How listening to the universe can help quiet your self-doubt
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
MICHELLE THALLER: I often get questions about what it's like being a woman in science, which has traditionally been a field dominated by men. And the interesting thing is the complexity of that to me because I grew up in the 1980s. I went to college in the 1990s. And that certainly was after the era, at least for the most part, where women were just told point blank, you shouldn't be here. You can't be a scientist. You don't belong here. That never happened to me. I never had anybody say to my face, in terms of a teacher, you're not welcome here. You don't belong here. And, in fact, when I was in college, some of the highest-performing students in my physics classes were women. They were certainly in the minority in terms of numbers. There were fewer of them in class compared to men, But they were doing very well. One of the things that's most surprising to me, and I've talked to a lot of my women colleagues about this is that I really didn't expect some of the biggest barriers to come from inside myself.
From the very start of my scientific career, and I'm talking about undergraduate, being a physics major. I grappled with almost crippling self-doubt. It was really hard to get myself into the class. I mean sometimes, I actually had to work myself up into a character. I'd sort of stand outside a classroom and think about how a physics student should feel or how they should behave. I felt very deeply that I didn't belong there, but that was coming from me. That didn't seem to be coming from anything external. Through most of my career in science-- and I'm talking about my education-- I was too scared to ask a single question. I spent my entire undergraduate and most of my graduate classes in the back of the class terrified. I was copying the notes. The teacher was deriving something on the blackboard. I was copying it down, but it could have been in a foreign language. I didn't understand it. And I was so embarrassed to admit that I was that lost and that far behind. I spent my entire scientific education being scared. And I look back and I think, why? It turns out-- I now have a doctorate in physics-- I can learn that. I can do physics. I can be successful at that. I'm not an idiot. So why was I so crippled and held back by my own fear and by my own shame at how I wasn't understanding this very quickly.
I've heard people use the term imposter syndrome. That for some reason, you're absolutely sure you don't belong here, and, in fact, you must have fooled people into letting you be here. I've had it pointed out that if you can pass comprehensive exams in physics, which I have, it probably means you belong here, probably means you learned the material. But it never felt that way. It always felt like maybe I had sort of pulled the wool over people's eyes, or I shouldn't be here and I've fooled people into thinking I belong here. And there was this sense of shame. And I'm going to admit this to you, I still feel that today. I feel that every single day I go to NASA, and I'm with these brilliant people all around me.
Every single day, I still feel like I don't belong, and it's been some kind of mistake that they let me in. Imagine your whole career being like that. Never feeling like you belong, and I'm not saying this is something that only happens to women. I'm sure this happens to men, too. But I've had to ask myself, why? It's true that society as a whole gives you lots of very subtle messages that you don't belong. As a woman, it's remarkable that you're a scientist. And why is it difficult being a woman in science? Even those questions begin to put you apart as something different. And there's all of these tiny little messages that you're not right. My wonderful, gifted, and talented counselor in high school I loved said, but you don't have a scientist personality. You can't be a scientist. You're not that cold, logical person. Everything about me has been wrong and been defined as being wrong since I was a child. And I internalized that, and I have not found a way to get beyond it. The thing that has sustained me, of course, is that I have some wonderful colleagues. Some of them are women. Many of them are men.
The first person that really encouraged me was my research advisor in college. Shout out to David Latham, who saw this very scared, nervous girl who loved astronomy. And he took me under his wing, and he said, you can be an astronomer. There's nothing magical about it. You don't have to be brilliant. There's not a specific personality you have to have. If you love astronomy, you can do this. He was absolutely right. I do need encouragement. I do need people to say, we're happy to have you in our group. We're glad you're here. I wish I didn't need that encouragement, but I do. That really, really helps me. You may not realize the people around you are struggling with that self-doubt, almost that self-sabotage, that they just sort of want to run away at any time. But if I'm experiencing it, I think it's a good chance the people around you are as well. Take some time to appreciate each other.
Take some time to take care of each other. And think about what it's like to be a woman in general. I often give people this example, picture yourself in a world where the roles were reversed. Where every person who walked on the moon was a woman. Where every president of the United States was a woman. Where every major religious figure, and philosopher, and artist, and musician, and all the top chefs, and all the authors, they were all women. And, yeah, OK, there's an occasional man here and there. We call them out, and encourage them, and make examples of them. But you're in this whole world where the right way to be is to be a woman. And a lot of people, I think, need to put themselves in that and really think about, what is like being told subtly that everything about you is wrong? And somehow less from the moment you're born. The universe has inspired me since I was a child. This was nothing faked. I wanted to look at the stars when I was a little kid. As soon as I could walk, my mom would find me out there trying to look at the stars.
The universe picks people to be fascinated by it. It can be any gender, or ethnic group, or socioeconomic group. I've met people from so many different walks of life who love stars, and they can't even tell you why. That's my tribe. I belong to a group of people that, for some reason, love astronomy and are inspired by space and by the universe. And nothing can change that. Nothing can ever take that away, even my self-doubt. So I've lived a life steeped in fear. But I've also found such beauty and such inspiration. It's complicated. I'm still kind of a mess, but I'm moving forward. And I have that inspiration, that connection to the universe that will never go away.
- We all experience self-doubt — sometimes called 'imposter syndrome'.
- NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller explains how the universe itself has been a salve for her fears.
- The universe chooses people to be interested in, she says. What has the universe chosen you for?
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