The Imposter in the Room

I was acutely and nervously aware of the irony of my situation at that moment. I was about to crash an exclusive seminar by passing myself off as “staff” using a defunct email address (which in all fairness, did at one time exist) to register for an event to which I was not at all invited. The seminar was actually a workshop about conquering Imposter Syndrome. Yes indeed, I was the literal imposter in the room, sneaking myself in to learn all I could about how to overcome feeling like an imposter.

How did I get here? Let’s back up. Some time ago I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which she describes feeling like an “imposter” in school and at work- a phenomenon where rather than taking pride in one’s achievements, she brushed them off as luck, and felt fearful that others would discover a “true” lack of talent or accomplishment. I was interested in this, mostly because her experience of putting the name “Imposter Syndrome” to her feelings, as outlined in her book, was mirrored uncannily in my own experience. The scenario she described was a scene from my own life, (if it was at UC Davis instead of Harvard and another honor society altogether) in which her mind is absolutely blown by a speaker at her Honor society’s initiation ceremony. I had to know more. From the book’s references I went and read the original research paper that described this phenomenon for the first time. More digging revealed a test (omg! a test!!) that would rank the severity of your imposter feelings on a 1-100 scale.

I was all about this: any number I could attach to my feelings made them measurable and therefore understandable, definable! I couldn’t ask for better validation. Like a dutiful researcher, I contacted the lead author of the paper asking for permission to reprint/cite her paper and test as source material for a discussion with other lady scientists I was slated to have the next week, thinking it would provide some good talking points.

Some weeks went by, and our discussion of imposter syndrome went well: consistent with the paper we read, all of us high-achieving women (save one) had experienced imposter feelings, and scored highly on the test. Reactions run the gamut from very surprised to a non-nonchalant shrug. My reaction was somewhere in between…I wasn’t surprised but I was still feeling quite shocked and at a loss at what to do.

Then, out of the blue, I receive a missed call at work. This is very unusual, everyone who wants to reach me never bothers and simply calls my cell phone. It was Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, author and discoverer of the Imposter Phenomenon, calling from Georgia. She knew I had requested to use her materials for a discussion with other women in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and was following up with me, using the phone I list in my work email signature. Would you, she inquired, be willing to write about your experiences for my website and be a resource for other women in STEM? I was pretty shocked she wanted to put something I write on her website.

I couldn’t have been more intimidated, nervous, and starstruck all at the same time. Like the excited spazz that I am, I blurted out a yes- conveniently forgetting that I’m also planning a wedding and doing my PhD. And so, when I heard about an “invitation only” seminar about Imposter Syndrome at a nearby prestigious university, I had a fit of inspiration and decided to do everything I could to attend.

So here I was, feeling very off balance and doing everything I could to act like I belonged. In my mind’s eye, I could just slip in the back of the seminar and no one would notice me. However, as soon as I ascended the stairs I was greeted with a huge well-dressed crowd, mingling and enjoying a large display of catered treats: five kinds of mini-quiches, coffee, tea, juice, fruit plates, and every kind of cookie, cake and brownie imaginable. Ushers in matching suits (the school colors of course) with name tags waved guests to registration tables…where computers waited to take your name and institutional email.  I panicked, it didn’t say anything about registration on the event flier I had found! Also, somehow the title of the “seminar” had morphed into “workshop,” which to me implied a much more interactive session, meaning the chances I would be found out had drastically increased. But then, amidst the panic I felt a wave of calm descending, in which I calmly marched up to the computer and entered my information. If it rejected me, so be it! Miraculously, however…”Registration Accepted” appeared on the screen and I sort of stood there a little confused for a minute. The Usher kindly gestured me toward the food line and like a zombie I just trudged over and started grabbing whatever was in sight. I got in!

The “workshop” turned out to mean questions posed by the speaker and lots of raising of hands and audience participation. At one time there was even the formation of small groups for intimate activities, and I thought for sure my group-mates would discover the gaps in my personal experiences and realize I didn’t belong there. I played it all off, and everyone nodded in support of me, and asked to borrow my pens, and didn’t even seem the least bit suspicious. Once, an usher in the corner gave me a squinty-eyed serious look, and I thought for sure he would walk over and escort me out. As time went on, I was more comfortable, and I left still feeling nervous but also exhilarated and enlightened.

It was so worth it. I’m still waiting for the email “finding me out” and stating the consequences but so far nothing has arrived. And although it’s taken me several months to even begin composing something worthwhile about Imposter Syndrome, having an idea that I am not alone and not the only one at a loss at what to do sometimes, can make all the difference when deciding where to start. So although I literally had to turn into an imposter to learn how to cope with feeling like one, it somehow became an inspirational experience that ended with a sense of belonging.

I’m still composing something for Dr. Clance’s website, which will *hopefully* follow this post sometime soon.

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Steampunk…with Dinosaurs!

Could this get any more steampunk-y mechanical?

I can’t help but notice how big the steampunk movement is these days, what with HUGO recently gracing the Academy Awards. But despite how visually appealing many find it, how romanticized and attractive, I’ve never quite been indoctrinated. There was always something a little off…a little underwhelming. My throwback romantic era was never 1890’s Victorian city life, always country-chic Jane Austen or Anne of Green Gables.

Then I finally realized why that steamy fantasy land was never exciting to me: because as a child I had read the works of the amazing James Gurney: who masterfully and beautifully combined the brilliant British inventor/scientist type a la steampunk with, what else? Dinosaurs of course!

Every kid likes dinosaurs, and of course we always imagine a peaceful alternate reality in which humans and dinos got along, living in a gorgeous pollution-free city (or island, perhaps?). This is exactly what James Gurney imagined and illustrated so well in his Dinotopia book series, which brought to life the hidden oasis of the stalactite caves long before Planet Earth film crews traveled there.

The beautiful Waterfall City

He thought of everything: Riding teradactyls before Avatars did it, scary dinosaurs, smart dinosaurs, cute dinosaurs wearing clothes…it was the perfect children’s book to facilitate growing up with an active imagination. Now I look at all those clunky gears and goggle helmets and think, where’s the elegance? Where’s the variety? Dinotopia had water powered cities, tree houses, and canyon cities for goodness sake!

Canyon City, rainbows and pterodactyls included

Treetown

 Although this is a kid’s picture book and I did read it more than a few years ago now, it is so rich in content and visual details that I’m longing to go back and revisit it. I remember how it even stoked my early interest in science, as the author included “exerpts” from the inventor’s laboratory notebook, featuring yellowing pages filled with Da Vinci-esque drawings of flying machines and dinosaur-powered contraptions. I didn’t think it could get any better. Well add uncovering the secrets of a lost civilization (including treasure) and a race against evil grasping Tyrannosaurs and I guess it does get better.

Not to mention that scientists published recently in the journal Nature that the fossil record challenges the conventionally held belief that T-Rex’s were scaly reptiles and could have looked more like giant fuzzy chickens. This was sort of like saying Pluto is not a planet. All my childhood dreams, crushed! Needless to say I needed a throwback to the good ‘ol days of my scaly dino friends in lovely Dinotopia.

I just hope a new generation of kids still gets exposed to these beautiful books, for which a love can last a a lifetime. I know I’llalways be a convert.

Dystopian Fantasy: The Hunger, New and Old

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This weekend marks the opening of what is being hailed as the next young adult obsession to rival Twilight, as the book trilogy turned movie makes it’s debut. But this isn’t the first woman-centric dystopian novel to hit the stands: once upon a time it was the now classic The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

Rather than reading the Hunger Games books, which I hear are positively riveting, I instead and entirely accidentally picked up this older dystopian rendition, having had this book loaned to my by a co-worker. I hope that what is now captivating readers all over again will bring attention to what was trailblazing it its own day, but still has a message for readers that couldn’t be more painfully current.

In Margaret Atwood’s book, she puts forth an alternate reality of what might happen if extremist chauvinistic and conservative religious values were allowed to become cornerstones of our society. That is if church became state, and morals in the bedroom entered boardroom. This message, although written in the late 80’s, is coming back to haunt us now that women’s reproductive freedom from religion is being called into question by Republican conservatives. What was yesterday’s anti-obsenity legislation (which none of us remember) is today’s more subtle war on women, encouraging state and federal suppression of women’s healthcare. In Atwood’s book, this is just one step away from a totalitarian society.

As a woman, as a voter, as a feminist, and as purchaser of contraception, I am an advocate of a women’s right to choose. It saddens me that a book written 25 years ago can resonate with the same clarity of message today. Now that dystopia is fashionable again, I hope everyone who likes the Hunger Games also reads this book and rethinks what it means when women’s reproductive rights become property of the state. The second a woman cannot be the sole arbiter of her reproductive choices there will be a backsliding of the meaning of word freedom in this country, which we so highly prize.

It’s that freedom to choose anything, be it reproductive or not, that is the basic concept behind which Katniss is fighting for in the Hunger Games and Offred is yearning for in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. The beauty and simplicity of a right so basic is easy to root for, to rally behind. I think dystopian fiction is popular for this reason, and maybe it takes characters like Offred and Katniss to remind us that in our society today we can choose and we do have free speech. Let’s keep it that way. You go girls!

My Generation

Generation X, Generation Y,  the Baby Boomers: some generations get their own nicknames. I never identified with any of those categories, and never heard tell if I belonged to a defining era. What do those born in the years around me have in common with myself? (Here we’re talking late 80’s early 90’s). If I could choose one thing that was with me through childhood into today it would be…drumroll please…the books, the movies, the characters of Harry Potter.

Like the three little wizards growing older and fighting obstacles at school and beyond, so I saw myself, just struggling to survive college and make my way in the world. As a young kid, I first shunned the emerging books as trashy young adult fiction, unworthy of the grandiose vocabulary I was seeking to develop by reading only the greats. Little did I know that the lightning bolted Boy Who Lived would be a timeline tracing my own journey through Hogwarts, aiding my friendships as a common thread, and becoming a sort of closure to a time I was reluctant to relinquish.

Growing up as I did, the idea of a far off boarding type school was foreign to me, but fun to imagine nonetheless. Then all of a sudden it became relevant as I left for college (only three hours away by a magical train called Amtrak), and Harry Potter’s crazy adventures with his school friends gave me solace as I coped with the sudden change in my life, that of living away from home. Since most around me loved the books as much as I had grown to, watching the accompanying movies all together became a must-do, often at midnight the day of the launch. I had found my own Hogwarts-y friends, and each book release or movie debut was a milestone through the years as I grew. As my personal struggles would change and evolve, the way I read the books would change, how I related to the characters would change, and their dramas were a backdrop to my life. It is incredibly cheesy, and I hesitate to give the impression that I was a fanatic about the saga, I was not. It was simply just a constant thing to look forward to, a minute way to escape when I had to, a topic of conversation always acceptable when the table topics petered out. When in school, the young years of all our lives could draw parallels to Harry Potter,  and he was my version of teenage angst. When I had a huge a midterm coming up, it was like I was taking my O.W.L.S., trying to earn entrance into the next year. When I felt overwhelmed with something or other I thought, well at least I don’t have to fight dragons or face a cruel nose-less man bent on killing me. Yes, Harry Potter was my generation, and I can see myself growing up when I watch him growing older from movie to movie.

Now, years later, it’s easy to lose touch with those college buddies, but Harry Potter helped us reunite, and now for the last time we met to watch the last movie. It was like all the sadness of leaving my beloved college years was finally given closure. So far I had been in denial, always thinking my life was in some sort of limbo, and at the end I would see and live near everyone I loved all the time as in the old days. Identifying with a teenage wizard was never my intention, and the odd personal closure I felt from the resolution of his journey made me think seriously about mine. What does my love of Harry Potter really say about my life so far?

Pathetic? Maybe. Telling? Probably. We are the techno kids, addicted to iPods and TV and movies, no longer internet novices. While we remember days without cell phones, we have now grown them as extensions of our arms. When moments once defined generations, now it’s which gadgets or digital media. We have the iPod, the cell phone, and the laptop, where our parents had record players, land lines, and floppy drives (no offense, those things are now vintage-cool of course). With all that change in so short a time, why shouldn’t a set of books turned mega-movie saga define the metamorphosis of my childhood? Even the reluctance of JK Rowling to transition the books from literal page turners to digital media says just a little bit about my generation…

The journey of Harry Potter is like the journey we all face in life: the question of whether we are born with an identity that shapes our future, or whether we define ourselves as our choices become experiences. We all want to find meaning in our past while writing our own futures, and it is the balance between the two that truly defines us.  But let us not forget that it is the people in our lives that give us hope and strength, so it’s not a bad thing to lean on them once in a while. Could Harry have done it all on his own? Or maybe the lesson is really, How to Write a Hit Book and Make Tons of Money…naw that one isn’t as poetic. Instead I think I’ll just make one of those little bracelets: WWHD?

The Help

  The possibility of summer reading wasn’t quite on my mind this year, since I have my head full of all those things I’m supposed to do, and just the guilt alone usually keeps me from doing other things, like read for pleasure. It so happened I was on an errand, and stopped at a bookstore in downtown Boston, which operates by collecting as many curious items as possible and rolling them outside in carts labeled $1, $3, or $5. They do not specialize in bestsellers, as I heard the store-clerk say on the phone later to a potential seller, and so while browsing the shelves in the quiet daze of the summer heat, I was surprised to alight upon this $3 gem.

I had confused this book for some time with Three Cups of Tea, which couldn’t be more different but has a similar looking title. That is how I judge books, I’m ashamed to say, by their covers. The night before I found myself at this tucked away bookstore, I’d happen to see a trailer on TV for the movie version of this book, and all of a sudden I realized this wasn’t Three Cups of Tea,  and all my preconceptions were wrong. In fact, this book was right up my proverbial alley, being a basic tale of women’s rights in the workplace, right after I had finished a feminist history of such things. My interest was further piqued when during the movie I saw a lot of strong women in film I admire (Alison Janey, Sissy Spacek, Emma Stone) but not a single leading man. For all I had recently read about a lack of women-centric films lately, this seemed to be stepping out of that mold.

But this is not a movie review, and as soon as I saw that trailer I almost hoped the movie wouldn’t be released for a while, so I could have sufficient time to read the book. And now here it was in my hands, for only $3! I started it that afternoon and read it going to and from work every morning, for study breaks on weekends, and managed to finish it relatively quickly. It was one of those books that my brain had to work to read at first, but I didn’t even mind.

The first interesting thing I noticed, was that the book is written from three separate first person views, which makes it intensely personal to read. The author pretty accurately writes them with a southern accent (not that I’m an expert), which is why I had a difficult time, and there were instances when the three characters weren’t very defined in voice, even if they were in lifestyle. And although not many readers can relate to living in Southern civil rights era Mississippi, many can relate to the aimless feeling of living at home after graduating college and wanting to make something of their dreams. For that matter, everyone has experienced the peer pressure of a bully and wanting to escape from under that oppression. In this book the bully was an individual as well as a way of life, and that gave the book power. There was a feeling of helplessness because the bully is so much larger than life, an institution, or in this case, the segregation.  What made this book different than other civil rights era fiction to my eye, was that the historical events at the time (Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King) took a back seat (no pun intended…) in the character’s lives and barely influenced them to make change. In fact, Skeeter, the college grad turned writer is downright ignorant about national events and her insular lifestyle instead fuels her desire for change. I like this approach because it seems more grassroots and realistic, because we forget about how long it takes news to spread to some places, or how inconsequential the words in a newspaper can seem when you are still living the same life before and after an historical event.

The author allows the many perspectives in the book to glimpse each character inside and out, showcasing the differences between the person we are or dream to be and the person we show to the outside world. The book itself was a metaphor for the transformative ability of thoughts and words, the power to divulge secrets and share your true feelings, rather than keep emotion bottled up, the norm of the suppressed 1950’s and early 60’s.  This emotional transformation was mirrored by the physical transformation of Skeeter, who has used the book to explore who and what she is, her morals, her personality, and her ambitions. Each character in the book explores some aspect of themselves that had lay hidden, and then uses those traits to build a new life. More than being a book about civil or women’s rights, this is a novel about the power of fear to suppress our true natures or desires, even our individuality. It was definitely an inspiring read and I obviously recommend it, read it before the movie comes out!

Book Review: The Hamilton Case

I am a great lover of mystery novels, and when I received this gem for Christmas I was anticipating the usual suspenseful crime drama loosely centered around a poorly developed yet vaguely likable protagonist. I wasn’t sure of the plot when I opened it up, only that it took place in British occupied Sri Lanka around 1900, involving the murder of a tea plantation master. What I was not expecting was it to open with the detailed life of one Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere, told in the first person and with much pomp and circumstance. As a lawyer, he scrutinizes the case as a prosecutor in a highly polished and extravagant narrative short on plot points and long in detail, but it’s ambiguous just how biased the “objective” case really is, once you learn more of his character. That introduces the reader to the self-important man who would eventually solve The Hamilton Case and has now set out to tell the tale. Sounds straight forward, but just when we get to know this man his tale ends abruptly with a simple author’s note: that the whole time you were actually reading notes found after his death. Who is telling the story then? The book switches perspectives suddenly and objectively other characters in bits and pieces, slowly building, adding tidbits of how our protagonist solves the case. Puzzled by questions as tantalizing as “What monstrous calculation lay behind the woman’s decision to condemn her husband when Earnshaw had demolished the case against him?” we cannot help but wonder about the case, but it is not the focus of this book.

In fact, I was intensely surprised by how little the namesake of this book occupies the storyline. The case itself is nearly unimportant except as a defining moment in the life of the protagonist, a testament to how an incredibly important event in one person’s life can be utterly unimportant to others. The tale is mainly the richly embellished lives of the main character and his family and friends, none of which are particularly likable but all of which are intriguing and strange. The book is rife with seemingly inconsequential imagery, and I even though the case itself was not in the least being developed in many long intervals, it was so interesting to read I didn’t even mind. Here is a particularly neat quote detailing one character’s descent into madness:

“…things slipped out of their elements. A human face might peer at her from the chipped brickwork of a wall. Mosses grew eyes and moved. Tiny fish, vivid as gems, glowed briefly among ferns. Four headless mandarins in funeral kimonos paraded before her, on a log where a row of cormorants had stood with wings stretched wide as they pecked lice from their pinions. Once, in the unambiguous glare of noon, a figure walked less than six feet ahead of her on the road. It was neither male nor female, and its skin was a luminous coppery blue.”

What’s interesting is that since you are essentially in each character’s head, it is nearly impossible to be objective about what is really going on, since all is seemingly real and yet most cannot be, as in the passage above. What is not immediately obvious is that all events are tainted by those telling the story, leaving you wondering about the facts involved in the case  itself.  And suddenly,  years after the case has been tried and put to rest, everyone’s lives are falling apart and The Hamilton Case is an enigma once again, as more facts overlooked by our protagonist are revealed by other side characters, who come to the forefront of the narrative.  But now, all facts seem tainted even if no one as anything to gain, and at the end you’re no longer satisfied with the simple “whodunnit” question that is answered. Who did was not important, only to what degree the case had ruined the lives of those involved. The scope of the story touches on questions of love and loneliness, forgiveness and death, with poignant and heart-aching detail. I was left with the sentiment that no matter how much glamor and beauty we gloss over life, the harsh realities are stark and frightening up close. So ends the tale of the Hamilton Case.

I should also say that if you enjoyed The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, the narrative is similar and the imagery just as imaginative and pleasing to read. If you want something with good vocabulary, this is also a good pick. However, if you want a twisting plot-heavy mystery novel, this is not my first choice. That being said it was an amazing book, the sort where you need to read it again, at least once. There is so much I could say about this book, and I understand now how the New York Times could write a four page book review about it. An enjoyable read, start to finish.

Immortal Life, Not a Charmed Life

When I first read a New York Times Book review of this, I was absolutely blown away by the possibility that one of the most used cell lines in the world came from a person most of us hardly knew. As I stared at the letters in bold across the cover..H..e..L..a…I was amazed that it had never been obvious to me those letters were initials. I went on a spree of trying to find out who this person was, and immediately began educating myself about her life, reading this book, frequenting Wikipedia, and just starting in fascination about the whole scientific process that gave rise to such an important contribution.

It wasn’t until I had gotten pretty far into the book, reading it on the bus, the train, and at home that I had a very sad realization. My curiosity about this woman, my questions, were in many ways the same as those her own children and family members had. The only difference was that I, as a student of science, was able to comprehend the notion that this woman’s cells were spreading throughout the world and becoming vessels for various scientific trials, some of which would lead to the creation of important vaccines, for diseases such as Polio. I couldn’t imagine the fear of the unknown, the darkness of simply being unable to understand what was happening to a relative without the means to educate oneself. In addition, I was far removed from the difficulties, the racism, and the ethical dilemmas, being attached only so far as to puzzle these questions for myself. More troubling even was the notion that while most people now, scientists and relatives alike, admit that Henrietta Lacks was abused and taken advantage of, few have stopped to realize to what extent this abuse has continued throughout generations of her family. The racism has has become more pronounced today, but unethical people are numerous, and it is easy to take advantage of a family who cannot understand the nuances of their situation. It broke my heart to read about the con artist who tried to take advantage of the Lacks family through law suits and manipulation, after everything they had been dealing with already.

Most surprising to me however, was how much this book put into perspective the changing times we live in. The time-line at the beginning of each chapter highlights the simple but devastating fact that it was not so long ago that racism and class-ism ran so deep that doctors had no ethical or moral dilemmas about experimenting on prisoners, the poor, the institutionalized, or the uneducated. As this book tracks the formation of key scientific legislation in this country, one issue I felt was underscored which should be given more consideration today. The Scientists themselves would cry out how laws protecting privacy and patient rights would slow the progress of science and lead to stalling of research, eliminating the possibility of saving countless lives. I believe this should be a non-issue. We should not give personal freedoms a lower priority than scientific progress, otherwise what are we fighting to protect? We cannot belittle the lives we are trying to save, or claim that one life means more than another.

Ironically, the only man interested in protecting Henrietta’s privacy and in some ways, her patient rights, was the original man who cultured the HeLa cells and gave them up for research in other labs. He perpetuated a host of misinformation and ignorance of the cells’ existence to the family for over 20 years, by refusing to release her real name to the public. While he meant well, the real crime committed was to not inform the family the minute the first publication using her cells was released.

This is one of the first works of non-fiction which had me riveted from the beginning, and I encourage everyone who hasn’t considered reading this book to read it, because even if you aren’t interested in cell culture like I am, there are human issues that are touched upon which transcend the scientific world and make us question not only our history as a country, but also the possibilities for our future.

p.s. If anyone wants to borrow this book from me, you’re welcome to it!