One of my labmates, R (a very junior student), who is also my friend, constantly challenges my thinking about graduate school, science, and the experience of women. She seems to defy my notions of what is normal experience (normal as in typical, not normal as in what everybody thinks is normal). She is, as far as I can tell, an extremely well-adjusted person who works hard, enjoys lab, loves science, and thinks our university is the bee’s knees. I secretly believe that she is a closeted axe murderer. Never in my experience at this university have I met someone who was so enthusiastic and so utterly forgiving of the problems that are inherent in our program. Her normality is abnormal.
Not too long ago, I was having a problem transforming my yeast cells in lab. I was trying to integrate a plasmid containing a small part of the end of a gene fused to GFP into that gene’s endogenous locus. We have done this a thousand times in my lab and I personally had does this a hundred times before but it just wasn’t working. I was getting very few transformed yeast and none of them seemed to have integrated the plasmid in the right place. As a control for technique, I tried integrating a very similar plasmid into the same gene in yeast–a plasmid a former member of the lab had gotten to work–and it was also not integrating at the proper place.
At this point, I had to look at the possibility that I was doing something wrong. However, this seemed to be unlikely. It was a simple procedure and there was very little that could go wrong.* I thought it more likely that there was something going on with the parent plasmid of this construct (looking at the lab notebook of he former lab member who had used this parent plasmid I could not tell if his transformations had been very efficient). That is, this is when I thought about the problem logically. Mostly, here was what was going through my head:
I’ve probably screwed this up. I always screw up cloning in some manner. It can’t all be bad luck, some of it has got to be me. I’m not a good bench scientist. I’m not careful enough. I’ve probably screwed up the plasmid prep and so I have much less DNA to start with when I’m trying to transform this thing into yeast. And I’ve probably screwed up the purification process after I cut the plasmid** so that I have even less DNA than a normal, competent, person would and that’s why this isn’t working. It’s not working because I’m a bad scientist with bad hands who never should be in benchwork and I don’t know why the hell I’m wasting my advisor’s time doing research when I’m clearly not suited to it and so bad at it. A better student would have this project done by now. I should just quit.
To my labmate, R, I would say, “I don’t think this is something I’m doing wrong. Whenever I’ve thought that in the past, it turned out not to be true. It’s a problem with the construct and that’s all. There was this time when Advisor thought I was clearly messing something up and he tried to do it and it turned out worse for him than it did for me. I just have bad luck when it comes to cloning.” I probably said this to her three or four times during the week when all of this came to a head.
In the end, I did more controls, I determined the concentration of DNA in my sample (which was actually higher than advertised as maximum efficiency for the kits I was using!), I did the transformation side by side with someone who wasn’t having problems (someone who had been in the lab much less time than me–I think we were both a little embarrassed by it all), and… it wasn’t me. It was the construct. There’s a problem with the parent plasmid in general and because the gene I’m working with is difficult, it meant that I had to use way more DNA than was typical in my transformations in order to get it to work and when I did that, it worked.
So, I said to R, “From now on, I am not going to always assume that the reason something is not working is because I’m a bad scientist, with bad hands. Time and again, I’ve shown that’s not the case and I’m not going to let myself think those things anymore.” And R said, “But, that’s what you’ve been saying all along.” To which I replied, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying to you, but what I’ve been saying to myself is that I’m not good enough to be in lab and that I’m not smart enough to be here.” And that’s how we got started talking about impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome, for those who don’t know, is characterized by the belief that you have somehow fooled everyone into thinking that you are smart and competent, that in fact you are neither, and one day people are going to figure out that you are a fraud. It seems to be fairly common among women academics. I first heard the term a few years ago and it described exactly how I felt on a daily basis.
I used to think I was alone in thinking that I wasn’t as smart as other people thought I was. However, after the Larry Summers debacle a few years ago, the Women in Science group on campus had a panel discussion to talk about the prospects of women in science and I attended. There, a woman on the panel told us about being in graduate school at Harvard and thinking, somehow, that all the other students (who were male) knew more and were smarter than her. This was not due to grades because she knew she had better grades than everyone else. She did not necessarily think they were smarter because they were male. Rather, in the absence of any sort of proof, or any theory as to why this might be true, she thought she was the dumbest person there. And I that’s when I started to rethink my ideas about how intelligent I was and whether I deserved to be in grad school. Up until that moment, I mostly thought that I was not smart and had somehow fooled everyone into thinking that I was.
I explained all of this to R who was dumbfounded. She had 1) never heard of the impostor syndrome, 2) never thought she was stupid, and 3) didn’t understand how anyone could think of themselves as stupid in the absence of proof. She may, in fact, have thought I was making it up. Except…
My lab happens to be primarily made up of women. This is not intentional on my advisor’s part (at least, as far as I can tell). Over the years, the majority vote would sometimes belong to women and sometimes to men, but most recently–due to a couple men leaving and a couple women joining–we have become a mostly female lab. Out of 11 people, seven are women. And, one by one, when asked, they admitted to often thinking that someone someday was going to figure out they were not smart enough to be here and throw them out. These women were smart, were doing good science, had been recognized by Advisor and others that they were doing good science, had passed their preliminary exams and qualifying exams and had published, and in the case of the post-doc had successfully defended a thesis and got hired, and yet, each of them thought that one day, someone was going to figure out that she was an idiot.
One the one hand, it’s good to know that I’m not crazy. Or, rather, that I’m not the only person who’s crazy. On the other hand, it’s heartbreakingly sad that so many talented women have so little confidence in themselves. It’s terrible to think that there are so many women out there who are secretly a little afraid that someday they are going to lose everything that they’ve worked for because someone is going to find out the “truth” about them. And I often wonder, is this related to why there are so few women in the upper echelons of science? After all, why apply for a position you secretly believe you are not qualified for?
*I should mention here, before other yeast biologists try to troubleshoot my transformation technique, that I am not working with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) or Schizosaccharomyces pombe and am using a different procedure to transform my cells than the ones normally used to transform these yeast.
**Plasmids are circular but to get the DNA to integrate into the genome, it needs to be linear, therefore, it must be cut with a restriction enzyme.