Debbie Chachra’s letter to her teenage self

Debbie has loved to build and create things since she was a young girl.

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chachra_young1

To: Debbie Chachra
Scarborough, ON
Canada
August 15, 1984

From: Debbie Chachra, PhD
Needham, MA
March 11, 2010

Dear Debbie:

It’s cold and bright here in Boston, and I’m sure it’s hot and bright where you are. Right now, you’re taking Grade 9 math (or, as I’ve learned to say now that I live in the US, 9th grade math) in summer school, before you start high school, so you can get ahead in your math requirements. It’s a good place to start.

You’ve registered to take auto shop and electrical shop at your new school in the fall. I hate to say this, but the classes are kind of going to suck.

“I hate to say this, but the classes are kind of going to suck. You’ll be the only girl in both…”

You’ll be the only girl in both, and the boys are going to give you a hard time, and the teachers aren’t going to notice or care. And someone is going to steal your notes right before the electrical shop exam. (Don’t worry – you’ll do fine. Just make sure you check your math!).

It’s not going to be the best of experiences, but I want you to hold onto how much you love making stuff. Remember when you were really little, and you spent all your time in the basement with LEGO, Tinker Toys, and puzzles? I know that your favorite free-time activity these days is reading, but I want to encourage you to keep finding ways to create things. Keep writing programs for your Apple IIe. Ask our parents for some of the new LEGO Technic. Look in the phone book for a place to buy model rocketry stuff. Setting off explosions kind of scares you, yes. But I also know that you can do things that scare you – that’s why you learned how to weld in metal shop last year, right?

Because here’s the thing: you’re good at math and physics. Yes, I know you haven’t done any physics yet – I promise you, you’re good at it. And that’ll get you really far – through college (whoops, that’s ‘university’ to you) and graduate school. But no one is really going to give you many opportunities to build things, and you’ll really want to, trust me. There’s a distinctive pleasure to holding something that you’ve made, and you’ll get a tremendous confidence boost from it – it’s the difference between, “I’m not sure,” and “Of course I can.” Figuring out how to solve a physics problem is one thing; figuring out how to put something together is quite another. You’ll get lots of practice with the first, but you’ll need to make your own experiences with the second.

So go out there and start making things. And keep making things.

But let me tell you – the future is pretty awesome. Just one example: you know that new Apple Macintosh computer that Ms. Hamilton, the librarian, got this year to catalog the library? And how cool it was compared to all the Apple IIs in the computer lab? You will not believe what I’m holding in my hand right now…

Much love from the 21st century,

Deb

PS: Can I ask you a favor? David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the LP that you have? Would you mind hanging on to it? Your future self thanks you.

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Debbie Chachra is an Assistant Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA. Prior to joining the faculty at Olin College, she was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. She holds an undergraduate engineering degree, a master’s and a PhD from the University of Toronto. Her research interests include both biological materials (she is currently investigating a type of plastic made by bees) and engineering education. In 2010 she received an NSF CAREER Award in support of her project to investigate self-efficacy (self-confidence) in first-year, project-based engineering courses.

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