October 4th, 2013 by admin

17 Comments

Coded in the DNA

Coded in the DNA

Suzi Fei

At A Glance

Suzi Fei is a devout Mormon, wife, and mother. She’s also a computational biologist and an enthusiastic career woman who says her natural inclinations to pursue a profession often brought anxiety and loneliness while growing up in the Church. But her life changed when she met her biological parents, and Suzi began feeling more comfortable in her own skin. She encourages women to embrace their natural talents and spend more time trusting in God and less time worrying about cultural expectations.

Why do you say you were born a career woman, and when did you first sense that?

It was genetic, and I truly mean genetic. Not some undetermined mix of nature and nurture. Three days after I was born, LDS Family Services placed me in the arms of my wonderful adoptive parents, who are two of my very best friends today. My father is a gunsmithing instructor and business owner, and my mother stayed home to raise me and do bookkeeping for the business. I grew up in tiny rural West Coast towns—Janesville, California, and later Coquille, Oregon. It was a wonderful and loving home. Very Mormon. Very conservative. To their credit, my parents always encouraged me to be true to myself and follow my dreams. They never pressured me to be a certain way or do a certain thing. I suspect they learned early on that kind of parenting wasn’t going to fly with me. My dad is a free thinker, always challenging and questioning, always sincere and open. I’ve always appreciated that about him. He taught me to not be afraid to say what I want to say and do what I want to do.

When I was about ten, my family got our first computer and I discovered the thrill of computer programming. I still remember the day I figured out how to make the command line in WordPerfect print out graphics. I ran across the yard to my dad’s gun shop to show it off. That excitement hasn’t gone away even as the coding tasks have gotten more complex. In high school, a passionate science teacher encouraged me to take his biology course even though I was sure that computer scientists had no need for biology. I signed up, and over the next year I discovered the glory of the living cell—the precise structures of proteins that enable them to work together in complex networks to produce life as we know it. In college, I double majored in computer science and biochemistry. I now have a PhD in computational biology, and I spend my days analyzing genome data from kidney tumors, trying to figure out what went wrong to cause the cancer. I love my career. There’s nothing like waking up each morning excited to do something that’s fun, interesting, and makes the world a better place.

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Several years ago, when I was halfway through graduate school, I got a call from LDS Family Services. “It looks like both you and your birth mother submitted letters to your file saying you’d like to meet. Are you still interested?” It had taken years for them to figure out that we had both submitted those letters, but yes, I was still interested. It’s tough wondering what lies in your genes when you spend all day studying how influential they are. So they gave me her name and email address, and I did the first thing any kid in my generation would do—I Googled her.

The first thing that came up was this picture of her that looked just like me. The title underneath her picture was Dr. Brooke Hemming, physical chemist at Environmental Protection Agency. I was so proud. Soon after, I sent a long email to my birth mom explaining what I was doing with my life, and she wrote back and told me about her life and how she had met my birth dad when they were both at Berkeley in the early 80s. It turns out that she studied chemistry at Berkeley and then got a PhD in physical chemistry from Stanford. She is now a senior scientist at the EPA doing policy work for air quality.

My career aspirations have been with me from the beginning, coded in the DNA in every cell in my body.

It was like finding myself and finally feeling whole. My birth mother was one of six children, four of which were chemists. Her father was a physicist. She introduced me to my birth father, a computer programmer who had worked on the world’s first Internet browser and written four books on programming. My career aspirations, even my choice of career, have been with me from the beginning, an integral part of me, coded in the DNA in every cell in my body.

Finding my birth parents and finding that we had so much in common answered a lot of open questions and helped me feel more confident and self-assured, in almost every aspect of my life. It explained so much of why I am who I am. Of course, I’m very happy about some of the things I got from them, such as my career desires and political leanings, but even the not-so-great things I’m glad I know now. Take, for example, the shape of my body. Now that I know how strongly genetic it is in my birth mother’s family, I’m much less likely to blame myself and my shortcomings for it, and I’m much more accepting of my body.

What did you talk about when you first met your birth mother?

My birth mom flew out to Portland, and I picked her up from the airport. I was nervous to meet her, but she reassured me that she just wanted me to be myself and do whatever felt natural and right. We ended up talking about science careers a lot. We also talked about things like our common health problems. It’s great to have someone like that in your life when you’ve gone for a quarter of a century with no clue what lies in your genes.

Have you kept in touch since then?

We email and Skype and talk on the phone fairly regularly. She lives on the opposite coast, so visits aren’t too frequent, but she’s been out here a few times, and we all went to her parents’ house in Utah for a family reunion shortly after I met her. They were thrilled to have me back in the family, and they were thrilled with the effect it had on my birth mom as well. My birth dad also lives on the East Coast, and I’ve visited him a few times when I’ve been out that way for conferences. We talk on the phone a couple times a year. He has two young daughters, and it’s been neat to find and get to know my half-sisters.

How did your adoptive parents react to all of this?

My adoptive parents were a lot less nervous than I was. They felt confident and secure because we have a good relationship. We have a bond and a history together that can never be removed or threatened.

What was your experience growing up a Mormon with this drive to be a career woman?

It was lonely. No one understood why I wanted a career so badly. Didn’t I know that a woman’s highest calling is to devote her life to raising her children? Didn’t I know that no other success can compensate for failure in the home? Didn’t I know that mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children? Why would I want to waste my time doing something of little importance when I could be shaping the future generations?

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Suzi with her daughter, and adoptive mother (left) and biological mother (right)

Let’s just say I learned to be very grateful, inwardly and outwardly, for the “other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation” clause in the Family Proclamation. I felt like it left a little room for women like me in the Church.

Fortunately, I had a string of excellent teachers who helped me feel smart and encouraged me to challenge myself. A caring seminary teacher with a heart of gold who encouraged me not to worry, because things have a way of working out as they should. An understanding father who respected women and praised readily, always telling me I should do this or that career when I grow up because I’m so good at it. A nurturing mother who taught me to be strong, a feminist in her own right (though she may never admit it), never interested in a career or the priesthood, but always interested in fair treatment.

We should be celebrating each other’s strengths and capitalizing on the breadth of wisdom, experiences, and talents we share amongst us.

What can we do to be more supportive and encouraging to women with interests in the sciences and having a career?

Can we please be a little more supportive of the girls and women who truly desire careers, as well as those who don’t but feel the need to work outside the home for any number of other valid reasons? Can we also please be a little more supportive of the men who are married to these women, whether they decide to have full-time careers or stay home some or all of the time to care for their children and home? Sometimes working outside the home really is the right choice for a mother. We need to trust each mother to know what’s best for herself and her family.

When possible, as young women leaders, don’t be afraid to showcase women who’ve made a diversity of choices, or who have very different lifestyles sometimes not by choice, but who are happy, productive, and at peace with their lives. Show that different things work best for different people, and emphasize that the only way to figure out the best path for you is to maintain a close relationship with Heavenly Father and not be afraid to ask Him open-ended questions. Sometimes, due to your unique talents and desires, He’ll guide you in a direction that may not look like everyone else’s, and that’s okay. He has a customized plan for each one of us. He’ll help us maximize our time on Earth if we trust Him and let Him.

I know many women who choose to stay home, and that is absolutely the right choice for them. I also know many women who choose to work outside the home, and that is absolutely the right choice for them as well. We all have different strengths and different temperaments. No woman wants to be put in a box and told she must do this and be this, or else she is failing to live up to her eternal potential. That leads to a toxic and depressing culture of comparison rampant with feelings of inadequacy. Instead we should be celebrating each other’s strengths and capitalizing on the breadth of wisdom, experiences, and talents we share amongst us. The Celestial Kingdom I envision is full of glorious diversity—many different types of beings doing many different types of things, all working and growing together in beautiful harmony.

It is such an important message to internalize: What is right for one isn’t necessarily what is right for everyone. There is a deep well of shared understanding when we stop judging and start listening to, learning from, and loving our fellow humans, especially the ones who are different from us. If we let go of judgment, we can begin to find the beauty that lies in diversity. Each person is a very unique individual. I know from living this life and having felt the support from Heavenly Father, that He has a customized plan for me that takes into account my desires, inclinations, talents, and abilities. He has a plan for me, and he supports me in it. And that applies to every single one of us; and it looks different for everyone because every person is unique.

Ever since I was a kid, Heavenly Father has stepped in and brought miracles into my life, particularly miracles that have enabled and supported my career.

How did you meet your husband? And how have you been able to balance family and work life?

I wish I hadn’t worried so much about dating. Ever since I was a kid, Heavenly Father has stepped in and brought miracles into my life, particularly miracles that have enabled and supported my career. When the time was right, He brought a hunky Chinese man into my life who had joined the Church when he was in college. An open-minded man whose parents and culture encourage women to become professionals. A kind-hearted man who never exercises unrighteous dominion and equally shares family leadership, child nurturing, and domestic responsibilities. A humble man who is proud of me, and who knows, as I do, that I am accomplishing what I was meant to accomplish. Together, we are active and devout members of the Church who adore our religion because of the truth it contains, the millions of ways it enriches our lives, and the endless opportunities it gives us to make the world a better place.

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We now have a bright and beautiful four-year-old daughter. I wish I’d listened when people said, “Don’t worry, you’ll like your own children,” because it’s true. I love her so much and think she’s the smartest, cutest kid in the universe. I am fiercely devoted to her, and I make whatever sacrifice is required to ensure she’s receiving the nurturing she needs. That love and devotion, however, have not turned me into a stay-at-home-mom. The striking restoration of sanity I experienced when my twelve-week maternity leave ended dispelled any lingering doubts. To maintain my mental health, I need to feel in control of my time at least part of each week. Caring for children doesn’t allow that, but my chosen career does. The 24/7 mom thing never has been and never will be for me. My temperament just isn’t well suited to it. When I am at work, my daughter spends her days in a warm and caring environment, and she is growing up to be a confident and independent child. I know with certainty that this lifestyle is what is best for our family, including my daughter. This is healthier for her than having an unhappy stay-at-home-mom, which allows me to let go of any guilt that may come my way.

How has your faith helped you make life decisions with career and family?

My faith has taught me that I have a Father in Heaven who loves me and who hears and answers my prayers. I do feel like I receive answers to prayers, and that is the foundation of my testimony. As a scientist, of course, I am constantly questioning. I’m not one of those people who can stand up and say “I know it’s true”—I don’t know any real scientist who can stand up and say “I know” much of anything—but I do believe in and have faith in God, a God with whom I can have close relationship when I put forth the effort. Answers to prayers have guided many of the decisions I’ve made in my life. I appreciate the example of Joseph Smith in the grove of trees asking God what to do; I think that idea of having a relationship with Heavenly Father permeates our religion. I don’t think we have a corner on it; other religions do it as well, they just call it different things, like meditation or looking within, and I think the Holy Ghost is speaking to them, as well. I just really like how we teach our kids to seek answers by taking time to study, pray, and ponder in order to develop that spiritual awareness.

Are there any books, music, art or other source of inspiration that’s had a profound influence on you?

When I was in AP Biology as a senior in high school, I read “Of Heaven and Earth: Reconciling Scientific Thought With LDS Theology.” I ate it up. Without it, I think I would have come to a place where I felt the need to choose between science and religion. It helped me through my faith crisis a year later when I read some things church leaders had said about evolution. I ultimately decided that I wanted to have faith and be a believing Mormon, because of the abundant goodness I found here and because it enriched my life and made me happier. However, in order for it to work for me, I needed to be able to dismiss some things, such as statements that ask me to reject scientific truth, or scriptural interpretations that are too literal, or even simply teachings that just don’t feel right. That book, along with my parents’ examples, allowed me to have the flexibility to do that, and it was necessary in order for me to be able to stay.

As Robert Kirby [humor columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune] says, “It took a long time to figure out that faith is a deeply personal matter, and I could drive myself nuts trying to fit someone else’s circus under my tent. So I stopped.” Thankfully, I live in a place where that hasn’t been an issue—I have always felt loved and accepted into the wards I’ve attended and have had abundant opportunities to serve, teach, and lead.

At A Glance

Suzi Fei


SuziFeiCOLORLocation:
Portland, OR

Age:
32

Marital status:
Married

Children:
One daughter (4), a son on the way
Occupation: Computational biology scientist, currently a postdoctoral researcher studying cancer genomes

Schools Attended:
Oregon State University; Oregon Health & Sciences University; PhD in Biomedical Informatics (computational biology emphasis)

Languages Spoken at Home:
: English (everyone), Mandarin Chinese (husband and daughter)

Favorite Hymn:
“Master, The Tempest is Raging”

On The Web:
http://mormon.org/me/5DT1/Suzi

Interview by Kathryn Peterson. Photos used with permission.

17 Comments

  1. Anne Cloward
    2:02 pm on October 4th, 2013

    Good interview, Suzi. So glad you are such good role model for all of us.
    Love
    Anne

  2. Lorren
    10:39 pm on October 4th, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I have recently (tentatively) begun working full time after the birth of my son. While it is incredibly challenging to fill both roles I love my career and have felt alienated because most of the LDS women in my community do not work. It is wonderful to read about someone who pursues both career and family and is fulfilled. I also love what you say about being open to different answers from Heavenly Father. My choice to work was very influenced by promptings from the Holy Ghost despite its difference from more typical choices by LDS women. I guess my point is I am grateful for your insights and your example. Thank you!

  3. Autumn
    6:44 am on October 5th, 2013

    Thank you for writing this!

    I am adopted and had the most amazing parents growing up, but being able to have a relationship with my biological aunt and her family has been such a blessing! It answered questions that I didn’t even know I had and helped my perception of myself so much.

    I have also struggled in feeling lonely in my pursuit of a career at church- even in something as traditional as teaching. I have struggled at times because I also have had so many experiences to ahoot me in this direction and people do not realize that this is an inspired choice for me too.

  4. Chrysula
    7:30 am on October 7th, 2013

    Love this interview so much. Thank you Suzi for sharing your story and for modeling how fantastic it is to be at peace in your own skin! Blessings to you and yours.

  5. Erin
    8:05 pm on October 7th, 2013

    Loved this interview! Maybe we’ll meet next summer when we pass through Portland. You never know. Loved loved this. I have a Master’s in a quantitative field and have worked full time through two kids, taking about 7-8 weeks off for each one. That has worked well for our family and in many ways, I think I’m a better mom for that. I’m also a fiercely devout Mormon and have also had to “dismiss” certain things that I just don’t understand or that don’t make sense. I believe God to be the greatest scientist. He just hasn’t revealed everything about how he does things and science hasn’t fully caught up with religion. It will someday, I’m sure of it.

    I also love that you’re a computational biologist. I have met several throughout my career and have always found them to be passionate and inquisitive about what they do.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and your story. Loved it.

  6. RL
    9:06 pm on October 7th, 2013

    Loved reading this. What I needed today.

  7. Katie
    1:42 pm on October 10th, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing this. The issue of family and work has weighed so heavily on my heart lately (just finished a master’s degree, about to begin a PhD) and your words gave a voice to the thoughts of my heart. I can’t thank you enough for your great example.

  8. Chantal
    2:13 pm on October 11th, 2013

    Wonderful, courageous, faithful and true story. The best. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Randi
    9:17 pm on October 11th, 2013

    Thanks for your sharing your story and experience. Before I was married with kids I had a career and I hated it! Staying home with my kids feels natural and exactly what is right for me. But I loved hearing your perspective on the path you have chosen. I saw how you will be a better mother by following your specific talent set. I believe I can be more supportive and understanding of moms who choose to work after hearing your perspective. Thanks for your thoughts!

  10. Tina Richerson
    5:59 pm on October 20th, 2013

    Suzi, Thank you so much for sharing of your brilliance and faith. I loved so much your advice to young women leaders. Thank you for having the courage to trust Father to become who you are! You have become a women of a diverse path to show younger generations. I love knowing more about you and the wonderful journey of faith you have had. My quote for this week will be “If we let go of judgment, we can begin to find the beauty that lies in diversity.” Yum. This is such a good lesson to all of us. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. xo Tina

  11. lara
    9:04 am on October 21st, 2013

    Suzi,
    This was such a fantastic post! I spent so much time torn with guilt around my children and career. I wish I’d let go of it sooner! Your words about non-judgement and trusting that each mother knows what’s best for her family are fantastic, and should be our mantra–if we all adopted this creed and lived it, what an unstoppable sisterhood we would have.

    Thank you for sharing your fascinating and inspiring story.

  12. Amy O'Keefe
    10:27 pm on October 23rd, 2013

    This was wonderful. I am a practicing LDS mom working on a PhD in Chinese history. I feel a lot like you – I LOVE my work, LOVE my family, and LOVE the gospel, and I’m grateful for my parents and for every faithful person along the way who has taught me that God has many ways to use me. It has been soul-expanding and truly thrilling to feel that His plan for me includes a life of learning and teaching in academic settings – the thing I wanted and wasn’t sure was “okay” for a while. Loved your thoughts on “what we can do,” too. Thank you.

  13. Patti Cook
    10:53 am on October 25th, 2013

    Your story is delightful. I love your strength of spirit, your determination and your ability to follow a path that was directed by your history and faith. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Jill
    4:43 pm on October 27th, 2013

    I really enjoyed this interview and the new perspective it gave me. I have a Master’s degree in accounting from a top university but have never worked after college other than being a stay-at-home mom. I often think about my talents and what I could do career-wise and wonder if I am giving something up by staying home, but I really have no desire for a career right now. I just loved how Suzi expressed her thoughts on how there is a different path for each of us and we can receive that confirmation through the spirit that what we are doing is okay and right. There is no need for us to judge anyone else.

  15. Megan Bowen
    3:53 pm on November 14th, 2013

    This article has been an answer to many prayers. I couldn’t help but feel like your story, Suzi, is identical to my own. I too knew I would have a career from a young age. It was always my dream to be a doctor, even as a little girl! I remember leaving young women’s crying so many times because I was taught that what I wanted so badly for myself (a career) was not God’s plan for me. Yet, my patriarchal blessing talked more about my career than my future family. This has made for a very lonely existence in the church.

    Like you, I also know that Heavenly Father has worked many miracles that have allowed me to earn my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I can honestly say that serving God’s children in my career has led to the most spiritual experiences in my life and cannot imagine an existence without that. I too know I can’t be a stay at home mother, it’s just not my personality, but I accept that many women are happy doing just that.

    Anyway, I am so thankful for your perspective because I have contemplated leaving the church recently due to feeling as if I did not fit in with the members and my difficulty with the doctrine about women’s sole role being mothers. Hearing someone echo my sentiments and learning how you’ve made peace with the doctrine and your career was truly inspiring. Thank you for helping me hang on a little longer!

  16. Jenna
    10:58 am on March 3rd, 2014

    Thank you, Suzi. Your story resonates with me as well. I am finishing up a master’s in human genetics/genetic counseling right now, and am currently working in a hereditary oncology clinic. I’ve only dabbled in bioinformatics, but I know that bioinformaticians are so important, especially as our genomic technologies continue to expand!

    I love that there are cool Mormon women working in this field I love so much. I don’t have kids, but if/when I do I intend on pursuing the same path that you have. I was raised with two working parents and I need that regular schedule outside the home to keep me sane.

    That’s so interesting that your career path inadvertently followed that of your biological parents so closely. I tend to over-attribute everything to genetics, but seriously. How could it be a coincidence?

  17. Emily
    8:11 am on March 16th, 2014

    I too have struggled with the home/work decision. I thought all I ever wanted was to be home but I really struggled during my stay at home years. I’ve come to realize that while I still believe that the most important work I do is with my family, it does not have to be the ONLY work I do. My family is my priority, but not my only priority. I feel really directed by the spirit to pursue outside endeavors, that I have much to offer in my community, and I have found it has enriched my family at the same time to have a more sane/happy mother. Everything has a way of falling into place and feeling right when it is.

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