Reminiscing 2021

Fatima Khawaja
10 min readDec 29, 2021

2021 has felt like a continuation of 2020, almost resembling a window of time that is ever-expanding and yet, not expanding at all. Despite the ebbs and flows amid the pandemic, the formation of experiences and endless journeys that have been lived have compressed into a minuscule time capsule and appear like a distant fantasy that I somehow show face in. Although this journalistic view of the past two years may not have an appeal to all audiences, it is a snapshot of the world I have sensed in myself and countless others.

Irrespective of the so-called ebbs and flows I have drawn my memories to, these years have been transformational for my maturity and outlook of the universe. Understanding that even a breath is a miracle that many others can’t afford and the expense of happiness can’t be paid monetarily, the many simple entities in life have been elevated to the level of luxuries in the years I lived before.

In all of this ramble, I wish to communicate my gratitude for the health and contentment I have and hope to forever share with those around me.

Table of Contents

  1. School
  2. Books
  3. Podcasts
  4. Nonprofit
  5. People
  6. Side Projects + Extracurriculars
  7. Acquired Mindsets
  8. Foundational Goals for 2022
  9. Quote of the Year
  10. Photo Dump

School: A leap of faith

Due to my completely virtual experience of 9th grade, I wasn’t accustomed to the typical workload and expectations a high school student must fulfill. In fact, I entered a lifestyle that was unknown. From taking two honors classes out of seven classes in 9th grade to taking all honors and AP classes in 10th grade, my time management and concentration were strained to move a notch higher.

Throughout this school year, I have had weak moments where I started scrambling for air and almost drowning in endless work with a blurred finish line ahead. Those are the moments, in fact, that strengthen me and renew my intentions.

Yes, life can get difficult when you have 5 AM rowing practices twice a week followed by 7–9 hours of school (depending on whether there is a club activity following) and still a truckload of homework and side projects to complete by the end of the day. But, what if my schedule was free from these activities? Would I be satisfied with endless time to think? Simply, no. I have learned to embrace the character and skills drawn out of me as a result of these commitments.

The pattern I’ve noticed among the general community is that students with the added load of sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars perform better, and generally accomplish more, than kids with minimal extracurriculars and more time on their hands. I found an article in support of my observation.

I finished the semester (the week of December 13th) on a satisfactory note and valuable lessons to implement in the next semester to ensure I don’t make the same mistakes again (e.g. procrastination, over-perfection, doubt).

Books: A reader lives a thousand lives before she dies

The books I discovered this year have shaped my lens of the world and interests as I continue my journey of exploration down different rabbit holes.

Top 10:

  • Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs (a gift from my brother): Inspecting the brighter things in life and the route to positivity.
  • The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben (a gift from my sister-in-law): Seeking what goes on in the lives of animals, beyond our awe of their beauty.
  • The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (a gift from my sister-in-law’s dad): Looking at Doudna’s growing interest in molecular biology from childhood.
  • The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair: Taking a deep dive into the prominent colors in the present day by looking at their cultural and social significance in the past.
  • Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal: Questioning everyday thoughts that arise as a result of social constructs and superficiality.
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth: Considering the element of grit in understanding why certain people are more prone to being successful.
  • Shoe Dog by Phil Knight: Understanding how one of the biggest shoe companies (Nike) evolved from perceived failure.
  • Into the Forest by Jean Hegland: A story of two sisters that takes you through the motions and thoughts, feeling all too real.
  • Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Noble: Realizing that the underlying algorithms of entities we use on a daily basis may be influenced by private interests and motives.
  • Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier: Arguments detailing how we have grown accustomed to manipulation and unethical treatment.

Every night this year, before going to sleep, I’d switch off the lights of my bedroom and slump into my bed. Then I’d pick my book and turn the bright light resting on my bedside table. Even on my lowest days, I’d feel redeemed and liberated through the immersion of another world. Whatever I may have done that day, whether it be semester finals or a sports competition, wouldn’t matter. Irrespective of my performance, I knew I could depend on my book to support me and provide an escape into a world of knowledge. The books I mentioned above were the ones that kept me wide awake beyond an hour, or even two. These books taught me what I call indispensable knowledge, and I recommend everyone start this parallel journey of reading to open new perspectives and challenge existing knowledge.

Pro Tip: knowledge is the best gift to give anyone

Podcasts: Free, audible knowledge

To be frank, I started binging podcasts only during the past month so I won’t be able to follow in suit of my abundant book list.

Podcasts I recommend:

  • Philosophize This with Stephen West
  • Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions with Bill Gates and Rashida Jones
  • The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish

Pro Tip: listen to podcasts when doing mundane tasks or commuting

Nonprofit: Mossaic

A friend and I started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the first few months of 2021 and have since been working on expanding within our school premise with pure and driven ideation. Although we haven’t progressed as fast as I imagined, every experience is new and something to learn from.

Currently, we have a team of 10–15 people working on researching moss, scouting locations around our campus to post moss, in addition to other roles. Although I may have imagined an accelerated project, my co-founder and I were still adjusting to the hectic edge of high school in this first semester.

Our goal for 2022 is to complete our project— which is posting moss in planters around the school— and to begin expanding our team to neighboring schools.

Check out our nonprofit here.

People: The hidden forces

Although I can’t say I’ve achieved any major goals, I can definitely say I have hit valuable milestones. There are countless people I owe for shaping me this year:

  • Family: that’s to say my parents, brothers, and sister-in-law! Nothing in my world would happen without my mom driving me everywhere, my dad expensing programs and experiences, my brothers (GOATs) lending the best advice a younger sibling could ask for, and my sister-in-law creating a chill space to chat in the evenings and work out together.
  • Mrs. Noche [AP Bio teacher]: Mrs. Noche has changed my perspective of life and elevated my performance in the academic realm. Not only is her story-based teaching style engaging, but it stimulates the desire to absorb as much knowledge as possible. Her advice is tangible in settings beyond the classroom and her soft yet intellectual tone is unforgettable. No teacher will compare to Mrs. Noche, I’ll forever be in awe of her superior ability to project knowledge and encourage students to be the best version of themselves.
  • Steven ten Holder [TKS]: Steven has been a mentor and role model figure in the past few months, and has forever changed my life trajectory and enthusiasm for rising to solve the biggest challenges we face as a society. His decision to be the director of a youth accelerator despite founding a promising company (Acorn Biolabs) is an inspiration.
  • Audrey Abadilla [Breathe California]: Audrey has been a role model from the start with her buoyant enthusiasm and persistence to reach the end goal. This past year Audrey has been working with a subcommittee of the Union City Youth Commission (which I’m a part of) to develop and propose policies regarding the use of tobacco. Not only were we able to present our findings and proposal to the city council, but the city council has also invited us to view the changes they’ve made in accordance with our proposal in January. I’m fortunate to have had the guidance of Audrey in this arduous journey.
  • Thomas Azwell [UC Berkeley Scientist]: I had a meeting with Dr. Azwell at the beginning of November regarding his line of work and past/current projects. I was fascinated and further encouraged to research bioaugmentation and bioremediation, which are some of the projects he has and is working on. I had many of my questions answered and have maintained a conversation with Dr. Azwell ever since.
  • Maha Abdeladhim [Scientist]: I had a meeting with Dr. Abdeladhim at the end of November regarding her biological expeditions and the basics of how vaccines are made, in addition to other technological breakthroughs. The energy of the meeting remained upbeat and I’m excited to maintain a connection with Dr. Abdeladhim.
  • Velocity Squad [TKS]: Selin and Ciara have been an absolute pleasure to work with, and the fun isn’t over yet! As a team, I was able to feel our collective pulse and ambition to work on projects of our passion. From Washington to Maryland to California, the distance couldn’t have been more compressed. Although I left Velocity a few weeks early (due to finals), I know this next semester will carry the same joy and energy.
  • Coach Monica [Rowing]: Coach Monica has enabled me to seek growth in both low and high moments and has remained in favor of my success. I’m excited to continue my rowing career under her supervision.
  • Coach Kristin [Rowing]: Coach Kristin was a primary asset in my growth as an athlete. Not only was I extremely lucky to have her as a coach during the 2020–2021 season due to her Olympic-level achievements, but her kindness and warmth were unmatched. I’m never going to forget Coach Kristin or her selfless efforts.
  • James Logan [High School]: Special appreciation for Mahnoor, Ava, Sabrina, Sia, Nia, Abosede, Anushka, Avaani, Saivi, Shana, Kayla, Derek, Brianna (ex-Logan), Angeline (CCA), Yashica (CCA), Anusha (CCA) and sooo many others.
  • For all others, I appreciate you. I am 100% sure I missed many people who had an invaluable impact on me this year.

Side Projects + Extracurriculars: A never-ending journey

January 2021. I delivered PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), as a representative of YEPC, to the principal of my high school to account for all 4,000 students as an aid during the pandemic.

February 2021. I was on the California Youth Leadership Summit in which I talked about effective ways to cope with the pandemic alongside three other selected panelists.

August 2021. Although I may sound solely interested in biology, I’m also fascinated by the intersection of various subjects. I started a math research position at Cal State University, East Bay.

September 2021. I worked on the following proposals and presented them to the Union City City Council in response to the hazardous effects of tobacco products on youth and marginalized communities: 1) Ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol 2) Ending the sale of all electronic smoking devices (e-cigarettes/vapes) 3) Ending the sale of tobacco in pharmacies 4) Increasing the minimum price and pack size requirement.

October 2021. I’ve developed a vibrant interest in synthetic biology, gene editing, genetic engineering, and — more broadly — molecular biology. Check out my other articles to learn about my fascination.

November 2021. I created a personal website last month which you can visit at

December 2021. With the help of the Youth Voter Movement, I will be leading the juniors and seniors in my high school in the pre-registration voting procedure in January 2022. This will encompass ~2,000 students. I am currently coordinating with the district and gathering a small team.

*These were at the top of my head, many projects aren’t included (yikes)

Acquired Mindsets: It’s what you tell yourself

  • Done > Perfect
  • Have a bias towards action
  • Get stuff done
  • 80/20 rule
  • Seek understanding

Foundational Goals for 2022

  • Complete the current Mossaic project and expand to three other schools
  • Reduce my 2k rowing times by ~20 seconds
  • Complete at least two of my desired lab experiments
  • Acquire 3+ mentors in the space of synthetic biology
  • Maintain a mile time under 6 minutes
  • Complete 3+ projects in a field other than synthetic biology
  • Read 35+ books

*These are subject to change

Quote of the Year

“Stop comparing yourself. Flowers are pretty but so are sunsets and they look nothing alike.”

Photo Dump

Tiburon, CA
Rowing competition in Foster City, CA
Dream license plate in OKC, Oklahoma
Rowing competition in OKC, Oklahoma
Flying to Oklahoma
Feeling the sun
COVID study session
Talking at a Pakistan Independence Day event in Palo Alto, CA
Giving a speech at my brother’s wedding
Brother’s wedding pictures at Stanford University



Fatima Khawaja

Exploring the many domains in life. Student, writer, scientist, explorer.