Celebrating young scientists on National STEM Day

Before I was born, my mom was voted meanest teacher in her school. Today, she’s one of the most compassionate people I know, so unless her former students were lying, her personality changed tremendously somewhere in the meantime. When I ask her about it, she says that having a kid (that’s me!) mellowed her out. She says that being a parent makes you a better person by forcing you to outgrow immature selfishness. I’m starting to think she’s right.

I’m not a mom, but I’m a mentor in the lab, and I’m amazed at how good it feels when my mentees succeed and are happy. I’ll admit it: throughout much of my time in graduate school, I was really self-absorbed. To some extent, that worked in my favor; obsessing over whether I was sufficiently impressing other scientists motivated me to get a lot of work done, and I’m grateful for the accomplishments I made. But working that way cultivates a vicious cycle of pushing (too) hard for the sake of recognition, getting exhausted, accomplishing little in periods of burnout, fearing a loss of recognition, pushing too hard for it again, and…if you don’t know firsthand how depressing that spiral can be, you can probably imagine it. (Also, it’s hard to be a nice person when you’re only in something to win something.) Where was the joy in my work?

For me, the joy comes from teaching, mentoring, and making amazing discoveries alongside teammates. When the teammates are young scientists, the joy is even greater. It took me far too long to realize this. When I taught in graduate school, I knew the joy of connecting students with the natural world, but it took more than that to convince me that working with students in the lab brings joy, too. It took finishing grad school, necessarily struggling with new projects in postdoctoral positions, not winning awards or publishing papers as soon as I thought I should, feeling uncertain and not at all confident in my abilities, and then being surprisingly uplifted by students’ success. So thanks, students, for helping me get past selfishness and for unknowingly picking me up when I’ve felt lost. And thanks for being patient with my still-developing skills as a mentor.

It’s National STEM Day, and also a day when I’m feeling especially grateful for my mentees. Why? Today, an undergraduate showed up in the lab with a couple pages of insightful experiments that he came up with in his free time, and, well…I hope I didn’t scare him with my excitement. The fact that he’s learning to think like a scientist means he’ll be better equipped to make informed decisions throughout life, and it means I’m doing one of the most important parts of my job. For me, this has been a week of failed experiments and lots and lots of time behind a computer screen, so my student’s success – not measurable by a grade or a publication but by his thought process – was tremendously rewarding. I can’t wait to see how his experiments turn out, but more importantly, I can’t wait to see how he thinks about the results.

I guess the moral of this story is that it can feel great to step outside yourself in the often intensely independent world of academic research. Wanting to impress people is normal, getting tired is normal, burning out is normal, but watching a mentee grow as a scientist is extraordinary. On National STEM Day, I’m grateful for the students who bring joy to my workday. I’m grateful that they ask and address important questions in and out of the lab. I’m grateful that they make me believe that the future of our world is in good hands.

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