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From “No” to “Ph.D”: a journey from “imposter” to scientist

Published on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

From “No” to “Ph.D”: a journey from “imposter” to scientist

By Zac Cannizzo,
Knuass Fellow,
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries - Marine Protected Areas Center
Marine Protected Areas Climate Specialist and Interagency Coordinator


“Not for you. You just don’t have the mind for science.” The words of my 8th grade science teacher when I asked to be placed in Biology for my freshman year. It hurt. I always liked science, and I loved biology. Some of my earliest memories are watching Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures. From a young age, I wanted to be a biologist. But, I guess it wasn’t for me. I guess I’m not smart enough. I guess maybe I need to do something else. I just don’t have the mind for science.


Two years. I believed her for two years.


Then I found Science Olympiad. It was nerdy, I was an athlete after all, but my friends were a part of it. Plus I had done well enough in Biology to be moved to the science honor’s track, despite (or maybe in spite) of my 8th grade teacher, so I decided to give it a shot. It was fun. Science was fun. And I was good at it. Really good. At the final meet of my senior year, I participated in five events, the maximum number allowed. I metaled in every one and outright won two. But the cherry on the cake? My 8th grade science teacher was handing out the gold medals. 


So much for “no mind for science”.


Fast forward through a Bachelors in Biology at the University of Wisconsin, a study abroad in the rainforest and coast of Ecuador, a year and a half working “on the ground” in conservation and restoration, and a Ph.D. in Marine Science at the University of South Carolina and here I am. I’m a scientist! I didn’t do it alone, I had a lot of help along the way. Whenever I thought I might fail I had someone there to show me that I was wrong, I did belong, I was right where I was supposed to be. I did belong as a scientist. 

During my Bachelor's work I did fieldwork on biting ants in the Amazon (left) and my love of science carried me through to work with sea turtles in Costa Rica (middle) and eventually crabs in Florida mangroves (right)


But wait. Let’s slow down. Back up for a second. 


A lot happened there and probably a bit too fast. The doubts didn’t just magically disappear after winning some medals. I wish they had, but real life doesn’t work like that; imposter syndrome doesn’t just go away. I’ll spare you a novel but I can’t just let you think everything was perfect. That would be dishonest and altogether unhelpful.


Even during undergrad, when I was learning to be a scientist, doing well in classes, and  thriving overall,  I would have that nagging question in the back of my mind: do I belong here? It only got worse in grad school. That’s when I, like most, was introduced to the idea of imposter syndrome, this idea that you feel like you don’t belong, that your work isn’t good enough, that eventually someone will figure it out and you’ll be done. Having a name for the feeling helps, but only so much. Maybe my imposter syndrome derived from that day in middle school where I was failed by a teacher or maybe I was no different from the thousands of grad students who experience it every day. In the end, there were more good days than bad. In the end, I learned to be a scientist.


In the end, I found my place.


I am now a Sea Grant Knauss Fellow working for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Center. I am spending my year using my scientific expertise to help address climate change related issues in our National Marine Sanctuaries and MPAs. I work with scientists and administrators at sanctuaries all over the country to identify the climate change stressors most relevant to their site. 


 One of my major projects is to develop a public-facing document for each of the sanctuaries that highlights the climate change stressors and predictions most relevant to the individual sanctuary. This often involves a lot of sifting through the most up to date science and distilling it for a public audience in a way that is understandable, accurate, and compelling. 


As is the case with many scientists, I was never formally trained in public communication. I can sit down and write a technical paper about a complex subject that only a few thousand people can understand with no problem. However, taking that same information and making it understandable to almost anyone walking down the street is a daunting task, and one I am trying to learn as I go.  But I can see my progress and ultimately, improving my public writing skills may be the most valuable experience I take away from this fellowship.


I’ve also learned communication skills in my role as an “interagency coordinator” at the MPA Center. This has taken me completely out of my comfort zone and forced me to rely heavily on my nascent management skills while working with interagency partners. As MPAs are managed by multiple agencies, I regularly need to work across agency lines with partners at the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, State agencies, and many others. This experience has been incredibly valuable and helped me to gain a better understanding of how policy and resource management function across agencies and over multiple levels of government. While I won’t pretend to be an expert on interagency management and policy, this experience has been incredibly enlightening. It also opens up opportunities to visit some pretty cool places. Gotta love the perks!


I got to see my first sea otter during a trip to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Gonzalo Cid


I also get to flex my scientific muscles from time to time. 


As a “climate guy”, I never know what will come across my desk on any given day. I may be asked to review a document to determine if the climate information is up to date and accurate. I may get a request to dive deep into the literature and determine whether acidic waste might compound the impacts of ocean acidification. I may even be asked to contribute to climate change-related international trainings or interpret a scientific article for a sanctuary administrator. Or I may just be asked to sit in on a high-level climate meeting and report back. 


Essentially, I am doing it, I am using science every day. I love that the work I do makes a difference and I get to meet so many amazing people in so many amazing places. The diversity of tasks and experiences is both empowering and challenging. Every once in a while that old feeling pops back up and I wonder if I am really qualified to be doing this, if I’m really just an imposter. But, I’ve learned to manage that feeling and remember that I do belong here, that this is for me. As much as I enjoy my work,there is a part of me that misses getting down and dirty in the field. I do not know yet if I will continue to work in management or go back to academia. But I know that whichever I choose I can do it. Despite what I was once told and what I may have told myself, I do have the mind for science.


Eventually I got my Ph.D from the University of South Carolina.

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