It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay

If there’s one thing I can say about this summer, it’s that I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned a lot about chemistry (working in a chemistry lab and all) but surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for my future, career skills, and, probably the most important of all, general life lessons. Of course, every time you go to a new workplace and work with new people you learn different things about life but one of the most important lessons I learned was actually from one of the Eureka seminars.

This seminar was titled “Grad School A to Z” so I thought it would be a boring talk about how to be a good student and how perfect everyone needed to be. I was surprised when the grad students we were talking to started talking about something called impostor syndrome and how they really struggled with grad school because they felt like they didn’t belong. Now I know I’m only an undergrad and they were talking about how much harder grad school was so I probably shouldn’t have taken too much comfort in their words, but I did. I’m someone who always likes to know what I’m doing, I don’t ask for help unless I absolutely need to even when it comes to homework problems. So I guess it’s no surprise that when my grades fell a bit spring quarter and I started working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met (both graduates, doctorates, and undergrads) I felt really overwhelmed and quite frankly, not good enough. The entire summer I felt like I always had to be the very best version of myself. That’s not a bad thing, striving to be the best that you can be is good, but I feel like I’ve been hiding parts of myself that weren’t good enough and unfortunately, that’s been a lot.

As fantastic as the summer’s been it’s also been the most stressful summer that I’ve ever had and it’s all because of this underlying feeling of not being good enough. When I went to that meeting and heard them talking about feeling that way it made me feel a lot better. No one is perfect and while I have a lot that I need to improve, I’m not alone. Those people happened to be talking about grad school but it applies to undergrads too. School is hard, life is hard. If it’s easy then maybe you aren’t pushing yourself enough. Now I’m not normally this cheesy but I spent a lot of my summer feeling overwhelmed and alone and terrified. For anyone doing a summer program like Eureka just know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, I promise you aren’t alone

My (first) Disastrous Night

One of the most important parts of research is making mistakes. This can be terrifying because from the time that we’re young we’re taught that mistakes are a bad thing, so when I messed up almost every part of my first solo reaction, I thought I was done for. I figured that if my mentor didn’t kick me out of lab for the day he would yell at me or be incredibly angry. But none of that happened and I learned a lot. So I’m going to tell my story of my colossal mess up because it’s pretty funny and to show other perfectionists like me that mistakes are okay.

The day started off normal, my mentor was helping me finish working up a reaction that I had set up the previous day and then I started helping him work on his reaction. He asked me to use a machine called a rotovap to evaporate the solvent so that he could see if he made the right thing. I grabbed a flask and started doing what he asked but when he came back in and told me that I grabbed a flask that was wet with water (his reaction was water sensitive). He wasn’t so happy with me after that but he scolded me and got over it. Later, after we finished with everything, he told me that he was going to the office to work on his stuff and he wanted me to work up another reaction that I had done on my own. This was the beginning of a long night.
The first thing I had to do was a simple filtration just so that I could filter away anything I didn’t want (keep in mind this was something I had been doing for months). I grabbed the wrong size funnel and ended up clogging it so what should have been a 2-minute filtration took around an hour. He came in and told me this and essentially said “oh well, start on the next part.” The next part of my work up was washing my solution with salt water and a certain solvent, pretty easy. Well it should have been. I used way too much salt water so it ended up taking me multiple hours and about 6 different Erlenmeyer flasks for one simple wash. But I finally did it and then I had to evaporate the solvent just like I did earlier in the day. I ended up spilling the solvent all over the machine and my mentor had to come in, take it apart, and thoroughly clean it for me.
By the time I was done it was almost 11:30 at night (I started at 6). I jokingly told my mentor that he should find another student and he looked at me, laughed, and said “you’re full of it if you think you’re the only undergrad to ever mess up. This is minor.”
We both left the lab laughing about the day.