Hooman Ghashghaei displays resilience, embraces Iranian roots in life in US

By Emery Summey

On the other side of a Zoom call sits Hooman (Troy) Ghashghaei, a neurobiology professor, former college soccer player and the father of my gymnastics teammate. Looking at his life today, few would guess the hardship and turmoil Ghashghaei endured to get to where he is now.

Ghashghaei grew up in Tehran, Iran, during the Iranian Revolution, which lasted from 1978 to 1979, and he permanently moved to the U.S. 36 years ago, where he created a successful life for himself, his wife, Mette, and their daughter, Tina.

Childhood defined by two cultures

Ghashghaei’s earliest memory is his family’s travels between Iran and the U.S. before the Iranian Revolution started. Ghashghaei’s grandmother lived with them and would take care of him while his parents worked and attended school. His mother worked in a burn unit in Iran as the head nurse, and his father was finishing his Ph.D. in Boston, Massachusetts. Growing up as an immigrant and balancing American and Iranian culture was a challenge, but Ghashghaei said he thrived in the U.S.

During the time his family traveled back and forth between Iran and the U.S., Ghashghaei was in primary school, and he noted the stark differences between the two countries’ school systems. He attended a Montessori school in the U.S. and noted that it was laid-back compared to his private religious school in Iran. The Montessori school allowed for considerable freedom during lessons and playtime, but at his Iranian school, the staff were strict about what students wore, how they walked, and how they learned. Ghashghaei also remembers that the level of math and science work he was assigned at his Iranian school was far more advanced than what American children were studying.

This was the largest difference that Ghashghaei noticed between the U.S. and his home country. He also recalls how every day for about a year in Iran, he and his classmates would be forced to line up outside and told to stand completely still. As the students struggled to stay still, the sharp “BANG” of a gunshot would cut through the morning air, and if any students broke formation or flinched, they were forced to stand there even longer.

Finding refuge from revolution

In Iran, Ghashghaei’s family did their best to hide the conflict from him and his brothers, and he said he didn’t feel the effects of the Iranian Revolution until a few years after the following Iran-Iraq War occurred. Ghashghaei felt privileged to live in Tehran since it was not at the forefront of the revolution, and the war between Iran and Iraq mostly occurred far from his home on the border between the two countries.

However, despite his physical distance from the conflict, he and his family were not completely safe. As a nurse, Ghashghaei’s mother treated victims of the war, and she developed severe mental health problems due to the traumatic cases she encountered. Ghashghaei, with fear in his voice, also recalls the family members who were kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and executed after a civil war broke out and the Iranian government sought to push “Western-minded and progressive” citizens out of the country.

Meanwhile, a young Ghashghaei found soccer as a way to escape from this grim reality around him. Ghashghaei recalls watching the 1978 World Cup, which was the first time the Iranian soccer team had qualified to play. After watching his country play in the World Cup, Ghashghaei was inspired to pick up soccer as his new passion, and he started practicing every day.

Challenge and triumph in new country

In 1982, Ghashghaei’s parents decided to leave Iran and permanently settle in the U.S. They lived in several different states, including Massachusetts, Texas and Connecticut.

When Ghashghaei and his family first moved to the U.S., he was afraid of embracing his culture because of the backlash he endured for being Muslim. He was subjected to hate crimes and racist comments from Americans and said he felt ashamed to be who he was.

“I never felt like I fit in with my neighbors or peers in school. I was an outcast and it hurt to feel excluded for something out of my control,” Ghashghaei said.

While trying to hide his identity, he lost touch with his Irian roots and culture. Now, as a father, Ghashghaei seeks to carry on his family’s Iranian traditions. Ghashghaei’s family celebrates Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, with traditional food, clothing and music, and he taught his daughter Farsi, the official language of Iran, at a young age. He is now proud of his roots and his ability to embrace both Iranian and American cultures.

A difficult decision Ghashghaei faced in the U.S. was where he wanted to go to college. He was offered scholarships to play college soccer in the south, but he wanted to stay up north so he could be close to his family. Ghashghaei ultimately attended Boston University, where he was a walk-on for the soccer team. He was overjoyed to have gotten everything he wished for in a college experience.

However, Ghashghaei’s sophomore year brought a devastating turn of events when he tore his ACL and was not able to return to the soccer field. During this time, his grades and his motivation to continue his studies dropped. Once he was able to come to terms with the end of his soccer career, however, he decided to continue his education and get a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Ghashghaei found his new passion working in a lab and conducting research on the brain.

After graduating with his Ph.D., Ghashghaei completed his postdoctoral research at UNC-Chapel Hill. From there, he once again had to decide between staying and working in the south or moving back up north. This time, he chose to stay in the south, where he has lived ever since and now works at N.C. State University researching and teaching biology and neuroscience. There, he works alongside his wife, who is a math professor.

Ghashghaei has been back to Iran twice since moving to the U.S. In 2004, he went by himself to visit his parents, who had moved back to Iran in the early 2000s while he and his brothers attended college, and he visited again in 2008.

Since then, there has been devastating turmoil in the country, and Ghashghaei and his family haven’t been able to return, and they believe that they never will. While he may be unable to visit Iran again, Ghashghaei has built a life for himself in the U.S. that proudly embraces his Iranian roots.

Edited by Caroline Bowers

‘Bad year, good fruit’: Dry season produces sweeter tomatoes in the Triangle

By Benjamin Rappaport

Just before the sun goes down on a warm October night, Ray Christopher is out in the fields harvesting the last of his tomato plants. It’s time to take out all the late summer plants to make room in his six-acre field for the fall vegetables. He takes a three-pronged hand fork and begins digging up the roots.

“It’s been a rough year for everyone except the fruits,” Christopher said.

Christopher has been growing his own organic fruits and vegetables since he was 12 years old. For the past 33 years, he has sold his produce every week at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

Now 67, Christopher has plenty of experience growing produce. He knows what makes some seasons yield more fruits, what time of day is best to water the plants and when his crops will taste the best.

This year, one crop has tasted especially good.

“The flavors in the tomatoes all convalesced into perfection this year,” Christopher said.

A Complicated Gift

That’s because this year was a particularly dry season, and tomatoes taste better when they have less water in them, according to a 2013 study from the science journal PLOS One. The less moisture in the plant, the more the flavors can naturally condense into the fruit. Those natural flavors of the fruit make the tomato extra sweet.

This phenomenon is unique to tomato plants because, while most crops will change flavor depending on moisture level, fruits and vegetables typically become more bitter during dry and hot seasons. Instead, the unique flavor profile of the juices inside the tomato plant makes it sweeter.

One of the authors of the 2013 study is Raquel Miranda, a plant biologist at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil. She said to imagine the tomato breathing to understand why it tastes sweeter.

“When we breathe, we produce what are called free radicals. Those react and deteriorate our cells very slowly over time. Essentially, we are aging,” Miranda said.

However, plants can age indefinitely because the free radicals they produce don’t deteriorate the plant. So, when they “breathe” and produce those free radicals, they are producing internal antioxidants. Miranda said antioxidant production is increased when the plant is under stress, and those antioxidants are associated with the quality of the fruit.

Climate change is proven to increase stressors on all plant species by creating longer, more frequent dry seasons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Miranda said the main effect of global warming is that it will increase photosynthesis in plants, and the effects of that increase on a plant species can vary depending on the geographic region.

“It’s really a long stretch to say climate change will improve the quality of fruit across the board,” Miranda said. “Photosynthesis isn’t the whole story when it comes to plants, especially produce.”

Nature’s Secret Sauce

For now, the sweeter tomatoes can be a temporary delight. This sweetness is especially prevalent in organically grown tomatoes, like Christopher’s.

“I just know now when it’s dry out there, those pasta sauces, those salsas, those soups are going to be extra good,” Christopher said.

Christopher’s customers notice the changes too. He said dry seasons often result in more tomato sales because the word gets around. While the customers often don’t know the science behind what’s exciting their taste buds, to them it doesn’t matter.

“Every week at the market I’ve heard, ‘Wow. I didn’t know they could taste like this. What’d you do to it?’” Christopher said.

His special secret? Mother Nature.

Christopher said he doesn’t change his tactics from year to year; he just lets the plants do their thing, and he harvests them when they’re ready to sell at the market.

An Imperfect Balance

The advent of modern farming techniques has made organic farms like Christopher’s much rarer. Organic farms don’t produce nearly as high crop yields as conventional farming methods. Those methods, however, rely heavily on the use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, which can decrease the health benefits of the fruit.

For example, tomatoes grown organically can be 40% smaller than modern methods. However, they also have 55% more vitamin C, 57% more natural sugars and 139% more natural antioxidants, according to the 2013 study.

Harry Klee is a horticulture researcher at the University of Florida focused on producing better tasting tomatoes (yes, this is really his main emphasis). He said the fight between organic and modern methods is an imperfect balancing act.

“You look at the data, and it says organic tomatoes are better for you and the planet,” Klee said. “That’s all fine and dandy until you realize how much more land it takes and there are millions of people out there still starving every day.”

Klee said the solution is not choosing one method or another but instead working at the intersection of business and technology to produce tomatoes that taste better and are accessible to everyone. Some people prefer going to the market every week, getting their produce from people like Christopher and knowing their farmers. Most, however, don’t have the time, money or access to organic markets so they go to the closest grocery store.

The best solution to increasing accessibility of tomatoes — and all produce — is to teach people how to grow it themselves, Klee said. That’s why his lab in Gainesville, Florida, started shipping free tomato seeds to anyone across the country who requests them.

To him, these issues of taste, yield and access of tomatoes are interconnected. Growers aren’t incentivized to use safer methods because yields determine wages, he said.

While there is no perfect solution to farming more equitably or solving climate change for growers, Klee and Christopher take solace in the joy of a sweeter tomato season.

Christopher places what is likely the last group of this season’s tomatoes into cardboard boxes and then into the bed of his white Ford F-150. They’re ready to sell at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning.

“Somewhere tucked in there is a metaphor for us,” he said as he closed the tailgate. “Bad year, good fruit. I don’t know; it feels like a reminder there is always a silver lining.”

Edited by Caroline Bowers

On and off stage, Drag queen Stormie Daie educates, builds community

By Ellie Heffernan

The recipe seems easy enough. You need makeup, sequins, a properly secured wig and last but certainly not least, a massive foam butt. Voila! You have something that looks like a drag queen. But it takes more than colorful eyeshadow and costumes to touch people’s hearts and minds.  

Raafe Purnsley knows this, and they’ve used their wit, musicality and a certain je ne sais quoi to become one of Durham, North Carolina’s most iconic drag queens. Don’t recognize the name? You probably know them as Stormie Daie, a queen who uses her platform to promote racial justice, sex positivity, LGBTQ equality and more.

Drag personas display such a wide range of intense emotions that audiences often view them as their own people. They fall in love with these larger-than-life characters, making it hard to accept that these vibrant personalities are always, on some level, a façade. 

Perhaps this is why no writers have dared to peek behind the sequined curtains that shroud Purnsley in mystery. They write about Stormie, but they forget that the person who created her is also worth getting to know. Purnsley defines Stormie — not the other way around — and learning about their life reveals what it takes to be an impactful performer and human being. 

The making of a performer, educator and community builder

Purnsley, who identifies as nonbinary, says their love of performing came from their family. Their mother frequently danced in North Carolina shag competitions, performing routines to speedy, swinging jazz. Their grandmother grew up jitterbugging. Men would toss her in the air, and she’d shoot right between their legs and pop back up, Purnsley said.  

Purnsley’s commitment to education and community building is also rooted in their childhood. During one of many summers spent visiting their grandmother in eastern North Carolina, Purnsley attended estuary camp on the inlet in Little Washington. They studied swamp systems, which motivated them to later earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental and ecological sciences from Elon University. 

Purnsley’s career in education began at the Center for Human-Earth Restoration in Raleigh, where they taught groups of predominantly students of color from kindergarten through ninth grade. Lessons consisted of basic science, local flora and fauna and Black and Indigenous history related to the land.  

Although Purnsley may have never taught them science, fans of Stormie have likely seen them “holding class.” Purnsley often weaves into their performances conversations about consent, HIV/AIDS, racial inequity, Durham’s rapid gentrification, and gender and sexuality. This summer, they read picture books about gender and sexuality at a kid-friendly drag storytelling event in Chapel Hill. 

“Drag gives you a chance to be something that society doesn’t want you to be,” Purnsley said. “You realize that once you’re good at drag, it’s a form of power. And then you can use that power to hopefully make space for people who also feel similarly to you and support being seen and heard in the ways you wanted to be.”

Purnsley has empowered people like Ellison Commodore, a Black queer individual who attended his first drag show when Stormie came to Carrboro in fall 2018. Commodore was initially nervous to attend the event, having often felt uncomfortable in predominantly white, queer spaces. He felt at ease when he saw a Black, queer person dance energetically, clearly having a good time.

Drawing the line between Purnsley and their persona

Stormie usually looks like she’s having a good time. She’s bigger, happier, sassier and more joyful than Purnsley, they said. Purnsley admitted that when Stormie shares emotions — even moody, negative ones — it’s a little superficial.

“Stormie’s like pieces of me, and there’s just more parts of me that aren’t necessary for Stormie to exist,” Purnsley says. “And those pieces are the ones that keep us real.”

Purnsley’s good friend Carlos Fernandez might disagree. Fernandez, whose drag queen name is Naomi Dix, said Purnsley and Stormie are almost the same person. Both are fun-loving, confident people who stand out in a crowd. 

Purnsley is so confident, woke, eclectic and highly educated that it made Fernandez feel threatened. The two did not initially click with each other. Today, Fernandez describes Purnsley as one of his favorite people and a “partner in crime” who balances him out. Fernandez is more reserved, but he has stronger organizational skills. Purnsley is a bit scatterbrained, but they exude confidence. 

The two perform together frequently, and they co-hosted the first “Sister Sister Drag Tour” in 2018, traveling to various colleges. They kicked off a second round of the tour this year.

Life outside of drag

It’s difficult to pin down the pieces of Purnsley that don’t shine through in Stormie. Purnsley basically has no schedule, they say, which aligns with Fernandez’s description of his friend’s organizational challenges. 

They typically wake up around 9 a.m. They lay down for another 30 or 40 minutes before actually waking up, frantically watering the plants they should have watered before going to bed and feeding their three dogs: Blue, Moon and Moose.

Blue and Moon are Chihuahua-toy poodle mixes. Moose is also a mutt, but he’s approximately the size of a Great Dane.

By day, Purnsley works as the Durham Co-op Market’s community outreach coordinator, where they determine how to use the cooperatively owned grocery store’s resources to support local communities. This work includes donating food or sharing information about community resources and events.

When they come home, Purnsley often spends time with their boyfriend of four years, Joaquín Carcaño, a public health worker with a background in infectious diseases and focus on HIV/AIDS.

The couple met at a potluck organized by mutual friends. Carcaño had brought some beers, and Purnsley began to drink one while they talked. At one point, Purnsley laughed so intensely at a funny joke Carcaño told that they spilled beer all over their future boyfriend.

Carcaño said he was drawn to Purnsley because they stand out in a crowd. They know how to make people laugh and put them at ease – a trait that became clear early on in their relationship. 

Recently, Carcaño was recovering from a surgery, and Purnsley brought flowers to his house for both him and his mother, who traveled there from Texas to care for Carcaño. Purnsley immediately hit it off with Carcaño’s mother, and they began chatting excitedly about shoes and drag. Carcaño had introduced other partners to his mother, but none had immediately bonded with her.

Anecdotes like this show that Purnsley is, in Fernandez’s words, a “mother hen.” Purnsley may be confident, creative, intelligent and even scatterbrained, but above all they are loving. This trait motivates them to do everything with the singular goal of building community.

Confidence and progress

Purnsley gave people the gift of Stormie Daie. But perhaps Stormie Daie has also given Purnsley, who used to be much less secure in their queer identity, a confidence they did not previously possess.

Purnsley recently performed a show at their alma mater, wearing a black ringlet wave wig and a copper sequin dress with bell sleeves reminiscent of the 70s. This was an era when someone like Raafe Purnsley would not have been welcome on Elon’s campus, but things are much different now. 

Edited by Caroline Bowers and Claire Tynan