Today (and every day) I'm thankful for that time I attended the 2013 Fall American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in Indianapolis as a WCC / Eli Lilly Travel Award winner.
When I won the travel award, I was very excited, but I also felt like an impostor. I had never expected to win the award when I applied for it: I applied more out of a sense that I should start taking advantage of every opportunity that I could out of principle, and at least I would get some experience applying for travel awards.
At the awardee breakfast, I felt like even more of an impostor. All of the other students seemed to be in their third or fourth year (a perfectly appropriate time to be giving their first presentation at a national meeting), and well on their way toward wrapping up their projects and graduating. Here I was, in my eighth year, and only now presenting my work at a national meeting, and my project was still woefully incomplete. I felt like that I had fooled everyone, had cheated some more deserving student out of the travel award, and that at any moment one of the friendly, talented, and successful WCC members at the table might suddenly realize I didn’t belong and snatch my WCC pin away from me and go look for that more deserving student to give it to.
When Judy Cohen joyfully told us, “This award will change your life!” I thought, "Maybe for these other students. But not for me. I’m just an impostor."
When I attended the “24th Anniversary of the WCC/Eli Lilly Travel Award” symposium later that morning, I couldn’t really see myself being as successful as any of the travel award alums, and that I certainly wouldn’t be invited back to talk in another 24 years about what I’d be doing, probably because I would still be working on the same unsuccessful PhD project at that point. But as the talks went on, the speakers started making comments that suggested that maybe they weren’t so different from me after all. Margaret Chu-Moyer talked about how the first time she tried a total synthesis, it worked, but after that the yield gradually dropped to zero. Malika Jefferies-El said that “the fourth year is a dark period of one’s career,” and that during her travel award experience at ACS she found herself “smiling for perhaps the first time in five years.” And I had never heard anyone speak as candidly and specifically about what it’s like to live as a scientist as Mindy Levine did.
That afternoon, as I attended talks and visited the Expo, strangers started coming up to me and asking about the travel award ribbon on my badge. Distinguished scientists asked me about my work, and they were actually interested. Some offered useful practical advice, and many asked me for my card and gave me theirs, and really did want me to report back on how my project turned out.
The next day, at the travel award poster session, the very same amazingly talented and successful travel award alums I had seen the previous day came to visit my poster and ask about my work. They listened with great interest, even those with chemistry expertise well outside biochemistry. My new hero, Mindy Levine, told me, “That project sounds really hard,” and for the first time I entertained the possibility that perhaps my project’s lack of “success” wasn’t simply due to insufficient effort or talent on my part.
After the WCC luncheon, Amber Charlebois came up to me and asked me what I planned to do after graduation, whether I was interested in research or teaching or what. I started to stammer out my usual answer about feeling like I wasn’t very good at doing research and that I might be happier doing something I was better at.
And then the most amazing thing happened. She said, “Come and visit me at Fairleigh Dickinson. You’ll give the chemistry seminar, and you can put that on your CV. You’ll follow me around for the day, and you’ll see what it’s like to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution, and whether you think that’s for you. The department can’t reimburse your travel, and can’t put you up in a hotel, but you can stay at my house. That way you’ll get the whole experience of what it’s like to be a professor, at school and at home.”
I had just become an invited speaker for a seminar series at a university.
My confidence continued to grow as the meeting went on. I felt more comfortable asking questions at seminars, and going up and introducing myself to interesting people. I started to feel like I really did belong there, that I wasn’t an impostor after all. By the last day of the meeting, I found myself walking around the convention center with a giant, ear-to-ear smile the entire day, I loved chemistry so much.
When I was told over breakfast that winning this travel award would change my life, I was skeptical, but the fact is that I left the meeting feeling more confident, excited about chemistry, and energized about my work than ever before. In the weeks and months following the ACS meeting, when I saw opportunities, such as a job posting, writing opportunity, or other awards, my first thought was still, "Those opportunities are for other people, not impostors like me," but now I had the confidence to catch myself and say, "No, I am a WCC / Eli Lilly Travel Award winner: I’m smart, I work hard, and I deserve to give that opportunity a chance."
And winning the WCC / Eli Lilly Travel Award changed my life in one more important way: it was at that ACS meeting that I interviewed for a job with FDA, my dream employer. If it weren't for the award, I wouldn't have been in Indianapolis, and I wouldn't have interviewed, and I wouldn't have my job today.
The WCC / Eli Lilly Award really did change my life, and I am thankful.