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An unexpected invitation from a stranger changed her life trajectory

Alie Ward (left) says Lila Higgins has caused an exponential effect in her life.
Alie Ward
Alie Ward (left) says Lila Higgins has caused an exponential effect in her life.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 2013, Alie Ward's life was falling apart. In quick succession, her relationship with her partner ended, her dad was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and she was feeling increasingly unhappy in her job.

"I remember days when I would think, 'I only cried four times today.' That was a good day for me," Ward said.

Ward lived in Los Angeles at the time. To distract herself from her woes, she liked to find and take pictures of her unconventional obsession: bugs. Sometimes, if she found a beetle or a bee that she particularly liked, she'd post it to Facebook. Those posts attracted the attention of a woman named Lila Higgins, who worked as an entomologist at the local natural history museum. After seeing Ward's pictures, Higgins reached out to see if she would want a tour of the museum's insectary.

"For most people in the middle of a really heinous year, where everything's falling apart around them, and the people they love the most are deteriorating, being like, 'Do you want to come see 40 cockroaches in a fish tank' [is] not what most people would [say] 'absolutely' to," Ward said.

"But this is my jam. I have loved bugs since I was a little kid. There [was] nothing I wanted more than to see some scorpions or larvae."

When Ward arrived at the museum, Higgins greeted her at the back door.

"Lila had no idea what I was going through in my life at that time," Ward remembered. "I think she probably didn't expect someone jittery and tear-stained to meet her at the back door of this museum."

Higgins handed Ward a lab coat and led her through the different exhibits.

"I remember she opened up this freezer, like, 'Come check this out,' and it was full of dead bugs. ... And I just remember just how excited she was about everything. [It] was such a pass for me to get excited about this in her company and really rediscover what excited me in life."

For the first time in ages, Ward felt herself light up. Higgins noticed her enthusiasm and suggested Ward volunteer at the museum for a few hours every week.

"She just knew that I could possibly be happy there, and maybe I would have something to offer," Ward remembered. "But at the time I really felt like I didn't have a lot to offer many people. I was a wreck. I was crying constantly and I was really preoccupied."

Despite her doubts, Ward decided to sign up. Every Wednesday she'd arrive at the museum. And with each volunteer shift, she felt a little bit better.

"It gave me this 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," Ward said.

Soon, Ward quit her job and started working in science media. She now is the creator and host of a podcast called Ologies. Ward had Higgins on the show as her first guest.

"She has caused such an exponential effect in my life. It was really because of her that I was able to reconnect with that part of myself, change my career course and do something that I really love," Ward said. "Sometimes I shudder when I think about what would have happened if I didn't take her up on that. What would my life have been like? Who would I be? You know, Lila Higgins in one instant changed my whole life."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Autumn Barnes