At the Andlinger Center, Nari Takes Work (and Life) Seriously

For Nari Baughman, life is a devotional sort of thing. At work, she strives to protect the planet. At home, she’s a devoted wife and mother of two. And at the same time, she’s committed to saving herself and helping others deal with a daunting personal health challenge.

Baughman is the faculty assistant to Professor Emily A. Carter, the Founding Director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and she takes her work seriously.

“Professor Carter's research is so important in preserving the planet, and I'd like to think that I'm contributing in my own small way,” said Baughman, who worked at Firestone Library from 2006 to 2008 and returned to Princeton in 2013.

With her husband Godfrey Miller, Ph.D., a management consultant who graduated with an A.B. in physics from Princeton in 2007, she has a daughter, Freya, 6, and a son, Gareth, 3. She learned early that mothering, like most of life, isn’t easy.

“I almost died giving birth to my daughter due to a wound infection from the emergency C-section,” she said. “My son was born on the day of Hurricane Sandy, and my husband and I had to walk to the hospital in Philadelphia at 5 a.m. in the hurricane.”

But a far more difficult struggle loomed. In December 2014, just a week after her 30th birthday, Baughman was diagnosed with stage 4 Her2neu+ breast cancer, an especially aggressive cancer that had metastasized to her liver and right lung.

“I underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy from January through June while working full time in MAE and taking care of my family,” she said.  “I still undergo immunotherapy infusions once every three weeks. I work during the infusion and then return to work as soon as it’s over.”

During the difficult times that followed her diagnosis, Baughman returned to her roots as a writer. (She holds a master’s degree in creative writing and a certificate in cinema studies from the University of Pennsylvania, 2012.) She set up a blog (stronginwill.blogspot.com) to share her experiences with others and provide valuable support.

The writing also provided an outlet for her feelings, whence arose the entry “One thousand cranes.”

“Legend has it that if a person makes one thousand paper cranes, he or she is granted a wish,” Baughman wrote in her June 13, 2015 blog post. “Like many people my age, I first heard about this legend through the story of Sadako Sasaki, the young Japanese girl diagnosed with leukemia (she was exposed to radiation when the Hiroshima atomic bomb exploded) who attempted to fold a thousand cranes to fulfill her wish of recovery. Though she did not succeed in finishing that goal before her untimely death, the tradition of folding cranes for cancer patients has remained something of a pop culture phenomenon.”

Baughman soon realized that creating 1,000 origami cranes is easier said than done. “Four months and five chemo sessions later, I found myself staring at the box of unfolded paper,” she related in the blog entry. “The small percentage of finished cranes just stared back at me with silent judgment.”

In a demonstration of the resolve that has become her personal hallmark, Baughman went on to describe how she dived into the challenge, folding 700 cranes in a single week. “My fingers were stiff and raw and calloused and covered in tiny paper cuts. I was exhausted, but I still planned to finish the rest,” she wrote. “And, the thing is, it wasn't about folding the cranes themselves — that part is arbitrary. It's about setting a goal and achieving it no matter the obstacles and whatever the outcome. I mean, has there ever been a sense of accomplishment in an unmet goal?”

Asked whether she has kept the cranes, her response was emphatic. “After all the time spent folding one thousand cranes, you really can't expect me to get rid of them!” she said. “They hang in a bundle from the ceiling in my bedroom like an ornament. My son thinks they're candy; my daughter thinks the birds fly around at night, granting wishes as we sleep.”

Baughman’s devotion to her work during trying times has earned her deep respect from Professor Carter, who praised “Nari's indomitable spirit, positive attitude, and continued desire to work at the highest level of quality throughout her discovery, diagnosis, and treatment. She is an extraordinary person, one whom I am immensely grateful to have on my team. Her talents have become essential components to my group's productivity.”

Meanwhile, when she finds the time between work, family, and treatments, Baughman enjoys singing, both with her family and with her group, the Silver Larks.  “I love singing Simon & Garfunkel's ‘Bleecker Street’ with my husband. I'm Simon, he's Garfunkel,” she said. “With my group, our crowd favorite is the Alison Krauss version of ‘I'll Fly Away,’ from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.”

Another favorite pastime is reading. “I've read 122 books so far this year,” she said. “The one that resonated the most with me was ‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom,’ by Yeonmi Park (with the help of a ghostwriter). I read it over the summer, right after I finished my final round of chemotherapy. Although our particular circumstances were vastly different, I was able to relate to her struggle of wanting to live. Moreover, her story made me feel an incredible gratitude for the life I had.”

Baughman said she is “cautiously optimistic” about winning her fight with cancer. “The type of cancer I have is considered a terminal illness with a median life expectancy of five years,” she said. “Although there are no visible tumors or active cancer cells as of right now, I can't say that I am technically ‘cancer-free’ or ‘in remission’ because I still have to receive immunotherapy infusions indefinitely.

“Still, my body's response to the treatment is the best outcome that I could have ever imagined, given the circumstances.”

--Doug Hulette