What is your story of strength?

My story started as a young girl. I feel lucky that I was able to spend time growing up in Germany before moving to the US. Having been exposed to that distinct view of the world and interacting with different people and cultures really helped kick start my foundation for understanding that we live in a diverse world, with people coming from all different backgrounds.

When I was seven, my father got sick. He was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, where the life expectancy is 2- 5 years. That was difficult to process as such a young person… you don’t understand what it means when someone close to you becomes ill. You don’t understand how it’ll impact you or the family or how much your life is going to change. I grew up thinking my father wouldn’t be around past my 12th birthday…it was a big battle to face. Through all of that, I spent a lot of time with my father and tried to get to know him as a person, and to be as helpful as possible. I also wanted to be the best version of myself so my family could focus their energy on helping my father survive, and not on me. One of the most difficult parts of that illness is that my father lost his ability to walk, and to do the things he loved.  Before he got sick, my dad was a golf professional. One of the first things he lost was the ability to hold a golf club. Then went his ability to walk and after a while it was really challenging to understand what he was saying. Speaking is such a huge part of who you are; being able to laugh with people and share memories and tell someone you love them…being able to hug someone. These are simple things people don’t think about, but my father lost the ability to connect in the simplest of ways.

By the time I was in middle school, I became my father’s primary caregiver. We had hospice coming to our home but I took the brunt of the caregiver activities. It was really hard for someone in middle school. Everyone else in my world was worried about boys and kissing and here I was waking up early to get my dad showered and dressed and make him breakfast. I wanted to make sure he had everything he needed for the day. At one point, my sister, mother and I moved to my grandmother’s house because my parents had some major conflicts. But I still woke up early and biked a mile to my dad’s house every morning. It was a huge strain to make it all happen at that age. At that point, my life didn’t feel like a choice. This was my father and I wanted to be there to help him but that was the focus of my life. Every day my dad would wake up and say, “I’m going to walk again today.” That’s the kind of person he was. My dad was my hero; he was such a strong human. He pushed against all odds and would look for any possible treatment options. I always tried to be supportive but holding onto hope is also really taxing, especially when you have no idea what’s going to happen. I didn’t want to get false hopes.  My life continued like this until I went to college.

College was a nice reprieve from all those responsibilities, in a way. All the time and energy I was sharing with my father (happily but exhausting), it was directed to something else, something I loved. I could be selfish. Four years later, I made one of the toughest decisions, to go to Graduate School in Washington State, a solid 3000 miles from home and where my dad lived. I made that decision for myself because I thought I needed to do something for me, to be away and on my own. My dad was really supportive of course. During my second year of grad school I got a call that I needed to go home, my dad wasn’t doing well. He passed away the next day. It was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. It’s one thing to know something is going to happen eventually but it’s completely different when someone no longer exists in your world. It was difficult to accept, to be able to move past it and understand that this was my new reality. For a long time, I didn’t know how to accept it. Through all of those terrible months, though, it made me more human. I can better relate to people. We are all going through something that is difficult for each of us to deal with. So many people lose family members, and too many lose them early in life. It’s unfair. We miss so many good things in life with those people, so much love. But going through that level of loss helps you better relate to others, to recognize others are struggling and know that we are all in it together. My father went through these challenges and never gave up. He fought this disease for 17 years. He outlived the expectancy by a lot. I truly believe that is because of the person he was. He had a mentality about being kind, sharing adventures, how wonderful life was and how much he wanted to be part of my and my sister’s lives. He was a vibrant human. He made me stronger and taught me to believe in myself and know that even if what I want is against all odds, I can make it happen

What is your most persistent dream about the future?

On the most basic level, I hope we as a people can better understand that we are more alike than different. It has been a lesson for me throughout my life. I always felt a little isolated, thinking no one felt the way I did or went through the level of pain I had. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. And it’s so untrue! The more people you talk to, the more books you read, and the places you visit;, you cannot come to believe we are so different. We have over 99.9% of the same genetic code! We are all so much more alike than we recognize.

What does being a woman mean to you?

Being a woman means holding a very powerful universal role. We obviously are able to conceive and bear children, which is incredibly powerful. With that power, we have the responsibility to share knowledge, courage and love with others and especially young people in this world. We must make sure they know that they have the potential to do all things. And that we each get to make choices in life about who to be and who we want to impact. That is powerful.

What’s a gender norm or expectation that you wish didn’t exist?

I’m in the STEM field (Science and technology) where I work as a scientist.  I’ve been passionate about learning as much as I can in biology and genetics. Now, even though the field is changing, there is a strong bias in these fields toward men. It might be because they think differently and have traditionally held these roles in the past. There is still an expectation that men in leadership roles will continue. In some cases it has made it really challenging to pursue this discipline. I am a pretty soft-spoken person. Sometimes my voice is drowned out even if I have a good idea. I’ll say something and then five minutes later, a guy will say the same thing in a meeting and get recognized! Things like that don’t make sense to me. Everyone should have a voice at the table. Everyone’s ideas should be heard and discussed. We can change this and we’re starting to. There are lots of strong women in this field now, and part of why I’m in this field is to be part of that change.

 

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