I never could pinpoint what I wanted to do in life, what my life purpose was. It had always been: what I was allowed to do and allowed to become. The family I grew up in was entirely under the control of the economy, the people around us and my parents’ dream. My parents refuted my wish to become a social worker because they could not see me having a stable life with the job. They wanted me to become a doctor, or holding a respectable position in a flourishing industry rather than spending my energy, my youth on people I don’t know. And as a child, I never opposed.
College started; I became a biochemistry major. I like science; I love it, but I did not know what to do with it. There was nothing in me that could drive that dream; nothing could get me there. So I lost track.
The memory I have of my freshman year is murky, I wonder if it ever happened at all. That year, there was no passion, no heart in anything I did. But meeting Valentina Di Santo, my professor during my sophomore year, woke up the confused person I was at the time.
Di Santo, 35, came from Italy. She went to the States to attend University of Florida ten years ago, and she is now a fish physiologist doing her post-doctorate fellowship research on skates at Harvard University. She started teaching at Boston College the year I became a sophomore. I was in the first class that she taught at Boston College, which was on ecology and evolution.
On a Monday at one in the afternoon, I was sitting in professor Di Santo’s lecture with eyes hardly opened, and hands scurrying unrecognizable words on a notebook. I could not stay awake; evolutionary processes and ecological characteristics could not fight the food coma that was putting me into sleep. The steak and cheese I had for lunch was undefeatable in this battle. However, ten minutes into the lecture, and I woke up from hearing the word: “FISH.” There was so much emphasis and enthusiasm in the word when Di Santo said it that I woke up half surprised, half panicking. It felt like one of those moments when I was caught sleeping in class, so I sat up straight, and was instantly awake. I woke up not to anyone’s calling on me, but to Di Santo’s pure passion about fish. Professor Di Santo told us in her most bubbly voice the importance of fish in her life. And at that moment, I thought to myself that passion was what I needed to be able to stay awake in class, enjoy the material presented during lecture, and to be on track again.
About two weeks after that, I gathered all my courage to go see Valentina Di Santo. I just needed to know how she found her passion; I wanted to know the story behind it, so I could one day find my passion, the driving force that could keep me going. Before I went to see Di Santo, however, I projected in my head the path to her passion as one straight line, like she was born to be a physiologist. Of course, I was idealizing life way too excessively.
Before Valentina Di Santo got her PHD degree as a fish physiologist, she chose birds as her field of interest. But when Di Santo did the actual field work, she did not enjoy the fleeting appearance of the birds and how troublesome it was to keep track of them. As a result, she decided to pursue her interest in terrestrial ecology and physiology. However, when she went to Thailand to do research on turtles for her graduate diploma in terrestrial ecology, the facility there had been wiped out by a tsunami. Thus, she was left with no choice but to find another subject. And then, she stumbled upon fish. Recalling the moment she saw a skate giving birth, “it was the most wonderful sight,” she once told me. That moment, she knew she had finally found what she loved.
The path to Di Santo’s passion was not one straight line; there were obstacles and diverting paths along the way. Although she was not born with a pure passion for fish, and made life-changing decision multiple times, she was able to find her passion because she was curious and open to everything in her path. I remember Di Santo looked at me and said with all her sincerity that I should open myself, too, to more opportunities; give myself chances to explore new things. With a gleam in her eyes, and a slight grin, Di Santo turned me into a rebel, awoke me from my life living under my parents’ wishes.
I worked with Di Santo in her lab on deep-sea fishes, which I neither saw nor ever heard of. Everyday, I read research papers on deep-sea fishes, took notes of their physiological characteristics and taught myself about the fish. I spent eight hours every day in the lab, but I never once felt my time was being wasted.
Mom knew about my experience. She could feel my enthusiasm when we talked on the phone. And so, there were changes, too, in my mom. She refrained from trying to shape me, and my future. She stopped telling me to become a doctor. Though occasionally, she still asked me to reconsider, I believe we both know now that what matters is the force driving the process, or there would be no progress at all. Thus, as long as I can still find happiness in the thing I do, and still keep on exploring different areas to look for my lifelong passion, I will one day reach my goal--whatever it might turn out in the future, all thanks to Valentina Di Santo.
by Thao Vu