Mareshia Donald’s letter to her young self

Dr. Donald is a scientist and STEM outreach professional. She’s an empiricist and a dreamer dedicated to diversifying the STEM pipeline. She is currently the SEED Academy Program Coordinator at MIT. Find her on twitter @superscientist.

Dearest Little Mareshia,

It took me a while to understand you, finally, I think I get it. You’re driven by your desire to succeed and have a paralyzing fear of failing. Please don’t be afraid to fail. It’s okay to fail. Failure, as a part of a learning process, is nothing to worry about. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing the boundaries of understanding. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was your encyclopedia Britannica. Hundreds of years of trial and error went into the knowledge you take for granted. I wanted to get that out of the way first. You should know this as soon as possible, but I know you, and I also know that, unfortunately, it will take you nearly 30 years of living and a Ph.D. before you fully accept it. **Sigh**

You’re very drawn to the natural world. You’ll carry out a number of dissections on varied expired animals in your back yard. You’ll time snail races to figure out which of your special “solutions” make the snails faster. You’re naturally inquisitive. Keep asking questions. This quality is going to help you blow holes in a number of hare-brained schemes. It’s going to help you stay out of a lot of trouble. It’s true that, ultimately, you’re going to question yourself into a big challenge, but it will be worth it. Trust me.

Take good notes in school. Your memory won’t always be good and you need to develop mnemonic devices early on. School is pretty easy for you. It’s going to be that way through college, but you’re missing out. The kids who have to try, the ones who always have to study hard, are stocking their study skills toolboxes while you’re sailing by. You could learn something from them. You should also keep a journal. In the future, it might help you a lot to see the evolution of your thoughts as you progress in life.


Spend less time worried about how you look and more time worried about how you think. Start asking questions about how the information you read in all those textbooks gets there much sooner than you do. There are going to be many times you feel like you don’t belong. You’re a girl who likes science and math. You’re black. Your job is going to be to ignore those nagging goblins that say awful things like “you’re not cut out for this” and “you don’t deserve to be here.” You’ll have so many reasons to slow-clap for those goblins later. Also, you never have to answer the question “who do you think you are?” Give those who ask the opportunity to figure it out through observation. For now, ignore these people and ignore the goblins. Forge ahead. Have fun studying and investigating. Don’t let the negative chatter discourage you. You’re going to be fine.

It’s pretty awesome that you sometimes spend recess reading in the library instead of on the playground. You don’t yet know this, but you’ll do this through high school and it will work out pretty well for you. You haven’t seen the entire world, but you’ve read about a lot of it. That you spent this time squirreling away world trivia in the recesses of your mind combined with your love for the New York Times and the New Yorker will allow you to trade on cultural capital you would NEVER have otherwise acquired. Good on you!
Young girl sitting on chair in the library reading a book

Don’t feel hindered by where you come from. Sure, some people have economic advantages, others have social capital but you have perseverance, perspective, resourcefulness and resilience. Money can’t buy any of those things. Later in life, while living on a shoestring budget in college and as a graduate student, you’ll see how much these qualities are truly worth. If you could zoom ahead about 30 years and look back at all the things you’ve made it through and all the things you’ve accomplished, you’d be awestruck.

You’re a great-grandchild of slaves and a daughter of hard-working blue-collar parents. You’re the first in your family to have gone to college. You’ve earned a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. You have a loving and supportive family. Be kind to yourself. You can stop holding your breath. You’re pretty much living the American Dream.

Before I close I want to remind you to be grateful. In so many ways you’ve made it! Remember to thank those who served as light posts and beacons while you were navigating a world that was incredibly unfamiliar to you. Remember that you can be a light post and a beacon to others. Remember that you’re duty bound to pay it all forward.

I love you!

Older Mareshia

P.S. Brush well, floss well. Brush well, floss well. Brush well, FLOSS WELL!!!


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