Did they choose my brain, my gender, or my race?

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, this blog post talks about having (and overcoming!) imposter syndrome. Isabel Rojas-Ferrer is a cognitive ecologist who was recently invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the Minister of Science of Canada. Learn how this experience changed her reasoning about imposter syndome.

During my second year of my master’s degree I started feeling undeserving of my position as a graduate student. At first it was during my classes, where I would think that I wasn’t up to par when compared to other students. It then extended to my teaching, where I felt I was failing my students by being incapable of explaining simple biological terms efficiently. Later, it started affecting my writing as everything I would write felt unintelligent and unoriginal. Finally, I had a mental break and ended having to seek counselling for my deteriorating mental health.

Cognitive ecologist Isabel Rojas-Ferrer

The verdict? Imposter syndrome, the idea that a person feels like a fraud or undeserving of all they have accomplished. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I felt that everyone looked, talked, and thought like me, so when I was accepted to start my graduate degree I felt deserving of that accomplishment since I was comparable to other Latinos who had applied. I’m saddened to say that the feeling did not last. I no longer viewed myself as comparable to others in my program. To me it was like comparing apples to mangoes. Was I no longer comparable to the other students because I was different from them in both race and gender? My imposter syndrome had now found a new outlet and I started believing that the only reason that I had been accepted into my graduate program was because I was a minority jackpot: a Caribbean American woman in the sciences. As a good friend once said: ‘Do I really deserve this, or is it being handed to me?

A while back I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the Minister of Science of Canada, the honorable Kirsty Duncan, to discuss the future generation of women in STEM  . Here I was surrounded by about 15 women from different topics in STEM: women studying volcanic reactions in Venus similar to that of Hawaiian volcanoes, stem cells and their link to the mitochondria, and turbines to generate renewable energy for years to come. To top it off, we had been called to commemorate the opening of the National Archive of Women Scientists in Canadian History at the library of the University of Ottawa. Essentially, I was surrounded by amazing women that have either made history or will surely do so in the future.

After the roundtable discussion I was constantly asked how I got chosen to participate in such a great event and I found myself unable to answer. The same questions kept plaguing me: why was I chosen to be part of this amazing discussion? Was my work truly up to par with these amazing scientists or was I just the only Caribbean woman in the biology department? Had I earned my place here or had my race and gender earned it?

I struggled with these thoughts for weeks, unable to talk openly talk about this once in a lifetime experience. I was so set on the idea that I had become a poster child for my race and gender that I became unable to appreciate the opportunity that I had been given. Once again, I had fallen into the hands of the imposter syndrome but added gender and race as contributing factor. Not only did I feel undeserving of participating in this discussion, but I felt that the only reason that I had been selected was because I was diverse enough to generate interest.

After days of rummaging through these thoughts I decided to play the devil’s advocate to my own reasoning. Yes, I was the only Caribbean woman participating in the roundtable, but I was not the only Latina. Yes, I may have been chosen because of my café au lait skin, but no one in that room was a cognitive ecologist. Yes, there are many superficial reasons as to why they could have chosen me, but I was also deserving to be at that table. Though there are many reasons that they could’ve chosen me, the reality is that I had come all the way from Puerto Rico to get my PhD from the University of Ottawa. From what I could tell, none of the other scientists in the room had done that. I concluded that it was probably my hard work that had been the deciding factor. Like most students, I have had to work hard to achieve my goals and though my race and gender could have been a contributing factor, there could’ve been many instances where my imposter syndrome, race and gender could have been my downfall.

Though imposter syndrome is prevalent in many students, those same students continue to prevail in their work despite deteriorating thoughts. More so, imposter syndrome can manifest itself differently based on each student’s background. In the case of minorities, individuals could feel like their achievements are purely a side-effect of their race, gender, or other, when that is not the case. All students have worked hard for their achievements and have proven their worth countless times during their lifetime. The fact that minorities have surpassed many odds just to be considered for something like a round-table discussion with the Minister of Science of Canada is evidence enough that they are not chosen for their race or gender, but because of their brains.


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