This letter first appeared in 2010 as part of the letter to my young self project. Alissa is currently investigating tuberculosis as a Yerby Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. She will on the Women of Color in STEM panel on 3/25/2014.
Hey Shy Girl!
Let me tell you a couple of things. You are preparing yourself well for the “rest of your life” adventure, but there are a few things I need to tell you:
1) Keep doing things you love to do, even if you’re “just okay” at them. Running, swimming, hiking, tennis. You may not be able to invest in expensive sports glasses and you haven’t been training since you were 4 years old and the whole “competitive team” thing amplifies your shyness. Take a deep breath; accept the middle, and DO THESE THINGS ANYWAY. If the team at school stresses you out, check out the YMCA or community center or join a club at your church. Run, swim, hike, play tennis with other folk who WANT TO HAVE FUN TOO. Challenge your body, even if you aren’t an Olympian.
It turns out that the things you love and you’re “just okay” at will help you stay balanced and creative and happy in your life. You’re going to end up wanting to do science in some pretty far-out places – you’ll need your body and your mind to excel. Trust me – there are some National Geographic moments coming up and you want to be ready for them!
2) Stay loyal to your “misfit” crew of friends. I know the social scene is pretty tough right now….okay, it’s REALLY tough right now. You’re smart, you’re a late bloomer, you wear glasses, you’re quiet, you’re African-American, you’re articulate. You are so many things that don’t make you “cool” in your high school. You have your crew of “misfits” to hang out with and maybe you guys were thrown together because none of you “fit”, but that’s what’s going to make all of you such outstanding people in the future. You guys are all intelligent and talented and a little too unique for the way that high schools go. JUST HANG IN THERE AND STAY LOYAL.
I know it may be tempting to ignore/diss the misfit crew if the popular girls need help organizing something or the boy that you like asks you for homework help, but none of those people are your true friends. They they just want to take advantage of the talents you see as social setbacks. Your true friends are always going to encourage you to follow your passions no matter how out-there they may be. They will be the ones bringing you food at midnight when you’re doing experiments in the lab. They will be the ones who’ll walk you home early from crazy parties in college to make sure that you get studying done for critical exams. Stay with the misfits and get ready for college – it is going to be a wild ride…and your misfit friends are going to have your back all the way through it.
3) Work on your foundations…and then let go. I’ve been doing this science thing for a while now, and each day I’m in the lab or teaching, I realize how incredibly important my scientific foundations are. Chemistry, Physics (don’t gag) and Calculus all provide critical building blocks to understanding Biology. I’m telling you right now that you will battle Physics throughout college and that you will struggle through Organic Chemistry. I want you to focus on understanding the main concepts and theories and obsess less about getting an A. Do the problem sets, then do more problem sets, then ask your teachers what it all means. Check out Nova or other TV programs which can clue you into how this stuff is actually applied in real life.
Now, here’s the tricky part: once you have the foundations down, you’re going to need to let go.
Science is not going to be compartmentalized when you grow up, even though you will mostly be trained that way. You are already a really interdisciplinary person – sometimes you may feel a little unfocused, but that ability to weave multiple disciplines into a single purpose will benefit you as you try to establish yourself scientifically in the future. If you stick too much to labels and categories…well, you’ll get stuck.
Well, shy girl who’s not so shy, I hope you can absorb the lessons in this. Keep this close to you through the high school years. I can promise you these things: you’re going to be alright, you’re going to learn amazing things and experience the wonder and the wrath of Nature, you’re going to witness a virus devastate a generation, you will battle an ancient parasite, you will experience the power of friendship…you will have so much fun.
Alissa Myrick was born in Paris, France. Daughter of a diplomat and public health microbiologist, she lived in many different countries before settling in Berkeley, California. Alissa graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in Molecular and Cell Biology and passions for African-American Women’s Literature and a public health approach to preventing HIV/AIDS. Eager to combine her passions for research and applied public health, Alissa completed her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in Public Health at Harvard studying drug resistance in malaria. Subsequently, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at U.C. San Francisco. Alissa’s research has taken her over much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Alissa left bench science to pursue her interests in science education and increasing diversity in the sciences with the Biology Scholars Program at U.C. Berkeley. She is currently a Yerby Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health studying tuberculosis. Alissa is committed to being an excellent mother, friend and citizen scientist. Alissa has a lifetime goal to explore every continent and in her spare time loves to devour books, bake, play outdoors and introduce her daughter to life’s adventures.