I don’t remember how I came across Letters to a Pre-Scientist in 2014; maybe a friend posted it, or maybe a lab colleague suggested it as a cool outreach opportunity. I just remember that I found out too late to participate that year, so all I could do was read the newsletters and wait until 2015. But then I did and I have been matched five times (I was out of luck in the 2018-2019 school year), with very different but all wonderful students. It’s always exciting to receive their letters and I always look forward to the next one. While opening them I wonder every time: Will they ask interesting questions? Did they understand what I explained last time? Would they tell me about their favorite school activities or what they did over the last holiday weekend?
I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with students who were excited about science and asked questions that challenged me to answer in an accurate way at the elementary/middle school level; this definitely improved my science communication skills. One of my favorite questions made me chuckle a little when I read it, but then I thought this is the kind of curiosity I hope to be able to communicate to my pen pals: the ability to wonder about the scientific aspects of everyday life. My pen pal was telling me she likes to work out with her mom and she wanted to know: “Where the fat goes when you exercise? Do you sweat it out?” It was definitely fun to explain metabolism of fats during exercise, and I hope this motivated her to continue thinking about physiological and natural phenomena, and even better, to try to research the answers to her questions.
I’ve also connected to pen pals through my hobbies. I enjoy modular origami, so I frequently add a flat piece to at least one of the letters I send. One of the most touching moments for me was finding a modular origami figure along with the letter from my pen pal. When I read the letter, I found out my pen pal had carefully pulled apart the origami piece I had sent her, reproduced it herself, and decided to share it with me. She asked me to send her more figures and included in her subsequent letters additional pieces she made following instructions found online. After I received my first modular origami figure from her I understood the importance of including personalized content, and how much excitement it can provide. I was, afterall, as excited as a middle school kid with my new awesome origami piece, decorated with pretty drawn flowers!
In addition, I’ve been able to relate to some of my pen pals at a more personal level. For example, those that are latino are frequently excited about me being latina, and about speaking Spanish or other languages in everyday life. This year is a bit special to me that way, because I am writing to my pen pal in both English and Spanish, as she is a recent immigrant to the US and is learning English. I’m very happy LPS is facilitating bilingual content, so every kid in the program gets as much out of it as possible, and all the members of the participating classes get the opportunity to receive letters crafted especially for them.
While it is unrealistic to expect all pen pals to be interested in science, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed engaging with them on other levels. By adding science facts here and there while discussing their topics of interest, be it tennis shoes, video games, or hair styles, I hope to have inspired their scientific curiosity. I like to think that discussing precisely these topics that are not necessarily associated with “science” helped them see me, a scientist, not as someone foreign to their world and lives, but as someone they can relate to and share interests with. I’m certain that these students learned more about the everyday life of a scientist, what a science career path may look like, but especially, that people just like them are scientists and that they too could be “livin’ la vida science” if they want to.
Written by long-time pen pal Ximena Bonilla, published December 16, 2020