My two eldest daughters recently turned 10 and 12. Between their birthdays and the election of the first woman of color as vice president of the US, my thoughts have turned to their future and, in particular, their educational and career choices. A common question I get from friends and relatives is, “Would you recommend chemistry to your kids?” This letter is my answer to that question.
I know it’s a little unusual for you to get a letter from Dad in C&EN. But since both of you read the magazine when I leave it out on the dinner table, I figured, Why not?
A lot of people ask me if I will encourage you to become chemists, as your grandfather encouraged me to consider engineering. Middle school isn’t too early to start thinking about what you want your future to look like.
Your grandfather, who grew up in Taiwan, had a very narrow view of college. He thought it was a place for people to get skills so that they could support themselves and their families. I have a more modern view of college, and I’m glad I didn’t listen to his advice to become an engineer. Going to college is a wonderful opportunity to explore various fields of study, and that’s something I want you to look forward to. I refuse to point you at a specific career, even one that I love and have worked in for over 20 years.
If you do choose chemistry as a major, you will gain a superhero’s vision of this universe. We’ve done simple experiments in the kitchen and in the front yard, and that’s just a taste of the wonders that are scientific research. If you do laboratory work in college, you’ll gain skills for the job market and a glimpse of how chemists can change the world through their work. I’ve been working in and around chemistry research for over 2 decades now, and the thrill of discovery has not gotten old. If you try it, I think you will like it as well.
No matter which field you choose, you will have to deal with the reality of race and gender inequities in America. As women of color, you will find implicit and explicit barriers in getting to where you want to go, be it in science or engineering or elsewhere. Face these biases knowing that your mother and I, and many others, will support you along the way. Know that many people face greater barriers, and take the time to understand their difficulties and the injustices they face and to speak out and advocate for them.
In my lifetime, I have seen much improvement in the inclusion of women in all fields, including in the sciences. Even so, I cannot guarantee that you will see full representation in your professors when you reach college. I’m sorry for that. So many people, including me, are trying their best to clear the way for those who are breaking those gender and racial barriers. I won’t promise that they’ll be gone when you get to college less than a decade from now, but I am optimistic that those barriers will be lower. Hold us to that.
I have extremely high hopes for you both. You are full of intelligence, humility, and understanding. Living in the US provides you with the freedom to explore various fields to find one that you enjoy and that will support you in the quality of life you desire. Find a field that stimulates your passions and makes the necessary hard work worthwhile.
Your mother and I have tried to transmit every last scrap of wisdom that we have of our short time on this earth to you both. Your mission in these next few years is to consider and decide on some paths to explore and choose one or two to ponder and commit to with the seriousness that they deserve. I look forward to many, many conversations and guiding you to decisions of your own.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.