April 25, 2017

The Honor of Speaking with Honor's Students

A few months ago, I received an email from the principal of my high school in Wayland, Michigan, inviting me to speak at the annual Scholastic Honor's Night. This is a night during which all students with a g.p.a. of 3.5 and above are recognized for their hard work, are treated to a special guest speaker, and observe the induction of a new alumni hall of fame member. I was expecting the invitation because one of my high school teachers, who also happens to be my third cousin (we discovered this about two years ago) told me that he was recommending me as a speaker. Also, I'll be honest-I've always been the "right type" of person to be invited back to speak at their high school. I was a nerd, one of those "super smart" people that others made fun of. So I suppose it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Nevertheless, when the official invitation came, I found myself thinking, "Oh my, this really did actually happen. I always thought it would, but never believe it actually would!"

Then, it really hit me! I had to prepare a speech for high school students! And it better be inspirational-that's what everyone was expecting! Talk about pressure. I had no idea what to say to these bright eyed students-full of dreams and fears and nerves. Speak in front of 900 people at a conference in Boston? No problem. Hold meetings with CEOs of big name companies? Sure. But this? This was different. I knew full well that all of the kids I'd be speaking to were incredibly talented and had big things coming in life. And I-me, little me-was counted inspirational enough to send a message to these kids at one of the most impressional times of their lives. I had the incredible honor to be offered the opportunity to share 15 minutes with a potential inventor, Nobel prize winner, Michelin star chef, world changer. They may have felt honored to have me there, but I felt just as honored-probably more-to be in their company!

I spent about a month and a half agonizing over my speech-writing it, rewriting it, thinking about it, worrying about it. Finally, I put a cap on the work; I had to stop sometime! I had poured my heart and soul into it, and that was all I could ask or expect of myself. I decided to trust that this fact alone would shine through when I gave the speech and make it something tangible and authentic for the students.

What happened blew me away! High school students-this strange breed of people that I was once but have certainly changed since I was their age-came up afterwards and asked to take their picture with me, and told me I really inspired them. I couldn't believe it! Not only that, but parents were equally touched. I was truly humbled by the response, and above all, incredibly happy that I was able to help these amazing students. After all, that was my singular goal for the night, to make a positive impact, no matter how small, on even one student. To have been able to do that, to have been able to give back to the school where I had my own humble beginnings, was truly a very special honor.

In case there is interest, I've pasted my speech below. The written words are not exactly the words I said; I told my story as it came and used the written words as a guide to keep me on track, but this is basically it. It was a 15 minute talk, 2200 words, so don't read unless you really have time :)

"If you were to tell me twelve years ago when I walked down these halls that one day I would be standing in front of all of you, I would have laughed. When I was your age, I was terrified of speaking in front of other people. I worried so much what others would think about me that I avoided speaking in front of others-even simply asking questions in class-like the plague. I tried to force myself to face my fears and took a speech class. For our final speech, the teacher gave extra credit to individuals who gave the speech early. The catch was that you had to do it only in front of the teacher. To me, this was the best deal ever! Not only did I not have to speak in front of the whole class, but I got extra credit for it! This did, of course, defeat the purpose of forcing myself to face my fear of public speaking. Fortunately, I would eventually learn not only not to fear public speaking, but to thoroughly enjoy it. Learning to face and control my fears-and use them to my advantage-has opened up opportunities that I never would have had otherwise, and that I could have never dreamed would be made possible simply by being able to talk in front of a group of people-such as trouncing through the rainforests of Thailand or stepping tentatively through the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.

I've been asked several times how I got to where I am today, and I don't just mean turning into a fearless public speaker. When people hear that I got my PhD in four years or that I am a Forbes 30 Under 30 Scientist, they usually assume that I must have been one of those individuals that knew from the time I was six years old that this is what I wanted to do and that every step I took from grade school to now was deliberately taken to fulfill my goals. My story isn't quite like that-and it's taken me twelve years to realize that's ok. I used to think that perhaps I didn't deserve what I've gotten, or that I wasn't as smart as everyone thought because I wasn't that certain, even five years ago, what I wanted to be doing and hadn't designed a grand, detailed plan for getting there. The truth is, a lot of people have stories like mine. Not everyone knows what they want to do when they graduate from high school, or even when they graduate college. And that's ok. Not only is it ok, it certainly is not a reason to think that you can't, or won't, be wildly successful. I'm a case in point.

My story begins right here in Wayland, Michigan. Science came naturally to me, so I knew early on, even before high school, that I wanted a career in science. In high school, I was certain that I wanted to be a physical therapist; as an athlete myself nothing sounded more exciting than spending my days with athletes. After shadowing a physical therapist at an office at which my sister-in-law worked, I realized that the reality of the job was not as I imagined. So, unsure of what exactly I wanted to do as an entering freshman at Grand Valley State University, I chose an umbrella program-Biomedical Science-which had a broad enough curriculum to prepare me for anything in science that I might want to do once I made up my mind. One of the courses required by the degree was a basic human genetics course, which I took during my sophomore year. I was fascinated, and took a bunch of summer courses in genetics to learn as much as I could about the field. My new goal was to become either a genetic researcher or genetic counselor.

I was also interested in Spanish language and culture, however, and took a year hiatus from science during a year abroad in Spain where I completed course work toward a second major. While I missed my science courses during that year, this experience was one of the best-if not the best-of my life. I learned how people different from me think, look, and act. I experienced a level of acceptance that I didn't always have here-which both surprised me and increased my self-confidence. I also learned how quickly a person can learn to do something when there is no other option. If you need to eat and no one speaks your language, you learn the language everyone else speaks-and if you're like me and really motivated by food, you learn that other language really fast! I One of my most liberating experiences happened on one of my first days in Barcelona, where the primary language is Catalan, not Spanish (though everyone there does know how to speak Spanish). I was buying supplies for school and only had a few years of high school and university Spanish on my side. The cashier forgot to clear the register after checking out the man in front of me and was trying to charge me for his item. In my rather elementary Spanish, I attempted to tell her of her error. My Spanish must have been quite terrible, because she clearly didn't understand me, and the situation quickly escalated into several people shouting at me in Catalan. I was terrified-but I learned, right then and there, because I had no other choice, not to be frozen by fear, but rather to remain calm and get through the situation somehow, some way. In the end, the cashier returned to speaking (calmly) in Spanish, and removed the man's item, charging me only for my items. That was the first time I learned to control my fears, rather than let them control me-and I would use that newfound skill over and over again throughout my life-especially as I learned to be an effective public speaker.

Upon returning from Spain, I registered for another required course for my Biomedical Science major-basic microbiology. One day, my professor, who used to work for the Center for Disease Control, lectured on African parasites. As he told a story about having to remove worms from children's legs by wrapping the worms around sticks and slowly pulling them out, I became fascinated! I still loved genetics, but I began to wonder if there were any way I could combine genetics and microbiology in a future career. I took more microbiology classes to obtain my microbiology emphasis on my degree, and began looking for graduate school programs that would fit my newfound emphasis. I was particularly interested in a program offered by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. During my senior year at GVSU, I had the opportunity to attend a grad school fair at Purdue University in Indiana, where I spoke with a representative from the program I was interested in at Baylor. My new goal was to attend Baylor for graduate school, and, inspired by my microbiology professor, I thought that working for the CDC after graduate school would be a great way for me to combine my love of genetics and microbiology.

Later that year, my brother spent a few months in Texas training for work, and my family and I visited him and his family over Christmas. I contacted the Baylor rep I had spoken to at the fair, and he invited me for a visit. Upon my arrival, I soon learned that this visit was organized like a graduate school interview-I hadn't been prepared for that. So, I took a deep breath, forced myself to relax, and hoped that I performed well so that I'd be invited back later for an official interview. In February-two days after my birthday-I received a letter informing me that I was being offered a position in the incoming class that fall. There was no need for me to come back during the official interview period. I was ecstatic!

In graduate school, students "rotate" through laboratories, spending a few months in 3 or 4 labs before choosing the lab in which they want to complete their thesis work. My first rotation was in a laboratory studying anthrax. My experience here would be perfect for qualifying me for a job at the CDC! When it came time for me if I could join the lab, the boss told me that while he had enough money to cover my salary for two years, he didn't know if he'd be able to get money for following years, and he didn't want to put me in a difficult situation. I tried to change his mind, multiple times, but he wouldn't budge. The year was 2011-when the first NIH budget cuts were affecting researchers everywhere, and I was forced to rotate in a fifth laboratory. This laboratory focused on studying the microbiome, which I soon found was a beautiful combination of genetics and microbiology, and also had money to cover my salary. I joined the lab, and due to a mixture of a supportive mentor, committee, and collaborators and personal grit and determination, was able to graduate with my PhD in less than four years. Shortly before my graduating, the anthrax researcher approached me and apologized for not letting him join his lab, stating that I had been right. I smiled and told him not worry-that if he'd let me join his lab, I wouldn't be where I was at that moment-about to start a postdoctoral position with Rob Knight-the biggest name in microbiome research. I'll be completely honest-it was nice to have a bit of vindication!

When starting my postdoc, my plan was to spend 2-3 years gaining experience, and then join another lab as a project manager. My opportunity came much sooner than expected, however, when Rob offered me the position of project manager for the American Gut project just a year after joining his lab. This position has enabled me to do what I love most-travel the country-and world-talking about science, educating people, and getting people excited about the science and showing them how they, too, can contribute-even if they don't have a PhD after their name. Not only that, but I get to work with amazing people from all over the world-I'm currently actively collaborating with people in China, Norway, and Costa Rica-among many other countries. I earned my Forbes honor due to my work with the project, which also gained me an invitation to the White House for the official announcement of the National Microbiome Initiative. I certainly didn't take the straightest route to get to where I am now, but looking back on all of the experiences I had along the way, I realize that every single one was critical for the success I enjoy now. I know it sounds cliché-but I literally wouldn't be where I am today, enjoying the success I am, had I not taken my unique twisty, curvy, path to get there. And you know something else? I wouldn't trade my experiences for a straighter path any day!

I told you earlier today that I've successfully conquered my fear of public speaking-but I didn't tell you the complete truth. I was terrified to speak to all of you today! You're probably wondering why, and maybe you're laughing because it sounds ridiculous, or maybe you think I'm lying because I don't look scared. But the truth is that this is one of the most important speeches I'll ever give in my life. You-all of you sitting in this room today-are the future-and I have had the honor of having the opportunity to make a mark on you today-and it's so important to me that the impact I've had is a good one. If, like me, twelve years from now you can't remember who spoke at your Honor's Night, I'm fine with that, as long as I have accomplished a single goal. If just a single person in this room tonight takes a piece of what I say and uses that piece to help them build a bright future, then I will consider tonight a success. And, while you may not remember me, I'll remember you when I read of your successes, or hear about them on the news or radio, and I'll smile knowing that I had the opportunity to make an impact on your amazing life. And now, as I go, I'd like to leave you with one last thought: use every opportunity that you have to teach others something. Your lives will become a mixture of unique experiences that others can learn from. We are all teachers, and learning never stops-and having an active part in that cycle is the most satisfying experience in the world. In fact, the opportunity to play a part in teaching others is worth enough to make some face their worst fears."