Virologist Researcher, Sarah Pagni’s letter to her 16-year old self

Sarah Pagni is a PhD candidate at Mount Sinai School of Medicine studying how dengue virus modulates the human immune system. She earned her Bachelors degree at Mount Holyoke College majoring in biochemstry and minoring in art history.

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Dear Sarah, age 16, fall 2000,

I’m sure you aren’t going to want to hear this but I’m just going to say it, junior year of high school isn’t your best year. Take a deep breath, you’ll do perfectly well in your classes, but everything is much harder this year than before. Right now you’re struggling through Mr. Noll’s physics class and I know it doesn’t seem fair that you were put into the extremely hard class and other people are coasting through the easier class right now but believe me, this is a good thing. While I never came to really love physics and the class does not get easier as the year goes on (sorry), Mr. Noll really pushed me to think critically. To do experiments to answer my questions. To always ask why. And he’s right, physics makes a lot more sense with “the calculus”. The two semesters of physics you’ll take in college are so much easier than the year in high school; it makes so much more sense. Most importantly, this year of physics torture will be a very transformative one for you; the one thing that Mr. Noll really imparts to you is to be passionate about what you do in life. I’ve probably only met a handful of people who truly, absolutely love what they do as much as he loved teaching high school juniors and seniors physics. And you’ll decide that’s what you want; no, not the physics, but the passion.

By the way later this year, a guy in your English class is going to break a plate over his head on a dare that requires a trip to the ER and many, many stitches. Not only is this an excellent display of the general insanity that you can expect from that class but it will also help in your decision to go to MHC for college. I know what you are thinking (remember I was once you), a women’s college? Really? And yes I know there are no guys there but were I in your place again, I would make this decision over so many times. You are going to meet so many strong, brilliant, driven women, classmates and professors alike. People who continue to influence me to this day. One of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

Be brave. I know you are shy and introverted but you don’t need to hide. Know that this is something I still struggle with this every day. But try to do the things that scare you anyway. I gave a talk at a big conference a couple of months ago and I was terrified, I even contemplated hiding in the bathroom during my allotted time. But I gave my talk and I was fine. You’ve got it in you; you will do so many things you never thought you could do.

Another word of advice: put that life plan away. I know you only wrote it down because you were thinking about what you wanted to do in the future, when you were confused if science was really right for you (a topic you will revisit later on in college) but it gives you nothing be stress and life is so much more fun when you let go and just live. Things change in ways you might never expect. You do become a scientist, but I don’t study what you’re interested in right now, I don’t study what I was interested at various stages of college and not even exactly what I thought I going to study at the beginning of graduate school. I’m happy I’m in virology now. But do I know exactly what the future holds? Not exactly. I know what I want to do, a post doc and then teach at a liberal arts college, and that’s what I’m working towards but I’m not saying I might not end up taking a different path. Let yourself explore.

You have such an adventure in front of you, college, grad school in the big city (yes, you’re going to live in New York one of these days), you’ll meet so many amazing people along the way, have so many interesting experiences. Keep your head up and keep working hard; you’re going to make it through this year a better, stronger person.

Good luck!
27 year old Sarah

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