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Dear 16-year-old me: advice from UQ’s Dr Aideen McInerney-Leo

UQ people
Published 4 Aug, 2020  ·  6 minute read

Have you ever wished you could see into the future to predict what choices you should make, what degree you should study, and what direction you should take to have an amazing life that you love? 

Unfortunately, we can’t offer any psychic predictions; however, we did ask some of UQ’s most successful women who work in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) careers to tell us about their highs and lows on the path to success, and what advice they would give themselves if they were 16 years old today. 

Their answers may surprise you.


 

Dr Aideen McInerney-Leo is an NHMRC Early Career Fellow at The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute.

Dear Aideen

A lot of well-intentioned adults will repeatedly tell you that this is the best time of your life. 

I know it depresses you in the extreme to think that this is as good as it gets.

I am here to reassure you that this is not the case! In fact, it’s the opposite. This is one of the hardest, most stressful times of your life. 

This is not because you are under a lot of pressure academically, which you are, but because you are so exquisitely, painfully uncomfortable with absolutely everything about yourself.

You have no belief in your physical attributes or your intellectual prowess. Some days you feel totally unremarkable and mediocre, and you long for a special talent that would set you apart.

Yet other days, you want to disappear into the woodwork, be invisible and be ‘just like everyone else’.

You feel like no-one understands you and, despite the love of family and friends, there are times when you feel profoundly alone.

It is an incredibly hard time and, in the words of Idella from Driving Miss Daisy, “I wouldn’t be in your shoes if the sweet Lord Jesus came down and asked me hisself!”

Better days are coming, soon, I promise!

The following are my top seven professional and personal tips for life:

1. When it comes to professions, you are equally happy in multiple parallel universes 

Right now, you believe that there is one perfect job out there for you and you feel under incredible pressure to find it. 

I can now tell you, with absolute certainty, that you love your work in this future, and you are equally, and ‘nerdily’ excited about your career in any number of parallel universes. 

It is not the career itself that is critically important, it is its key attributes. 

For you, your raison d'être is helping people. You are a ‘people person’ and you get a lot from interacting with and empowering others. 

You want a job where you believe you can make a difference, because you like to imagine that the world might be a slightly better place for your having passed through it. 

You love problem-solving and figuring out solutions. You like to think creatively and to run with a challenge. 

Any job which allows you to read and continue to learn is going to keep your interest. 

The longer you live, the more you will realise that many paths are compatible with these attributes, although healthcare and science are obvious fits. 

2. Be a lobster!

At some stage in our life, you will hear a wise rabbi tell a story about how a lobster grows. 

As you know, a lobster has a hard exoskeleton that is incapable of changing size. Therefore, as a lobster grows the skeleton gets tighter and tighter, and increasingly uncomfortable until it sheds its shell. It hides during this time of supreme vulnerability until it grows another shell. 

So, Aideen – my advice is to be a lobster. When it matters, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and persevere when you feel most vulnerable. 

All times of personal growth are preceded by discomfort or stress. Try to keep putting yourself in these situations, whether that involves applying for jobs, studying later in life, or travelling to other countries for your career. 

Each experience will nurture your belief in yourself, and you will be so proud of yourself after the fact. 

3. Trust your gut

When making important decisions gather all the information you can, weigh it up and then trust your gut. 

Your gut will not always be right but, if you follow it and the outcome is disappointing then you generally cope pretty well by rationalising that you made the best decision, based on the information available at the time. 

However, if you go against your gut instinct and it goes wrong, you are setting yourself up for a lot of regret. 

4. Don’t be afraid to show initiative 

If someone’s work or experience interests you, or impresses you, then write to them and, if appropriate, ask if you can meet with them to get their advice. 

You will be amazed by how many impressive, brilliant individuals will agree to meet with you because you wrote a respectful and thoughtful letter or email. 

Worst-case scenario, they don’t respond; and best-case scenario, you learn from people you admire – which could even lead to opportunities to work with them in the future. 

5. Treasure, treasure, treasure your time with your family and friends

You are a pretty engaged daughter, sister, niece and friend already, but sometimes you get busy and distracted. 

Be still, be present and really listen to those you love, especially when it comes to older family members. 

Pay close attention to the family history and all the stories. It is cathartic for people to tell their story and you will have a greater appreciation of the significance of their stories later. 

Once family members are gone, it is hard to piece together the fragments. Over time, you will realise that your family’s stories are an integral part of your own story and identity. 

6. Cut yourself some slack!

It goes without saying that you should be kind to others, but you also need to be kind to yourself. 

You are alright, Aideen. You are a good person. You are conscientious and you put your heart and soul into everything you do. You are a loyal friend and family member. 

You are not perfect and you make mistakes, lots of mistakes, but that’s OK.

The sooner you can accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes, the sooner you can stop replaying them in your mind and wasting your time on self-flagellation. 

You learn a lot from some mistakes, which makes you a better, more self-aware version of yourself. Cut yourself some slack. You are a good human being, loving and kind, and you deserve to receive both in return. 

7. Relax! You are not going to die alone!

I know you have a melodramatic tendency to believe that you will never meet that special someone. 

However, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Spoiler, it is not the guy next door (who turns out to be a big disappointment)! 

You are going to meet the most amazing man who is highly intelligent, gorgeous, and has the best laugh. Seriously, you will be watching movies with him which you don’t find particularly amusing but tears will be running down your cheeks because of his contagious laugh. 

What’s more, he is an incredibly good person with a kind heart who, much to your constant amazement, believes in you. 

He is your best friend and whenever anything of significance happens in your life, you will want to share it with him first as it won’t feel real until you do. 

And as if that’s not enough, you will have a beautiful family together. 

I won’t spoil it and do a gender reveal for you, but I will say that your children are remarkable people. They are clever, talented and have brilliant senses of humour. They are wonderful human beings, with kind hearts and a strong sense of what is right. Any professional pride you might feel in your life will be dwarfed by the pride of being their mother. 

So, Aideen, hang in there – a wonderful life is yours for the taking.        

Love, 

Aideen

Can you see your future in STEMM?

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About Aideen

Dr Aideen McInerney-Leo is a clinician-academic whose interactions with patients have shaped her research questions and fuelled her enthusiasm for the importance of clinical research.

She trained as a genetic counsellor and now researches the integration of genomics into clinical care, with three primary themes:

  • evaluating the psychosocial impact of genetic conditions and/or genetic testing
  • evaluating genetics education preferences for patients and healthcare providers
  • using next-generation sequencing to increase diagnostic yield for rare disorders.
Aideen McInerney-Leo
Dr Aideen McInerney-Leo
NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute

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