This post is a little bit different. I want to share a short version of my personal journey to where I am today with the hopes of inspiring others to go after what they truly want. Even if you don’t want to go into science, hopefully this post will still help you.
I tried to make it as short as possible, so I appreciate the read!
This is not a “work hard, and you’ll achieve your goals” story.
This is a story about how hard work isn’t the only factor in the equation to get where you want to be and how the journey is more important than the final destination.
You probably already know, but I am finishing up my fourth year of graduate school. A Ph.D. typically takes between 4 and 6 years, depending on how “productive” you are. It’s honestly hard for me to believe that I’ve made it this far. I’m hoping to graduate in a year, so long as COVID-19 doesn’t hinder me too much.
When I look at where I am at and where I might be going, I think to myself, “how did I get here?” Then the natural question that comes afterward is, “what am I going to do with my life?”
I don’t want to be a traditional scientist. I want to communicate to others that they can think scientifically without being a scientist.
Not because I have a hidden agenda, or because I’m “a liberal.” But because approaching things using critical thinking can improve your life.
How did I get here?
Growing up, I don’t ever remember being too interested in school, let alone math or science.
I explicitly remember my math teacher, Mr. Mac, calling me out in front of all of my friends for failing my math test in the fourth grade. He was strict but also caring. “I know you can do better than this,” he told me.
I was super embarrassed, and after that point, I cared a little bit more about my grades moving forward. Avoiding another instance like that is what motivated me! At the time, I never understood how influential teachers were or could be.
I ended up attending two different high schools in two different states – my first year and half were at a high school in West Virginia, where I grew up. I remember my first science class where I received my first periodic table (which I still have, btw). The class was just an overview of the physical sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics.
I remember falling in love with chemistry immediately. My favorite assignment was balancing chemical reactions. No one at the time was telling me to pursue science. I just liked it. I enjoyed the sense of completion when all atoms on each side of the reaction were equal.
The last two and a half years of high school were in Florida. When I got to Florida, I was 15 years old. All the new friends I made were taking AP classes and thinking about what college they wanted to attend, something that was foreign to me as “the new girl.”
I ended up taking an honors-level chemistry class followed by an AP chemistry class. Everyone warned me not to take AP chemistry because it was too hard, but I liked learning it so I figured it couldn’t be too bad. Why not?
My parents never pushed me to do one thing over another, and they never had to tell me to do my homework. I just saw it as something that I needed to do for myself – maybe to prove myself to myself.
When it came time to start looking for colleges, I knew that I wanted to go far but not too far. I chose the University of North Florida (UNF), in Jacksonville.
I loved my time in Jax. I discovered the gym during my college years, and I also met my husband in one of my classes.
Majoring in chemistry was a no-brainer for me. I chose chemistry because that’s the only thing I knew. I didn’t know what else was really out there at the time. I wasn’t thinking in terms of careers. I was thinking in terms of what I can do right now. Granted, everyone would say “Oh yeah, finding a job in chemistry is easy and with good pay.” (Yeah, sure…)
During my major, I loved every minute of every class, until I got to Organic Chemistry II…
This class made me question my entire existence. I did well in Orgo I, so why was Orgo II so complicated? I didn’t understand how to study for that class. Naturally, when you do poorly in a class, you start disliking the subject entirely. Maybe I shouldn’t be a chemistry major? Maybe I should change my degree path? Either way, this is NOT FOR ME.
But… I’m not a quitter. I stuck it out, and I barely passed the class. “I’ll do better next semester. At least I’m done with orgo.” were my thoughts.
The next semester, I took Physical Chemistry I. I nearly failed the first test. “Not again, I cannot do poorly in yet another class.” So, I studied my BUTT OFF for the next test. Turns out, I got the highest grade in the class. My professor found me in the hall and congratulated me.
After that point, I had a reignited desire to study chemistry. The more I studied, physical chemistry opened my eyes to why we know what we know about chemical reactions, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, you name it. I was psyched, and everyone started calling me a nerd. I loved it.
I needed to know more. I craved the knowledge. I was jealous that my professors had their doctorate degrees, and I only had my bachelor’s. I needed more! I picked up a few more classes and ended up finishing with my bachelor’s in chemistry and a minor in physics.
I really had no idea what I wanted to do for a job, or even what the options were, so the natural path was to do more school. “A Ph.D. will land me a good job, and for now, more school and learning will keep me happy.” With the help of my professors, I got admitted to the University of Florida in Gainesville.
What am I going to do with my life?
I spent a little bit of time in a research laboratory during undergrad to get my feet wet, but I ultimately had no clue what kind of research I wanted to do in grad school.
When you get to grad school, one of the first things you do is pick a research lab. I was tentative because I knew that this decision would affect my life for the next 4 to 6 years.
What did I want to study? What did I want to know the answers to?
I ultimately chose a polymer lab because it was a happy medium. The boss was nice, the group members were cool, and they had a sign up that said, “No stupid people allowed beyond this point.”
I was sold. I joined a physical polymer laboratory where I still do my research today!
Learning how to do chemical research in something you know absolutely nothing about is HARD. I am qualified in physical chemistry, but my research is highly synthetically involved. These two fields don’t always overlap nicely. I had to learn… *gasp* …organic chemistry techniques. Remember? The class I almost failed in undergrad!?
Now isn’t that ironic? The class I did the worst in is what I use the most in my research! To clear things up, to make polymers, you have to know a minimum amount of organic chemistry. And trust me, I knew the absolute minimum amount.
When you start research in a chemistry lab (as I’m sure with any field), the learning curve is HUGE. It’s like going to a foreign country where you don’t know the language but you know some words. Eventually, if you spend enough time in the country, you can start to pick up more and more and even become fluent in the language, as you adapt to the culture.
Grad school was this way for me, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people. Fast forward to my second year… I was doing seemingly well on the outside – excelling in classes, passing my cumulative exams, getting reactions done – but on the inside, I began to question my life in major ways.
Do I even like what I’m doing? I’m not passionate about this research. I am stuck here for another 4 years. I’m not cut out to be a Ph.D.
Fun fact: I struggled with confidence for a lot of my life. I got into the gym in college primarily because I was deathly afraid of gaining the “freshman fifteen,” and I had the lowest opinion of my appearance out of anyone I knew. My body image issues spilled over into other areas of my life – like my abilities as a scientist. I suffered from imposter fears (or syndrome) often.
I didn’t like failure, and none of my reactions were working at this time. A chemist doesn’t just put A and B together and get C. You form many different impurities, and getting a pure product can be difficult. Going to the lab everyday and hard work ending in failure after failure is mentally taxing, especially when you’re struggling with poor self-esteem on top of all this.
My second year of graduate school was when my poor self-esteem peaked at its worst.
I was depressed.
Despite this, I had the same mindset at this time as when I nearly failed Orgo II. I stuck it out. I’m the type of person to put my head down and do the work, regardless of whether or not I’m happy. I will admit to sacrificing my mental health too many times, but it wasn’t a part of who I was to quit.
Even though I got up every single day and went to a place where I wasn’t happy, I kept pursuing it.
At this time, I really started going hard in the gym. This was my mental escape – my happy place. At times, I put the gym in front of my lab work. I needed something that I could control, and lifting weights was that thing for me.
The gym was a huge confidence booster for me. You could almost say that it was my saving grace. I started figuring out how to build muscle, and it was addicting. I discovered a confidence like never before, all because of the gym.
This confidence started to overcome my poor self-image issues, and it spilled over into my abilities, the other way around this time. That, coupled with passing my qualifying exams and getting my candidacy, helped me to continue to where I have been for about the past year. It turns out that hard work isn’t the only part of the equation. You need a little bit of confidence to keep your momentum. You really do have to cheer yourself on.
My confidence allowed me to start a brand that had the purpose of inspiring others to achieve their goals, which were initially fitness-based goals. I got tired of seeing so much bad advice out there based on nonsense. I wanted to be a reliable source of information that people could refer to. As my following grew and I started spending more time on social media platforms, I started to recognize more and more misinformation being spread by people who really had no expertise in anything.
At some point, I thought to myself, “this is a big problem!” It’s really not a new problem, either. People study this! That’s how I learned about science communication. I had no idea it was even a thing six months ago, and now it’s all I can think about.
I really want to dedicate my life to communicating how to critically think and think skeptically. It has changed my perspective on life. This is the first time ever where I’ve really been sure that this is what I want to do.
Again, I question myself… Am I doing the right thing here? Has my Ph.D. all been just a big waste of time? You don’t even need a Ph.D. to do science communication. All my hard work didn’t even get me to where I want to be, so what’s the point?
Self-doubt creeping in again?! Of course I haven’t wasted my time. My specific path led me to where I am now. I am so thankful to be where I am now, and my perspective is so different than it was. No one can take away my confidence. I stand up for myself. I speak up when something isn’t right. I know that I’m smart. I don’t need to hear that from anyone but me.
Do I still get tired of going to a lab day in and day out? YES. But, grad school has been a real life-changer for me, and I’m happy with the fact that I won’t end up in a traditional career. To be honest, I don’t think that I’ve had any real successes yet. However, what really fuels me is purpose and passion – two things that I have a LOT of.
They say your Ph.D. becomes a part of you, and I never understood this until it happened. I have no idea when it actually happened. I didn’t wake up one day and go, “Ahhh I’m all of a sudden a true academic now – must critically evaluate everything.” I just remember a time when it wasn’t there, and now it is.
I started identifying as a scientist. Not only do I do research in a lab, but I investigate everything with a skeptical eye, ad nauseum (it’s annoying a lot of the times *eyeroll*). Even when I leave a research setting, this is something that I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
While most agree that scientific discovery is a good thing, some folks simply don’t trust the scientific process (for many, complex reasons). Both the general public and science community can do better by talking to one another with the common goal of moving forward, not backward. If I can have any say in this, I will!
Is all of this to say that you need to go get your Ph.D. too?
OF COURSE NOT! Thinking scientifically is not just up to the scientists. Being a scientist clearly takes specialized training, but thinking scientifically is something that we can all do. Without our differing viewpoints and opinions, society would never proceed forward.
So here I am, writing this blog in the middle of a crazy pandemic, and here you are reading this blog, in the middle of a crazy pandemic (or maybe it’s years later, and we are all back to normal again, I hope!).
Either way, I hope that you realize each person’s journey is different. I don’t want you to compare yours to mine or think that you need to do one thing over the other to be successful. None of my supposed successes were accomplished alone.
What kept me going (and still keeps me going) during times of struggle and despair?
I have an extremely supportive group of family and friends, and my husband has always been my #1 fan. I also relied on blind faith in Jesus. He has a lot of supportive and helpful things to say when life gets hard, like, REALLY hard. Yup, I’m a scientist who believes in God… @ me.
If there’s anything that I would like for you to take away from this little autobiography, it’s this:
We all doubt ourselves sometimes, but never, ever give up on something just because you think that you aren’t good enough for it. It took me until I was a Ph.D. Candidate in chemistry to have any faith at all in myself. Looking back, my only regret is not believing in my abilities sooner.
Every time I begin doubting myself again, I look at how far I’ve come. Even though I’m not where I want to be just yet, I recognize that I’m a work in progress. And that is okay! Are you a work in progress?
Wherever you are at on your journey, make sure you enjoy it. To quote Miley Cyrus, it “Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.”
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