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.
Juri Miyamae (Earth and Planetary Sciences)
Oh yes, absolutely.
As much as I like to talk about science as this mystical immersion into the mysteries of Nature, there is a very human, very social aspect to the practice that I was totally not prepared to navigate. Science is a tribal enterprise that requires collaboration, mentorship, and getting others to see the value of your work. And, yes, engaging in these interactions can be awkward and uncomfortable at times, but they are vital to being a part of the scientific community and have the potential to be rewarding. However, I have been in situations where the social environment was saturated with political manipulation, predatory collaborations, aggression, insincerity, and mockery. I tried to assimilate to this work culture (to my shame), but it was just impossible for me to either embrace these attitudes or to survive in such an atmosphere. And I paid the price for it by ostracization, not only from after-work socialization, but also from projects, seminars, and lab meetings. If this sort of underhanded antagonism was what I needed to be a successful scientist, then I was no longer interested. It felt like I just did not have what it takes to “play the game.”
What has helped me is to escape the bubble by attending conferences, reaching out to people in different institutions and even just different departments or lab groups. You can probably find fresh perspectives and others out there who are more aligned with your values. It was incredibly validating to hear someone else independently confirm the things I experienced, that they are “not at all surprised” at some of the outrageous stories I had to share – thank goodness, I was not losing my mind! We can probably never fully escape from playing the game to achieve scientific success, but we have agency to surround ourselves with positive people with shared interests who can be better role models for healthy social interactions.
To those students thinking they cannot succeed in science, I hear you. Science is not easy. It requires mastery of literature, proficiency with different technical methods, creativity, analytical skills, communication skills, organizational skills, social marketing skills. . . . it can be totally overwhelming! I probably don’t have great advice for you, especially since I’m still figuring it out myself. But I think it can be useful to take a step back and ask “why”? Honestly reflect on what motivates you to do science and what the roadblocks are, i.e., what are the internal versus external factors. If there are external factors – trouble getting good grades, unhelpful advisors, financial insecurity, disability, getting onto research projects, etc. – many of these issues can be addressed by having conversations with the right people. It can take work, but you can work around it. Internal roadblocks can only be resolved through experience and time, but keep actively revisiting the question and widening your perspective. Not all scientists are the same. The experience of someone doing science at a top tier R01 university is going to be different from one at a small college; academia is going to be different from industry or non-profit; and even relatively adjacent subfields of science can have significant differences in their intellectual/philosophical approach, collecting and analyzing data, and internal culture or vibe. Also, I am as guilty as anyone to romanticize The Research Scientist, but STEM careers are a plurality that play to different strengths and there are many excellent ways to engage in science without being a full-on research scientist. It is worth exploring these avenues to find a good fit and eliminate those that are not.
Martha Muñoz (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)
I think having an early, highly formative experience with Ayako (my first PI who was a Japanese-American woman) set the stage for research, so that it did not feel so foreign or unapproachable to work with people different from me. I had grown up with a lot of love and support from my family that affirmed my basic value when I encountered difficulties. I only worked with Ayako for two years and after that I worked with a string of white male PIs until my second postdoc. They were all excellent mentors, but they came from very different backgrounds and I could not relate to them as easily.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. In my first year as an undergraduate, I earned almost perfect grades and I wanted to add a two-credit research lab to my schedule. The faculty member who was my first year advisor told me that my grades were a fluke and that I shouldn’t get used to doing so well. And, it turns out he was right because that semester I earned the lowest GPA I had for the rest of my undergraduate career. All my semester GPAs beyond the first one were even stronger. I could’ve walked out of there demoralized, but instead I was angry. I was raised to defy expectations, racism, sexism.
Things affected me but never held me back. I knew I had worth and knew I could do whatever I could put my mind to. Sure, there were moments when I would get frustrated and wonder if science was for me. Usually those thoughts were fairly transient. I have my doubts and imposter syndrome. Sometimes I get frustrated. There was a moment as a postdoc when things didn’t come through and I was ready to throw in the towel. I seriously contemplated leaving for a moment but, ultimately, I am a stubborn individual.
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.
Dr. Sreeganga Chandra (Neuroscience):
No, women in particular think that there needs to be a choice (either you have a career or have children) but there doesn’t. You have to build a support structure that allows you to do both and it makes life more rewarding. I think my daughter learns a lot from what I do, she will does not ever think that I’m a “woman scientist” because for her it is not even a stretch that I am a woman and a scientist
Did you ever face any stereotypes or discrimination in STEM?
When I was first hired [as an Assistant professor] people would mistake me for another PI’s post doc or the janitor. I was not taken seriously.
How did you overcome the obstacles you faced?
It gets easier with time and I think success breeds some confidence. I also think that when I was thrown into tough environments that I was just trying to survive. I’m not one of those people who has a grand plan but I know that If I’m going to do something I’m going to do it well and I apply those abiding principles in everything I try to do.
Where there people that inspired you or motivated you to continue in STEM?
Science is about persevering because you have a lot of failure. In that respect my grandmother persevered through a lot. She couldn’t go to school but she taught herself to write and became a poet in India. She was very driven and I think I passively absorbed that.
Youngmin Shin (Computer Science):
I was really motivated coming in; I know what a CS major leads to and I’m motivated to continue working on things that I use daily and find to be important. Because of this, I never had serious moments when I thought to drop the major. I think my attitude towards it was that I’m going to suffer a lot, but it is a necessary evil to get to the final product. I’m not sure if I’m above or at the median in my class, and there are moments when I think that I’m not the best or even in the top half, but I realize that grades are so unimportant to how you are as a coder. Grades are just numbers and there is so much more that defines you. I’m just going to pass through these evils and even if I get a subpar grade, I’m still going to congratulate myself for getting through.
Valerie Navarrete (Biology):
There was self-doubt from the social sphere I was in, and I did have to try a lot harder in the beginning. I was always studying and people used to ask why I was always doing work. I wasn’t even sure how I learned best. I remember looking at 400 level classes and thinking “how am I going to do this” but now I am taking those classes and love them.
Also, for women of color it is difficult to find women that look like me or come from my same background. Luckily I found a lab that is mostly women of color and now have all these people cheering me on… I think that when you find mentors that want to see you succeed you should listen to them more than the internal doubt you may have.
Chika Ogbejesi (Neuroscience):
I came into yale interested in neuroscience but saw the requirements and thought “this is going to be difficult to do with the all credits that they want, I’ll just do MCDB” so I momentarily switched from neuroscience to MCDB even though I knew that I was interested in the brain specifically. By the end of first year summer, I got back into neuroscience and thought “lets try this again, it will be some work but I think I can handle it”
[we continued our conversation about STEM at yale and the topic of being a premed came up]
I remember the back-to-back organic chemistry and bio 104 finals draining me. It is a struggle; I’m not going to lie. When I’m talking to my mentees, I don’t lie to them either. I have to keep reminding myself why I want to be a doctor and continue with it unless I can prove to myself that I don’t want this dream anymore.
Nazar Chowdhury (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology):
“It made me feel like maybe basic science research was not for me because I liked having an impact and so having a day-to-day feel where I know as a doctor, I helped these patients today. But with basic science research, you can fail with no results for a year and a half with no results. So I don’t want to be in basic science research because the way I think about my impact does not allow me to fit with that. So I found my mentor and boss in the next lab which allowed me to see how this research could be applied to my medical career. So it was a good lesson and did not make me feel like science was not for me.”