What Advice Might You Have for Students?

Manavi Chatterjee:

Never fear trying out something that is new to you. Always accept the challenge because the outcomes can really be the most wonderful thing that we ever experienced.

Rajeev Erramilli:

No two people’s experiences are going to be the same, so don’t try to obsess over whether you’ve gotten all your details lined up right. Instead, focus on figuring out what you enjoy doing and how you can keep doing that. Be your own person, and be proud of it! Your worth is not defined by your grades or your research output, and the only worth that matters is your self-worth.

Martha Muñoz (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)

What is success? Success isn’t doing X or Y. It’s making your best effort. If you wake up every day with the will to try and, even if you stumble, you get up and do it again, then you have succeeded. When you put those cumulative moments together, whether or not you put together the paper that you want or the graduate program accepts you, you have succeeded. Success might need to be re-evaluated and so might failure. There is no success without failure and there is no success without stumbling. That is the success. The growth is the trajectory. As hackneyed as it sounds, success really is the journey, and not the destination. So, if you try, then you have already succeeded and you will continue to succeed. Don’t put so much weight on the end goal, as it will look like an insurmountable mountain to climb. If you carve that goal up into manageable pieces and see every day as a small step, then you can succeed just by trying. 

I’ve taken lots of risks or done a lot of moves that could be perceived as risky. I did a fellowship abroad and a postdoc abroad. I was warned against it. I was told, “You’re going to be separated from your primary community and you’re not going to get a job.” I won an NSF postdoctoral fellowship that would have guaranteed me 3 years of postdoctoral funding at Berkeley and instead I took a 1-year postdoc in Australia because I thought the growth experience was more enjoyable on an intellectual and personal front. 

After that year, I found the funding evaporated, and I thought, “What have I done? Was this a mistake?” I found a second post-doc in a field that I didn’t initially know I was interested in. I’m a physiologist, and obviously biomechanics is an important aspect of physiology, but I’d never done research in that field before. Ending up in Australia and needing a new post-doc was the reason I ended up taking this postdoc in evolutionary biomechanics in Duke and it ended up being an exciting new arm in my research program. I took the road that was perceived as more risky and found my own successes there.

You have to calibrate it against how much it interests you. Riskiness is on the X-Axis and passion is on the Y-Axis. Ideally, that would be somewhat of a straight line. If I choose to make a decision, I should hope that the position of a benefit to risk combination falls above that line. If it falls below that line, perhaps the risk is not worth the payoff. So you just have to do that cost-benefit analysis for yourself. Some small risks may not be worth it even though they’re small. Some massive risks may be worth it if pay-off is strong.

I took a job here at Yale after having a faculty position at Virginia Tech. I disrupted my first pre-tenure track to start down an even longer pre-tenure path here at Yale. I have to make peace with these realities because I get to do my science under the best possible circumstances and on the best possible platform. For me, that’s worth it.

I never really fit in. My goals, my endgame often just feel different. My generation is the first one that escaped poverty, and our privilege is the culmination of generations of sacrifice. I don’t just do this for myself. I do this for my family and out of humility for their incredible sacrifice. Every generation before me struggled just so that my sister and I could have the incredible privilege of pursuing our dreams. This job is the gift they gave to me. I want to treasure it, nurture it, and do the best that I can with it. How can I ever really reward lifetimes (literal lifetimes) of sacrifice except to wake up every day with gratitude and enthusiasm to make the best of their gift?


I do have some thoughts I can share about how to handle feelings of isolation. One, it is okay to not fit in. That may be a good thing and serve you well on many fronts. I had a hard time fitting in when I was in college. But, I mostly didn’t even bother to try. I was too busy doing my own thing. It turns out that this served me well. Being different can be your superpower.


Second, find your community. You don’t have to be in with the empowered majority to find your people. My community is centered around other minority groups in academia. We just naturally gravitated towards each other. When we need support, we find each other. When I’m having  a particularly bad day, I reach out to one of my colleagues and vent about it, lance the wound, drain it, and through the healing, bandage it and move on. I try not to linger in the negative. I try to find community with people. I try to be kind to myself and to others. That is due to being part of a community that lifts each other up.

I would say to undergrads to unfetter themselves from the perception they are defined by their grades. Focus on the fact that the actual goal of college, which is to train you to think critically and how to learn. Sometimes, a B will be incredibly hard-earned and that has value. Focus less on the number you get out of a class, and more on actually learning. When you do this, you actually align with earning good grades; they’re not mutually exclusive concepts. I’ve seen students actually hold themselves back from stronger grades because they’re too preoccupied with grades and points, which diverts their mental energy from learning. Even if you take a class that rewards rote memorization, you’re not going to be hurt by understanding the concepts that underlie what you are memorizing. Focus less on the unfortunate tendency of memorization based training. In college, as independent learners, you have to think on your feet and learn concepts. If you want to say, “I have a degree in this” it shouldn’t be because you can spit back facts at me. It should be because you understand the material and can think critically about it.

Aruna Pawashe:

The wisdom I have gained through my life experience, that success and happiness are not measured by getting “A” grades, money or fame but rather from fulfilling curiosity, pursuing passion, working hard to achieve your goals and having perseverance.  Success will eventually present itself, when you are not consciously looking for it.  I am sharing my LD (learning disability) son’s personal experience to present my own vulnerability.  Determination, hard work and perseverance is the key and will lead a meaningful life both academically and personally.  When successful, be mindful of your societal responsibility to help the disadvantaged, a path towards becoming a good, accomplished and happy citizen.

Rowan Palmer:

    1. What is a one sentence message you would leave to a younger audience who is interested in pursuing a career in STEM but feels unsure of their decision?
      Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not for you; everyone has struggled, whether they express it or not. And always take a moment to step back and reflect not just on where you are and what you’ve created, but on how far you’ve come and the process you’ve taken to get there. Engineering isn’t about knowing the answers, but finding and creating them. You deserve that same grace for yourself. 
    2. If you could go back in time and give a piece of advice to your first-year self what would it be?
      ASK FOR HELP and share how you’re feeling. You aren’t alone in your struggles, and other people share similar stories. If you’re willing to speak up and have those conversations, you’ll help yourself and your peers.
    3. If you had one thing you would want to share with underrepresented students, what would be your message and why?
      Not being represented in our fields can leave us feeling the need to change ourselves to fit in (like, for me, toning down my girliness and fashion choices to feel like I fit more into the “boys club” of engineering). Whatever you love, in STEM and outside of it, is valid. You can be an accomplished engineer or scientist and also love art or theater or sports or writing or cooking or fashion or whatever else. You can be more than just your profession.

      Secondly, never underestimate the value of mentors and peers that you identify with. When you find someone, ask for help; share your story and listen to theirs. It can truly change the way that you view yourself and your opportunities. 


Dr. Sreeganga Chandra (Neuroscience):

Just try to do your best. Be bold, take risks. It is rewarding to make discoveries and add to the existing body of knowledge.


Youngmin Shin (Computer Science):

Find a group that you can work well with and use them as a resource when you are going through difficult classes. When you do things together you can bounce ideas off each other and it makes a world of difference in how you approach and how you will end up doing in the major. Also come to Yale WGICS events because there are upperclassmen who have gone through the same things you are going through!


Valerie Navarrete (Biology):

Everyone is different. What helped for me was taking grades out of the equation and asking “do I enjoy doing this”, people tend to measure whether they like things based off whether they will get an A or not. Your grade is not your worth. People can see passion and are more affected by it than letters.


Chika Ogbejesi (Neuroscience):

When I first started I made mistakes, some mistakes just need to happen, but I didn’t have to struggle all of the time. I wish that I had checked my pride a bit earlier and realized it is okay to ask for help. I couldn’t even fathom asking for an extension for a long time and I had to see the results of me not asking for help before I realized that this was not the way I wanted to exist.

Nazar Chowdhury (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology):

“So for me, it’s because I was sure of my long-term goal. I knew I wanted to go into medicine. For people who are more on the fence or who are more emotionally affected if you are left to your own thoughts, there is no way that you at that moment can get over the emotions. You have to find mentors who have been in your shoes. I think MSA is great because there are tons of pre-meds who come in, some of which go to medical school and some who go into completely different paths. It’s totally fine to be unsure, but you need to find other people in your shoes. If I didn’t have mentors, I would’ve been more hurt than I was. Even better if they had a similar growing up experiences because if I ran into someone who came from high achieving experiences I can explain to them you don’t always have to have high expectations. You have to find mentors who you can relate to you, someone who can see your trajectory and give you all sorts of perspective. 

You have to find mentors who come from where you are coming from. Find mentors you connect with and find what matters to you. There will be stuff you have to do–maybe you have to take certain classes. But you have to find mentors who can support you in your ups and downs and you have to find what you care about in the science field. You have to find your thing and it is going to take time, and that is the point of mentors, but you have to find that. There has to be something that gets you going and that gets you to take these classes to get to the end goal. “