The world we see around us often shapes our beliefs about what we are capable of becoming. This is particularly true for young kids who have lofty ambitions to become astronauts or future world leaders. It also explains why representation is so important. Elaine Shen, a Ph.D. candidate and Asian American marine biologist, had never thought of herself as an inspiration to future generations. That is until she unexpectedly received an email from a Minnesota third-grader requesting an interview for a class project.
“I am working on my big year-end project, which is a biography,” the heartwarming message reads. “I wanted to choose someone who is Asian American because I am also Asian American, and I have a passion for marine biology, so I wanted to choose a marine biologist. I did some online research and found your website. I would like to ask if I could interview you.”
Shen was obviously moved by the email right away, and she even posted a screenshot of the young person's motivational message on Twitter. She tweeted, "I don't care if it's lame, I started crying when I got this email," adding the hashtag #RepresentationMatters as a caption. Since she first shared it, the post has received more than 270,000 likes and 1,500 comments, making it instantly viral.
The email touched many commenters just as much as Shen did. One Twitter user commented, "Teary-eyed here." "Seeing children inspired and motivated to achieve as much as you have done is pretty amazing." It brought back memories for other readers of their own upbringing with small children. "This makes me very happy because I taught third grade for many years and I have four third graders of my own," another commenter said. "It's great that this young person did the research and found you; representation matters."
Shen is more driven than ever to finish her PhD and keep promoting an inclusive and supportive environment for students of colour in her field now that thousands of people have been touched by the story. But whatever she does in the future, there's no denying that at least one person's life has been positively impacted by her example. It's also possible that she has inspired hundreds more people since then.