Cancer researcher and blogger Kate Sleeth’s Letter to her 12-year-old self

Dr. Kate Michelle Sleeth is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope in Los Angeles and a board member of the National Postdoctoral Association. In May 2012 she will begin a new role within the institute as the Academic Programs Administrator.

Dear 12 year old Kate,

One of the things you are sure about is that you are going to grow up and become a veterinary surgeon. I am afraid to say that this is not going to be your destiny. As you continue through school you will struggle with advanced mathematics, and this will lead you to reconsider your future. Don’t worry; you still get to do something very cool. You will decide to continue learning biology, which really becomes your one true love. Surprisingly, you will fail a key exam which will mean you end up attending a different undergraduate university than expected. While embarrassing, you will learn that this was a blessing in disguise. Had you taken the genetics course your career path would have been narrower. It also teaches you a vital skill – the need to adapt to situations and surroundings. This will serve you well over the years, although change is scary it can bring wonderful opportunities and surprises.

“You learned to stand up for yourself in the face of adversity.”

People often comment about how clever you are and how easy things come to you. You will momentarily believe what others say, but you only need to fail once to realise that their perceptions are not reality. You will study and work hard to get the grades you desire; however, there will always be that imperfection which serves as a reminder to never take your eyes off the prize. Luckily this actually changes the course of your career and where you will live in the future.

During the first week of your undergraduate degree you will hear a defining fact: the top 10 individuals of the course will be invited to travel and perform research in the USA. You will work hard and never fall below the top 6 of the class. You will earn the right to perform research in the USA. This experience is life changing. You bloom from an unsure young lady into a confident, self-reliant woman. You will be sexually harassed and come through stronger. No one can inflict themselves on you if their advances are unwarranted – no matter their seniority to you. You learned to stand up for yourself in the face of adversity. You develop an interest in cellular signalling and cancer development which will steer the course of your scientific career.

“Most importantly, never put someone else’s wants and desires ahead of your own.”

You apply to graduate programs. Unfortunately the PI you choose to work for prefers someone else, so you will feel rejection for the first time in your life. It hurts. You can’t always get what you want and it is an important life lesson you will try and accept. Amazingly, you are asked to perform your studies with a different PI (principal investigator) whom you had impressed. You accept and begin one of the most important relationships of your scientific career. Your supervisor will nurture your abilities and provide support and guidance when necessary throughout your career.

Due to your thirst for new knowledge and skills you target your next lab with precision until you reach the hallowed grounds of the University of Oxford. You then meet a boy and make a mistake – to put his career and dream in front of your own! You will move to the USA, the relationship will fail, but you will decide to stay and continue your new research project. During this time of change you are open to new opportunities and become involved with the Association for Women In Science (AWIS), your local Postdoctoral Association (which you will eventually chair), and the National Postdoctoral Association (which you will become a board member of). You will begin writing a blog to share your experiences and views with fellow scientists which you enjoy immensely. This willingness for personal growth and participation gets you noticed and you are offered an administrative position. After 7 years of postdoctoral research this timing is fortuitous and you decide to take the opportunity.

While you enjoy bench work you are a people person. The opportunity to assist the graduate and summer academy students in their personal development is too irresistible to turn down. This new administrative position will allow you to pass on knowledge and provide guidance to others as encouraged by your mentors. Plus it will provide you a new challenge which will require skills to be refined and developed, enabling further personal growth. As long as you are continually stretching yourself, you will never be bored.

You will make some glorious mistakes and learn from them quickly. Always take every opportunity which comes along as that is usually where your next job offer comes from. Most importantly, never put someone else’s wants and desires ahead of your own. If they care for you, your desires will be equally important.

Take care of yourself; chin up and work hard; enjoy the unexpected twists and turns of your life and career; as believe me it is quite a ride!

32 year old Kate, Ph.D


Kate Michelle Sleeth, Ph.D is British and works as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope, Los Angeles, CA. In May 2012 she will begin a new role within the institute as the Academic Programs Administrator. She currently serves as a board member of the National Postdoctoral Association and was previously chair and social chair of her local Postdoctoral Association. She is a blogger for and participates in the Association for Women In Science outreach initiatives. She received her Ph.D from the University of Reading, UK while working at the Medical Research Council in Harwell, Oxfordshire. She graduated with a B.Sc. in Applied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

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