Having fun and overcoming the impostor syndrome at SPATIAL 2016


This past summer I had the privilege of attending the University of Utah’s Isotopes in Spatial Ecology and Biogeochemistry Short Course (SPATIAL), led by Dr. Gabriel Bowen (@bumbanian).  The previous summer I attended the University’s complementary isotope short course, IsoCamp (@stableisotopes), where I had an incredible experience, which I write about here. Thus, going in to SPATIAL I had extremely high expectations, and it surpassed them all.

SPATIAL was two weeks of hard work, challenges, battling the impostor syndrome – and winning, of isotopes, laughter, of improving as a scientist, an academic, and a person. I left SPATIAL refreshed, inspired, and ready to kick ass on my dissertation – despite the two weeks of SPATIAL also dealing me an unexpected death in my family, and not-yet-diagnosed Salmonella I had picked up from my recent field season, which landed me one evening in urgent care.

SPATIAL taught me a lot about spatial ecology and biogeochemistry, helped refine my dissertation methods, and expanded my network, as are the course’s primary objectives.  However, the most powerful impacts SPATIAL has had on my career are that it helped give me the confidence to overcome the impostor syndrome and reminded me to have fun with my work. SPATIAL serves as another motivating and refreshing academic experience that displays what academia can and should be like.

SPATIAL started out by presenting me with all of these things that I didn’t know, but it was clear from the start that it was okay that I didn’t know them. I wasn’t expected to, and I was never once made to feel like less than because I didn’t. Being part of a group of students from various backgrounds, expertise, ambitions, and being taught by the leaders in the field could have been incredibly intimidating, and yet in this atmosphere it was warmly welcoming. As a graduate student, not knowing enough, feeling behind, feeling like you’re not enough is so common – not here, not among this group. Yes you may feel overwhelmed at all the information, but regardless, at SPATIAL you are enough.

Each of the expert mentors (including post-docs, professors, industry and government professionals) are teaching at SPATIAL because they genuinely want to help you. Not only do they share their expertise, introduce you to new methods, and get you thinking about things you’ve never thought about before and now can’t miss (looking at you anthropogenic dust) –they want to bring each student out of their shell, get you talking, thinking critically, expanding and pulling a piece from their lessons that will help you and your science grow. They will take the time to talk with you, to answer your questions – no matter how trivial they seem to you. They will miss a coveted coffee break (gasp!) to brainstorm about your research, to help you improve your project and will introduce you to methods you didn’t think were possible, but happen to be the perfect fit for you dissertation. They are there to help you learn, and to learn from you. You are colleagues, a team. As a graduate student, feeling that mutual respect is incredibly inspiring. SPATIAL is a refreshing reminder of academic comradery. SPATIAL values each participant – each grad student, post-doc, academic, government and industry professional as a highly valued part of the network. A network that I am thankful to be part of, and look forward to giving back to as my career grows.

Standout moments & lessons from SPATIAL 2016:

Changing the internal conversation:

The whole first week of lab, nearly every day, I would have a mini-internal panic, the voice inside my head yelling, “You should know this, how do you not know this already?! Everybody else looks like they do! muhahahah” When I was finally able to quiet that down, and remind myself that 1. I’m not in competition with anyone here and 2. I’m here to learn, I’d ask for help. Each of the mentors were so patient and approachable, that by the end SPATIAL had quieted that negative voice in my head down, and instead replaced it with, “You can do this, it’s new to you – so ask for help and learn how to move forward”.

A particular instance of this I remember vividly was while working in a lab group for our weekly project where I was asked to be in charge of something that required exclusive use of R, a program I was a total novice at. I can still feel that deer in the headlights look about me as I tried to figure out how to say, “Sure! Except I have no idea what I’m doing?” without revealing my actual thoughts on it which were much more like, “Shitttttt. I have no idea what to do, can I even turn R on? Do you turn R on, do you turn R on? wtf?” Luckily for me, our project mentor, Clive Trueman (@clivetrue), noticed me trying to deal with my internal panic, and before I said anything, he offered to help get me started with it. Clive sat down with me, talked me through what I needed to do step by step at first, was patient with me (thank you!) and helped me through my initial frustrations. Little by little he took the training wheels off and just like that, by the end of that one daspatial-birdy in the lab I was writing and altering code myself and was able to successfully complete my part of the project. Damn that felt good. I will always remember and be grateful for the vote of confidence and zero judgement I received for not having done this skill before. Again, I was reminded that it’s okay to not know everything, to ask for help, and the importance of seeking out and finding good mentors. In the end, the resulting project is one of my favorites, this lovely bird is a picture from our group’s presentation.

“Make this better”- Dr. Jason West:

Jason West (@DrJBWest) started off one of his talks with a slide that had, “make this better” written across it – a reminder to himself that he had missed when finalizing his presentation. We all got a good laugh out of this. I particularly appreciated this, because it was a reminder that there is always room for improvement (even when you’re the expert), and when you make a mistake –laugh about it, learn from it, and move on.

The best advice – have fun:

At the final banquet I was sitting next to Gabe and I took the opportunity to ask him a question I like to ask successful PhDs – “What is the best advice you got as a graduate student?” Gabe sat and thought about it for a moment, and responded with something along the lines of, “Find something you like doing that you have fun with”. Then he looked at me and said, “That was probably not the answer you were hoping for.” To date, it is the most refreshing answer I’ve gotten to that question. What a novel idea?! Not really, of course, but so often as graduate students so much focus is on the negatives of grad school, on the toughing it out, the dealing with it. I was so thrilled that his response was the anti-thesis to that. Grad school should be challenging, your work should be challenging – but it should be fun. It’s clear that Gabe took this advice to heart himself, and passes it on to students he teaches. There is a heavy dose of work hard-play hard at SPATIAL, and even through the long days of lecture and lab we were always having fun, laughing, and enjoying the work.  You guys, science is fun! It is supposed to be fun, and grad school should be too!

Science is a team sport, choose your team wisely:

Rebecaa Barnes (@waterbarnes) reminded us that science is a team sport and you get to choose your team, so don’t work with people that don’t make you happy. I repeat: don’t work with people who don’t make you happy. Choose who you work with wisely. Excellent advice for all stages of your career. Thank you for the reminder, Rebecca.

Rebecca also introduced us to the Earth Science Women’s Network (@ESWNtweets), an awesome network full of resources for, you guessed it, women in the earth sciences.

Another SPATIAL plus: several kick ass women mentors!

It gives me hope.   

SPATIAL offered another academic experience, where as a graduate student, I felt 100% respected, appreciated and encouraged. SPATIAL echoed IsoCamp’s emphasis on collaboration, on working together to building one another up and helping one another succeed – even if you’re competing against one another for grants and job applications. Work together, succeed together, build up your network, be present in it, and give back.  I am so thankful to be part of this network and for the positive example it sets for academia. It encourages me and gives me hope.

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