“I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some big names before, and I’m not one to be star struck. The problem was when they treated me like an equal.“
– PhD student Rita Turpin tells about her first experiences working in the Cancer IO consortium.
Most people know what impostor syndrome is – that annoying pattern of self-doubt that makes you question your skills or accomplishments. It’s something that affects many scientists, myself included. Who am I, after all, to be trusted with so much of people’s money, time, or information? When the anxiety of questions like that starts to bubble up, I have to remind myself that I’ve earned my place in the lab just like everyone else there.
I’ve never felt less like I belonged, though, than when I got involved with Cancer IO, a collaboration between universities, hospitals, cancer patient organizations, and large pharmaceutical companies. It started with me being invited to come along to a meeting. I thought I would listen in and fill in as a “secretary” of sorts, and hopefully learn something about how my research fits into the bigger picture. In actuality, I found myself at the table with some of the most influential and successful people in their respective disciplines, and they were asking for my input.
That wasn’t the problem – I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some big names before, and I’m not one to be star struck. The problem was when they treated me like an equal. At the time, I hadn’t even received my first publication, and I certainly didn’t feel qualified to, for instance, start naming businesses that I believed could make a valuable contribution to the collaboration (which is something I was indeed asked). Suddenly, the stakes had risen much higher than my own career, and I felt totally unprepared.
A while has passed since that first meeting, and I’ve been able to make some adjustments to my attitude and expectations. Currently, I’m working on one of Cancer IO’s core research projects alongside other experts in cancer and immunology. Since my own PhD work is closely related to the goals of the consortium, I can manage both projects in parallel, making them mutually beneficial.
There’s also the added benefit of having a panel of experts behind me who are able and willing to suggest improvements to my existing techniques and mindset. For example, through discussions with my collaborators, I found out how little I knew about breast cancer patients outside of my own daily experiments. Now, with the communication channels made available through Cancer IO, I approach my research with patient quality of life in mind (for example taking a closer look at the side effects of existing cancer therapies and how to overcome these).
Of course, in the end, self-doubt will always come back around to haunt you. Arguably, it is the very essence of science – if you’re not constantly doubting, skeptical, uncertain – then you probably don’t belong at a research bench.
Along with that, it’s also somewhat comforting to be working with people at such a high level, observing such a massive collaboration at work, and seeing that everyone involved is also a person like me. Yes, most of them have accomplished way more than me, and yes, some are way smarter, but at the same time they are all flawed and fallible individuals.
Overall, challenging myself to contribute to Cancer IO has been a great source of confidence. How about you? Are you affected by imposter syndrome? If so, how have you dealt with it? Alternatively, has participating in any large-scale collaboration taught you anything about yourself? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!