More than just passing the bucks: Enabling a life of learning and serving

 I graduated with a PhD in Genetics from Harvard Medical School on my birthday in 2005. My whole family flew into Boston from all over the country to celebrate the milestone toward my goal. Surrounded by my family, good friends, and classmates, I felt like I could explode with happiness.

Since then, I have become a professor and started my own laboratory at Brigham Young University. I love discovering new connections that may eventually prevent birth defects and treat diseases. I love following my curiosity. I love helping students realize their potential and accomplish their dreams. I feel especially grateful for mentors and parents who made possible the essential first steps towards my career. I would like to focus on how my parents supported my educational goals. My parents’ examples, invested time, high expectations and encouragement allowed me to grow from a shy, dyslexic girl to become a professor of Genetics and Biochemistry.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  There are occasional outliers, but in general, kids learn of their own potential and learn habits by watching their parents. My mom and dad love to learn. They read. They study. They write. They listen and discuss interesting topics in conversation. I learned to love learning by watching their modeling. I wanted my life to include that excitement.

My mom showed me that education is useful in every aspect of life. She showed me that knowledge enables a person to help. My mom graduated with an RN degree the year I was born. In her nursing career, my mom helped sick kids in children’s hospitals. At home, she could use that education to be a better mother for us. She diagnosed my appendicitis when doctors had missed it. I remember her taking over the IV needle from the nurse at the hospital who kept sticking me without piercing my little blood vessels. We got better medical care because my mom could speak the language of the doctors. My mom went back to school to earn her masters and become a nurse practitioner when I was in high school. I remember her studying papers, organizing, and writing her thesis. Watching her, I learned what it takes to accomplish goals.

My dad showed me that a career could be a source of excitement and fulfillment. As a math professor, he has shared his research all around the world. He is inspired by new ideas at any time or in any place. The animated conversations between him and his colleagues from other countries made academia seem like an adventure for the mind.

Both of my parents invested time in my education. They oversaw my homework assignments. When my mom realized I was dyslexic, she came to my third grade class during recess and lunch to teach me with the reading specialist so that she could help me more effectively at home. Every day my parents would read with me, alternating pages so that the plot could move despite my slow progress. My parents maintained high expectations for me regardless of my struggles. Throughout my education, my parents would ask me to re-write a paper if I had not completed it at an appropriate standard. I learned to have high standards for myself because my parents had high expectations of me.

 My parents encouraged my dreams. There have been times when my goals seemed impossible. There are times when I lost my desire to continue to pursue my dreams. I had moments, weeks, and months when I wanted to quit. I remember confiding in them during those harder times. They never said I had to keep at it. They would remind me of the high points and the reasons that I set the goals. Usually, the encouragement was not to finish, but just to get through the next hard part. Then my motivation would take over again. They knew when to cheer for me. I felt their love regardless of my progress towards my goals. But I felt their pride in me when I succeeded. I got a little bit addicted to my dad’s proud chuckle when I told him good news.

My life is fulfilling to me in part because I can see the contributions that I make with my education. My work may lead to new ways to prevent birth defects and treat diseases as common as cancer and migraines. My career helps younger students find the path towards their own dreams. I like to think that I help students accomplish goals that may feel impossible to them. A lot of the fulfillment I find in my life now, I owe to the time and energy my parents invested in my education.

Emily is a professor of Genetics and Biochemistry at Brigham Young University.