! An entire domain. Our nervous systems are designed to monitor each other through each other’s faces and expressions. That whole domain is lost to us as teachers and educators. We can no longer read the room like we used to. So yes, I feel that can never be compensated for.

This is why getting our class size down is so important. So they can follow up with a phone call. At least get the person’s voice, because they’re afraid to speak in front of other people. You’ll have the time to follow up one-on-one because you don’t have all of this written work to read for hours and actually have interactions, and have the open classroom where people can drop in and talk with you. You have more time, you have fewer people and the advantage is that you are providing work for all of these adjunct faculty that were laid off because of the cutbacks. Anyway that’s more of an economic discussion.

Roman: I also had the feeling that online teaching has more financial reasons.

Sarah: Right, the whole physical plant, the institution, doesn’t need to maintain to the extent that it did.

Lucia: Right, and all of the materials for the labs students are paying, not that it’s about payment, but about not providing anything.

Sarah: Yeah we’re not providing anything. For example, there is no way you’re going to learn to use a microscope by watching someone use a microscope. There’s no way you can compensate for that loss.

Roman: What can be dangerous in my opinion, is that the result of this online education will manifest itself only after 2-5 years. So the disaster won’t come immediately but after some time.

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Q#11: Sarah, we have just a short blitz left with several questions inspired by Marcel Proust. Please try to give short answers.

1. Do you have a hobby?

Sarah: Dancing

2. What do you like about yourself the most? What don't you like about yourself?

Sarah: Can make people feel at ease is a thing I learned from my parents. Too anxious, tend to worry too much...

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1. Do you have a hobby?

Sarah: Dancing

2. What do you like about yourself the most? What don't you like about yourself?

Sarah: Can make people feel at ease is a thing I learned from my parents. Too anxious, tend to worry too much.

3. What can you easily forgive in people? What is hard to forgive?

Sarah: Deliberate cruelty is hard for me to forgive. Whether it is to another human being or any other being. Deliberately doing something that you know is going to hurt – spiteful behavior. The whole idea of having to forgive is questionable. You can even understand and forgive spiteful behavior if you understand the weakness and emotional state that led to that destructive behavior. So, you see destructive behavior in people and if you don't forgive it you can't work with them to move away from it and see themselves.

4. What does happiness mean for you? Can you give an example when you feel happy?

Sarah: It's momentary. The realization that life and love go together. Life is a constructive power that prevails.

5. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would you change?

Sarah: There's such a multitude, there's no way...

6. What is your main character feature, that makes you who you are?

Sarah: Sarah has been changing, there have been many different Sarahs. Enjoyment of other beings? Seeing us all in other forms of life.

7. If there is one thing you most regret, what is it?

Sarah: My biggest mistakes have been when I worked to do something that I think is important to advance in a particular system, rather than believing it's the best thing I should do. In trying to impress some authority figure, is when I think I have made my biggest mistakes.

8. Regardless of if you believe in God or not, if you met God, what would you say to him?

Sarah: That question assumes God is an entity. If God is a constructive force then the question doesn't have meaning.

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