Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, PhD, PE is a physician, bioengineer, and professionally licensed chemical engineer who serves on the teaching faculty of biomedical engineering at Harvard University. She is the Assistant Director for Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, the Assistant Dean of the Harvard Summer School, and an Associate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. More about Sujata here
Dear little Suji,
At this time, you have no idea what an amazing life you will live. You are just a child in Delaware, and all you know is that you love your parents, your sisters and brother, and your teddy bears. You are doing your best in school, but you are a perfectionist, and you already worry about being a good student. You enjoy learning and you love books, but school makes you nervous. You struggle to believe in yourself. You have no idea what life has in store for you.
One day you will be a faculty member in biomedical engineering at the best university in the world. You will be working alongside brilliant scientists and engineers, as well as scholars in the humanities and social sciences, whom you idolize. You will be teaching the most talented, passionate, energetic students on the planet. Harvard faculty members whom you watched on television will now be your colleagues. Places that you saw in the movies will now be everyday sights. You will wake up each morning and look out onto Harvard Yard.
But right now you don’t believe me. Right now you are simply hoping to get through each school day, then go home and play with your teddy bears.
Your mother will be central to your success. She will teach you to read using the grocery ads, because she knows that you enjoy grocery shopping. Then she will buy you a book called “The Value of Believing in Yourself: The Story of Louis Pasteur.” The book will not only help with your confidence, but will also spark an interest in medical research. You will then read about Edward Jenner and the invention of the smallpox vaccine. Your parents will fill the house with science and engineering textbooks from used bookstores. Your parents will send you to public schools; it will be one of the best decisions they ever made. In high school, you will meet an influential biology teacher, Mr. Harry Dillner, who will further build your confidence and inspire your love for biomedical science.
As you progress through college at the University of Delaware, you will find that you love learning everything about biology, chemistry, engineering, and medicine. You will be very lucky and gain admission to the MD/PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, where you will meet some of the world’s best physicians. You’ll move on to DuPont, where you will invent new medical devices, and you will spend your spare time teaching chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. Then you’ll receive an offer to join the faculty of biomedical engineering at Harvard University. You will love it so much that it will not feel like work anymore.
What advice can I give you, little Suji? First and foremost, trust in yourself and especially trust in your instincts. Follow your heart. If you keep doing work that you love, your career will work itself out naturally. Your heart will tell you that you enjoy being immersed in the university atmosphere, and that you want to live a life of the mind, and that you love spending time with college students. As you follow your instincts, you will forge a path that is vastly different from those of your wonderful friends from high school, college, graduate school, medical school, industry, and academia. At many points in your career, you will take the road less traveled, until your decisions lead you to a faculty position at Harvard. Always do the right thing for you, and be true to yourself. You will learn that helping students to build confidence, and watching them achieve their dreams, is the best feeling in the world.
Life will throw you some curve balls. Your parents will become ill when you finish graduate school, and you will see them through. They will together survive cancer and heart disease, and the experience will shape you for the better. Remember the value of family. When you are in crisis, your parents and siblings will be the ones who have your back. You should never feel alone.
As you navigate through life, remember to count your blessings. Lou Gehrig considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth, despite his challenges, because he was surrounded by adoring fans. You will realize that you are the luckiest woman on the face of the earth, because you are surrounded by a loving family, supportive colleagues, and adoring students, all of whom you count as friends.
Have as much fun as possible with engineering, and don’t forget the childlike wonder that attracted you to this field in the first place. Your future students, and your joy for your work, will keep you forever young. You will live a life that is beyond your wildest dreams.