The Secrets of Life: Why I Got Into STEM

The Secrets of Life: Why I Got Into STEM

As part of our Role Models series, our team are sharing their inspiration for becoming involved in STEM. In this post, STEM Women creator, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, shares the creative inspiration for following her passion in molecular biology. Buddhini’s tale shows the importance of popular culture in igniting the scientific spark amongst young people.

Buddhini profileI was 13 years old when I first read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no preconceptions what to expect with the book. But it was enough to hook me. It wasn’t the dinosaurs that fascinated me, but rather the description of DNA, the sequencing machines, the cloning…I was entranced. Looking back, it’s rather ironic considering Michael Crichton was notoriously anti-science, and his characters are often very critical of scientists. Yet, it was my gateway into molecular biology and I knew that this was what I wanted to do someday.

A few years later, I borrowed my mom’s copy of The Double Helix by James Watson. Although at the time I was unaware of the sad story of Rosalind Franklin, I was still fascinated by the narrative of what things were like at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, the birthplace of molecular biology. From then I ravenously consumed books about science, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Thomas Kuhn; Stephen Hawking to Simon Singh.

STEM Parental Support

My mom is also a scientist. She is an organic chemist who has dedicated her life to teaching. Having a role model like her from an early age helped me feel that my dream was achievable, and not crazy. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I had a strong science background and found the subject easy because I was so interested in it. I had very supportive parents who were clear that an education was the most important thing I could achieve, instead of the traditional arranged marriage and motherhood that many of my friends prioritized because of cultural pressures. I consider myself incredibly lucky because of this.

I had a difficult time in school, because I went to an all-girls Buddhist school, where obedience was valued and questioning the status quo was not encouraged. I quickly developed a healthy disrespect for authority so I was frequently in trouble with my teachers. The problems continued but my love for science didn’t go away, despite the abuse I suffered at the hands of these teachers who would constantly tell me I would amount to nothing while beating me. When my parents found out what was going on they were horrified, and I switched schools. Things improved, and I put in the necessary effort and got the grades I needed to get into university abroad and escape.

Passion for Public Science

At 18 when I was applying for admission into universities in the UK, I had no doubt that I wanted to study molecular biology. I wanted to learn how life works, what our DNA means and understand how a single cell can carry the instructions to build us, and how that development takes place. If I take a step back, these things still fill me with wonder.

Translating that knowledge and wonder to the public has become one of the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist. I feel privileged to be able to share it with interested people. This is why I got into STEM and this is why I will stay in STEM for as long as I can.

4 thoughts on “The Secrets of Life: Why I Got Into STEM

  1. Thanks for a great post about inspiration!

    Question: how did you know how to go to college? And how did you know it would work?

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  2. This is a great post about inspiration! There are so many possible sources, and so many paths to fulfillment.

    Question: How did you know how to go to college? It’s clear that you understood the importance of further education, but how did you figure out how to move from lower school (high school in the U.S.) to college?

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    1. Thanks for the comment Michael! Hmm interesting question that requires me to be very honest with myself and my upbringing. I knew what I wanted to do in terms of a career, and I also knew that I needed at least two University degrees to make that happen (you can’t be a self-taught molecular biologist, so there is no such thing as an amateur molecular biologist!). So there was no question that I needed a degree to get to where I wanted. How did I make that happen? I was fortunate (and privileged!) that my dad could afford to put me through undergrad by paying for my tuition. For my PhD, I was lucky to get funding via a full scholarship that paid for my tuition and living expenses. I have been financially independent since then, but I realize that I could never have got to where I am now had my dad not funded my undergrad degree.

      Like

    2. Thanks for the comment Michael! Hmm interesting question that requires
      me to be very honest with myself and my upbringing. I knew what I wanted
      to do in terms of a career, and I also knew that I needed at least two
      University degrees to make that happen (you can’t be a self-taught
      molecular biologist, so there is no such thing as an amateur molecular
      biologist!). So there was no question that I needed a degree to get to
      where I wanted. How did I make that happen? I was fortunate (and
      privileged!) that my dad could afford to put me through undergrad by
      paying for my tuition. For my PhD, I was lucky to get funding via a full
      scholarship that paid for my tuition and living expenses. I have been
      financially independent since then, but I realize that I could never
      have got to where I am now had my dad not funded my undergrad degree.

      Like

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