“disadvantaged background”

My current life is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I live in an apartment over-looking the Charles River. I can pay all of my bills every month. I get to spend my days (and often nights) thinking about the mysteries of the brain. I run experiments and collect data to answer questions that scientists have been thinking about for ages. Life is good.

Not perfect.


When life feels like this, I don’t want to think about the past. I don’t want to think about the pain, the struggles, the heartache, all the steps and phases of life that brought me to this point. I just want to live in today. Live in this moment. Enjoy the excitement of thought and scientific insight. Enjoy watching my daughter sit in front of our Christmas tree coloring. Enjoy dinner together.

But then something happens and I’m reminded of a different time. A time when things were harder. A time when sitting in front of a tree wasn’t so peaceful. And I cry.

Yesterday my advisor sent me an email. It simply said, “I don’t know how you will feel about this but it’s relevant to you,” and had this link. The first few lines jumped off the page and I thought, “great, more evidence that my background will continue to negatively impact my life.” I am in pretty good health though. I exercise regularly and eat pretty well and I have health insurance now. I kept reading, forcing myself not to go down that rabbit hole… Then I got to the part she thought was relevant: less than 1% of applicants for NIH funding come from a disadvantaged background.

Less than 1%.

In response, the NIH wrote a new definition for “disadvantaged background” to be more explicit and inclusive. There are 7 points. To qualify as coming from a “disadvantaged background” the applicant must meet the criteria for at least two of the seven. As I read through each item of the list, it felt like I was reading a checklist of my past — I meet the criteria for all 7 points.

All 7.

In that moment, I felt so vulnerable. So exposed. The tears welled up in my eyes and just fell. As I sat at my fancy office desk in a fancy MIT building I was reminded of my background:


Foster kid.

Free lunch.

First gen.

Federal Pell grant.


01331. 01364. 01301.

As I went through my day I let that moment slip away. I went to class, I talked to people about science, I looked at data, I even did some reading. My daughter and I had dinner together and then we each read our books before bed. It felt like a nearly perfect day.

At the back of my mind was this realization that I was at a choice point. I could write about this moment or, I could ignore it. One of the reasons I started this blog is because I want people from “disadvantaged backgrounds,” people like me, to know that a career in academia is possible — that dreams can come true. To accomplish that  I have to be vulnerable. I need to let people see not just my present successes but also my struggles — both past and present. To be fully open and vulnerable like that is a challenge for me. I so often want to hide away, to let the past be the past and simply move forward. To expose myself, my past, my life to the world is not easy. But it matters. It matters to people that have overcome challenges similar to mine. It matters to me.

Here I am. I am writing. I am trying to be comfortable with exposing my own vulnerability and past. I am not my past but my past will always be a part of me.

So, to the random person out there that needs to believe in herself:  You can do it. So can I. Here’s to you. Here’s to me. Here’s to us. Have fun and keep on keeping on.

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