Imposter Syndrome... and How to Beat It

I grew up about 20 miles east of downtown Seattle, Washington. Photos of my town and forest are much different than the beaches and concrete of my current home in San Diego.

I grew up about 20 miles east of downtown Seattle, Washington. Photos of my town and forest are much different than the beaches and concrete of my current home in San Diego.

I would like to tell you a story full of success, failure, and progress: that story was my first year in graduate school.

I joined the Wolkowicz lab at San Diego State University as a senior undergraduate student because I thought it would further augment my education and get me some exposure to the academic research setting. Being the youngest scientist in the lab was intimidating, but I grew to love the research and my principal investigator (PI), who has a grand and demanding personality that has given me the opportunity to become a fruitful and productive scientist. Dr. Roland Wolkowicz – a gay Jew that served in the Israeli military and worked at Stanford for eight years – studies human viral pathogens in the attempt to find treatments for disease. During my last year as an undergraduate student I accepted his offer to join the master’s program at SDSU for cellular and molecular biology – and so began my graduate path. My project centers on the life cycle of the Chikungunya Virus, in hopes to identify potential antivirals.

The ‘school’ part of grad school

Going into the program I was unsure what to expect – I imagine most graduate students are. The more senior members of my lab made the classes look easy, yet they still seemed perpetually stressed out, drained of energy. Throughout the year I started to understand why they were always so crabby. Graduate school is much more work than being an undergraduate, and after significant searching, I have found that there is no easy way around it. I was required to teach a laboratory class, mentor undergraduates students in lab, do research, and present data at research symposiums and conferences… it was a challenge even to keep track. I learned a momentous amount during that time about science; now I even dream about future experiments.

My favorite class that I took this year was “Advanced Topics in Molecular Biology;” a graduate level course made up of about 30 master’s and PhD students. At twenty-three years old, I found myself in the position of the youngest student in the cellular and molecular biology graduate program: quite intimidating in the first few days of class. I would read the assigned readings and come to class prepared, but I watched my fellow classmates ask questions that showed their superior experience in the field. But herein lies the reason why that class was my favorite: it forced me to learn faster. The learning curve was exponential as I attempted to reach the level of my peers.

The final assignment of the class was a 30-minute presentation with a partner about an assigned scientific paper with the author in the audience. Yes, I was exceedingly nervous when the presentations was assigned – but it soon became clear that nerves are a pretty universal thing… I wasn’t the only one. I prepared for many hours for that presentation, pushing for that A and to impress my classmates and professors. After the conclusion of my presentation I was pleasantly surprised to hear my professor and fellow classmates compliment us. I received many tough questions about my presentation, which I generally could not answer, but in the scientific community if you get tough questions, it’s a good sign. I learned then the necessity of deflecting questions you don’t know the answer to. Little did I know that this presentation was only an introduction to two more impactful presentations during my first year.

The ‘everything else’ part of grad school

A model of the Chikungunya virus by the  Native Antigen Company .

A model of the Chikungunya virus by the Native Antigen Company.

My lab studies the viruses that plague this planet, and every year we attend the Viral Information Institute (VII) meeting in San Diego to present posters and give oral presentations about our research. I knew I was likely to be the youngest presenter once again, but this time around I was galvanized by the opportunity to showcase my research to more senior scientists, including well-known, visiting scientists from Denmark and UCSD. My talk, which discussed mosquito-borne viruses and specifically Chikungunya, motivated several people to come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. This helped boost my confidence as a fledgling scientist, and even more so now, as the members of the VII recognize me in the hallway and offer their greetings. A simple wave means the world from these renown scientists, and makes me feel more a part of the scientific community simply by exchanging hellos. After all, we all ultimately work together to progress the field. This I find really beautiful.

The spread of mosquito-borne diseases will only get more severe as climate change progresses into this century. Photo credit: Center for Disease Control

The spread of mosquito-borne diseases will only get more severe as climate change progresses into this century. Photo credit: Center for Disease Control

I am trained well in the practice of cytometry, which is just a way to measure the characteristics of cells. Over the past two years I have used flow cytometry to analyze our experiments, which is a technique that allows us to monitor fluorescent proteins inside of human cells. In our case, I use flow cytometry to monitor the activity of a specific enzyme of Chikungunya Virus: when the enzyme does not work, the cells will literally glow green. Using this system, I am attempting to identify potential therapeutics against this incurable disease that causes joint pain, fever, and headaches for an indefinite amount of time. This virus is spread through the bites of mosquitos, who are now aided by climate change and are sweeping across the tropics and into more northern latitudes. There are over a million people living with the virus worldwide, with tens of millions at risk. These facts give impact to the project and are the reason behind my passion.

Every year graduate students from my lab attend the Southern California Flow Cytometry Association meeting at the University of California Irvine. As is customary, I submitted my abstract to present a poster at this conference, and was subsequently accepted – in the science world, this is not the biggest deal. However, upon reading the email further, I realized that I was awarded the “Excellence in Cytometry Award” and was given the opportunity to present at the conference in the main hall before the keynote, or main, speaker. That was a little bigger.

Even more intimidating, I was the only student presenter on the first day of the conference. I remember sitting in the audience and listening to highly-esteemed professors criticize and praise each other and thinking how amazing, and how terrifying, it was that I was about to have their attention for twenty minutes. I was ready for it, and yet still I was unbelievably nervous, even despite the countless times I had practiced. But once at the podium and upon seeing my PowerPoint slides on the big screen, I knew that if I gave my presentation to the best of my ability, nothing would go wrong. I stumbled over a few words – tough, for a perfectionist – but gave a strong presentation. I had rehearsed so much that I caught myself saying words towards the end without even thinking about it. 

My final presentation of the year was at the University of California Irvine at the Southern California Flow Cytometry conference. This photo was taken by a member of my lab as I was explaining some facts about Chikungunya.

My final presentation of the year was at the University of California Irvine at the Southern California Flow Cytometry conference. This photo was taken by a member of my lab as I was explaining some facts about Chikungunya.

After a few questions I walked back to my seat, and some nice older lady waved at me and told me that I gave a great presentation. As I sat down, I watched that same older lady stand up and walk to the podium, where she gave an hour-long keynote presentation – that lady was a famous scientist from the CalTech University. To be recognized by someone so respected was a truly prodigious feeling, and that moment stimulated my interest to be a better scientist, to rise to the ranks of those seasoned professionals.

After her presentation was a happy hour (there’s always time for a happy hour or two in the science world) and poster session. Everyone who came to my poster complimented me on my presentation, asking how old I was, if it was my first talk, if they can catch Chikungunya virus, etc. I found that I loved the feeling after presenting at a conference: I felt much more a part of the conference, like I finally wasn’t an imposter in the scientific world. That presentation was the last of my academic year, and looking back on the ten months it’s amazing how much I learned about science, life, and myself. I’ve always found great truth in the saying “you can do anything you put your mind to”. If you would have asked me before the program if I wanted to give two conference presentations, I definitely would have asked if they were optional. Now I am looking forward to the next one.

A photo on the last day of my first teaching class. They were my guinea pigs but I think they liked me judging on their smiles :)

A photo on the last day of my first teaching class. They were my guinea pigs but I think they liked me judging on their smiles :)

During this year I was also assigned to a Teacher Assistant (TA) position of a microbiology class at SDSU. I heard previous members of my lab complain about their students, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I loved watching my students succeed and I tried to give them the best experience possible, because I remembered having horrible TAs, and excellent ones, and the difference it made in my experience. I memorized all thirty-two of my students first and last names within the first month and made a genuine attempt to help them enjoy the class, and to learn microbiology. I loved having banter with them before and after class as well. I even went out nightclubbing with a student in Portland, Oregon after he saw I was in town for a basketball game!

My grandfather and I enjoying some soccer in Tijuana, Mexico one weekend. After a busy week I always enjoyed playing soccer with my team and spending time with my family.

My grandfather and I enjoying some soccer in Tijuana, Mexico one weekend. After a busy week I always enjoyed playing soccer with my team and spending time with my family.

After finishing my last final and inputting the grades of my students for submission, I drank a beer (or twelve) and started reflecting on the last ten months. I pondered everything that I learned scientifically and personally and felt grateful for all the people that I had met and had helped me along the way. I have been on summer break for three weeks now, and have taken the time to relax, do some hiking, and play some soccer. Still doing research on Chikungunya, I have plans to attend a conference in Canada this summer as well as see my family in Seattle for a break from the academic life.

I love learning, but I also have a passion for sleeping in, being surrounded by loved ones and nature, and watching my cats chase birds in my mother’s garden underneath the pine trees. I would like to thank you for reading this article, for being a part of my journey. I hope I have inspired you to think that anything (within reason) is possible.

Life begins outside your comfort zone. Science can be extremely challenging and I think people try to skip the struggle, but I found the most beauty in those novel moments. Moments such as preparing presentations in my messy room in my underwear or staying in lab until 8pm to finish an experiment on a Friday night. It wasn’t always pretty. But it was necessary for some serious character building. I’ll be in the lab until the next time you hear from me, but I want to wish you good luck and happiness until then. Perhaps I will actually talk about my research next time.

Thanks and go science!

- Alex


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