Manavi Chatterjee (Biology):
I always felt what would I do if there were no science.
Rajeev Erramilli (Physics):
I should say that I never felt that science wasn’t “for me”. But as another story, I worked in a cosmology lab the summer after my first year of undergrad. I really didn’t end up doing much the whole summer. I was living alone for the first time without a meal plan, my living conditions were not great, I was lonely and without friends on campus, and I was pretty depressed. The research was very difficult for me to do not only because I just couldn’t motivate myself to even work the expected 40 hours a week but also because when I did try to work, some external setback would halt my progress and leave me frustrated. And this was a positive feedback loop, of the bad sort: as my progress degraded, my emotional state worsened, and as a result my progress degraded further. In the end, I don’t think I did anything that actually ended up being of use to the lab, and I left that summer feeling pretty terrible about my ability to “do science”. But I wondered how much of this was a matter of not liking experimental work
— and so the following spring I did a research project that was mostly computer work. While that may not sound so interesting, I made a pretty significant discovery in the behavior of the instrument I was working with, and really threw myself into the project as a result. It ended up being an amazing research experience that really helped me be confident in my ability to “do science”. I think my advice would be for students to understand how up and down science research can be, and how even 10 weeks is not a long enough time period to figure out for yourself whether science is “for you”. Give it a few goes in a variety of different fields, and you might find that even after one terrible experience another one could be amazing.
Rowan Palmer (Engineering):
I did a research internship before my senior year of high school at a local national lab. When I was there, I really struggled because I was the youngest there, I was the only woman, and I felt like they had chosen me based on what they inferred that I knew, versus what I actually knew. I continued to feel like I was messing up a lot or didn’t know the next steps, and was feeling really down about my abilities in this first professional space. I went to my mentor and explained to her that I felt really lost and didn’t know what I was doing. I told her that I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to achieve. She told me, “That’s why we do research and engineering. No one really knows what they’re doing – that’s what you’re trying to figure out.” That changed my perspective on my own abilities and expectations, and showed me that the whole point was trial and error and testing.
Another time that I really doubted myself was during most of my first year through sophomore year of college. I knew that I loved to do actual engineering work at internships and in clubs, but I really struggled in classes. I always felt like I had to work harder than others for things to make sense, and even then, I never performed as well on exams. But I also found myself enjoying my non-engineering classes a lot more – I felt them coming easier to me and they felt like a lot less pressure. This caused an identity crisis: Why was I doing this major when I liked my other classes more and I did better in them and they come more naturally to me? What really helped with this was being a part of clubs and internships, where I could see how much I enjoyed the actual work of being an engineer, and that I was actually quite good at it. This reminded me that STEM classes are hard and that it does no good to downplay that. There is no fudging your way through material and assignments. It reminded me that classes are a way of providing a tool kit for use later, not a trial run of what I’d be doing on the job. And as I became closer friends with my classmates, I realized how much they struggled too. We talked about why we liked engineering and what we wanted to do with it. We supported each other through classes by doing work and studying together.
I distinctly remember talking to one of my junior year engineering professors about this phenomenon, as his course was designed to bridge the gap between standard courses and actual application. As I talked, I was a bit self deprecating, and he stopped me and said, “Just so you know, you are a good engineer.” And it wasn’t much, but it was really validating to hear him say that.
Another time that I really struggled in the classroom was in Thermodynamics. I was having a hard time understanding material, and, even when I thought I understood it, I was barely passing my tests. When I went into office hours (frustrated, overwhelmed, and sad), I asked my professor all the questions that I had from lecture. She asked me why I didn’t just ask those questions during class, and I had no idea how to answer. It was then that I realized I had stopped asking questions in class – something that I used to do all the time. I realized that I lacked the confidence in my own knowledge and abilities to even ask a question, in fear that I was the only one who was confused by it. That pushed me to engage a lot more in class, and this is the advice that I always give to younger students – ask lots of questions all the time, because everyone is thinking the same thing and it only helps you.
She was also my first and only female engineering professor, and, for the first time, I felt comfortable opening up to a professor about my frustration and lack of confidence. I told her how much I was struggling and that I didn’t know how to improve that. And, if I’m being honest, I did cry a little. She told me a story about how she almost failed linear algebra in college, and how it can feel like the end of the world when one subject didn’t make sense, but that I would be able to get through it. And at the end of the year, when I sent her a thank you email for putting in so many hours helping me that semester, she sent back an email that hit me hard in the right way. I printed it out and have hung it on my wall ever since. Part of it said: “I didn’t have much confidence when I was an undergrad student. Being sure of yourself and not being afraid to speak up will come in due time. This is classic imposter syndrome, which high achieving women tend to suffer more acutely. You just have to stick around and not short-sell yourself, and in due time you will see that you’ve been great all along.” And that is advice I’ve passed down to everyone I can, because it genuinely changed things for me.
To summarize: I don’t think there was ever a specific moment where I thought this wasn’t for me, but rather a lingering suspicion and doubt that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, wasn’t good enough, or just wasn’t a “real” engineer, whatever that’s supposed to be. And having honest conversations with peers and mentors helps me get through it.