My mom likes to introduce me by telling a childhood story. She’s told the same one for years, but it never fails to crack her up. (Watch out—she will genuinely cry from laughter!) It goes like this:

I was seven years old, and I was taking the ESL test. It’s incredibly straightforward: they show you flashcards of common items, and you name them in English. I breezed through dogs, trees, and houses; but for some reason, when I saw a bird, I fell silent.

My mom asked, “Don’t you know what a bird is?”

That’s me on the left in the first of probably many Commencements

Cheeks red, I responded, “I knew it was a bird, I just wasn’t sure what species.”

At this point in the story we’re both cackling, and she tells me that aiyah, Michelle, you were always so serious as a child.

Which is fair — I was shy. I overthought. And I was a perfectionist — if I didn’t have the best answer (or the specific species) or the most interesting piece of dialogue, then I was often too scared to speak at all.

But I love formulating answers, and I love talking to people. So, going into high school, I told myself my mindset would change. I would shoot every shot and carpe every diem, fear be darned.

Like all new things, it was difficult. The learning curve was so steep it may as well have had a vertical asymptote. (If you like math jokes, ask me about my calculus-themed promposal!)

Fortunately, life has a way of placing us in situations that help us grow. Sophomore year, I volunteered to teach STEM classes to middle schoolers. Let me just say that the chaos of pre-teens with pent-up quarantine energy is unparalleled. Needless to say, I was terrified. But I found solace in the familiarity of science—as I rambled about CRISPR/Cas9 and coral ecology, I became more comfortable speaking to others.

I learned that Shrek is an icon, Minecraft is a competitive sport, and I should never click links in the Zoom chat—lest I be lured into a Rickroll. I also discovered that it didn’t matter whether I gave a perfectly-worded presentation, or even acted a little weird.

Zooming with my middle school STEM buddies.

What mattered was watching students who’d never considered engineering before prototyping egg parachutes and Rube Goldberg machines. What mattered was seeing Vicky come back a second year, evolving from student to TA. What mattered was watching a kid’s face light up with the joy of discovering something new.

That’s what I hope to accomplish with the Duke Research Blog. As a freshman, I know the endless possibilities here — while a blessing — can be intimidating. STEM and academia have seemingly high barriers to entry.

I also know from my students that discovering something new and interesting can be the best feeling in the world. I hope to play a small role in helping you, the reader, get there.

And as a baby Blue Devil, I hope to meet the inspiring community here at Duke. Whether through a Research Blog interview or a quick conversation on the C1, I can’t wait to meet y’all.

So if you see me around campus, say hello! And if you’re a people-person-but-introverted like me and would benefit from conversation starters, here are a couple:

  1. Tell me what music you’re listening to! I’m currently looping Taylor Swift (folklore and evermore!), Gracie Abrams, and Wallows. Barber, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky are also regulars. String Quartet No. 1 goes SO hard.
  2. Talk to me about football! As a born and raised Cincinnatian, Joe Burrow is our king.
  3. Tell me what you’re currently working on! Whether it’s uber-complicated math (shoutout to Nikhil) or how to make the perfect matcha latte (shoutout to my roommate Krishna), I’d love to hear what you’re experimenting with.

Until next time, remember to stay hydrated, stay optimistic, and keep discovering new things. 🙂

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027