They don’t celebrate Father’s Day in West Africa where I am serving with the Peace Corps, but I think about you a lot here, and your impact on my love of science. I had incredible science teachers—you worked hard to find public school districts with great math and science educators—but it was your lessons that gave me the confidence to explore astrophysics and cancer biology research, major in physics at Princeton, and now teach physics in French to classes of over 100 in a rural village in Guinea. Many of the girls I teach are 17, the same age I was when you died suddenly of a heart attack. Nine years later the void you left remains, but I’m channeling your lessons to these girls and feel you with me when I do.
In Guinea only 15.4 percent of girls finish primary school, according to the Secrétariat Technique du Comité Genre et Equité (STCGE). And you worried about the gender disparities in STEM! I have been exploring the research on science education, which shows the impact of mentorship and messaging on girls’ retention and success in STEM fields. I now see that I may as well have been raised on this body of research, though most of it was published after your death. Three messages stand out in stark contrast to the messages that my students tend to hear:
“I love it when you prove me wrong!” you would exclaim gleefully when I challenged you in any of our discussions. Your flexibility took the conflict out of challenge and put us on the same team in pursuit of truth. Your exuberance fueled my audaciousness and goaded me to look deeper to find what others may be missing. Your willingness to be proven wrong by a young girl despite your Harvard MD/PhD gave me the confidence to question anyone. It also taught me humility. “We can only hope to be right some of the time,” you reminded me. “That’s why we call it RE—search.” You showed me the power of an open mind: priceless insights may come from unlikely sources, even me, your young daughter.
I contrast my experiences to those of my student, Fatoumata, whose dad told her she must marry and stop school at age 13 because of “tradition.” Challenging him would mean only trouble, not a joyous exploration of truth. She was taught to be submissive and diffident, not curious and confident. We worked with the school principal and were able to convince her father to stop her forced marriage and let her stay in school. Empowered by our confidence in her, she co-founded an organization to support other girls and teach their parents that education offers a path out of poverty. “You proved me wrong,” her dad now says as he boasts about her leadership.
You knew that beliefs we have about ourselves change the ways our brains work. When I wondered why there were not more girls in 6th grade advanced math and speculated that boys may be genetically better at math than girls you exclaimed, “They tricked you! I can’t believe it! My own daughter.” You never let me succumb to the subtle forces that could undermine my confidence and dissuade me from my passion.
Deep cultural beliefs about who should study are daunting barriers in Guinea, but you prepared me to surmount them by changing mindsets, not only of my students, but also the men and women at home, who have the power to hold them back or help them thrive. Your message rings in my ears, Dad. I won’t let them trick me or my students.
A third message also rings so true. “It's good that it's hard, that means that you're growing,” you told me when I struggled with school work or a social problem. You reminded me that we grow the most when we are out of our comfort zones. Now research shows that brains develop and change, and that mistakes grow your brain. “You never want things to be too easy,” you said. It was a lesson I repeated over and over the year of your death and that I have revisited often during the difficult moments of isolation and hardship in my service. I cherish those challenges because I know they are forming me.
I share these gifts you gave me with the girls I teach, who face so many challenges from living in extreme poverty. We work to see their struggles as their sources of strength, and to bring the resilience they bring to their everyday lives to their learning and intellectual development. And because I experienced you learning from me as a young girl, I am prepared to receive the many lessons my students have to teach me.
Thank you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.