how to raise a scientist daughter?

I’ve loved math since I was a little girl; I loved puzzles, riddles, and number games of any sort. My dad used to play with me palačinke (Serbian for crêpe) games: “Your mom made ten palačinke, your brother ate three; how many are left?” Math was sweet.

I’ve loved music for almost as long; I was fascinated by the patterns notes would dance in front of me. I could quickly recognize themes and transitions just by looking. 

It has all been about patterns for me: recognizing, connecting, and creating patterns. I see structure and organization, almost like an architectural piece. I see and feel beauty in math the same way I hear and feel it in music.

I grew up in Yugoslavia; my mother was a fierce Montenegrin woman who instilled in me a sense of independence, wanted me to get married in jeans and sneakers, and was never impressed by power, titles and positions, only by brains. My father was a mathematician at heart (like me), an urban planner, Mayor of Belgrade for 8 years, and Yugoslav ambassador to the US in the late 80s until he was recalled for opposing Milosevic. At the age of 60, he resigned from the Foreign Service, thereby giving up on his pension, and started his life anew. He (again like me, or rather me like him), had a passion for languages so started a new career writing dictionaries, amid chuckles of the Yugoslav linguists. After he was done with his first dictionary, they stopped chuckling and embraced him as one of them. He started a European movement for democracy in Serbia, taught diplomacy and negotiation at the University of Belgrade and Podgorica, and in the last 20 years of his life wrote 10 books, ranging from dictionaries, to textbooks, to a critical view of disintegration of Yugoslavia. He taught me to play cards at 4, did puzzles and palacinke (pancake) math problems with me; he treated me like an equal since I was a child. He was squarely in my corner all my life and always urged me to try anything with the mantra: “The worst thing that can happen is that you won’t like it and then you can do something else.”

Yugoslavia of my youth was a country where gender equality was guaranteed, part of communist ideals. All of my friends’ moms worked, and being a strong woman was a good thing. In that culturally patriarchal Balkan country, women were everywhere; one of my aunts was the President of the Belgrade University, another a judge, my mother was a successful businesswoman, we had a female prime minister. I grew up encouraged to try anything I wanted; I was in Archimedes club in school, but also played piano, learned languages, read voraciously, and loved clothes and makeup. I loved spending time with friends, but also on my own, pursuing my own interests. While I was told that I could do anything, it was what I saw around me that convinced me I could. My house was full of books, my parents worked, we went to concerts and plays.

I went to a math high school, and in parallel to a music high school. I became an electrical engineer because I was told I could do math there. I never thought it weird or unique that I was a girl interested in math and science. My first year doing PhD at Columbia University in New York, I did notice something weird. In the entire department, there were only two female PhD students; I learned that lack of women in STEM was an issue and it came as a surprise.

Macolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, said that “Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.” Thus, this long history of where I come from and what shaped my thinking; the same history belongs to my daughter.

When she was born, I was struck with a realization that she was not a “mini me”; from the very beginning, she showed her own character and independence (mostly by saying “no” a lot). My husband and I have been true partners in everything and we didn’t have a prescribed way of how we would raise her. We thought unconditional love would be a good start and we’d figure it out from there.

I did, however, had some thoughts of what we should or should not do. For example, I thought giving her Barbies would send a wrong message so we had a Barbie embargo for a while. She would look for Barbies to play at her friends’ houses; I then realized I was doing it all wrong and that my only achievement would be that all she wanted was Barbies. So the Barbie ban was lifted and we were promptly overrun by Barbies. I still remember her role playing with two Barbies in her room; one Barbie asked the other what she did and she said she was a teacher. The answer to the same question by her friend was “I’m a mathematician”. Enough said; I thought my job as a mother was done.

We let her find out what she liked (karate, volleyball, cooking) and left her plenty of time for herself. Weekends were mostly unscheduled except for music school. We wanted her to learn to love music not to become Horowitz. We told her she was smart and beautiful. She grew up with a natural aptitude for numbers and patterns, but instead of becoming like us, she chose her own way, into biology. She recently decided that she is going to become a nurse; I am proud of her choice. She has combined science with helping people, exactly the way she wanted.

I “interviewed” my daughter when I was writing this; I’ve gone to her as a sounding board many times trying to understand and connect with her generation. What she told me is that one of the keys was the environment; she grew up by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, she aspired to be like us but not exactly, she added her own twist. She thought language that we used and making things cool worked. Don’t forbid much, as soon as you say “you can’t do it”, they will do everything in their power to do it.

What have I learned watching my daughter grow into a beautiful and kind human being? Leave time for pondering; don’t overschedule. Don’t exclude anything, rather include as much as possible even if it’s something you have no interest in. Let them mess up (literally and figuratively); with you around, they can do it in a safe environment. Show faith in anything they do; my parents’ words that I can do anything are still in my head.

And finally, none of this guarantees you will raise a scientist daughter, but it might help raise a passionate human being.

Some great links

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