What I learned from my Grandmother

“There is a woman at the beginning of all great things.”
~ Alphonse de Lamartine.

My Grandmother is a woman of science. The level of her intelligence was always formidable and served me as a beacon of light that is knowledge. Now she is old and in poor health and her mighty brain started to give in to the old and tired shell but she still teaches me the wisdom of life.

Here are the things that my Grandmother taught me.

Since a young age, she was fostering the mind of a scientist in me. She always hoped that I will follow her steps and carry the projects she was unable to finish due to a lack of funding to completion. She was a conscientious researcher, she published internationally, and she even wrote a book dedicated to the whole branch of organic chemistry that she had developed almost single-handedly. For me, she was always one of those titans of the past — it is people of her caliber that sent Yuri Gagarin into space. The inquisitiveness that I inherited from her teaching has always been an invaluable quality that expanded my worldview in every area of interest.

My grandmother was never that stereotypical granny that feeds you up with home-food until you faint when you visit her house on the weekends. My grandmother was domineering and ruthless, especially when it came to education. She used to say that my mother was too soft with me and my brother. Today, I am very thankful to her for her tough love. It could be that it was only her steel grip that kept me from falling low.

When I was a kid, I didn’t appreciate all the efforts she made to knock some sense into my stupid head. It is obvious why I was so blind; my self-awareness was asleep at that time. Eventually, I matured to realize that her actions were always directed toward one goal — giving me a higher taste: a taste for being an intellectual and sophisticated person, just like she was.

Thanks to her mentoring I learned that aspiration for the constant expansion of intelligence is a virtue. For many years, high IQ was the main criterion for choosing my friends. I intentionally surrounded myself with people whose intellect intimidated me. Thus far, I have been exploring the paradigm intelligence that I absorbed from my Grandmother and I still use it to make my judgment of the scale of a person.

I started to learn English as soon as I started to talk. My grandmother told me that when I was 2, she was showing me an object like a fork, for example, and teaching me two words in both Russian and English. Like any other child, I didn’t understand the reason why I need to speak a second language. Sometimes I didn’t want to study but my grandmother forced me to grind through grammar, vocabulary flashcards and reading.

The love of English that she kindled still burns to this day. It blazed the trail to the countries and books that changed me forever. That love of English is what brought me to the most important book in my life: this one. My grandmother had given me a gift that gave me the opportunity to travel the roads that shaped me into a man I am today, and for that, I owe her my life.

Thanks to the insistence of my grandmother I ended up majoring in Chemistry. To her disappointment, I am hopelessly far from the people who could be justly called scientists. I want to believe that I am intellectually capable of being one but I never felt the calling. Only an ambition to grow intellectually made me tolerate academia for as long as I did.

In the hindsight, I can see that spending a decade in science is precisely what made me who I am. I picked up research skills and methods, discovered the power of experiment and analysis, adopted a mindset of an engineer. I learned how to see the world through the prism of a scientific mind constantly dissecting the world breaking it down to its fundamental principles. And although I failed to become a man who would be able to inherit my grandmother’s mission, I did become someone who loves science with all his heart. I hope my Grandma will understand that everyone has his own path in this life and forgive me for choosing my own.

My grandmother made sure I get the experience of living abroad. She orchestrated my first study trips to England and Canada. Both times I returned home different. I could feel it in my guts: something inside me was unnoticeably shifting.

My third trip to South Korea was a result of my personal decision but I owe it to my grandmother that I was able to gain admission to the university. I had no expectations. I didn’t know what the new world can bring but I was desperate to throw myself in a new environment and let it change me.

When I say that my heart misses the places where I have never been, some people think that it makes no sense. It does for me.

My grandmother is one of the most stubborn people I know. She taught me that in both science and life one cannot succeed in the first attempt. Neither at the second nor the third. You have to persevere.

In chemistry, you design a detailed experimental plan to test out a hypothesis based on research findings of people who have done some work in the area before you. The drill is simple: set up the experiments, fail, introduce modifications to the procedure, repeat. You iterate until you succeed.

When I was running a series of hundreds of fruitless experiments, my grandmother smiled at my frustration. She knew that a significant breakthrough normally requires a series of thousands.

Her inhuman persistence became iconic for me. I learned that when it comes to serious work, in order to get things done one needs to surrender to the process and grind as if nothing else matters.

Thank you, Grandma.
I would have done nothing good of myself if it hadn’t been for you.

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