Me, an expert? Surely not. 

On Friday, Chris Gunter and I sub­mit­ted a pro­posal for a ses­sion at the Science Communication Conference (SCC) organ­ised by the British Science Association (BSA). This con­fer­ence is very dear to my heart, as it was pivotal to the sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion side of my career. The back­story of this is closely linked to the topic of this blog post: The import­ance of cheer­lead­ers for young sci­ent­ists (and prob­ably young pro­fes­sion­als every­where): People who give you a push and tell you to go for it it when you think you are not good enough.

Every year the BSA award a num­ber of bursar­ies for regis­tra­tion, accom­mod­a­tion and travel to research­ers (PhD stu­dents and estab­lished ones) to allow them to attend the con­fer­ence. Three years ago I saw the call for applic­a­tions and although I thought it looked amaz­ing, I didn’t even con­sider apply­ing because I’d never get it. Two years ago I saw it again and con­sidered apply­ing for a mil­li­second, but decided against it. No point any­way! My boss Chris Hawes, who had for­war­ded it to me too, encour­aged me to go for it. Guess what happened? I got the bursary! I was over the moon when I read the email because I was so excited. But it was also an import­ant addi­tion for my CV, because it showed that my engage­ment activ­it­ies were good enough to be acknow­ledged in this way.

So I went to the con­fer­ence, was over­whelmed by the amount of people I met who had the same interests and pas­sion for pub­lic engage­ment, soaked up ALL the inform­a­tion and came home with a big net­work of new con­tacts, many of which I am still in touch with. Last year I atten­ded again, but this time in my new role as Research and Science Communication Fellow. I sat in the ses­sions, soaked up inform­a­tion, felt inspired by all speak­ers and thought: ‘When I grow up, I want to be a speaker at this conference.’

This year, I received a call for pro­pos­als for the SCC 2013. I had a quick look at it and then deleted it because there was no way I would be enough expert to run a ses­sion at the con­fer­ence. Then I got an email from Chris. We share our pas­sion for mak­ing sci­ence more access­ible and wrote a piece together last year. Our email con­ver­sa­tion was as fol­lows (in an abridged version):

Chris: “Hi! Would you like to sub­mit a joint pro­posal for SCC ?“
Me: “Hi! I thought about it, but I aban­doned the thought because I am not expert enough. *cough* Imposter Syndrome *cough*“
Chris: “[American Pep Talk] You can do it!”

So we wrote a pro­posal and sub­mit­ted it, and because I am in the UK we thought it’d be bet­ter to put me down as ses­sion organ­iser. BOOM! I guess that means I am grown up now? Our pro­posal might be accep­ted or not, and if not we’ll think of some­thing dif­fer­ent. But the import­ant point is that from now on I’ll have the con­fid­ence to sub­mit more pro­pos­als for sim­ilar things.

This isn’t the only example of the import­ance of cheer­lead­ers for my career. Looking back, there are so many situ­ations where a com­ment or encour­age­ment by a col­league, mentor or col­lab­or­ator had such a pro­found effect on how I viewed myself as researcher or on my decision to ‘go for some­thing’. Sometimes it is almost like a chain reac­tion in which one small thing leads to another one and another one, and all taken together they had a huge pos­it­ive effect.

I also think it is import­ant to remem­ber this once we pro­gressed in our career, and offer a sim­ilar sup­port to our stu­dents. For example, I was help­ing with a prac­tical at the Gatsby Plant Summer School a couple of years ago, and Lorenzo Frigerio intro­duced me to the stu­dents as ‘one of the world’s experts on the plant Golgi appar­atus’. I laughed and rolled my eyes at this state­ment — what an exag­ger­a­tion? Then I thought about it and real­ised that what he said was true. There are only a small num­ber of research groups in the world study­ing the plant Golgi, and hav­ing obtained my PhD in this sub­ject area indeed made my one of the world’s experts. I still remem­ber how I felt  that moment. A few weeks ago one of our PhD stu­dents described in our lab­meet­ing the time-​​consuming and tech­nic­ally advanced meth­ods she had been doing over the past weeks. I said to her that this would make her — maybe the only — world expert in her sub­ject using these meth­ods. She first laughed and then real­ised that I was right. She had never thought about it that way. If you are read­ing this and are just doing a PhD: You yes, YOU! — are one of the world’s experts in your sub­ject area. Think about it!



You aren’t the only one who feels that way

There are a lot of art­icles and con­fes­sions about ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and how widely spread it is amongst research­ers, espe­cially younger ones (I like Athene Donald’s art­icle about it). When I was a PhD stu­dent and post-​​doc, I con­stantly com­pared my work and achieve­ments with oth­ers — but usu­ally with people who were sev­eral years ahead of me in their careers! Yes, I sat in con­fer­ences and listened to talks of group lead­ers, sum­mar­ising years of work of dozens of their group mem­bers, think­ing: ‘Compared to this, my work is rub­bish! I am a crap sci­ent­ist, I should bet­ter quit right now!’ Realising that I was com­par­ing my work and myself to the selec­ted high­lights of other research­ers took a while but was vital. I think because  of the incred­ible com­pet­it­ive­ness in research there is a lot of pres­sure to be ‘excel­lent’, ‘ded­ic­ated at all times’, ‘bril­liant’, ‘pas­sion­ate’ and a lot of other things which don’t go well with ‘insec­ure’, ‘self-​​doubting’, ‘strug­gling’, ‘bored of this’ or ‘feel­ing like I don’t have a clue about what I am sup­posed to do’. This means that we mostly get to see a shiny pol­ished sur­face rather than the cracks. A year ago I prob­ably would have been too scared to admit such things in a blog post because I’d been afraid that it maybe could affect my employ­ment or chances to suc­ceed in sci­ence! *gasp*

The reason we struggle with insecurity... -Steve Furtick [600 x 342] - Imgur

This is why I think that things such as the meme #overly­hon­est­meth­ods (a satir­ical hashtag about how sci­ence might have really been done) are so import­ant. It is debat­able how many of them truly happened this way. The major­ity of them are likely to exag­ger­ate and sat­ir­ise the truth or make a joke about some­thing we might have been temp­ted to do but never did in real­ity.  Many of them how­ever do reflect the early stages in a degree or PhD pro­ject when we are still learn­ing to ‘walk sci­en­tific­ally’. They also show us that it’s not only just us and in fact there were sev­eral people tweet­ing ‘I am so glad I am not the only one’. We touched this notion at the ‘Stories behind the Research’ ses­sion at the SpotOn con­fer­ence 2012. A sum­mary and links to videos and other resources can be found here and Eva Amsen, the ses­sion organ­iser, blogs about #overly­hon­est­meth­ods here. Researchers are not robots but human beings, and an audi­ence mem­ber com­men­ted how maybe she wouldn’t have left the lab if she had heard stor­ies of people going through the same like she did.

We have to acquire know­ledge of all these things, like how to do an exper­i­ment cor­rectly, per­form a cer­tain tech­nique, know­ing which parts of a pro­tocol are cru­cial and which aren’t, in a long and often pain­ful pro­cess. Most PhD stu­dents look back after they sub­mit­ted their thesis and say: “Gosh, why has this taken me sev­eral years? I could have done this in a few months.” In a PhD pro­ject, the jour­ney truly is the goal. At the end of this long train­ing pro­cess you will know what makes sci­ence good, reli­able and pub­lish­able. Nobody is born with the know­ledge of how long a lig­a­tion should be car­ried out for or how many samples make a valid data set. Most PhD stu­dents (in my field) will spend at least couple of years on research until their tech­nical skills and their data start to come together and are good enough for pub­lic­a­tion. Everyone has to learn the tech­nical skills and jar­gon of a par­tic­u­lar dis­cip­line and the path there is riddled with bloopers.


Everybody needs some­body to tell them when they are being too hard on them­selves, or when they are not hav­ing enough con­fid­ence to do some­thing which they are per­fectly cap­able to do. Make sure to find your own cheer­lead­ers, no mat­ter if they are your super­visors, col­leagues, friends or ‘people on the inter­net’. Cheerlead oth­ers and if you are at a more advanced point in your career, remem­ber the times when you just star­ted your degree or your PhD.

Put it on your wall or stitch it on a pil­low: Struggling with a method or a paper doesn’t make you a bad sci­ent­ist. Are you pas­sion­ate about your work, eager to learn, curi­ous, cre­at­ive and per­sever­ing? You’ll learn the tech­nical bits and all the rest on your way, like all the oth­ers before you have.


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