Overcoming impostor syndrome: Dr. Ramirez-Peña discusses how self doubt affects female scientists

Courtsey of cpfp.cancer.gov

Courtsey of cpfp.cancer.gov

Danielle Dix, News Editor

On Tuesday, Sep. 22, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hosted a zoom meeting featuring Dr. Esmeralda Ramirez-Peña, a scientist working at the National Cancer Institute.

In her seminar, “A scientific journey conquering Imposter Syndrome with inspiration, resilience, and a love for science,” Dr. Ramirez-Peña spoke about her psychological battle with this condition.

Imposter syndrome, as defined by psychologist Pauline Rose Clance, is “a psychological phenomenon in which a person is unable to internalize their accomplishments, attributing their success to luck, timing, or some other external factors beyond his/her control.” The syndrome is common in high achieving women, according to Dr. Clance.

Dr. Ramirez-Peña spoke of her doubts after deciding to go to graduate school, saying, “the reality is that thinking about grad school was really scary for me because I started to have these doubts, thoughts of self-doubt. Thinking, was I smart enough? Do I have what it takes? What if I fail? Am I competitive enough?” 

Dr. Ramirez-Peña, a Hispanic female herself, explained that “only 2% of Hispanic females enter the science and engineering workforce.” Along with concerns about pay gaps, discrimination, lack of a supportive environment, and inequity in hiring practices, Dr. Ramirez-Peña expressed that she was terrified.

“I was afraid of failure because I didn’t want to become a bad statistic, and it weighed a lot on me and it just kind of fueled my fear.”

The Mexican-born Dr. Ramirez-Peña reflected on her past and her struggles moving from Mexico to the United States and the language barrier. She expressed how she was “curious about small things, even at a young age.”

Despite her love for science, she still struggled with the expectations. “But ultimately, what really influenced me is just thinking back to why I wanted to continue a career in science, and that was the thought that when I grow up, I want to make a difference,” she said. 

In order to challenge imposter syndrome, Dr. Ramirez-Peña advised everyone to challenge their thoughts. “Thoughts have consequences,” she stated. Imposter syndrome can lead to reluctance to lead, participate in discussions, and engage with peers and mentors. It can also lead to anxiety, depression, overworking, and damaged relationships.

She also expressed the importance of a community and sharing the love of science. “The scientific community in general can be very welcoming if you just knock on some doors.”

Passing on scientific knowledge was also discussed. “I did a lot of community service where I talked to kids of all ages, we did fun experiments, and just sharing that knowledge and having these conversations about science with little kids was always so fun to me.”

Dr. Ramirez-Peña expressed how these things helped her deal with her imposter syndrome, saying, “I was realizing that I was working so hard everyday to be here. I belong just because I’m working really hard and I also belong because I’m my students’ role model. Being a Latina and going out into the community, I wanted to show them that a Latina immigrant can be a scientist. And so, now I think I’ve shifted my mind a little bit to think about the future in a very exciting way, be a little less fearful and accept that maybe even though there are a lot of unknowns, that’s okay. That’s the exciting part about science and having a career in science.”

Dr. Ramirez-Peña spoke of her undergraduate experiences at the University of Houston and how her love of science was fostered. “I just loved being in the lab. My favorite lab was organic chemistry lab, and everybody else hated it. That’s where I realized that perhaps lab work was something that I wanted to explore.”

She also spoke of other classes that inspired her saying, “one of my favorite classes was also developmental biology. I thought embryology was really fascinating and I just loved the processes that lead an embryo to form.”

Dr. Ramirez-Peña, after a year hiatus, applied and was accepted to a graduate program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She explained how studying embryology led to her learning how cancer can develop during epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT). 

Her research on EMT led to her current job at the National Cancer Institute studying mainly breast cancer. 

In reference to her scientific journey, she stated, “I also want to be very honest and say this was very hard for me. It was a journey that broke down what I didn’t know and built me up as a scientist, but that takes a lot of work.”

Dr. Ramirez-Peña closed the discussion by encouraging the participating students to work hard by going out of their comfort zone, asking questions, asking for help, and challenging themselves. She stated, “I want other students to understand that even though this journey is difficult. If it’s your dream, you really should pursue it.”