Phoebe Cohen’s Letter to her 12-year-old self

Dr. Phoebe Cohen is the Education and Outreach Coordinator & Postdoctoral Associate on the MIT NASA Astrobiology Team. As part of the Advent of Complex Life team, she studies fossils and answer questions such as, How did complex life evolve on Earth? What role did the environment and climate play? What do the answers to these questions mean for our search for life on other planets?


Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

Credit: Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

Dear 12 year old Phoebe,

You are weird. Deep down, I think you know that’s awesome. But I know it doesn’t feel that way when you’re trying to walk to your seat on the school bus while being taunted for your crazy curly hair or your tom-boy clothes or your good grades. Eventually, you (and others) will learn to love your curls as a part of your personality. Eventually, you’ll start buying women’s jeans and learn to love them too, but you’ll always keep a pair of men’s jeans somewhere in your dresser too. As for the good grades, they will continue, a marker of your inherent curiosity in the world around you. I promise you this – the things that make you weird at 12 will serve you well for the rest of your life. However, it won’t always be easy.

“Keep standing on the edge of the knot until your voice is heard because your voice is just as important as theirs.”

One of the things besides school that you will come to excel at is walking away from situations that make you uncomfortable. You’ll say to yourself over and over again – “I don’t want to deal with it.” In some situations, you will be doing yourself a huge favor. In others, you’ll use it as an excuse. Don’t. Yes, it’s hard to stand on the edge of the knot of boys talking about something that you are interested in, trying not to feel terrible about yourself when you are ignored the first 12 times you try to interject with a relevant comment. Do it 13 times. 14 times. Keep standing on the edge of the knot until your voice is heard because your voice is just as important as theirs. Most of the time, those boys (and then men) will have no conscious idea of what they are doing. They don’t hate you or think that you are stupid. They just don’t realize the effect that their behavior has on you. And that’s not entirely their problem – the person who can best advocate for you is you. If you believe your questions and your opinions matter as much as theirs, the fear will subside. So don’t let the school bus heartache make you turn away when you feel hurt and sad. Own it – stand your ground. This is a lesson you will have to keep learning, again and again.

Even though you are you own best advocate, you can’t do it alone. So the other important piece of advice

“Do it your own way”

I will give you is to take people out to coffee (I know it sounds gross, but eventually you will love to drink coffee). After college, it is one such serendipitous coffee date with a professor that will lead to your first real job, a job that will inspire the rest of your professional life. You are lucky – despite the pain you will go through, you will always open your heart to others without fear. People like talking to you, and all those years spending more time with adults than kids your own age will serve you well when it comes time to schmooze with tenured professors at national conferences. Schmoozing will never be a problem for you, but keep in mind that being liked is not the same as being respected. You must strive for both.

Over the years, a few wise friends will tell you a similar version of the same precious piece of advice which I will reach back into time to tell you for the first time: Do it your own way. You don’t have to wear heels and makeup to be a woman (though eventually you will appreciate both on occasion…again, I know, hard to believe) and you don’t have to be a cocksure polymath (I know you’ll be at the dictionary looking those up) to be a successful scientist. Your path is your own and you will always have the inner strength and the supportive friends and family to make it happen. So just ball your hands into fists, squeeze tight, and keep walking down the aisle of that bus.

–The Future You


Dr. Phoebe Cohen received her undergraduate degree in Science of Earth Systems from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Harvard University. She’s also a former Science Club for Girls mentor. Read more about her transition from full time researcher to predominant time educator here.

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