Guest Blog: Dealing with the Impostor Syndrome: Not Once, But Twice

I began my graduate career back in 2004 in the field of Ethnomusicology. My cohort of 4 people included someone who was the Assistant Director of a non-profit organization that placed inner-city kids in music lessons and brought musicians from all over the world for performances and workshops, a blues musician and a long-time jazz musician who had met many of the famous names we speak about when we’re talking  about jazz. They were all at least 4 years older than me and had worked at various jobs within the music field since graduating from college. On the other hand, I was 22-years-old, straight out of finishing my undergraduate degree. I had just moved from Florida and was completely unfamiliar with the West Coast (the other three had lived somewhere on the West Coast all their lives). My partner and I had no friends and were just getting our bearings on where the closest grocery store was, specifically because we had no car and had to either walk or navigate the bus system. Our family and closest friends were 3,500 miles away.

Then there was graduate school. I figured that since I got good grades as an undergraduate and really enjoyed things like writing papers that graduate school would be the next logical step and it would be a very smooth transition. Boy, was I wrong! I sat in my first graduate seminar on a Thursday morning. The professor was one of those so-smart-his-brain-is-too-big-for-his-head type of guys. He didn’t look at anyone in particular when he spoke. He just stared off into space as  if he were talking to an audience that none of us were aware of but had to be in this room somewhere. He was rather awkward and seemingly unapproachable. I listened to every word he said during the 2-hour seminar and understood close to none of them. I took copious notes and decided to go to the library and check out every book he mentioned during his lecture. This proved quite stressful, as I also had to learn to navigate a new library system, so it took me a few hours to check out about 6 or 7 books. I walked home that afternoon with an arm full of books and I was mentally exhausted from the experience. I was totally lost. After the weekend passed, I mustered up the courage to speak to the others in my cohort. It turns out that despite the looks of confidence on their faces, they were all lost too!! I felt much better knowing that it wasn’t just me.

We formed a support/study group and met frequently, talking about our uncertainties in graduate school and our  interactions with this “scary” professor. We finally began to understand how this professor worked. He seemed quite unapproachable in class, but was incredibly supportive and helpful when you spoke to him one-on-one  in his office. He ended up serving as the chair of my MA thesis and was a great support for me when I faced issues in a course that I taught a few years later.

But that was only one class…there were other subjects besides the Music of Asia. In other classes, my colleagues would go off on tangents about jazz or about other things that I had never heard of in my life. They would jeopardize the discussion with the professor, who also had a broad knowledge base on the subject. Once again, I felt lost. Why did they know these things and I didn’t? Should I have known them? Did I miss all of this in a reading or something? Are they going to find out they admitted me by mistake because I’m not as smart as my colleagues? And there it was, the full-blown impostor syndrome!

After weathering the storm, I realized, again from talking to my colleagues, that there were times that they had no idea what I was talking about. They had never heard of some of the things that I had studied or experienced, and although they always looked confident, they were equally as lost as I was when they spoke (although I probably looked confused, not confident!) I realized over time that we were all admitted to the program for different reasons and that we were not expected to know everything. We were there to learn, and most importantly, to learn from each other. In fact, one of my colleagues who seemed to know everything about everything once told me that he didn’t know how to properly use citations until he read one of  my papers. I taught him how to do something and I didn’t even know it! I later realized that we were all supposed to be there, and suffering the impostor syndrome was normal and just a phase. I spent the next two years mentoring new students and telling them about the impostor syndrome and that it was OK to feel lost at first. I was the expert. I had been through it and was helping others, the way it should be. But then, for a variety of reasons, I switched over to the Sociology Department. And it happened again…

I entered the Sociology department in 2007 and was excited to begin my first/fourth year of graduate school. I was relatively new to the program, although the previous year I had taken a few statistics courses so I knew a few professors and some of the students in the program. In fact, one of my statistics professors, who was a heavy-weight in the department, wrote one of my letters of recommendation for admission. I felt confident that even though I took a huge leap from qualitative to quantitative research and from Music to Demography that I would be fine. After all, this wasn’t really my first year of graduate school so I knew what I was doing! My new classmates looked up to me because I exuded confidence and wasn’t nervous about the typical first-year issues of being lost in class and not knowing where the grocery store was near my house. And then, it happened…

I took a course taught by my former statistics professor and letter of recommendation-writer during my first quarter in Sociology. She was going through a lot that quarter personally and professionally and did not have the energy to keep the course organized. It was so disorganized that she gave us instructions for our final paper the week it was due. These instructions were completely the opposite of what she had expected earlier in the quarter. I scrambled to get this done, and ultimately had to ask for an extension because I was taking 14 credits (10 is a full load) and had too many other final projects to have to change this one as well. Being new to the field of Sociology, I had never written a final paper before, so here was my first stab in the field. I wrote the paper from home while visiting my parents in Florida. I spent an entire day working on it and felt pretty good when I submitted it.

When I returned from break, I saw that I had an envelope in my mailbox with my name written on it (misspelled!) I opened it and it was a 2-page, single-spaced letter from that professor ripping my paper to shreds. She had highlighted certain parts of my paper and had comments such as, “Did you even read this article?” And “If you think this person is a schmuck, just come out and say it!” The last sentence was, “This would only be a B- undergraduate paper.” I was crushed. Here I was, I had just completely changed my graduate major and had to start over in a different field after 3 years and I picked the wrong field! I was barely capable of writing a good paper at an undergraduate level. I had made a mistake and so had they. They admitted me by mistake. They found out I wasn’t as smart as I thought. Maybe I was a good student in Ethnomusicology, but Sociology certainly wasn’t my field. After reading the letter and holding back tears, I brought a trusted friend of mine to the 7th floor bathroom in Condon Hall and just cried. I was hurt. I had regrets. I couldn’t believe what had happened! I even showed up to the first day of the first class I was taking with my advisor late and with red eyes. I didn’t want my classmates to know what had happened because I wanted them to think that I was still as confident as the first day I began our program. I wasn’t going to suffer from the impostor syndrome, I was going to warn them so that they never did!

I decided to send an email to the professor apologizing for wasting her time with the paper and explaining that I did not do a poor job on purpose. I wanted to make it up to her to re-do the paper so I could learn from my mistakes; not to get a better grade, but to prove to her that I could to it and improve myself as an academic. She responded immediately and graciously accepted my apology. Things were looking good.

After swallowing my pride, I was able to talk to some classmates about it. Apparently she ripped into a few others as well, not just me. Also, one of her advisees said, “You probably caught her on a day where she was in a bad mood and she lashed out on you. That’s one of her faults. Don’t take it personally.” I realized this was probably true because every time I saw this professor, whether it was in the hallway or in our neighborhood while she was walking her dog, she was very awkward towards me. I tried emailing her several times over 2 years asking if she was still willing to meet with me (she never gave me a grade either, so I ended up with an incomplete in her course!) She never responded to my requests via email but always in person said awkwardly, “I’ve just been so busy but I know I owe you a meeting.” I realized after all this time passed, that my friend was right: it wasn’t me with the problem, it was her. After this course, I never received any other criticism like that from any other professor. Sure, my work is not perfect, and from time-to-time I got some harsh criticism, but nobody ever attacked me the  way she did. It is unfortunate that the isolated incident occurred right at the beginning of my time in Sociology and that it set off triggers of the too-familiar impostor syndrome. I should have known better, but instead fell victim to the very thing  I was trying to protect others from and swore I could detect from a mile away!

We all go through ups and downs in graduate school. These are a few stories of my downs. On the upside, I’ll be graduating in June with a PhD and while these stories shaped me, they did not define who I was and how I proceeded in graduate school. Impostor syndrome, you tried to get me twice, but you lose! I belong here. 

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  

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Outreach Event: Royal High School Students Visit Seattle BioMed

Photo credit: Theresa Britschgi

On Friday, March 16th, 2012, a bus load of Royal High School students traveled over the snowy mountain pass to arrive in Seattle in time for lunch at Seattle BioMed. By the time they got to Seattle, the sun was shining and there were an eager group of scientists waiting for them. This is not the first time we’ve met with the Royal High Students. We met Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, a science teacher at Royal High, several years ago at a SACNAS National Conference. Mario had started a SACNAS Club for his students, and many of them were actively involved, so we decided to form a partnership with the RHS SACNAS Club. For the past few years, we traveled to Royal City to present a workshop on college attendance and assist the students with labs. In June 2011, we brought a group of students from Royal City to the UW campus so they could have hands-on lab experiences and talk to college admissions and financial aid counselors at the UW. Some of our students have also mentored Royal High students at the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Bio Expo each year. So, despite this long-standing relationship, we still like to meet with RHS students as much as possible. Mario contacted me back in February and said his students would be attending a program at Seattle BioMed in March, so I decided to organize a group of students to attend.

The day began with all of the students touring some of Seattle BioMed’s facilities. After that, we got together as a group and introduced ourselves and told our personal stories through graduate school. We were fortunate to have two Royal High alum amongst our ranks: Yuriana Garcia, a UW Sophomore and Abraham Guadarrama, a UW Freshman.

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Additionally, Katrina Claw, a PhD Candidate in Genome Sciences, Amber Caracol, a Biology Professor at UW Bothell and Seattle Central Community College, Simon Mendoza, a graduate student in Microbiology, and Sabrina Bonaparte (that’s me!), a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department, attended the event. Simon showed the students glow in the dark bacteria, among other things and gave a great presentation about careers in Microbiology. After we spoke for a while, the students headed to the lab to dissect mosquitos and hear a talk from UW SACNAS Chapter member and RHS alum Abraham Guadarrama. Abraham’s talk was from his LSAMP‘s team research project: University of Washington Engineering Bridge Program: Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing. Abraham provided the following quote describe his experience:

Abraham presenting to the group
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

“What better way to learn to ask great questions and always be thinking creatively than to interact with Science!!   Being a former Royal City SACNAS student and being able to share my experiences on how I have got involved in research with my LSAMP group in Polymer Synthesis and Mechanical Testing was a great privilege. After presenting our LSAMP project, I designed a hands on lab where students asked questions on the decomposition of different materials, as I talked about that in my presentation. What I saw was curiosity and the next generation of scientist, they were having fun learning science!!”

The Royal City students seemed to enjoy their time at Seattle BioMed. Here are some quotes from a few students (quotes provided by Theresa Britschgi):

Royal City Bacteria!
Photo Credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalezstudents (provided from Theresa Britschgi):

“Hoy fue uno de esos pocos dias en el cual es divertido aprendar algo nuevo ya que hoy aprendi y me diverti bastante. Esto fue una gran experiencia que yo pienso que me va a motivar para segir estudiando.” – Royal City student

“BioQuest is a wonderful place. Seattle BioMed will help lots of people if they find a vaccine for malaria – and save a lot of lives.” – Royal City student

Our partnership with Royal High will not end here, as we have other events in the works for this year. Additionally, we have developed a great partnership with Seattle BioMed and plan to return for more high school student visits in the upcoming months.

A special thank-you to Mr. Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, for letting us know of this trip to Seattle, for always working with us and serving to a mentor to our chapter members, and for being a phenomenal role model and mentor for all of your students! Also, a big thank you to Theresa Britschgi, the BioQuest Director at Seattle BioMed for organizing this event, providing photos and quotes, and for inviting us back to meet with other students! We are very excited to continue our partnership with you!

UW SACNAS Chapter members with Mario, our favorite science teacher!
Photo credit: Mario Godoy-Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Theresa Britschgi

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  

Outreach Event: Teaching Science at the Denise Louie Education Center

On Monday, March 12th, I spent an entire day in lead teacher Brandon Blake‘s full day classroom at the Denise Louie Education Center in the International District of Seattle. Denise Louie is a Head Start Center, and this was a multi-lingual classroom. The classroom is a diverse group of students. The classroom is comprised of 42% Chinese students, 11% Vietnamese students, 26% White students, 11% Black students and 11% Latino students. 68% of the students in the classroom’s first language was a language other than English, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Amharic.  The teachers also represent a wide variety of ethnicities: Uzbek, ethnically Chinese from Vietnam, Mexican, and a substitute present in the class who was Vietnamese. And then there is Brandon, who is a 3rd generation American of Russian/Polish Jewish descent.

As the long-time partner of a preschool teacher (Brandon), I’m no stranger to the classroom, but I’ve actually never taught a lesson before. Brandon could tell I was a little nervous, which I was, particularly because I feared losing the interest and attention of the kids. Once I began my lesson, this was no longer a concern. The classroom was full of kids who were incredibly polite, attentive, and very knowledgeable about science!

Doing Science

We began circle time by Teacher Brandon telling his students that I was a scientist and I came to class to teach them about science. He then asked, “Who in this room is a scientist?” Every student raised their hand enthusiastically, so I knew the lesson would be off to a good start. We continued by singing a song about the planets in our solar system. Teacher Brandon cut the song a little short from what I remembered learning as a kid, since Pluto is no longer considered a planet. When he informed his students of this modification to the song, one of them raised her hand and said, “Pluto is not a planet, it’s a dwarf planet.” I see we have another future female astronaut in the ranks! Next, Brandon asked his students, “Who was the first person in space?” to which all of them replied, “Yuri Gagarin!” I know very few adults that can remember his name, let alone pronounce it properly!

We moved on to my activity, which involved counting Skittles. I’ve done this activity before with both middle and high school students, but had to consult Brandon as to how to make it appropriate for 3-5 year old scientists. Usually, is similar to this one, which teaches about elementary statistics:

1) Divide students into small groups and count Skittles or M&M’s to see if the color distribution in the bags is similar to what is reported by the Mars Company as the average color distribution of each bag
2) Make pie graphs using Excel after the students have taken the frequency of each color and divided it by the total number of candy in the bag
3) Compare the pie graphs to what Mars says a bag should be and we can see which colors are over or underrepresented in each bag
4)  Talk about the various uses of statistics and how and why sampling techniques are sometimes vital to obtain data

For preschoolers, I adapted the activity as follows:

1) Identify each color in the Skittles bag in English, Spanish and Cantonese
2) Guess the total number of Skittles in the bag. Guesses ranged from 1 to 20,100 (as he pronounced twenty-hundred)!
3) Taking inspiration from a book in their class called “Yummy Colors“, identify what foods are the same colors as each color Skittle
4) Count the number of each color together, out loud as a class, while Teacher Brandon draws a histogram on a large piece of paper behind me. Since Mars says there are 13 of each color in each bag, Brandon draws a dark line at 13 and students identify if the number of each color is over or under the expected amount.
5) Count all of the colors  together using the tick marks in the Histogram. The students counted to 64 (all the while, Brandon joked that they must be too tired counting so high and surely may need to stop at 50)!!

Believe it or not, with the exception of calculating percentages, this activity was largely the same as what I would do with a much older group! The students had no difficulty whatsoever, even counting to 64. According to Brandon, this activity also incorporated developmental learning objectives for preschoolers such as quantification, numeration and grouping. In other words, these kids are learning math. In fact, they already knew it!

Incorporating the Skittles Activity into Existing Curriculum

I wanted to be sure I incorporated my lesson into the current curriculum, so in doing so, we brought the lesson full-circle back to space. I explained that while Skittles were very easy to classify because they were all the same size but different colors, some other things in science are not as easy to classify. For example, if an astronomer looks into a telescope and sees a celestial object that they’ve never seen before, how do they classify it? To prove this point, we set up tables with rocks of various colors and sizes and asked the kids to classify them however they wanted. Immediately, a few students began placing all of the big rocks in one pile and the small rocks in another pile. Others were placing light rocks in one pile and dark rocks in another. By the end of the activity, the students had rearranged various rock piles several times due to different classification systems.

I decided to stay the entire day since I was having so much fun working with the kids. In the afternoon, the lesson was making “astronaut food” out of playdough. Since I was the resident scientist of the day, I had to explain the kinds of foods that astronauts can and cannot eat while in space. I told them that astronauts eat M&Ms in space while they are floating in the air. They latched on to this and many of the students made candy to take with them to space. One student made a pizza, cut up slices of chicken and a perfectly-shaped dumpling (pressed closed with beautiful fork marks). Perhaps the astronauts would enjoy their food more if their menu were designed by preschoolers!

Thoughts

As the partner of a long-time preschool teacher, I have always seen the value of preschool education first-hand, but as a sociologist and a scholar of education and stratification, I also see it from a larger lens encompassing empirical studies of the value of preschool education on preventing future incarceration and high school graduation. Programs like these are vitally important to students and to their community as a whole, and it is encouraging to see that these students are taking such as strong interest in science at such a young age.  These students prove that science education can never begin too early, and one possible way to close the gender gap or the achievement gap for certain ethnicities is to begin when kids are in preschool, since, as my new young friends taught me at the beginning of class, they’re already scientists!

Photos

These are some of my favorite photos from the class. Special thanks to Teacher James for the great photos! Also, a big thank you Teachers Anh and Gulchehra for welcoming me and letting me help lead your class!

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.  

Guest Blog: The World Population Hit 7 Billion

As the first guest blogger, allow me to introduce myself. I am a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. My area of focus is Demography, or more specifically defined, the statistical study of human population. In general, Demographers study issues related to fertility, mortality, migration and immigration. My specific area of focus for my dissertation research is educational inequalities, but I also spent a signficant amount of time studying fertility and contraceptive use in Indonesia and Southeast Asian Demography for a recent book chapter I co-wrote with my advisor.

As a student of Demography, naturally I get very excited when the results from the most recent US Census are published, or when an interesting situation in Japan leads to questions about life expectancy,  or even a recent finding that Mexican-American births are overtaking immigration numbers for the first time in history.

I was particularly intrigued waking up to a story on NPR on Halloween about how the human population reached 7 billion people and the implications of this number. The story also included a very interesting video on the world’s population and its growth over time using water dripping into and out of a tube. Showing the regions of the world by continent (with the exception of India, China and the rest of Asia) could be somewhat misleading. By grouping Southeast Asia with Japan, one might miss that Japan would probably have a very small amount of water dropping in from births and a the rate that it drops out from deaths would also be very slow due to a very high life expectancy.

Another neat website I came across while researching this subject is the BBC World App that allows you to enter your birthdate, country and gender so you can see where you fit in the human population. According to the app, I was the 4,579,633,137th person alive on Earth and the 79,245,691,742nd person to have lived since history began. The calculator also shows the number of births, deaths, immigrants and the average yearly growth per country and the life expectancy by gender. According to the calculator, I should live, on average 80.5 years, as a 29-year-old female living in the United States.  This information was taken from the 7 Billion and Me website developed by the UN. This website goes into more detail and tells you how many people have died since you were alive, the number of people born in different continents, the gender breakdown, and even the number of species that have become extinct since you were born, among other things. Very interesting (at least for a Demographer like me)! National Geographic also released an online and print series on the population reaching 7 billion people and the New York Times Blog created a visual capsule capturing our world at 7 billion people.

Population growth has always been somewhat of a popular topic among Demographers. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote the book, “The Population Bomb” which stated that the world population would grow rapidly and even double between 1960 and 1999. While Ehrlich’s work is mostly dismissed by modern-day Demographers, his assumptions were not far-fetched given the time period. Family planning programs were not widely established in developing countries at the time, so women in countries with high fertility did not have access to modern birth control. For example, the Chinese One-Child Policy was not even established until 1978, so just looking at China during Ehrlich’s time would lead one to believe that the population was rapidly expanding. Also, advances in medical care and techniques, particularly for infants, has kept the mortality rates for many countries lower, so the need to have more children has diminished since the 1960s. For example, the total fertility rate (meaning the average number of children a woman will have if she survives through her entire reproductive period based on the rates of the period) from 1965-1970 was 4.45 children per woman for the world, and 5.37 children for less developed regions according to the UN Population Division 2010 projections. For the 2005-2010 time period, the numbers decrease to 2.52 for the world and 2.69 for the less developed regions. This shows a leveling out in the reproductive rates of the less developed countries with the more developed countries and that now less developed countries are also approaching replacement fertility, or when couples are only producing two children to replace themselves.

The most intriguing part about all of this is not that the human population has grown so rapidly over time, but rather how and where this growth is taking place. My advisors, who went to graduate school 30 + years ago, claim that much of what they focused on in their research was the rapidly growing human population, whereas I had to address issues with shrinking populations in Europe and Japan in a general exam question  a few years ago. Europe has fallen to below replacement level in 2005-2010, with a total fertility rate of only 1.53 children per woman, with Southern Europe at 1.43, Eastern Europe at 1.41 and Northern Europe at 1.83. Southeast Asian countries perhaps have the most remarkable decreases in fertility, with countries such as Thailand dropping from 6.13 children per woman in 1965-1970 to 1.63 in 2005-2010, Singapore dropping from 5.12 to 1.25 and Vietnam dropping the most remarkably from 7.33 to 1.89. East Asian rates are also very low. Japan has a rate of 1.32 children per woman, and Korea is at 1.29, down from 5.29 in 1965-1970.

According to the UN Population Division, mortality has also undergone a tremendous change since the 1960s. The life expectancy of the world was only 51.19 years in 1965-1970 and now it is 67.88. For Asia, the numbers raised from 46.36 to 68.98. That means, on average, people are living 20 years longer than they were 40 years ago. Japan, of course, has the highest life expectancy at 82.73 years.  The infant mortality rate has also significantly decreased over time. In 1965-1970, 94 out of every 1,000 infants died. In 2005-2010, only 46 out of 1,000 died. For less developed countries, the number decreased from 152 out of 1,000 in 1965-1970 to 80 out of 1,000 in 2005-2010. This indicates that the infant mortality rate was cut in half for the world, and for essentially all regions of the world as well. Most remarkably, for more developed regions, only 6 out of 1,000 infants die each year.  This indicates that for infant survival, a woman has to be less cautious of infant death than 40 years ago, and therefore can have fewer children to ensure greater survival of those children.

So the real question is, in a place like Vietnam or Korea who went from high fertility to low fertility, or a place like Japan, where live a very long time, who is going to take care of the elderly? If parents aren’t even replacing themselves, there will be multiple parents, aunts and uncles for each child. Who will pay for the pensions of these retirees as well? Some of this can be answered by immigration, but not all of it. France, which just saw its fertility rate drop below 2 for the first time in history, offers financial incentives to women who have more than two children. Will this work? Is a few thousand dollars worth the costs of the lifetime of another child, plus will having a third child impact a career? It may be too soon to tell, but since the worldwide trend seems to be to have fewer children, this may be too little, too late.

I think the big question on everyone’s mind is should we be concerned about this growth? If you ask me, the answer is a that it is not the growth we should be concerned about, but rather how we control poverty and take care of our rapidly aging populations with fewer and fewer young people in a given society.  Also, we’ve seen that the Earth can accommodate 7 billion people and probably many more than that, but how can we create a sustainable environment to continue to utilize our natural resources and not deplete the resources given to us? This could lead to a beautiful marriage between Demography and Environmental Science. Unfortunately, I do not have another 5 years to earn a second PhD, so hopefully future scholars will continue along the path to interdisciplinary scholarly research and establish the consequences of population growth on not just our society, but also our planet as a whole.

 

Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. Her main focus is demography and her current dissertation research is on the educational attainment of immigrants and ethnic minorities in the United States.