Anjelica Gonzalez’s Letter to her Young Self

Dr. Gonzalez is a first-generation college student and now a biomedical engineer who uses a mutli-disciplinary approach, combining organic chemistry, molecular biology, mathematics, computational modeling and image analysis to create new biomaterials and structures to study biological processes. She also participates in research around health disparities. More here.

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gonzales

Dear Anjelica,

Right now you are at Yale University, somewhere in your second year as a professor of Biomedical Engineering. Can you believe it? No way, right?! I know you’re thinking “How did this happen? I must have no personal, social or non-academic life, and all the rigorous studying and self-sacrifice have finally paid off.” No, not quite. You are happily married and the new mother of twin boys. Didn’t think that would happen either, huh?! So now you’re thinking that you must have been struck by lightning at some point, and have magically acquired a new brain or the ability to absorb knowledge in a much more efficient way than you do now. No, not true either. Same brain, different perspective.

“The common theme here isn’t that you were always at the top of your class (you weren’t)… Instead, the common theme is that you were open to apply yourself to new experiences and you learned”

Here’s what happened: While you didn’t know anything about college and had no indication of how to get there, you applied for everything that you came across and learned that there were ways to get into and pay for college. You applied, got in, and received scholarships. In your third year of undergraduate studies in engineering, you received a flier in the mail, inviting you to apply to a summer research program. You applied, got in and learned about scientific research in general. After your summer experience you learned that there were graduate programs that would enable you to study biomedical applications of engineering techniques. You applied and got in, studied, and learned that biological systems were amazingly complex and intriguing and that you were actually capable of doing research. You applied for a postdoctoral fellowship associated with a hospital in hopes of learning more about the translation of basic research to bedside application. You were awarded, studied, learned more about clinical systems and also that you have the aptitude to identify what you don’t know and subsequently pursue answers to unanswered questions.

“Contrary to popular belief, a lack of knowledge is what drives science.”

The common theme here isn’t that you were always at the top of your class (you weren’t) or that you blew people away with amazing test scores

or research data (you didn’t). Instead, the common theme is that you were open to apply yourself to new experiences and you learned…there has always been a lot that you did not know, and always will be, but you have embraced your lack of knowledge and curiosity as fuel to push forward and continue to learn. So far on this path, you’ve learned a lot. You’ve learned to be open to opportunities that you did not plan for, but may be right for. You’ve learned that each experience can inspire and inform the next step in your life. You’ve learned that the people in your life are more important than the things in your life. You’ve learned to live in the moment, because it will not last forever. You’ve learned that success is about enjoying not just what you do, but also who you are. You’ve learned that research is hard, rarely rewarding, but always interesting. Contrary to popular belief, a lack of knowledge is what drives science. If everything was already known, what would be the point of research? It is just that…a search and repeated search for answers. Martin Schwartz, a leader in your field of research, addressed this point quite clearly in his essay entitled The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. He said, “Science makes me feel stupid too…I’ve gotten used to it…I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid.” Yes, a leading scientific researcher and professor feels stupid. And embraces this feeling as an opportunity to learn something new, and contribute the learned information as a novel addition to the scientific knowledge bank.

So, young Jelica, the mid-life Jelica leaves you with some sage advice. Spend this time discovering yourself and the world, and realizing that no one has all the answers. Life is full of success and failure, which keeps things exciting. Science is composed of people who don’t have the answers either, and are still searching for them. As long as you embrace these ideas, regardless of the “stupid” questions you ask, the “stupid” things you say, and the “stupid” things you do, your enthusiasm for life and science will remain. So, 1) enjoy the journey and 2) remember that no one knows everything. The joy is in the process of discovery.

Keep moving forward,

Anjelica

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Schwartz MA. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci. 2008 Jun 1;121(Pt 11):1771.

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