Finding the Path Towards Your Calling

Huang Fellow Maia Kotelanski reflects on Dr. Charmaine Royal's career path and her advice that it's alright if you don't have everything figured out.

Like the rest of my cohort, I recently finished my first year of college, a year of difficult science courses, many of which are requirements for future medical school applicants. After a challenging and exciting year, I spent three weeks at home before returning to college life. But, being back on campus for my summer experience as a Huang Fellow has been a surprising opportunity to slow down, learn, and reflect on my year.

Last Thursday, Dr. Charmaine Royal spoke to my class of Huang Fellows detailing her journey from a girl dreaming of becoming a pediatrician to the professor following her calling, working at the intersection of race and genomics. Dr. Royal explained how she graduated college in six years and after being near done with a major in medical technology, realized she disliked it, and chose instead to study microbiology.

“Dr. Royal’s words and journey help dismantle some of the pressure to have everything figured out.”

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Royal received a master’s in genetic counseling and then chose to complete a PhD in human genetics. For her PhD, Dr. Royal studied the psychosocial implications of sickle cell disease. Dr. Royal did something uncommon at the time, choosing to study genetics in the social science context rather than in a wet lab. Throughout her education, Dr. Royal described pushing herself to explore what she was interested in, despite the risks associated with doing something unexpected and untraditional. Making these gutsy decisions, with the support of mentors who “were just great people that were open and honest” and cared about her beyond her work, got her to a place where she “understood her calling” and knew what she was meant to do in life.

Reflecting on Dr. Royal’s talk, I feel she left us with guidelines: to study what we are interested in, even if it means doing what others are not, to surround ourselves with supportive mentors, to explore, and to have an open mind. Dr. Royal began and ended her talk telling us, “it’s good to have some sense of what you want to do, but you should give yourself space to explore.”

Having just finished my freshman year learning about Duke and exploring what it has to offer, I have the urge to figure out exactly how I want to spend my time here, what I want to do, and who I want to be by the time I leave. But, Dr. Royal’s words and journey help dismantle some of the pressure to have everything figured out. It’s reassuring to hear that we should continue to explore, and inspiring to be pushed to carve our own paths.

Maia Kotelanski, Huang Fellow ’25

Maia KotelanskiMaia is a first-year biology and religion major. After graduating from Duke, she hopes to pursue a career in research and medicine in cancer biology, immunology, and women’s health.