Crystal came from a tumultuous upbringing, passed from foster home to foster home before settling with her grandparents as a teenager. It wasn’t until she was a young single mother that the missionaries knocked on her door and brought a whole new light into her life. Now she is a successful cellular molecular biology professor, a devoted mother, and advocate for women. Crystal embraces every opportunity to teach others the joys of science, of being a woman, and of the love Jesus Christ has for them.
My mom was barely seventeen when she had me. Later, she got together with my stepfather, and she had five of us all together: three with my dad and two with my stepfather. I’d always been a spiritual person. I believe with all my heart that people are given spiritual gifts from God. I remember specific examples from when I was young when I knew without a doubt that Jesus Christ loved me. I had promptings to get my brothers out of situations before bad things happened or promptings to take a certain way home from school one day—like a sixth sense. My mom and dad were huge partiers, so they never took us to a church service, but they did find out who in the community had a church bus and sent us to whatever church service it belonged to. So I went to lots of churches when I was young.
My mother was very abusive to all of us. When I was almost thirteen, my mom threatened to give us older three kids away, so my dad—who I later found out was not my biological father—came and got us. I was brokenhearted because I had to leave behind my baby brothers who were only one and three years old, and I had been their primary caretaker since they were born. I remember my dad driving away and looking out the car window. My little brother was wearing blue dinosaur underwear and running after the car and crying for me to come back.
We stayed with my dad for only a couple of weeks because he didn’t have a stove or running water. So his stepmother, my grandma, took care of us. We were home a lot in my grandma’s house, and during that time, a door and a coffee table were broken. After about six months, she couldn’t handle it anymore and turned us in to state foster care.
When we were put into foster care, yet again it felt like the adults who were supposed to love us gave us away. My parents never wrote or contacted us once while we were in foster care. At that time, I was in Kansas foster care in the eighth grade. In this family, the father was a Lutheran minister and the mother stayed home. Everything we did was either church related or school related. There was no TV and very strict rules about what books you could read and what activities you could do. My younger brother only lasted one day before kicking the foster mother, and he was then taken away to juvenile detention. My other brother, David, and I stayed together for a couple months before he was also taken to a new home, leaving me alone with the minister’s family.
The kids were horrible to me at school because I was the foster kid, and I remember praying a lot to God to get me out of this situation. “I’ll do whatever you want,” I said. I was in agony thinking about all my brothers, especially the youngest ones who were still living with my mother. I knew someday one of them would be killed, but what could I do? About five months into foster care, the thought came to me that my mother probably hadn’t told my grandmother—her mother—that we were in foster care. Somehow, I got her address. My grandparents had just moved to Virginia because my grandfather was taking over a company and helping the branch take off.
I sent them a letter asking them if there was anything they could do, please help us get out of foster care. Prior to this, I was always afraid of my grandfather because he was not a cuddly man. My grandmother and aunts were always kind to me, but it wasn’t them that called me back—it was him. He asked me a lot of questions, and at the end of the conversation he said, “I’m going to try to get you out.” I felt so much relief. Then he said, “Not so fast. This is a long process. You will still remain in foster care for many months.”
He was right. We were there for another year, passed from person to person. My schooling was the only thing that kept me going. Everyone told me how ugly I was and that no one wanted me, but darn if I didn’t get the best grades in science! I was probably the quietest kid in the classroom, but my teachers still recognized something in me. They would pull me aside to say, “You are special. You stand out from the crowd. Will you consider putting an entry into this science fair—or studying for this spelling bee?” All I wanted was someone to be proud of me, and they gave me a reason to try, so I focused intently on the projects and tried to succeed.
When I was fourteen I found myself in my second foster home, getting ready to move to my third. The principle called me out of class and said, “I just got a phone call. You are moving in with your grandparents!” I felt so lucky. My brother, David, and I were in two different homes at the time. We finally saw each other for the first time in three months on a car ride to the plane. It was also my first plane ride. My other brother was still in juvenile detention for kicking the first foster mom, so he did not come with us at that time.
When we arrived in Virginia, my grandparents made a great effort to show us they wanted us. We had nice clothes and toys, and for the first time in my life, people were nice to me. I was the best child I could be for them, because I was so grateful! I did what I could to make my grandparents proud of me. There wasn’t a whole lot I could offer them, but I always strived to do my best academically.
We’d been in the home for a couple months when I asked them if they’d take us to church. They took us to a Methodist church where we continued to go until I left for college. So, I was Christian. I did not become LDS until several years later.
When you lived with your grandparents, how did they feel about education?
My grandmother was not formally educated, but my grandfather was retired from the Navy, so he had a lot of educational training. I have one of his business cards that says he has a master’s degree in electrical engineering. We never really talked about his education, but they definitely encouraged me to get an education.
When I was a little bitty girl, during all this parent craziness, my mom left me home alone for days when I was very sick, and my dad’s stepmom found me. She took me to her house for a couple weeks, and I remember feeling so depressed. I looked at my grandma. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and I asked her, “How can I not have such a crazy life when I’m an adult?” She said, “Get yourself an education.” So when I was seven that became the focus of my life.
When you graduated from high school, how did you gain further education?
After high school, things kind of changed at home. My grandparents were always very nice and supportive, but very strict. They believed that when a child turned eighteen it was their responsibility to care for themselves. They made it clear early on that they were not going to put any contribution toward a college education. So, I was taking all these courses in high school, but I honest to goodness never believed that I would get the opportunity to go to college, so I looked for other opportunities instead.
At the very beginning of my senior year there was a career fair. I saw a brochure that said, “Earn $30,000 by joining ROTC.” I had no idea what it was, so I picked up the brochure and this Marine Corps recruiter introduced himself. He was very in-your-face. It was hard to say no, and the next thing I knew I was signed up for the Marine Corps—not the ROTC. This was basic training, enlisted. I soon realized I did not want to do this. I was doing hard core physical training for long hours every weekend. There was a lot of yelling in my face to break me down, and my spirit couldn’t handle it. One time, I was on guard duty directing traffic. I guess my rifle wasn’t straight enough. The drill instructor yanked the rifle out of my arms and pulled out my back. I was thankfully sent home from the injury.
So, about three weeks later I’d gotten a job at a convenience store. All my friends were home for Christmas. I was so humiliated and felt like such a loser, serving them chicken biscuits when they were home from college. So I left and went home to my grandparents. I didn’t have much money, and my grandparents said they wouldn’t help me financially, but I still sent in two college applications: one to Cornell University and one to Mary Baldwin. I was accepted to both. A month after my acceptance to Mary Baldwin, an all-girls school, they sent me an invitation to be part of a scholars program with a nice scholarship. So, I accepted that and was very grateful. With my prayers of gratitude, I went to college to major in biology with a minor in ministry and women’s studies.
I got married right before my sophomore year and had a baby that same year. I was involved in spiritual life very much and was always the person they asked to give the prayers. I was president for two years of the Baptist Student Union and went on three mission trips during my summer vacations. We raised money for the trips through the Baptist Student Union, but we did a lot of our own fundraising as well. The funny thing is that I was never a Baptist, but I loved outreach, networking with other Christians, and bringing spirituality to campus. At the end of my college experience, I was blessed and honored to receive a big award called the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for people who inspire others.
What mission trips did you attend?
My sophomore year in college I went to Savannah, Georgia, to a Baptist outreach program for inner city kids, and I brought my new baby with me. All the little kids loved her, and she was passed around a lot. Basically, it was like a Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs where we gave the kids something to do after school. We helped organize the brand new building and introduced new activities, games, and songs to them. We played with them, let them braid our hair, and we did a little spiritual conference for them the weekend before we left. It was a great experience.
My mission trip my junior year was my favorite. That year, we worked with a Christian group called Charleston Outreach in Charleston, South Carolina, and worked with children who had been victims of lead poisoning. The city had decimated their homes. One of the children had written to President Clinton asking for help, and he’d sent them money to rebuild their home. One day, the husband came home from work, stood in his newly finished hallway and looked at me. I said, “This is your new hallway! Do you like it?” He looked at me and said, “I’ve never had a nice hallway before,” and started crying. It was magnificent. It is, to this day, one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
My senior year we flew to Oahu, Hawaii, and put on a Family Life Conference. We worked very hard for that mission trip. I sold all my Beanie Babies just to pay for it. Our leader, Barbara, had a degree in family counseling and put together a very thorough curriculum. We also flew to the tiny island of Lana’i and did another conference over there. Eight of us split up to teach different age groups. I worked with 4th – 6th graders to instill basic core values, like a huge Family Home Evening, while the parents took the 5 Love Languages course by Gary Chapman. It was an experience I’ve never been able to repeat in my whole life.
You graduated with a degree in biology and a minor in ministry and women’s studies. What did you do after that?
You can’t do much with a bachelor’s degree in biology. I hate to say that if anyone is studying biology right now, but it’s hard to make a living with just a bachelor’s degree. So I had two choices: medical school or grad school. Medical school was $150,000 in student loans. I’d already racked up $100,000 because I’d gone to a private college. (I never should have gone there for that reason alone, but I’m very grateful I went to Mary Baldwin anyway!) I didn’t want to take out more student loans, and I also had a precious two year old at home. I felt like I’d already been absent for a good part of her life, so I chose to go the route of grad school. If you study in the science field, you’re guaranteed five years of support, tuition and fees paid, plus a living stipend. No student loans were necessary if you played your cards right. So I went straight into UVA to study Biology with an emphasis in Embryology. I emphasized in microsurgery on frog embryos.
At the time I went to grad school, I’d fully intended to get a PhD. I did my first two years and passed my qualifying exam. But five years into the program, I separated from my husband. The final summer I was supposed to finish the thesis I didn’t get it turned in until October, instead of in July. My boss did not pay me my stipend my last summer of PhD school, so I had spent it working as a nanny and shuttling my daughter back and forth after the separation—which left me no time to write my thesis. Because of that, I was awarded a master’s degree and not a PhD, even though I’d put seven years of my life into that degree. I was grateful they were willing to give me something, but I thought, “Play nice, and when you are finished and your thesis has been published, then petition to get your PhD.” When that time did come, it did not work out to my advantage. At least my friends and colleagues understood, especially those in my lab who knew what I was going through.
How were you introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
The whole time I was in grad school, I tried to keep up my spiritual life. I was going to a non-denominational church, and I loved the people, the music, and the ministry. I’d been going there for 4 years, but I kept it quiet around my colleagues because no one I worked with was religious. They felt religious people were ignorant. Not long after I moved into a tiny apartment with my daughter, the LDS missionaries came by. As a new single mom, these two young men were so kind and would let me cook dinner for them, and they played with my daughter. She was so happy when they came over. During this time, I was finishing up my PhD, I already had a degree in ministry, and these nineteen-year-old boys were telling me that a fourteen-year-old boy had seen God, and that all the things I thought were true were not true—that I hadn’t even been baptized by the proper authority. I did not accept their teachings for a long time.
But when they showed me a DVD called The Restoration, it was a classic moment where I could not explain the emotional feelings I had. I couldn’t wait for them to leave so I could read the story of Joseph Smith’s experience for myself. I was pretty tentative because I’d been raised to believe that Mormonism was a cult and women were second class citizens, but I started going to the LDS Church and my non-denominational church, despite my reservations.
One day in the non-denominational church, we were reading Acts 8. It mentions that two of the apostles needed to go to Samaria so they could confer the Holy Ghost upon the people because it had not been received. My preacher asked, “Now, why do you think they did that?” During that time, the missionaries had been telling me about the Holy Ghost and proper authority. I knew right then and there the answer. I said, “I know why, I know why! Because no one had the proper authority.” And the preacher was like, “I don’t think that’s what it meant . . . moving right along.”
Before then and since then I’ve had a lot of questions, but that experience is undeniable to me. The two things I go back to are: my impressions watching The Restoration and my Bible study of Acts 8 to give myself strength. I saw the missionaries twice a week for three months before I finally committed to baptism. I was baptized in November 2004 into the LDS Church.
Once you joined the church and finished your degree, where did you go?
A year after I joined the church, I was still in school and not making ends meet, my car was almost repossessed several times, I could not pay my bills, and my advisor was not sure he could pay me to work in the fall. So, I sent an email to my old advisor at Mary Baldwin College, which was only thirty miles away, and asked for a job. They had multiple lab sections that needed a teacher, so I started to teach there while working on my PhD at the other college. Over time, I was asked to teach more and more. I taught at Mary Baldwin for two years before I completed my degree, but my other advisor found out before I graduated. I knew he was very grumpy, but I had no idea he had such an aversion to me teaching there, which ultimately affected my non-approval of my PhD program in the end.
Then, it was like one of those perfect timing moments. I had been in the church for three years when a man moved in from Idaho. He and I eventually married, and he got a job thirty miles the other direction as I finished up my thesis. It was then that my bishop pulled me in to talk about my education. He turned out to be a member of the biology department for James Madison University. He said, “Give me a copy of your resume. We may be able to find a class for you to teach. That would give you a foot in the door.” I wasn’t interested in a foot in the door because I was already teaching at my dream job, even if it didn’t pay much, but I gave him my resume anyway.
James Madison University called me and asked if I’d teach one class of cellular-molecular biology lab. I said, “Let me think about this—” but then I took it. I loved teaching at this university so much that I quit at Mary Baldwin. That very next semester, someone quit at James Madison, and I was able to take her job full time. Now I’m teaching all kinds of things. I guess I have the “curse of the competent.” I can’t believe I’ve been so blessed to have this job. I now teach cellular-molecular biology lab, genetics and development lab, microbiology lab, and a viral discovery course.
What is currently your favorite college course to teach?
My favorite course of all—which I’m not teaching right now but wish I was—is biology of women. It was my favorite course to take as an undergrad. It’s a course rooted in educating girls at Mary Baldwin, ages twelve and up, about their bodies: the biological differences between male/female, X and Y chromosomes, and anatomy. Then we study the different stages of life a woman will go through: childhood, adolescence and puberty, pregnancy, menopause and all the options and lifestyle changes that happen to you as you gradually age. Most of the time women are so uneducated about their own bodies. They often learn about their bodies through locker room talk or magazines. That course has changed so many lives, as it also changed mine as a young woman.
I would love to teach this course at my current college and have suggested to my university its importance. We have a wonderful women’s studies program here, but no biology of women course yet. At Mary Baldwin, I even had men take the course, and I can promise you that they would say they learned just as much from it as the women did. This summer, I’m teaching at a community college as well, and that committee jumped at my offer to possibly teach it there in the future.
How do you feel about teaching as a female professor in biology?
I’ve never, once, felt at a disadvantage as a woman teaching biology. Our department chair is a woman, our assistant dean is a woman, and half of our faculty are women. I work with an amazing team.
All the women in my family, despite the craziness, have always been strong. I’ve never thought that being a woman was a strike against me. It’s really important that women know they have the same amazing opportunities as men, and you are not at a loss to make any contributions or accomplishments just because you are female.
What would you like to see change for women in the world?
I hate that there is a stereotype that women and girls are not strong in math and science. This becomes a cop-out: that women and girls are expected not to be good. So when you excel at math and science, you are an anomaly of nature. I think it’s really important not to tell our children that women are not good at math and science because it sets them up for low expectations. It’s definitely been my experience that if you teach a child to have low expectations, they will not disappoint you. Typically, there aren’t too many female science role models. I want my students to see that I care about them, to see me as a role model, keeping up with the literature, and being there for them. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me. My daughter has never known anything different. That is totally a different model than I grew up with.
Have you had any experiences where your work related to the gospel?
During my first year of grad school, with these amazingly smart people, we were in a classroom, learning about developmental biology with Dr. Barry Condron, an embryologist. He was teaching us about grasshopper embryos. “In the grasshopper, the neural system is pattered in a very cool way. They send out projections called pioneers. The pioneers wind their way through the embryo. In some places they turn left, some right. All the while they’re looking for different signals, or queues, to tell them what to do and where to go. The neurons move through the embryo—pattern the way—and they finally get to their target. What happens when they get to their target? They die…but the tracks they laid down are recognized by all future neurons, and they all follow the exact track of the original pioneer neurons.”
I remember sitting there thinking, “Wow. This is like Jesus Christ! He tells us which way to go and what path to follow.” I felt the spirit so strongly. Pioneer neurons. They’re amazing! At that point, I wasn’t a member, but now, I see another layer when you think of the Mormon pioneers, and it is even more relevant. Isn’t it amazing that the same principles play out over and over again in our lives? All we have to do is see them for what they are. I’ve seen so much in my life, but I’ve been able to survive it with a great attitude and a great love for every person around me because I’ve always known the love of Christ. I’ve never denied it, and it’s the first place I go when I’m in trouble or when I’m scared. I encourage everyone to seek for that part of their being, because it is there, and never deny it.
At A Glance
Crystal Scott Croshaw
Location: Broadway, VA
Marital status: Married
Children: 15-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son
Occupation: professor, lecturer
Schools Attended: Mary Baldwin College, University of Virginia
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Be Still My Soul”
Interview by Jessica Drollette. Photos used with permission.