Allison Drew’s letter to her 12-year-old self

Allison Drew is a cell biologist. The organisms she studies keep getting smaller and smaller, as she started out studying kangaroos, moved on to study bugs and beetles, and is currently working with cancer cells.



Dear 12-year-old Allison,
I’m trying to remember what it felt like when I, that is you, were 12, and it feels far away to me now. When I look back at pictures of you, I see someone who was pretty unsure of herself – whether I was supposed to be a kid or adult, supposed to take pride in my accomplishments at school or to play them down. This year, 7th grade, you’re taking biology with Mrs. Quackenbush – your first real lab science class. Here are a few highlights to look forward to: you’ll dissect enormous grasshoppers and, even more alarming, study the human reproductive system in a room full of 12-year old boys.

What will stay with you the longest, though, is that you’ll experience a feeling of satisfaction from finding a place to use your growing skills of observation, a vocabulary to describe the things you observe, and techniques to try to analyze why those events are taking place – that is, you’ll learn to conduct a scientific experiment. To be able to break things down into simple parts, and to begin to understand them, even at the most basic level will be very comforting to you amidst the chaos and uncertainty of being 12. You’ll find that you can use these skills in school, in your jobs, and in your life all the time.

“…you’ll dissect enormous grasshoppers and, even more alarming, study the human reproductive system in a room full of 12-year old boys.”

Also, pay attention to Mrs. Quackenbush. You’ll find her soft-spoken, patient style will encourage you explore and understand the subjects you are studying, giving your room to ask questions and try to develop your own answers. I know you see yourself as pretty shy and awkward right now, and that sometimes you feel like the only alternative route is to develop a really extroverted, out-going personality. It has taken me a long time to realize that it’s very hard to change the basic features of your personality – and, actually, you wouldn’t want to, because it’s basic to who you are. The same traits that make you more of an observer than a participator – ‘shy’ in groups – are central to your abilities as a scientist, able to observe and understand before acting. That also is what makes you a good listener and empathizer, which is part of what your family and friends love about you. As you move on, through school and college and to become a biologist yourself, you’ll find many ways to work with and develop your strengths that will give you a sense of satisfaction and pride at who you’ve become.

Good luck, enjoy the journey, much love,
34-year old Allison


Allison is a cell biologist at Amgen in Cambridge, MA, where she has worked for 5.5 years. During her time at Amgen, she has worked primarily in drug development for oncology projects. Allison grew up in New York, and then got her BS in Biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY and her M.S. in Environmental Science at University of California, Berkeley.

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