Meet Aaiza.

Aaiza Ishtiaq

She is an impressive person. I got to witness a piece of the story she shares below. She and I dedicate this story to all people–young or old, though especially young–who are unsure of the decisions they are making, but want to make good ones.

I asked Aaiza to consider writing an article for us about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM. I reached out to her in particular because she is a woman working in a technical field.

My invitation was a challenge. Like most talented, capable people, Aaiza is very busy. She has many responsibilities and is also busy with other pursuits. Surprisingly, and thankfully, she said “Yes.” Actually, she said, “Yes, but …” She was less enthusiastic about STEM than STEAM. She strongly feels that Arts is an important part of preparing for opportunity.

She framed her response as a letter to her younger self. We’ve added subheads to the text, but largely left it otherwise as written.We hope you find Aaiza’s talk with herself enlightening, maybe a little daunting, but ultimately a source of hope in your decision-making process.

By AAIZA ISHTIAQ

“Dear 16-year-old me,

“Right now you have your mind made up that medical school is the right path for you. You are so sure about this that you have not even considered a Plan B for your career. 

What will be …

“Your world will soon be uprooted, you will fail at things you gave your best to, and you will become very unsure about your career path. You will leave your birthplace in a few years and move to the US. There will be a plethora of opportunities but you will not know how to avail them. You will make some good career choices and some bad ones but your biggest misfortune will be a lack of guidance. Therefore, I am writing to share all the lessons I learned over the past 13 years; things that I wish someone had told me along the way.

“You will have the opportunity to save money by taking the first year of easy classes at a community college and then transfer to a state university; don’t do it. You will lose the buffer for easy A’s. Once you transfer into a Bachelors program, you will mostly have hard classes left, and the B’s will quickly start to hurt your GPA.

“You will transfer into the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology program at a good state university. At the university, Calculus will be a struggle, because the Algebra and Pre-calculus curriculum at the community college was not aggressive enough.

“You will enjoy Physics and fall in love with Chemistry, and eventually you will find yourself drifting away from the idea of going to medical school. This will confuse you and suddenly you will no longer be the confident girl who knew what she wanted to do with her life. Know that this is not a bad thing; it will help you experiment a lot and learn something valuable.

… and a bit of advice

“Back in your country right now, parents push their kids to either become an Engineer or a Medical Doctor. You do not know this yet, but here in the US, Biochemistry is considered a part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field. As the name implies, it encompasses more than just medicine or engineering. Your choice of major will be a step in the right direction, but understand that a STEM degree will not guarantee you a job, as you will learn years later.

“In order to prepare yourself for the practical world, focus more on taking advanced Mathematics courses; it is easier to learn difficult and logical concepts when you are younger. A solid mathematical foundation will help you tremendously in what is about to come.

“I regret not selecting a minor; please change that for me. Choose a minor in an art field or computer science, to build up those skills that will help you a lot 10 years from now.

“Pursue that internship more fiercely, and don’t be shy in approaching professors with a request to participate in their research as an assistant. I underestimated the power of networking. I did not realize how much it would hurt me to not have practical laboratory experience. It cost me my admissions into PhD programs.

“Like many other college students, I limited my career choices by selecting a major that I could apply to a very specific area of science. It took me years to realize that well-rounded individuals are the most successful ones. You can change this for the both of us.” 

The last century has seen amazing scientific advances; from the use of robotics in medicine and nanotechnology, to putting men on the moon. It only takes a few seconds to see how STEM is the future of the world; so are the young ones. It makes sense to then focus our collective energy on motivating the youth to earn a STEM degree in college and pursue a STEM career.

In its push to get more kids interested in STEM, society has created a divide between all that is STEM and the Arts. People are viewed as either technical or non-technical, and we are starting to lose sight of preparing the youth to become well-rounded individuals, who can combine artistic and technical brilliance into an innovative breakthrough.

What’s in the box?: how STEM becomes STEAM

“You are not yet familiar with the anatomy of a computer, but consider this. You sit down at your desk and depress the Power button on your computer. The depressed button completes an electrical circuit, generating a small current. The current wakes up a section of the motherboard chipset, and just like that, a binary galaxy comes to life inside the small box on your desk.

“The motherboard sends a command to the central processing unit (CPU) to activate it. The CPU reads the first instruction from a fixed location in memory, which gives it the address of the basic input/output system (BIOS). The BIOS kicks off a series of complicated processes that start up the system and run the power-on self test (POST). If the POST is successful, BIOS loads the video adapter and your computer display comes to life.

“Once logged on, you browse through your computer’s clean, simple user interface (UI) with the right balance of colors, artistically designed with the human operator in mind. You could have the fastest processor in the world and run the most intricate software on it, but it would be a failure if it were so difficult to operate, that no one used it. Dear science, meet art.

Why art has a part

In the early years of education, art is an invaluable teaching resource. When we were in kindergarten, our teacher took 3 objects, placed them side by side and showed us how objects 1, 2, and 3 came together to form a sum of 3.

The ability to visualize a mathematical concept for teaching is art.

Many children with disabilities are much more receptive to visual learning aids. As a result, several schools employ the use of creative software applications to teach them. The program running behind the user interface is a logical sequence of code; the computer on which the application is running is a result of innovations in technology. The keyword here is innovation.

Innovation is an art.

While STEM focuses on methodology and scientific process, art curriculum broadens our ability to think outside the box when it comes to solving problems. Scientific innovation is a perfect example of a harmonious handshake between STEM and the Arts.

Many thought leaders, technological innovators, scientists, and teachers recognize the importance of this handshake. Thus, the idea of STEAM has started to gain more popularity; the A here stands for Arts.

Learning and using art in daily living

“Self, the world always needs more scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. It also needs them to have communication skills, creativity to inspire and innovate breakthroughs, and to artistically display complex data that is difficult to understand. This is art.

“During the academic phase of uncertainty, you will do something invaluable. You will experiment with Arts. You will take Japanese, Sociology, Public Speaking, World Religions and Philosophy.

“You will write and think a lot. You will even take Piano 101, experiment with a guitar and later a ukulele. You will be terrible at all three, but you will learn to read music as a result.

“These creative and artistic channels will help you build confidence, improve your communication skills, give you a broader perspective of the world, and make you realize that your career possibilities are endless.”

Reasons to stay involved in art

“Remember how much you loved drawing when you were younger? People you looked up to praised your artwork but also told you that it was just a hobby and there was no place for art in your career. Eventually you let those words get to you. You stopped drawing. At the university, you will take an art class and it will revive your passion.

“One day you will set up a small shop in your garage to do woodworking, you will learn how to paint and you will even get some requests to do small commissioned projects.

“You will start writing your own travel blog. In fact, your strength in writing will get you your very first career job. This will eventually lead you into an engineering career in IT.

“Who would have ever thought that an artistic skill would open the door to an engineering job! While art opened that door for you, your strong roots in STEM prepared you to walk through the door. It did not just fall in your lap, either.

Persevere

“The professional world I live in today, the one that I am writing to you from, was shaped by a big wave of recession that hit the US in the mid- to late 2000s. 2010 was a bad time to graduate. Before that, people received an education and usually found a job very soon in the same field.

“You will have a rough two years after you graduate. Your efforts to get a job as a Research Assistant or Laboratory Technician will fail. You see, it’s a catch-22 for young people graduating from school; they need a job to get experience but they need experience to get a job.

“Discouraged, you will go door-to-door to sell life and health insurance, do odd jobs, work as a photographer and data entry clerk for a Realtor, and barely make ends meet.

“Then one night at a dinner party, preparation will meet opportunity. You will strike a casual conversation with an acquaintance about a theoretical research paper you wrote as an undergraduate, and your plans to pursue an M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering. Right there, they will offer you a job as a Technical Writer for a huge IT government sub-contractor.”

Into the deep end: grabbing onto opportunity

“You will never actually get to spend a day in that role, as almost immediately, you will be pulled into the Systems Engineering organization due to a staff shortage. Someone will hand you a data model, give you a 15-minute lecture on how to read the data model and how to write a system specification. Then they will leave you with two weeks to get the task done.

“Those will be the scariest and most important two weeks of your career. You will sleep very little. Google will become your best friend. But you will successfully complete the task. Just like that you will launch yourself into a career that you had never imagined– Systems Engineering.

Although you will have already taken the GRE, and scored well enough to be accepted into the Materials Science and Engineering graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University, you will change your major to systems engineering a year later. During the next five years you will realize how so many unconscious choices shaped your career and turned you into the well-rounded individual that I emphasized earlier.

All of the STEM education, combined with the arts and humanities, no matter how seemingly unrelated to systems engineering, will enable you to become very good at your job. 

And now?

“Today, after 13 years, I am a very different person from the one that you are, but we still have something very basic in common. After all these years, just like a kid in high school, I still have not found the answer to, “What Next?”

“I still have not found the one thing that I really want to be or do in life. However, that no longer scares me because I now know that there doesn’t have to be just one thing.

“I am the jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The career path I am on right now is one that I stumbled into accidentally; it is not the one I planned for myself. I like my job and it is challenging, but it is not my dream job. However, I am really excited right now!

“I hope to graduate from the Master’s program next semester, and I have a slew of ideas about what I will do next. Today’s world is ripe with opportunities for those who choose to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit.

“I can focus on my travel blog and possibly take on some writing commissions.

“I can start a part-time woodworking business out of my makeshift shop and grow it into a full-time business, if it is successful.

“I am also really interested in data science and machine learning these days. If I choose to stay in IT and build upon my decent foundation of mathematics, my existing career can take a very interesting turn in the near future.

“It is an exciting time to be alive. Even though the journey ahead of you is scary, bumpy and full of uncertainties, I want you to know that you are going to be so happy to get here. So move forward with full STEAM! 

“With love,

“29-year old you.”

Editor’s Note: Aaiza Ishtiaq lives, works, studies, paints, writes, hammers, saws, and gives free rein to quenching her curiosity on a variety of topics  in suburban Maryland with her husband and their feline children.