Sudipa Kirtley • faculty writer

Last week I was again in D.C. as an NSF reviewer for graduate fellowship applications. I have often wondered why I want to do this, taking time away from my schedule of classes, meetings, grading, and children, which already keep me on my toes for the most part of the week. Every time as I get more and more into the reviewing task, I realize the reason why. I get to “meet” numerous students who are super motivated and driven, and reading their applications is often moving, to say the least. Their submissions tell me who they are, how they started, what motivated them to overcome obstacles and accomplish wondrous feats, and finally how they are going to help themselves and the world with their work. I now recognize that I review these applications for myself, and the task inspires me greatly.
While in DC I met up with an old friend from my school days in India. In a comfortable spot in the hotel bar, we started rattling off what has happened to us and our families since we last met. The conversation eventually led to us, what we could do that would make us “move forward” in life in a positive way. “Did you know,” he asked me, “that often the zookeepers hide the animals’ food in hard-to-reach places?” Odd that he brought this up in a middle of a fine conversation, I thought. He then explained that the reason the zoo personnel do this is because those animals that retrieve their food this way seem to be more content. The point is that we all, even zoo animals, thrive when life challenges us.
When I get my car started on a snowy dark morning to get to school before my first hour class, there is that challenge of facing the potentially dangerous road conditions ahead of me. Later during the day the act of overcoming such a challenge probably does not even surface in my mind. However, when I overcome a challenge in my experimental setup at Brookhaven National Lab, that stays on my mind for a long time, and I get a feeling of satisfaction thinking about it. I need to learn from both obstacles, yet the second one seems to be more important to me. Clearly, then, we find only some challenges that truly motivate us.
In order to stay contented and happy, do we need to seek out important life challenges? There are plenty to choose from. I believe that there are three key issues that make it worth the effort: Will I enjoy doing it, can I do it, and will it improve me in a meaningful way? If we choose our ventures so that the bar is always higher than the previous one while the key issues are met, then we are all set. It does not matter where in life we are, or what our occupation is at the moment. I believe that this is a guaranteed way to stay engaged and fulfilled in life. While I try to find my own challenges, I reap the benefits as an educator; I am privy to witnessing this goal in my students as well as in the NSF fellowship applicants.

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