I submitted an article to the Science club for girls website earlier this year. The website states “Women who share a love of science, engineering and technology, who are in different stages of their careers, share with their “young selves” words of encouragement, glimpses into the future and wisdom that can only be gleaned from hindsight.” I thought this was a wonderful opportunity and my article was published, however it was originally longer and needed to be abridged. My article can be seen here: http://scienceclubforgirls.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/cancer-researcher-and-blogger-kate-sleeths-letter-to-her-12-year-old-self/ . This is the full version I originally wrote.
Dear 12 year old Kate,
One of the things you are currently sure about is that you are going to grow up and become a veterinary surgeon who specializes in horses. I am afraid to say that this is not going to be your destiny although your love of horses and animals in general will continue unabated. As you continue through school you will struggle with advanced mathematics and this will lead you to reconsider your future. Don’t worry; you still get to do something very cool. You will decide to continue learning biology, which is really your one true love. You will surprisingly fail a key exam which will mean you attend a different undergraduate university than expected. While embarrassing you will learn that this was a blessing in disguise. Had you taken the genetics course you had set your heart on your career path would have been narrower than that which followed your biochemistry and molecular biology degree. It also taught you a vital skill – the need to adapt to situations and surroundings. This will serve you well over the years, although change is scary it can bring wonderful opportunities and surprises.
People often comment about how clever you are, and how easy things come to you. As you grow older this feeling of expectation will become heavier and more worrisome. Also the suggestion that you find things easy will affect how you briefly view the world. You will momentarily believe it, but you only need to fail once to realize that people’s perceptions are not reality. You study and work hard to get the grades you achieve and while there will always be this minor blip of imperfection it serves as a constant reminder to never take your eyes off the prize and foot off the gas. Luckily this actually changes the course of your career and where you will live in the future. Oddly enough the people who tease you at school for being “bookish” are the first to congratulate you on Facebook for your future scientific achievements.
Due to your concentration while everyone else was messing around in the first week of their undergraduate degree you heard a defining fact: the people in the top 10 of the course would be invited to perform research in the USA for the third year of the degree. You therefore worked hard and were never below the top 6 of the class and automatically earned the right to visit the USA as a visiting student. This experience essentially changed your life. You bloomed from the unsure young lady into a confident, self-reliant woman. You were sexually harassed and came through stronger. No one can inflict themselves on you if their advances are unwanted – no matter their seniority to you – you learned to stand up for yourself in the face of adversity. You spoke publically for the first time, and although shaky it is a skill you will develop over the next 10 years. You also developed an interest in cellular signaling and cancer development which would steer the course of your early scientific career.
You apply to graduate programs and your top choice is at the Medical Research Council in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Unfortunately the PI you choose to work for prefers someone else so you are rejected for the first time in your life. It hurts. You must lift your head high and try not to flagellate yourself about this. You can’t always get what you want and it is an important life lesson you will try and accept. Amazingly you are called back to interview with a different PI who you had impressed and he asks you to perform your studies with him! Although the subject doesn’t appeal to you as much you accept and begin one of the most important relationships of your scientific career. Your supervisor will nurture your abilities and provide support and guidance when necessary. He continues to do so over 7 years after you left his lab and his advice is golden.
You will not always get on with your bosses or people within the laboratories you work with. This is natural and OK. You are a unique puzzle piece who won’t fit with some, but there will be plenty who fit well and you enjoy working with. These environments will allow you to perform good, basic research on projects you enjoy. Due to your thirst for new knowledge and skills you target your next lab and boss with precision until you reach the hallowed grounds of the University of Oxford. You then meet a boy and make a mistake – to put his career and dream in front of your own! You will move to the USA, the relationship will fail, but you will decide to stay and continue your new research project. During this time of change you are open to new opportunities and become involved with the Association for Women In Science (AWIS), your local Postdoctoral Association (which you will eventually chair), and the National Postdoctoral Association (which you will become a board member of). You will begin writing a blog to share your experiences and views with fellow scientists which you enjoy immensely; writing has always been a passion and this opportunity allows you to hone your writing style. You will diversify your skill set, meet wonderfully motivating and interesting individuals, while making an impact at your research institution. This willingness for personal growth and participation gets you noticed and you are offered an administrative position. After 7 years of postdoctoral research this timing is fortuitous and you decide to take the opportunity.
While you enjoy bench work you are (and always have been) a people person. The opportunity to assist the graduate and summer academy students in their personal development is too irresistible to turn down. Plus you have had some wonderful mentors who have instilled in you the belief that you should pass on your knowledge and guide your successors. This new administrative position will allow you to do that. Plus it will provide you a new challenge which will require skills to be refined and developed, enabling your own personal growth. As long as you are continually stretching yourself, you will never be bored.
You will make some glorious mistakes but you learn from them quickly. Always take every opportunity which comes along as that is usually where your next job offer comes from. Most importantly, never put someone else’s wants and desires ahead of your own. If they care for you, your desires will be equally important.
Take care of yourself; chin up and work hard; enjoy the unexpected twists and turns of your life and career as believe me it is quite a ride!
32 year old Kate, Ph.D