on bringing my whole self to work

Some reflections on lessons learned so far from my ongoing internship and other summer involvements.

When I got the acceptance email, it took me until the first day of the internship to believe that it was true. Fast forward one week, and my disbelief-turned-acceptance had morphed into a pit in my stomach that left me feeling flustered, anxious, and frustrated at myself.

After landing a spot in a program I’d had my eye on since high school, after already hearing my mentors express their excitement to have me around for the summer, after active participation in discussions about science, I still felt like an outsider. It wasn’t a new feeling; throughout my undergraduate experiences, I’ve been fighting the voices in my head that tell me I don’t belong in many of the spaces I spend my time.

This feeling is known by many as imposter syndrome, a term introduced by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes in 1978. Recently, I rediscovered a great article by neuroscientist and artist Christine Liu where she discusses how toxic workplaces exacerbate insecurities to an inexcusable extent.

By framing feelings of inadequacy as a personal flaw that needs to be worked on, we let the toxic culture in academic research off the hook.

Christine Liu, written for Quartz

Before my junior year, I never spoke up about my own feelings of inadequacy out of fear of seeming “weak” or “unprofessional.” Instead, I often buried them within myself for long periods of time until they would resurface in terrible bursts.

Luckily though, within the past year of my life I’ve crossed paths with mentors who have helped me separate the residue of toxic work culture from my personal journey with self-confidence. They encourage me to speak up, and when I do, they maintain belief in me and offer tangible support. Through my work in San Diego, my mentor has always gone out of the way to make me feel like I belong. And similarly, as this new internship has unfolded over the past couple weeks, the repeated reassurance from people I respect and look to for guidance has helped me re-assess my self-doubt with a more realistic eye.

Alongside helping me fight the cruel voices in my head, my mentors throughout different workplaces taught me what it looks like to create welcoming and supportive environments for students and colleagues. As a young woman, I’ve struggled against biases against me from less reassuring voices, yes, but many of my Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peers face an additional factor of voices within their academic fields actively telling them they don’t belong (see: #BlackInTheIvory).

While I navigate my own instances of feeling out of place, I’m learning that dismantling toxic work environments begins with supporting people to share their whole experiences and perspectives, and continuing to actively uplift their voices. Science and related fields in particular value their “objectivity” and, as a result, often dismiss deeper discussion of personal experiences.

However, I’m increasingly realizing the crucial need to center stories of people when telling stories of science, whether that’s to broader audiences through media, or to fellow researchers in scientific institutions. As I learn from my mentors and become one myself, I constantly remind myself that reassuring and upholding safe conversation spaces about everything from self-esteem to blatant discrimination is one of many necessary steps to create a collaborative, equitable, and inclusive environment.

Please feel free to comment or message me on Twitter if you have thoughts/resources you want to share (whether related or tangential to this reflection) about how to effectively dismantle racist and exclusionary academic culture, I am constantly learning!

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