“Is there a place for me in STEM?” – A letter to my younger self

Our 19-year-old contributor, Josefine, shares a letter to her younger self with the advice and encouragement she wishes she’d had when she first began pursuing a future in STEM

letter | science | stem
Photo: Josefine B. Wivel Vartiainen

Dear Josefine,

You are young. You’re eager to learn. And you have so many questions about what the future might hold.

I know.

I’m you a few years from now, and there are some things I’d like to share. 

First of all, I want to say that I’m so proud of you for trying to reach for the stars even though there aren’t many people (yourself included) who truly believe that you can achieve all that you will in the next few years. It’s both amazing and sad for me to think about your expectations right now, compared to how things will actually unfold. Because on one hand, it will all be so much better than you realize – but on the other, that’s because you’re doubting yourself and your skill set. 

I know that, right now, you’re not expecting anything near excellence in the academic world. But I also know that some of the traits that you currently view as a burden will soon become your greatest strengths. I’m so happy that you decided to pursue your academic passions instead of doing what you’ve been told to do; directly, by some of the people in your life, but primarily indirectly through social norms, gender stereotypes, or the subconscious self-doubt many women live with on a daily basis.

Believe it or not, but you’ll actually win first place and break a new record at Denmark’s largest scientific talent competition in 2020. You’ll also win a prize that will get you a seat at the 2020 Nobel Prize ceremony, you’ll compete internationally with your independent scientific research, you’ll finish your senior high school degree with top grades in all subjects, and much more…

…And all of this will happen despite the fact that you live with dyslexia.

For the longest time, you’ve known a stigma about learning disabilities still persists, especially in the elite academic field. How can someone over-preform while living with a learning disability, right? This makes it hard for you to imagine achieving real success in academia right now, but I know you’re a fighter. You were diagnosed late (as girls often are), and have worked so hard to compensate for that. It takes you so much longer to do your school work than your peers, but one day soon, you’ll understand that your habit of using more time than everyone else has resulted in you being able to achieve excellence in a string of different subjects. The determination and stubbornness you have inside you will serve you well, no matter how many extra hours you have to spend proofreading and spell-checking.

You’re lucky and privileged to have the variety of personality traits that you have – even though you feel as though it’s your greatest liability right now.  An example: At this moment, you’re doubting whether a “boys’ senior high school” that focuses on STEM subjects could ever be a good fit for a “girly-girl” like you. But you know you’re so much more than just that; and since you’re also too stubborn, headstrong and passionate about STEM to let prejudices and stereotypes make you change your mind, you won’t let the fear of failure stop you. Continue to choose your passions over your doubts.

You’re beginning to learn that STEM is perceived as too difficult by many people, and/or a field that many girls feel they “cannot see themselves in” – both metaphorically, and unfortunately also in a literal sense. It’s hard for you to look out at the top minds in the field, and not see someone who looks like you. But keep your chin up; in a few years, it’ll be your mission to help people who are on the verge of opting out of a scientific career due to lack of structural support and representation. And you’ll be able to do that because you understand where they’re coming from. It’s where you are now. 

You look in the mirror and see two people: The “nerd”, which is the side of you that seems to convince most of the people around you that you are likely to succeed in STEM. This side is often praised for her work ethic and intellect; she loves learning, growing intellectually, objective facts and statistics. She often stays home to play board games instead of going to parties. She doesn’t really wear makeup or have an interest in it. 

But at the same time, you also see “the girly-girl” staring back at you. She loves bright clothing and all kinds of jewellery, flowers and stereotypical “cute” things. She loves art and experimenting with different forms of self-expression, including colorful makeup. More than anything, she wants to become a mother someday. She’s inspired by interior design and classical romance.

Right now, I know you’re feeling like these two sides of you can’t coexist if you’re going to make it in STEM. Everything you see (and don’t see) in the field confirms this. You’ve watched people repress the fullness of who they really are in order to get ahead in their careers, and you’re worried that you might have to do the same. You’re afraid you won’t be able to bring your complete self with you into STEM because you don’t see anyone who looks like you already there.

Remember that human beings are complex, and so are you. There’s no shame in showing who you are and what your personality consists of – even if some people don’t get you right now. Don’t beat yourself up about it. The fact that you have such a broad range of characteristics, dyslexia and all, will reveal itself to be a gift, not a burden – and sooner rather than later. Don’t worry (as I know you do): you’ll soon be surrounded by a handful of people who actually get you, and who you understand in return. It will take a little longer than you feel it should, but you will find each other – trust me, and trust the future you’re building for yourself.

You believe everyone should be welcome in STEM, and should feel that the diverse abilities they possess are worth believing in. Just remember that means you too. So stay the course. You’re becoming the person you want to look up to.

Warm regards,

Yourself, some years from now

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