Dear 7th grade Claire,
Hey Claire! You just finished an English assignment to write a letter to your future 12th grade self. Twelve year old you asked seventeen year old you if you were tall, if you drove a cherry red convertible yet, if your friends were still your friends, and what your favorite class was.
Twenty-six year old you is finally writing back from the 20th grade (aka your 4th year of a Ph.D program) to let you know that while you’re exactly average height and you don’t drive a convertible, you just got back from vacation with a few of those friends from 7th grade (now your friends of almost 15 years) and your favorite subject is biology.
Twenty-six year old you is here asking you to keep an open mind and follow where your interests take you. You’re 12 and know that you like science, but you think that means you should be a medical doctor. There are courses, fields, and careers that you haven’t heard of yet. Keep doing what you love and that will help you pick a direction, but remember that education and career paths are winding and that it’s ok to diverge from your original career goals. Plus, you can always learn and apply knowledge from across fields and other interests.
Try not to be afraid of trying new things for fear of being “bad” at them. You think that you’re not athletic just because you didn’t play soccer in elementary school. I want you to know that just because you are new to an activity or subject doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it – you’ll never regret trying something, and you might even learn something new or find that you enjoy that activity or subject! I know that you think running a mile is hard now, but in high school you’ll join the cross-country team and your threshold for “hard’ increases to thinking 5ks are difficult. Then in college you’ll start long-distance running, and by 26 you’ll have completed five marathons. In college you join a plant genetics lab without ever having worked in a lab before, and with absolutely no knowledge about plants. You’re now getting your Ph.D studying evolution and development in plants.
In addition to being open to new things, I want you to remember that just because you’re not the best at something right away doesn’t mean that you’re not good at it. I know that you worry that you’re bad at math because in 6th grade you “only” tested into the 7th grade level and not 8th grade level math. My advice to you is to genuinely learn and understand the material taught in class and not stress about which group you’re in. In college you’ll worry about your grades in introductory chemistry but then you’ll go on to be the girl breaking the curve in organic chemistry. Hard work pays off, and it’s even more satisfying to do well in a subject when you see how much you’ve improved.
I know that 12 is an insecure year. You’re the new girl in school, realizing that you’re the only hapa in your group of friends, and you’re not sure if you want to stand out or blend in. You stopped wearing your glasses this year because you were afraid they made you look like a geek. It will take you a while, but I hope that you soon learn to appreciate and celebrate what makes you a unique individual.
My final advice to you is to recognize and appreciate the privileges you have. There are parts of your childhood that haven’t been easy, but you’ve had an amazing support gro
up of teachers, friends, and family – not everyone has that, and that is why later on you’ll decide to devote a significant amount of time to teaching. Get excited: one day you’ll get to be a mentor for girls like you!
Love from 2016,
Claire Levy is a 4th year Ph.D candidate in the Organismic and Evolutionary biology department at Harvard University. She graduated with a BS in Molecular and Cell Biology from Brown University and then spent a year at the National Institutes of Health through their Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training program before beginning graduate school. Outside of research Claire is active in outreach and teaching at the K-16 levels, and enjoys running, baking, hiking and hanging out with her cat and hedgehog. Claire is a volunteer mentor scientist for SCFG and was the 2015 winner of SCFG’s Angela Mathew Outstanding Mentor Award!