Sasha, Bio-Engineer, CA
Sasha is a Ph.D. student in Bio-engineering at Stanford University She is studying how heart muscle cells function in the developing heart, adult heart, and diseased heart, by mimicking these environments in the lab. Outside the lab, Sasha leads outreach activities to encourage aspiring scientists. Sasha is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED. She was interviewed by her friend, and Mentor Catalyst, Erin.
So, as you know, the first question is for you to think for a minute about a kid you know and care about and then, when you’re ready, you can tell me about that kid.
I think I’ll talk about Nathan, who was in high school when I met him. I gave a presentation at Thomas Jefferson High School on how to get summer internships. He emailed me right afterwards because he was so interested in opportunities. We maintained a conversation for a long time.
For me, that enthusiasm he had for going beyond the classroom was what made him unique. Thomas Jefferson is the #1 high school in America, it’s crazy, look it up – the kids are very high achieving and all the teachers have Ph.D.s, which is unique for high school I think. But the students are very diverse and they pull from many different cities and they take the most high-achieving students and offer them incredible experiences.
What really made Nathan unique to me was that he was genuinely looking for learning experiences – many people are like, “how do I fill in my resume.” They are already advantaged – they have people coming in to tell them how to get a summer internship in a research lab to supplement your application for college. They already know they’re going to college. But going beyond that, saying, “I want to do this to see if this field is for me and if I identify with the people in this career.” That was unique for me and it’s how I had taken on my experiences in high school and college. Taking that next step to see that it’s all about the people you spend time with.
He was also committed to building systems (similar to a company called backyard brains) that you can use to teach elementary school and middle school students to dissect cockroaches and other animals that don’t have spines and measure electrical signals from their nervous system. That was so cool that Nathan was taking initiative on bringing hands-on experiences to children beyond what they learn in the classroom .
Thinking about Nathan, what would you want for him, what would make a good life?
I think it would be never losing that curiosity for learning more – always knowing you can improve yourself, being comfortable that you have the tools to address personal and professional challenges and setbacks. Being confident in being an adult. Though, I don’t know if I’m going to be that way when I’m 30…which isn’t that far away. Feeling comfortable with the choices you make – leading your life and being independent and also knowing who and when to ask for help.
Your education is not just facts – those change all the time – especially when your career is on the edge of science. In 2-3 years, everything I know will be outdated, but the mechanism of how I got to the knowledge I have now is what’s valuable. I had this fear when I was an undergrad that someone would burn all my books or something and I wouldn’t be able to go back. Now I realize you don’t have to know everything - it’s knowing how to get there that’s the important part.
Also what’s important is knowing that you can never really sit still – always bettering yourself means also taking chances. You may not know if it’s going to be a positive or a negative for you in the future. That’s part of being confident, too. It’s not just “I’m going to work here and be comfortable for 10 years” – that doesn’t exist anymore really. So being able to take risks and being confident knowing that even if it doesn’t work out it can generally be solved. That’s being comfortable with uncertainty in a way. Though when I think of uncertainty I think of health things and those out of your control – but with things within your control, you can take risks and go for things. Whatever happens, you know that you can fix the situation. The outcome could be good but even if it is negative, you have the power to change it for the better. This is very philosophical :)
Anything with Nathan that you worry about in terms of him not realizing that life?
I think one worry is living your life for yourself rather than anyone else. You live your life as you think is right and you can’t be always seeking approval of someone else. A lot of people seek approval of their parents and take on careers because their parents say it will give stability and income and prestige. But your parents don’t know how you feel every day doing it. You want to take your family’s opinion into account, they want the best for you but ultimately they’re not the ones who have to live with your choices every day. Make sure you live your life for yourself.
I’m not saying ignore those people who care about you but know that you have to from your own perspective and that’s what’s important. I mean I go through that a lot too, right. I really value my parents – I think they’re wise and comfortable with knowing that life is unpredictable and dealing with it every day and being strong for each other and me. But it’s a “growing pains” thing where I realize that now I’m my own person. It’s exhilarating & scary. So that’s what I’d be scared about for Nathan and for myself, making that transition to living life for yourself.
Thinking about the good life, what role would you like school to play?
I feel like it should be a metered dose of reality. What I mean by that is that, the fact that you learn in school – the actual textbook knowledge – it’s important but it creates a thirst for knowledge that hopefully you’ll keep for the rest of your life. Knowledge is something you can’t ever take away from you – you keep it forever. But school is the environment – the real world but more sheltered. Every challenge you encounter in school is just a little experience that you can move on.
For me in school, I was always struggling with my commitment to music vs. my commitment to science. To play with the band at an event you have to miss two days of school. And then you have to navigate the different personalities of your teachers – my parents would say “okay you can do it but have to talk with your teachers.” It’s hard to get two people with different views on the same page. And this is how it is in the real world too – your boss, your coworkers, they have their motives and you have yours. So that training environment at school provided me with skills in dealing with people.
I’d like for students like Nathan to explore interpersonal relationships. I don’t think you can engineer that as part of the curriculum, it’s just part of the environment. Conflicts come up and you have commitments and limited hours in the day and you have to separate the stress of concrete things you have to do vs. people you have relationships with.
That’s what school is about – growing from your teachers telling you exactly what to do to you figuring out what to do and how to deal with your relationships. In say, elementary school, people take responsibility for you. Then in high school you have to figure out which classes you want to take, which teachers, who your friends are, etc. That world of choice and balancing your activities and relationships is what teaches you about real life. And the school environment slowly gets less and less sheltered. My high school was huge – we had 600 people in my graduating class and that actually helped me because I was one small fish in a sea, which I kind of liked. I knew that I could do what I wanted and that the support was there but I had to work for it, it wasn’t just granted.
But that’s what I want someone else to have - like mini doses of reality during school. A sheltered environment that you can explore how you’re going to deal with conflicts - not just negative either, also the positive. For example, if you succeed but become boastful how is that going to affect you?
Do you think school did or is doing this for Nathan?
Yeah, I do. He had a concussion during high school from the football team which provided a huge challenge during his junior year. A very unfortunate medical event but one that brought with it a lot of experience with taking each day before the event for granted. With an event like this, you experience the added burden of putting your life back together. What Nathan had to do that after the incident, that’s where the learning happened.
In my story, I didn’t have a concussion, but I had lots of conflicts like academics vs. music, developing my identity, feeling accepted, things like that. For different people, it’s different routes. I think Nathan’s school was supportive enough that he made a great comeback and finished everything – it’s not that people didn’t care. But I think the unscripted “dealing with real life” moments in school is where the learning happens.
Do you think schools will do this for all children? And, if not why not?
Ultimately, school just provides an environment. The kinds of schools I and Nathan went to were similar – they were large and made students independent. I think schools provide these ‘mini doses of reality’ for kids who are aware of it. Maybe this is a cop out answer …
No, say more about what you mean…
I was aware of how I was developing my emotional intelligence and personality at school because I knew that was going on at school on top of academics. And my parents were very open. They would say, “Yes, you’re going to feel frustrated because this happened, or your team members won’t turn in the assignment and you’re going to feel left down and have to do more work to compensate for others, but that’s just part of the learning process.” If you know that school is a place where you can explore different situations in life, then you feel a little more comfortable with it happening. It has to do a lot with integrating the educational environment with a students’ home environment – part of developing your personality and your character. Your education is at home and at school and in your community.
The school I went to was large and provided me a lot of independence and taught me to speak up for myself and do what I wanted. My parents supported me being independent and told me what how my interpersonal relationships were evolving. It was similar for Nathan – his parents and family also supported and understood that school was not just about doing well academically but also about developing a personality and activities beyond academics. I’m grateful schools that integrate sports and music and all these extracurricular things into their program. The small real life situations happen during these activities.
I wish they would teach more of emotional intelligence and acknowledge those conflicts are going on in school. I remember the first time I learned about personalities was as an undergraduate. If my family wasn’t as supportive as they were/are, I may not have learned as much, so other students might benefit from getting more information – telling them that, yes, they’re going through development stages and there’s going to be different kinds of learners and people who handle emotions in different ways. I don’t even know how you would teach that. It’s like a “processing of emotions” class. That would be useful. But I kind of got that at home.
This is what I mean by that school provides you with an environment to try out real life scenarios and build your emotional center if you are aware. If you don’t know that school is a place where you are also growing personally, not just academically, you are just going to a building everyday and doing homework, but you don’t know why you’re doing it.
Thinking back on your life – both in and out of school – can you think of any learning experiences that were particularly empowering?
Yeah – I was always very self-motivated in school and I got a lot of support from my teachers to do unconventional things – like I wanted to take AP biology but I didn’t have regular biology and didn’t have time in my years left to take both, but I was able to work with my teacher, David Keener, to self-study biology over the summer and then take the AP class during the year. That was where my love for that field happened. Without that opportunity, for which everything lined up serendipitously, then I wouldn’t really be in this field.
I was also really excited to learn a musical instrument and was excited that was part of school. I chose saxophone because Lisa Simpson was my hero asI learned English through The Simpsons in second grade. Russian was my home language. I thought it was so cool that you could learn music in school. But it did cause conflict – band vs. academics. So I would take courses over the summer to take music during the year. I appreciated the flexibility my high school let me have – as long as you took the time or applied you could do many things that were outside the usual schedule or path. But you had to ask for it and it wasn’t super obvious. I had to go to Mr. Keener and asking to take the placement test – he said “okay, here’s the book to study, call me by phone if you have questions.” It was empowering and mini dose of reality – if you want something you have to find a way to make it happen and talk to people to get their advice and how they made it happen.
Do you have any teachers who particularly impacted you or were your favorite?
I have several. I would have to pick as my favorite, Peter Reddington , my high school teacher for comparative literature. Actually, also my professor in Berkeley for comparative literature, Paul Haacke. That field is way outside my current discipline – which is bio-engineering and mechanical engineering. So I had no interest in literature before taking Mr. Reddington’s class, which was required senior year. It was the first time I learned about dissecting literature – not just reading for fun but for prose and content and comparing styles and characters. He really taught us – he gave us a lot of options of projects to do and made the class really flexible, and he told us why it was important to study things out of your main interest.
The Comp Lit class I took in college was the only one I took outside my major, which I regret, and it was one of my favorite experiences. I remember all the assignments we did and we even read some plays. And I really enjoyed the discussions – I always felt I was talking the most and making the least sense, but it was freeing. In science classes, people were always giving wrong answers and being judged and here there was no right or wrong answer, it was your opinion – it was a great outlet. I’m grateful to those teachers for being open to someone taking their class for whom it wasn’t a top commitment, just an outside interest, but treating these students the same as others. Now as a teaching assistant, I have to remember that if a student turns in something half done it may not be that they’re a bad student but just that they have competing priorities and are trying to learn many things.