Today’s post is written by guest blogger, Elizabeth Smith, PhD, Field Client Support Specialist at Promega
As a person of color (POC), I would like to share my story to raise awareness on how important diversity programs are in my community and how they helped to shape my career. My hope is that it will inspire the younger generation and provide insight into a different perspective. Growing up, I always felt like there was something great out there for me to achieve. As a young child, never did I imagine that I would have what it takes to obtain a PhD. This was not on my radar as a young student, and not something that I thought would ever be in my future. I did not see people that looked like me reflected in this space, so I never considered it early on.
I knew that I wanted to go to college with a science focus, but I did not really explore what life would look like or should look like after that. What I was sure of was being involved in science in some way. Whenever, someone asked my younger self, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer would always be, “A Scientist!” All throughout elementary and high school, I focused on science related courses and did very well. This enabled me to apply for and receive a full undergraduate scholarship.
At this level of my education, I felt like I had to prove to everyone, and even myself, that I belonged here. That I was deserving of this scholarship and placement at the university. That I was good enough to receive a bachelors.
Was it hard? Absolutely! But I stayed determined by having something to prove and I thought, “I will have my dream job once I graduate”. At the beginning of my senior year, I started to apply for job openings in labs at various hospitals and universities. Up until this point, I have been told that our education is an essential cornerstone for securing a successful future. I thought that if I did well in school and received an undergraduate degree, then a successful future was immediately guaranteed. Boy was I wrong. I had the grades that would grant me a Bachelor’s, but I did not yet have experience needed to be a competitive candidate in the workforce.
One day, I came across my favorite genetics teacher in one of the university elevators. This moment changed the trajectory of my future. As we rode up, she asked me what I am doing after I graduate. I told her that I’ve been applying to various jobs with no luck. I explained that I always wanted to work in a lab but at this point I was not sure how to get there.
She mentioned that she co-directs a program, Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD), that enables students to gain lab experience in scientific research. It also encouraged students to pursue a PhD degree. I was a little apprehensive about exploring an advanced degree, but I was extremely excited about participating in research. Once I was accepted into the program, I loved every moment of it. Why didn’t I do this sooner? On top of providing insight into how research was conducted, there was something very special about this program. University professors served as mentors and graduate students shared their experience and provided advice and insight into graduate school life. This program not only offered access to these significant experiences but also a large support system. I shared this wealth of support with peers who looked like me and came from a similar background.
However, as I looked towards the future, I still felt a little hesitant about pursuing a PhD. I found this to be a common thought. Students that I viewed as absolutely brilliant also wondered if they had what it takes. What I found to be most important about this program is that it helped us to build our confidence. To the program coordinators, of course we were good enough. The environment was encouraging. I felt that if I had the opportunity to pursue a doctoral degree, I was obligated to do so. All I needed was more preparation.
After graduation I joined another diversity program, the Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program, PREP. Participants of this program were considered graduate students in training. Along with conducting research, we also participated in journal clubs, poster presentations, grant proposals, research committee meetings, seminars, and local conferences. With the experience and support I received from this diversity program, I applied to various PhD programs and was accepted into three.
Now that I started my pre-doctoral career, I was excited but once again overwhelmed by emotions of apprehension. I was accepted into this program… surely, I was good enough and had what it takes. Why did I still feel this way? The dreaded Imposter Syndrome… Oh, it had a name. The feeling of being in a position where one does not feel “good enough” even though they are well qualified. Again, I found this to be quite common. I pushed away the Imposter Syndrome, looking back on the support and network of people that believed in me and believed in my potential. I would not let them down. Throughout graduate school, I pressed on. I received a predoctoral grant, published articles, and presented at conferences. My predoctoral experience ended with me as class speaker during commencement, an honor that still amazes me.
Who was this person? Someone who had the potential all along, that second guessed herself and wondered if she was ever good enough. Through this experience, I concluded that I was and always have been. These diversity programs not only equipped me with the experiences and skills I needed, but they also provided a network of mentors and peers that helped me to find confidence that I did not know existed. They also taught me to aim higher and to not ever think that I’m not good enough. Something that I would not have found anywhere else. This is why diversity programs are so important. Now as an employee of Promega, I am more than excited to help build out Promega’s D.O.O.R.S. Scholarship to encourage diversity in science.
When I think about the question, “What does it mean to be good enough?” it is clear that it is a multifaceted question. Everyone has their own path. It may be very straight, or detailed with turns and twists and roundabouts. Whatever your path will be, being good enough to walk it, means knowing you have the potential to do so. Potential that is valued and appreciated. My hope is that all young minds will follow their ambitions and explore options that they never dreamed possible; for them to be the commencement speaker of their own story.
Elizabeth (Liz) Smith has her PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University School of Medicine. Her thesis research focused on using stem cell technology to bioengineer dental tissues. She is currently a Field Client Support Specialist at Promega Corporation, a biotech company headquartered in Madison, WI. Liz’s current role is to provide sales and technical support to current and prospective clinical and academic customers.
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