Landing Among the Stars

One of the key things you learn in mathematics is the difference between a variable and a constant. We can deduce what these mean just from using the English language: a variable is something that changes and a constant is something that doesn’t. For instance, if you have a function that depends on x, we can define x as the variable. Its value can change, which means that the output of the function changes as well. However, numbers like 1, 2, 50, 72905, etc. are constants; their values will NEVER change.

Functions can be a tricky concept to master when they are first introduced. The idea that you have two letters (f for function and x for its input) that are actually numbers, which can change depending on the value of x, is not intuitive. Constants are easier to grasp: no matter what, they stay the same.

Amazing how mathematics so accurately describes human nature.

I have a difficult time with change. On my last day of undergrad, I cried all the way to my car. I was getting ready to leave for Cornell to start grad school, something I had been anticipating for months. I was going to further build my credentials as an engineer and make strides toward my goals. Plus, I had lived at home during college and would finally have a place of my own. I finally felt like I was spreading my wings.

But I was leaving the comfort of familiarity. I had made friends at college, many of whom were staying in the area for jobs. Most of my family lived in adjoining suburbs; there was always someone I could visit if I needed to see a friendly face. The people who had mentored me were at my school, and I had grown accustomed to that place as if it were a second home. Leaving that for the unknown seemed ludicrous.

I’ve never been a very social person. How was I going to make friends all over again? Trying to make friends in college had been hard enough. What if I had no one to talk to? What if I was still going to be the same awkward pain in the neck I’d been in college? What if I always felt lonely? What if my friends at home forgot about me?

What if I failed?

That was definitely my greatest fear. If I stayed home, I couldn’t fail because I hadn’t tried. That sounds logical, right? But J. K. Rowling said it best: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you fail by default.”

We all have dreams and desires. Even as I approach thirty, I love to daydream about what I’m going to continue doing with my life. Sometimes, my goals seem too lofty and I tell myself that it will never happen; I should just comfort myself with daydreams, not aspire to them. And then I realize that what I thought was common sense telling me to play it “smart” was really fear telling me to play it “safe.”

I have dreams of being a respected quantum chemist and engineer, a published author, a teacher, a mentor, and an advocate for women and minorities in STEM. I want to be the type of leader in whom people can confide, who will listen and encourage employees and colleagues so that they can obtain confidence and achieve their potential. I want to make an impact in all of these fields so that whoever enters them will have the greatest experiences of their lives. I want to see people embracing challenges with confidence, not running away from them out of fear of failure. But in order for me to help implement this change, I myself need to change.

I need to conquer my own fears.

This world desperately needs change, and, more importantly, it needs people willing to be vessels for change. That has never been an easy task. One of my favorite quotes by M. Mead is this: “Upon the gifted among the misfits lies the burden of building new worlds.” It’s so true that people whom others deemed as misfits and oddities were the ones brave enough to take risks and revolutionize their respective fields.

Marie Curie was a woman, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was practically considered a handicap when it came to being a scientist; she made advancements in radioactivity, which led to her first Nobel Prize in physics, and discovered the elements radium and polonium, for which she received her second Nobel in chemistry. Srinivasa Ramanujan was a famous mathematician who attended Trinity College at Cambridge and became a Fellow of the Royal Society while he was working for G. H. Hardy; given the many contributions he made to the field, no one would have guessed his poor background and lack of formal education beyond high school in India. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born during the Depression in Georgia, a part of the Jim Crow South, and suffered from depression and twice attempted suicide. He became the face of the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s easy to look at these heroes and think to ourselves, “Yes, but they were strong; they knew how to persevere. I’m not like that. I can’t adapt to change that well.” History doesn’t always tell us how people felt; most likely, each of them didn’t feel capable of performing the task at hand either. But they did figure out a way to overcome their doubts and become leaders for change, regardless of their gender, race, and even their age.

Leaders come from all backgrounds, and age is no exception. Curie had earned two degrees by the time she was seventeen, at which point she began working with future husband Pierre Curie. Ramanjuan was twenty-six when he first traveled to England and made a myriad of discoveries before his death at thirty-two. (As a side note, Newton was formulating calculus at twenty-three, Einstein had discovered relativity by twenty-six, and Queen Victoria became the Sovereign of the British Empire at eighteen.)

Social change has also been a young person’s cause. Thomas Jefferson was only thirty-two when he penned the Declaration of Independence. William Wilberforce became a British politician at twenty-one and took up the cause of abolition at twenty-eight. His friend, William Pitt the Younger, became the British Prime Minister at twenty-four. Barbara Johns was only sixteen when she led a strike against the racially-segregated Moton High School in Virginia. And in today’s times, we have Emma Gonzalez, an eighteen-year-old survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and one of the organizers for “March for Our Lives” for gun control. (When I was a high-school senior, I spent the year applying for scholarships and planning the party I’d have before starting college. Emma spent hers being an advocate for school safety and gun law reform.)

We need our young people, the world’s future leaders, to be involved in change. They should be taught early not to fear it or the setbacks that come with it. They should be encouraged to take chances and learn not only from classrooms but also from experience. Maybe then we will have people who are less interested in playing it safe and more interested in playing it smart.

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Les Brown

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak


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