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How a friendly museum tour invite shifted 'Ologies' podcast host Alie Ward's life

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. And today's story comes from Alie Ward. In 2013, Ward's life was falling apart. Her relationship with her partner ended, and her dad was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She was also feeling a disconnect between the career she had chosen and the person she wanted to be. So to distract herself, Ward would post pictures to social media of her unconventional obsession - bugs of all different shapes and sizes. And one day she got a Facebook message from a friend of a friend named Lila Higgins. Higgins was an entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and she had seen Ward's bug pictures and invited her to tour the museum.

ALIE WARD: Lila had no idea what I was going through in my life at that time. I think she probably didn't expect someone jittery and tear-stained to meet her at the backdoor of this museum. But this is my jam. I have loved bugs since I was a little kid. And I went and was just delighted by it. I got to put on a lab coat. I got to go through some secret doors, some employee-only areas. And I remember she opened up this freezer like, come check this out. And then just (imitating door creaking) - this freezer opening. And it was full of dead bugs - dead tarantulas, some stick insects, I mean, all kinds of things that have passed away. But they were saving them for the entomology department or just for posterity. And I just remember just how excited she was about everything was such a pass for me to get excited about this in her company and really rediscover what excited me in life.

You know, at the end, she said, you should volunteer here. And I remember, I mean, I was, like, in between crying jags that day. And I was like, how could my life get a lot worse? I can afford three hours a week. So I started volunteering, and I just would really light up. And it gave me this, like, sense of purpose. It helped me reconnect with my love of science and nature that I'd always had that I really put on the back burner to chase these career ambitions that were really not that authentic to me and didn't really bring out the best in who I was. And, you know, Lila Higgins, in one instant, changed my whole life. I think sometimes I shudder when I think about what would have happened if I didn't take her up on that, or what would my life have been like. Who would I be?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That day set off a domino effect for Ward. The joy she felt volunteering at the museum prompted her to quit her job and start a successful science podcast called "Ologies." Her first guest on the show was none other than Lila Higgins. You can find more stories like this on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast. And to share the story of your unsung hero, visit myunsunghero.org for instructions on how to send a voice memo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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