The other day, during a conversation, I was told that I was too cheerful to be a postdoc, and we all laughed about it. They said it was almost contradictory. I have a confession to make: It is true that I am a cheerful person. I am usually making fun of myself and lightening up things around me (both outside and inside the lab). Life is already too complicated to be concerned about small things that are not under my control. So, if you don’t mind, I like to take life with some humor and sarcasm. And coffee, of course!

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about important things; of course, I do. I am just a regular person: I doubt myself around 1000 times a day; I overthink and plan ahead with multiple options (parallel universes, time loops, what-ifs, alternative science paths).

Because of my cheerful character, some people might have the impression that I am a very confident person, which can seem contradictory in the scientific field. Others may think I am a fool. Neither of these is true. Like everyone else, I have suffered from the terrible imposter syndrome at some point, but over the past years, I have grown out of it.

I was once told that I was not a good scientist. I was too messy, too unfocused, and inconsistent. My ideas were terrible. I wasn’t a good communicator. I am definitely not a talented writer. My English is poor, and oh gosh, what a terrible (charming) accent I have! I apologize for bringing this up here, but nobody is good at something when they are just starting. Nobody was born knowing all the answers. Just as we learn to walk, speak, read, write, and everything else in life, we need to learn to be scientists.

My father taught me to ride my bike when I was a kid. I remember it vividly because it hurt. It was summer in the backyard of our country house, with a yellow bike that I inherited from my older brothers. I was trying to ride down a small slope but hit the wall. The third time, I was able to balance and turn on time. I tried, I failed, and I learned. It’s a simple process.

We are indeed surrounded by very talented people. Some of them have a gift, and they never got scratched learning to ride a bike. Others are great communicators and creative thinkers, or they can experiment with closed eyes. The rest of us have to go through a learning process.

I remember my first Western blot. I did everything wrong that you could possibly do with a Western blot. For a while, my gels did not want to polymerize. So, in my first lab, we had to figure out what went wrong. Then, I switched the charges while running the gel, and my protein was swimming in the running buffer. Something similar happened with the transfer. When I finally made it to the membrane, there was antibody drama. One day, I was so tired of repeating the same blot over and over that after getting a super ugly and dark film with no bands, I told my PI and my labmates, “It’s okay, I’m fine. I’m going to get some coffee and chocolate and think about what went wrong this time.” My former PI was not thrilled with my response, I guess. Everyone else laughed for a while, and they still make jokes about it. Suddenly, the blot worked one day, and I saved that film like a treasure. Some years later, I am able to tell what’s wrong with your western blot and troubleshoot quickly because I’ve been there before. I’m not an expert, but I’m comfortable with the method. I guess the blot and I made peace.

I tried, I failed, I learned. I can tell similar stories for almost every method or idea I had. But I should tell you something else. While I was fighting for the perfect blot, everyone else was getting them done nicely. Science is so unfair sometimes. I wondered what I was doing wrong if everyone else was using the same reagents. It had to be me. Something was wrong with me; I was not a good scientist if I couldn’t make a western blot work.

The truth is, the reason why the blot did not work was that I was learning. It has taken me a long time to realize how hard I was (sometimes still am) on myself. I was always comparing myself, my experiments, my results, my projects with everything else around me. Well, maybe I should say everyone else around me.

Science is such a competitive field, and we are always trying to be the best. The best student, the best communicator, the best researcher. THE BEST. Everyone is different, and we all possess diverse talents, skill sets, and backgrounds that can make us perfect players in a multidisciplinary team. But after being frustrated for years and engaging in unhealthy competition, I realized I did not want to be the best at everything. I ended up aspiring to be something else: THE BEST VERSION OF ME.

Stop comparing yourself to anyone else and try to be THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF. That’s how I grow now. I challenge myself to improve things that I don’t like. For example, writing is my weakness. It terrifies me. Obviously, the primary aspect of a scientist’s job is to write papers, grants, and abstracts, and you have to do it “right.” Also, I am a non-native speaker (don’t forget my charming accent), so it is a double effort. I cannot compare myself to my native speaker labmates because it’s not a fair battle. But I compare my first grant with the latest one and appreciate the improvement over these past years. They did not get funded, but that’s a topic for another post about gracefully accepting reviewers’ rejections.

This is why I started writing non-scientific blogs – to improve my writing and communication skills. It may not be perfect, and it certainly isn’t the best, but I promise you it challenges me and pushes me out of my comfort zone. Every day, I do something new that sometimes scares me and is not science-related. This is why I am smiling and cheerful. I am trying to balance myself. This is my way, so please let me discover the best version of me!

… and let me ask, is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?

P.S: After more than five years since this post was first published, I am still too cheerful, but now to be a PI. I feel I make hundreds of mistakes every day, and I doubt myself even more than when I was a postdoc. I keep comparing myself with my peers. But I am still true to this post, I have accepted I am who I am and my path may differ slightly. I am still working on confronting my fears and trying to be the best of me. Now that I have my own lab, I hope I will be the best mentor and help my team to aim for their very own best.

More Resources

Honing Resiliency: Reminders from a Recent Disappointment

Celebrating “The Climb”

Choosing What to Do or Not Do on the Job

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1 Comment
Patricia Ozawa says:

Hi Cristina,
I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. It resonated with me in so many aspects! I am so thankful to know I am not alone in this science journey. And as a fellow international postdoc I understand the struggle with language (writing and speaking). I got you and I am also trying to improve by facing my fears and trying to remember that done is better than perfect! 
I wish all the best in your journey and please keep writing! It was so inspiring to me!

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