Monday, July 26, 2021

The Science of Imposters (Day 208)

After my first grown up job, which was as the Media Relations Manager for The International Ecotourism Society (TIES, yes, they used "THE" in the acronym and it both confused and made everyone angry and no one will ever recover, etc), I found myself unemployed. 

My position was funded by a grant. 9/11 happened and the travel industry tanked and the grant was not renewed. 

I interviewed all over Vermont--and declined a $17,500/year job writing for a local newspaper (although I think it would have been so much fun!) and decided to return home to Philly. One of my first, promising interviews was for a scientific and medical association in the city. The interviewer asked me if I liked science and I gave the most moronic answer:

"I am just not, like science-y."

Needless to say, the SCIENTIFIC association went with a more science-y candidate. 

I think about that all the time--how I immediately put myself down because I did not have a science degree and felt it was better to discount myself than be called out as an imposter. 

Never mind the fact that I had spent 2 years explaining complex and very science-y topics related to travel, the environment, climate change and habitat destruction; followed by 6 months of writing about astronomy for the Franklin Institute. 

Imposter syndrome is really a chronic disease. 

When people ask me what I write, I rarely say that I write science because well, I don't have a science degree and I often feel like it is better to discount myself rather than be called out as an imposter. 

But, I am science-y! I am so science-y!I have been writing about pediatric oncology for 6 years. 

In fact, I just wrote this piece that I am really proud of about this amazing researcher in Vienna-Dr. Kovar. What I love about his story and actually all the stories of the researchers I encounter is that the person doing the science is as interesting as the science itself. 

When Dr. Kovar was starting his career 30 years ago and was studying Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, his brother was diagnosed with the same disease. Dr. Kovar did not choose to study Ewing's (he was studying genetics) and his brother certainly did not choose to have Ewing's. But there they were, two brothers in different boats, in the same terrifying sea. His brother died. Dr. Kovar, the brilliant young scientist, was left with grief and a mission: cure Ewing sarcoma. 

And now, he is using knowledge that existed 30 years ago, with the cutting edge tools that did not. And he is also using a grant from Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. I think he'll make an impact--and I think he'll find a cure. 

You can read about Dr. Kovar, here (and you totally should). 

One thing Dr. Kovar said in his interview with me stuck with me--he said that doctor's told his brother that researchers were working hard to find cures and that he was one of them. I did not ask how that felt--but I can take some guesses: devastating, frustrating and like he was an imposter. I have no idea if this is all true; but putting myself in his shoes, I know that maybe I would not be motivated to continue on because it would be easier to pretend versus face the chance that someone would call me out as an imposter. 

Of course, that is a ridiculous, silly way to live and while I try not to live this way, I know I do all the time. Who am I to think that I am an expert on anything? Isn't there someone more trained? What about those science writing jobs that require a PhD, clearly I should never, ever acknowledge my expertise because there is someone better, right?  

Imposter syndrome feeds on humility--and too much humility, like too much water, just drowns out the truth. 

And while it feels easier not to finish an essay that I started about respect and disability, because what if someone who is really an expert on disability reads it and calls me out as an imposter; it is not easier at all. It grates on me and has me thinking of missed opportunities like that science interview back in the day. The only solution, as I would tell my children, is to stop letting it grate on me. 

So, I'll end right there and open up my essay--the one which I am very much qualified to write--and write it--combatting that imposter syndrome one word at a time. 



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