I believe that we all have the power to create opportunities by determining what we want and need—and doing what’s necessary to reach specific goals. Sometimes it takes time to figure things out, which is why I’m a passionate advocate of education, both formal book learning and real life experience. Over the years, I’ve learned each provides invaluable lessons that help us know and understand ourselves and succeed in all aspects of life.

Today, I see so many young people worried about what to study in university and which careers present the best opportunities. There’s good reason for their concern, given current economic conditions and the steep cost of higher education. Yet educational credentials are essential for entry and advancement in many fields, including my own. My advice to every student is to make the most of the university experience. Study what you enjoy. Meet people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Learn what it means to be on your own.

When I started university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I studied biological sciences—one of the STEM fields in which women are so underrepresented—because I was interested in and excelled at them. Shortly after graduation, I joined Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals, now Novartis, and the company was willing to sponsor me in furthering my formal education. But my professional experience quickly outpaced the educational work, so that’s where I decided to focus. I learned that you need exposure to many different experiences and types of learning, and there’s a right time to draw on them all.

I have also learned that it’s important to ask for what you want in your career, which can sometimes be challenging for women. At one point, I felt the strong need to move on. I did my research, sat down with my manager, articulated what I wanted to do, and described my ideal job. Within a month, I had a new position that fit the description exactly.

I encourage women to explore all possibilities, including the tremendous educational and career opportunities presented in STEM-related fields. I also believe they need to have the courage to take chances and ask for what they want. Only then can they take advantage of the learning experiences that present themselves each day—whether at work, home, or school—and create their own opportunities.