Surf's Up, and I'm Far Out
I remember sitting in my car crying in my community college’s parking lot, driven home by my parents on a hot fall evening.
Here I was, at an unfamiliar place, along with unfamiliar people, going on with unfamiliar things, one week after getting a zero on a freshman math quiz.
Am I cut out for this?
To understand where I was at the time, you have to go back to where I had come from.
I was born and raised on the island of O`ahu in Hawai`i to a Korean-American mother and a Japanese-American father, neither of whom have college degrees. In spite of this, each had a deep appreciation for academics and encouraged my early interests in the sciences. In the second grade, my mother decided to have me homeschooled due to the shortcomings she saw in the public school system at the time. From that point, my curriculum consisted of daily math and reading exercises - all self-taught. I taught myself the basic math that carries me today and read far more books than I ever care to remember. I took an annual standardized test with other homeschooled students, but otherwise had no close contact with others my own age.
Although I had many friends while I was in public school, I didn’t feel particularly sad to leave them behind. Questions that invariably arise when relating my upbringing to my peers are about the loneliness that they expect I must have felt during my homeschooled years. There certainly were instances when I felt isolated and yearned for close friendships, but I was spared the peer pressure so often endured by students of that age. Critically, I was allowed to pursue topics of study that I loved and excelled in, not being impeded by the rigid structure of formal primary education. I thrived in the freedom and stimulating intellectual environment that homeschooling afforded. This way of learning fostered an early discipline that has proved useful for me as a budding performer.
There certainly were instances when I felt isolated and yearned for close friendships, but I was spared the peer pressure so often endured by students of that age. Critically, I was allowed to pursue topics of study that I loved and excelled in, not being impeded by the rigid structure of formal primary education.
Yes, you read that right. I had been good at math but in my estimation didn’t demonstrate any outstanding talent for it. Rather, my natural affinities guided me toward a career in the arts. In particular, my dream was to be a professional musician. My father, a retired guitarist, helped me cultivate an appreciation for music, and I grew up surrounded by jazz and classical recordings playing in the background of our tiny apartment. I would lose myself within the moving refrains of masters such as Pat Metheny, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans, Martha Argerich, Linda Ronstadt, and my favorite, the great Ella Fitzgerald. With these as inspirations, I worked hard during my teen years to prepare for a career in music.
And then, my music career ended before it had even started.
After completing high school and abandoning my music aspiration due to an injury - and also in favor of a more practical career - I decided to study at a local community college to get a sense of what subjects I liked. I quickly learned that I enjoyed my STEM classes very much. I especially thrived in subjects that combined knowledge from different fields. After a brief stint in chemistry, I decided to study math and physics. I thought that these two topics would equip me with the tools to study anything I wanted, regardless of the specialization that I would choose in the future. This interdisciplinary approach would become a recurring theme in my academic life, as I now conduct research that draws on knowledge from multiple fields such as math, physics, chemistry, biology, and even computer science.
But precisely of my upbringing, I had never even taken a formal class in math or science before college. And there I was, crying in my car and doubting my choice to leave music and pursue science. It was only through countless hours devoted to studying and my training as a homeschooler that allowed me to gain mastery of a new craft. I was also very fortunate to have professors and mentors who actively encouraged my interests and gave me the confidence to continue on the