Are scientists born or nurtured?
Considering that men predominately hold STEM careers, arguments have been made that women aren’t inherently suited for science. Regardless of where you stand on this topic, this sex gap can partially be attributed to pervasive gender stereotypes in the sciences, specifically what it means to be a “scientist.”
I attribute my early life relationship with science to gender bias. Growing up, I remember loving science programs and toys, but I never considered it for a career. In fact, I avoided participating in science activities throughout school for fear of failure. And the more aware I became of what it meant to be a “scientist,” the more alienated I felt.
Contrastingly, writing, a more decidedly “feminine” pursuit, was where I felt at ease. And consequently, I focused my attention on the humanities as a student. This led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in media, with a dream of doing music industry research in the UK. I still flirted with science, though, by adding a second major, psychology, to my workload. But psychology was my “fun” major. Namely, I was interested in learning about people, disorders, and the brain, but in the “safe” environment of having it be my “second major.”
Nonetheless, despite my “fear” of science, I graduated with a 4.0 GPA in both media and psychology at Penn State, which got me into a great communications graduate program abroad. I loved living abroad; I’ve considered doing it again. But despite it being a positive experience, I was unfulfilled with the research that I was doing. I longed to do research that positively impacted people, much like my dad, who had a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry. My dad had worked as both a senior industry scientist developing pharmaceuticals and as a pharmacist. I wanted to benefit others the way he had.
At this crossroads, I changed my research direction by applying to PhD programs in health communications in the US. My plan was to relate my background in media and psychology to public health. It seemed like an obvious transition. But despite interviews with Cornell and Michigan State, I was rejected from every school where I applied. Additionally, on the day that I received my final rejection letter, I witnessed my dad dying of an unexpected heart attack while we were shoveling snow. To clarify, my dad wasn’t aware of my rejection letters when he passed and died believing that I was following in his footsteps. Looking back on this, I’m not sure how I could continue functioning as a productive adult. But somehow, the experience helped me thrive.
With nothing to lose, I decided to pursue a Master of Science in psychology. I had always been fascinated by the brain, despite shying away from science. Over the years, I tentatively developed the desire to study the neurobiology of eating disorders. My interest in eating disorders stemmed from being a former figure skater. I was interested in how some individuals developed eating problems while others didn’t. Additionally, during my undergraduate media studies, I became frustrated with the argument that eating disorders resulted from a culture of thinness. While this is partially true, I wanted to understand these disorders from a biological perspective and enlighten the public about their complexity. This career ambition wasn’t something that I readily shared, though. How could I study neurobiology without a science background?
But I was willing to try.
Taking neuroscience courses as a graduate student has been very challenging and, at times, embarrassing. For example, after getting a low C on my first neuroscience exam, I set up a meeting to talk with faculty about switching my degree to counseling. My grade seemed to confirm that I wasn’t a scientist. But I thought about my dad and how proud he would be of me, and I reasoned that all I could do was try. Plus, I had earned a tuition-free scholarship, and I couldn’t give that up.
So, that first semester, I attended office hours with my neuroscience professor every week, sometimes for two hours at a time, and I got an A in the course. In my second semester, I joined one of the few biology-based labs in the program, a pharmacology lab that used serotonin and dopamine deficient mice to study behavior. This experience was symbolic for me, as my dad had worked in pharmaceuticals. It was rough, though. I had zero lab experience, no chemistry knowledge, and had never handled rodents. I fumbled over measurement conversions (I still do) and other basics that the undergrads did easily. Nonetheless, with a lot of humility and perseverance, I completed my thesis on the brain and behavioral effects of fluoxetine on binge eating in serotonin deficient mice in two years.
After earning an MS in psychology, am I a scientist? I didn’t feel like one after going through another cycle of PhD rejections, this time for neuroscience. I was tired. I’d worked too hard to give up, though, and focused on bolstering my CV. I volunteered in an eating disorders lab at Temple and proactively contacted potential advisors. This third round of applications stuck, and I am currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Purdue, focusing on the neurobiology of eating disorders.
As a PhD candidate in a STEM field, am I a scientist? Occasionally I still have significant moments of imposter syndrome. Although, my perception of a scientist is changing.
I’ve realized that science is a messy, mistake-laden series of fields. The expectation is to follow perfectly laid out steps and complicated calculations, but we try, fumble, and try again. We improvise and problem-solve and often have no idea what we’re doing. Even more importantly, I’ve realized that the atmosphere of exclusivity and masculinity that enshrouds the scientific community is unnecessary. We need to communicate these misconceptions about what it means to be a scientist to the public to increase accessibility and diversity in science. By shattering the stereotype of what it means to be a scientist, we have the potential to broaden contributions in scientific enterprise while increasing the trust of science skeptics.
My advice for those who enjoy science but have avoided it because it “wasn’t their place”:
Looking towards the future, finding a career that highlights my diverse skillset is challenging. However, carving out new spaces for scientific enterprise is one way to update what it means to be a scientist. I hope that you, too, will be inspired to follow your curiosity down new paths, undeterred by failure but emboldened by discovery.