I am an Imposter.
My New York Times subscription this past year has leaned hard into social justice, race and other issues. But today! It hit the nail on the head. (OK, so the actual post came a month ago and I just got to cleaning out my emails). Kristen Wong, discussed navigating imposter syndrome.
I read it and I nodded throughout. I still have imposter syndrome, no matter how diverse and interesting My CV may be for my students, I still see/feel/hear disbelief in my abilities from my superiors and supervisors.
Today, I am writing this for all the Bahamian and Caribbean students and researchers who feel their work is not recognized, that they do not have the talent to bring in the research grants etc. But I am also writing for myself. I am writing to confront this and to put into perspective what has fed my imposter syndrome and to point out some of the things I have to revisit to regularly to help me keep my head up.
These are the core tenets of Imposter Syndrome:
I love science. I am an accomplished scientist. However, I do not see other scientists that look like me in science leadership roles and often feel like my work is not good enough to meet the standards of the scientific community.
“The psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined the term in 1978, describing it as “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” In other words, it’s that sinking sense that you are a fraud in your industry, role or position, regardless of your credibility, authority or accomplishments.” from Kristen Wong’s paper
I remember watching hours of David Attenborough and David Suzuki on TV. I was fascinated by science. I always wanted to know what a plant or bug or animal was and why it did what it did. I gravitate toward taxonomy hence my Reef fish ID and AGRRA marine organism certifications and my work with Bird monitoring and BirdsCaribbean. I would capture different animals and grow plants with my siblings. But in school, traveling around the world looking at animals was not an option. A black bahamian student with science talent, could possibly be a doctor or a dentist. Maybe a pharmacist.
At the Botanical Gardens, I worked with Miaya Armstrong and another female student on a summer internship. We worked with Dr. Henry Isaacs, we saw the bat caves on New Providence for my first time. We did a pig necropsy I think Dr. Jeffrey Lyn was there as well. We had the opportunity to remove brain stem tissue from stray dogs to investigate rabies prevalence in the Bahamas. (rabies free! doot doot!) For the first time, I worked with scientists that looked like me, spoke like me and came from where I came from. It would be a while before that happened again.
Throughout the rest of high school and my time at COB, I had teachers that delivered the science content, but not that I could see doing the type of research I wanted to.
I met Eric Carey at the Royal Botanical Gardens. He introduced me to Dave Ewert, Joseph Wunderle and the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and training Program. You have to google them to find out all they have done, because they are super modest, but during this project, they not only taught us science, ethics, and conviction, they did it by example. Dave, Joe, Matthew Anderson, Dave Currie were with us in the field. Oh, they are all non-Bahamian white men. I never saw Mr. Carey in the field with us. We were paid a minimum and when the project was over, we kept the books, but not the binoculars. Knowledge, but no tools. The project was amazing, but as we fell out of touch it fell to the back of your toolbox as a summer job that was really cool but is now over. You are not a scientist, you were a technician. A temp worker. A busboy, not the chef. By the way, now you have to find a real job suited to you. I cleaned kennels at the Humane Society, worked at the movie theater, washed cars and was a cashier and receptionist. Hey, Black scientist, you are not alone.
My first trip to the USA alone was to intern at the USFS Huron Manistee National Forest office in Mio, Michigan. I turned 21 during that internship and met some awesome people. I was the only person of color that I saw in town that summer, unless Smokey Bear counts. I was picked up from the airport by Phil Huber, who set the precedent for me always being picked up in the airport by an older white male I did not know, when I come to the USA.
The next year, I worked on the Abaco Parrot Project in Abaco island. Again, I was the Bahamian student and generally the only person of color/Bahamian, until the following year, when Vashti joined and when we had some latino employees assist in technical matters like installing steps and blinds in pine trees.
The really cool thing from both of these projects, is the leadership recognized that students from the Bahamas, provided an essential opportunity to engage with the community and leverage local knowledge. We took what we learned into classrooms and public spaces, in ways the project leadership could not, and we have not stopped. They let us be scientists, even including us as authors on our first scientific papers.
I was beginning my US college career, at the same time. Dr. James Wiley picked me up and he has committed his career to getting more Caribbean and underrepresented scientists into ecology and science. BSC GPA 3.987 and I moved on to do the MSC.
I was struggling in a calculus class and told my advisor “my learning style and his teaching style are not compatible”. (Yes that is what I said.) I dropped the class. I remember what I said, because it came up later that year. I drove undergraduate students to a math conference and the calculus teacher, a white male, offered me a drink, but I opted for a sprite. We sat down with some of the undergrad students and the conversation turned to me dropping his class. Eventually he told me he would get another degree before I got my first degree and that I did not know but his wife was a big-time judge (paraphrased). I told my advisor and the chair and detailed the event, avoided him for the rest of my time, but never forgot how confident he was to say that to me. Ironically he was just one of about 6 white professors I had while at that HBCU, but this is probably the most well remembered interaction of those 3 years.
I felt, I was not competent in calculus, because he has a doctorate and he was the teacher and I could not understand him. I felt that he had the power to take away my opportunity for achievement and that I was powerless to stop him. Fortunately, Dr. Madhumi Mitra, my advisor, is a stand up professor and mentor and she supported me through that.
in 2012, Alma encouraged me to pursue my PhD, but the scholarship I was going for was not for PhD students. Noone had expected a Bahamian student to pursue a PhD in ecology. This came as a real surprise to me that a scholarship could be limited to the Masters level. Eric Carey, Hays Cummins and Casuarina McKinney reached out to Dr. Gerace who made sure I got the scholarship. Knowing that I was the first PhD student in the Bahamas to get this scholarship in pursuit of a PhD, still brings tears to my eyes not in the least because, it showed me that the Gerace Scholarship was really about educating Bahamian scientists. I was also immensely moved by the fact that all these local Bahamian leaders in science could reach out for me to get this opportunity and that I perhaps had opened the door for others.
In 2016, I found out that my scholarship was coming to an end and I had missed the extension deadline. I had also determined that I could not get enough buy in from the marine science community, including funding to complete a PhD project on marine resources at home, so I switched to Birds. I met with the head of my program, in an attempt to find possible support, funding etc. He told me the committee did not see me as successful. At that time, I was still the raisin in the rice as far as my department and program goes. So I thought of all that I had done, to represent the department and graduate students, to support my community on campus and in the Caribbean, and all of my conservation work, education and outreach, professional development and coursework. A group of scientists I had never met (I still do not know who that committee comprises) were deciding that none of what matters to me matters. His words, “We do not see you as being successful” still echo in my mind. Every damn day.
He did not lead with measures or comparisons, it was a “We” and “you” thing. He did not know of any of the difficulties I was going through. Students in our program never had an opportunity to meet all the students or leaders of our program and our program guide was still a google doc in progress. I asked him how my fellow students were doing in comparison and later found out that many of my closest friends in the program felt they were in a similar situation. At this point it felt more and more like a “me” thing. It still does. When I think of it, it distracts me, it holds me down and sucks my productivity out.
I felt, I was not competent , because he has a doctorate and he was the teacher and He did not see me as successful. I felt that he had the power to take away my opportunity for achievement and that I was powerless to stop him. Fortunately, Dr. Hays Cummins, my advisor, is a stand up professor and mentor and he supported me through that, I also got Dr. Jim Oris in my corner. (if this paragraph seems familiar, I cut and pasted it from above) There are ten years of experience, conservation work and success between these two events. But, instantly, I was returned to that same place of feeling like I do not belong and someone else gets to decide.
I am now following a different path as far as my interactions with the department, not volunteering for committees or additional work and using checklists to monitor my progress. Fill a box.
I am an imposter. I am pretending to be concerned with the scientific pursuit, the publications, and academic answers over my personal pursuit of progress and change in my community. But I am playing the part. I need to follow the schedule and submit my forms and make their progress. But when the time comes, I have to remember, I can step off the stage. I can always go back to being the community engaging, capacity building, local scientist/citizen/stakeholder, Bahamian and Person of Color.
If you have ever felt like this, reach out, comment, share.
for Kristen Wong‘s piece click below.