Interview with chemist-turned-educator Dr Chrissy Stachl about her diversity-related PhD research, imposter phenomenon, and her new role as a Director at UC Berkeley

It is 2021! I am still getting used to looking at this string of numbers as our year, as in AD. Wishing you all a belated Happy New Year. I hope this year brings in hope, healing and harmony.

2020 has been a year of upheaval for all of us around the globe. With the pandemic raging, and so many people dead or infected, it has been the most scary year of our lifetime. My heart goes out to all who have suffered the death of a family member or a friend. Thanks to all the first-responders working tirelessly — the physical and psychological toll this pandemic is having on them is immense. Let us take a moment of silence for them before we read ahead.

In this blog series I do interviews of scientists about their life and career, living experiences at our times, the career paths they took or left, and their research work.

For today’s post I have interviewed Dr. Chrissy Stachl who graduated during the pandemic. I have interviewed her over email, starting in August 2020.

Dr. Chrissy Stachl

She is from Colombia, South America. Here she tells the stories about her struggling to celebrate her graduation with her family, amidst the pandemic and its travel restrictions. She had to also cancel her long-dreamed plans to travel, after graduating, to Antarctica and South America. Working from home while writing the dissertation, yoga and hikes kept her going.

She tells us about how she switched research topics and groups midway through the program, and ultimately found the topic she did her dissertation with — the story of a journey from Neuroscience to Chemistry to Diversity and Inclusion in Chemistry.

She describes herself as a “chemist-turned-educator” and wants to keep doing research on the efficacy of graduate programs and the issues faced by graduate students.

Job-searching during pandemic is chaotic, but ultimately she has prevailed. She has just started as the Director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity, at the NSF-funded Center for Genetically Encoded Materials at UC Berkeley.

Here’s a toast wishing her an amazing career ahead.

I will stop talking now so that the readers can dive directly into Dr. Stachl’s interview starting here.

Q1. Thank you for interviewing with 500 Poppies, I am excited about this conversation. You just graduated with a PhD. Congratulations! How does it feel to graduate during pandemic era? Is it any different from how you’ve dreamed of it?

Thank you! It feels really great to reach the end of such a huge milestone in my life and career!

I’m the first person in my entire extended family to receive a Ph.D. Because of that, some of my closest cousins, aunts, and uncles were planning to fly over from Colombia to attend my graduation ceremony and celebrate with me. Most of them have never been to California, so I was planning to introduce them to my favorite nature spots and the California Wine Country. I was also planning to file my dissertation at the end of spring 2020, to be able to fly home with my family and then spend the summer months solo-traveling in South America and Antarctica (my reason for going there is perhaps a story for another time).

It was really disappointing to have had to cancel all of those plans when the pandemic hit. At the same time though, I feel very fortunate to have been able to delay filing my dissertation for a few extra months, so that I could take my time looking for a job without being in danger of losing my health insurance. My mom was actually also able to fly to California and spend a couple of months with me, which made it possible for us to celebrate together and for me to give her a big in-person hug once I actually graduated. My Ph.D. advisor also hooded me on campus (with masks on!) — I’m so incredibly happy that I was able to have a personal ceremony and share the moment with my family.

PhD graduation ceremony, UC Berkeley, Summer 2020

Q2. You are the first fresh graduate I am interviewing. So your views will bring some fresh angle into this series. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your scientific journey, how you chose to do science, and how you decided on your major. Give us the stories.

I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. My first memory of doing a science experiment was when I was maybe 5 years old — my mom and I made a snowman out of shaved ice and took it outside to measure how long it would take to melt. She studied graphic design in college, but always took on the challenge of learning to do “home science” experiments with me when I asked things like “why does it take so long for water to boil?”

Since then, I’ve always loved taking science courses in school. In high school, I took an anatomy class in which we spent 2 months dissecting a fetal pig. That was the first time I had been exposed to human and animal anatomical structures in detail, and fell head-over-heels in love with the subject. I was the only person in my class that could sit through the smell of formaldehyde for hours and still end up asking for more time to explore the vasculature or organs that we were learning about on any given day. I was also the only one in my class to fully dissect the brain of this pig after teaching myself how to do it from YouTube videos. I ended up going to the University of Washington (UW) for my Bachelor’s degree because they were one of the only institutions that had an independent Neuroscience major.

To this day, I am still incredibly passionate about the brain and anatomy in general. And it’s funny for me to reflect on my career path now because if I had been asked 10 years ago what I thought I would be today, I would never have imagined I would earn my Ph.D. in chemistry. The notorious general chemistry courses I took in college were the bane of my existence back then. I hated how competitive and ruthless those courses were, and I actually almost failed one of them. It wasn’t until I took a physical chemistry course while I was studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh that I really started enjoying chemistry. The classroom culture in Edinburgh was less hostile and much slower-paced than the ones I had taken at UW, and I also had the opportunity to collaborate with other students in the class to dive deep into the material we were learning. I ended up deciding to major in chemistry once I returned from studying abroad. These contrasting experiences in chemistry were also what started me thinking about how students learn and what effect their environment can have.

Q3. You are a Chemist. Tell us about your research and expertise.

After finishing my B.S. degrees, I spent a gap/post-bac year at a Max Planck Institute in Berlin doing research to understand the structure of molecules in their low energy states (4 Kelvin). At the beginning of my PhD, I focused on investigating the structure and energetics of water molecules within a droplet — how they move individually, how they interact, and how they collectively re-orient when they solvate a charged particle.

I ended up switching groups after I passed my candidacy exam, though. Part of the reason for this was that I started a diversity and inclusion initiative within my department, and was enjoying putting time and energy into thinking about how to make our community culture more welcoming and inclusive. So I decided to switch my research focus to understanding specific issues within our academic climate — how graduate students felt about the community, their mentoring experience(s), and what (if anything) was hindering their academic progress.

Once I had the data from our own community about the issues we face, more and more department members became invested in helping find specific solutions. This helped pinpoint my research toward designing evidence-based interventions that can effectively improve department climate.

Overall, I describe myself as a chemist-turned-educator. I am so happy being able to use my formal chemistry and education training to help STEM communities directly combat disparities.

Q4. What are your career goals and job search plans and how do you plan to achieve that in the midst of the pandemic. Did you interview yet? Could you give us a glimpse into that?

I have interviewed and I do have a job lined up, which is very exciting! I will be starting as the Director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity at the Center for Genetically Encoded Materials — an NSF Center for Chemical Innovation sponsored by UC Berkeley.

[Editor’s Note: She has already started on this new role recently.]

Before being hired in this role, I was searching for either a postdoc or other research-focused position that would allow me to keep improving graduate education. It turns out that there is actually not much grant/research money being invested into graduate education research, especially in STEM. This realization was very disheartening — graduate students are at the heart of all scientific discoveries and form the pool of future scientific leaders, so they deserve to be the focus of research to improve the Ph.D. experience!

When I found the job I now have, I felt like it was the perfect fit for me. I get to develop outreach, research, and mentoring programs, and will also have the opportunity to keep doing research on the efficacy of these programs and the graduate experience in general. I’m really looking forward to it!

Q5. What does your average day look like? (This is a very important question as it gives the public a view into a scientist’s day and helps change the predefined image of what a scientist does or looks like.)

Right now, I am pretty much just working at a desk every day. I had been been writing my dissertation since February 2020, so I’ve been working from home since before the shelter-in-place started. My body can get pretty tired of sitting all day, so I usually do yoga or go for a walk/hike either in the morning or around lunch time.

Before the pandemic, my typical day consisted of a lot of meetings. I usually also spent a lot of time at coffee shops or working in a building with a lot of whiteboards to brainstorm, depending on the kind of analysis I was doing at the time. I’ve always been pretty flexible and have always tried to incorporate exercise into my day. I usually spend my weekends outdoors — I go wine-tasting a lot and I also try and camp or backpack at least once a month.

Q6. Have you faced any hardship or problems in your career as a female scientist that you would like to share?

Absolutely. I’m usually seen first as a female (and especially as a Latina), and then as a scientist / researcher. I experience microaggressions and sexism pretty frequently, which creates a barrier to feeling like I am valued by or belong in a given workplace or community. I also look really young, which often results in people not taking me seriously when they first meet me. And, I’ve had these experiences more frequently the higher up the academic ladder I’ve gone. Most recently, I’ve even noticed that some people think I’m joking when I say that I have a Ph.D. Navigating these experiences is difficult, but having mentors that cheer me on has really kept me going. Also, knowing that my work will help make STEM communities more welcoming for those that come after me has made me really optimistic about the future of STEM.

Q7. What are your takes and actions on imposter syndrome?

I prefer referring to these feelings as a phenomenon, because of the connotation between syndrome and disease, and that the term was initially associated with women. And the original term coined for feeling like a fake in 1978 was actually “imposter phenomenon.” I didn’t find this out until recently, and I think it’s worth sharing :)

To actually answer your question — I frequently feel like an imposter, and have found that it doesn’t really go away with more years of experience. As a first-year graduate student, I felt like an imposter because I didn’t think that I was as prepared as the rest of my classmates were for our graduate chemistry courses; In my second year, it was because I was preparing for my candidacy exam and didn’t think I could pass; as a third-year and a fourth-year, it was because I switched my research focus to education and thought I would no longer be considered a real chemist; and now that I am an expert in my field, I still feel it when I get asked to review a manuscript or give a talk, etc.

The thing that does get easier with time, though, is the ability to cope with the feelings of being an imposter. I like talking about this because it’s pretty common for students to think that they are the only ones experiencing imposter phenomenon, even though that’s not true. In studying sense of belonging among the graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in my department, I found that the number one hardship all of these individuals face is feeling like an imposter — including faculty members. Our community had a discussion about these data last year, and one of the things that came up is how refreshing it was for graduate students to realize that their mentors and role models also experience feelings of being an imposter.

Q8. Tell us about your mentoring efforts, and the joys and struggles you see there.

I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am today without the help of A LOT of amazing mentors. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had at least one person in my life at any given moment who was willing to stand up for me and/or help me navigate difficult situations. I’ve learned and benefitted so much from these mentors, and one of my biggest goals is to be that same type of person for others.

At the same time, as a Latina, I am very familiar with the feeling of being the “only one”. It’s not very common for students from marginalized groups to find mentors they can relate with and talk to about the specific hardships we face. Part of my work at Berkeley focused on helping mentors develop best practices to better support students from all backgrounds. I’ve worked to create more opportunities for undergrads from non-traditional backgrounds to get into their first research experience, and love helping students edit college entrance essays or scholarship/fellowship applications.

Helping younger students access higher education in this way has been such an awesome bonus to being in the academic world. I think the struggle comes with finding more ways to help those students feel welcome in their community, and be able to find the mentors and role models who can help them succeed in whatever career path they choose.

Q9. And the last question. What do you consider to be your greatest-great achievement in the last one year besides graduation?

Honestly, I feel that making it to the end of my Ph.D. is my greatest achievement this year [2020].

I mentioned earlier that I switched groups in the middle of my PhD. While this was partly because I became more interested in helping make my community more inclusive, I also faced some mentorship issues with my first advisor that proved very difficult to overcome. It took a lot of inward strength to navigate that situation and then to make the decision to switch my research focus. There were a few times when I thought I would just leave the Ph.D. program. I’ve been reflecting a lot on this journey recently, and it makes me feel so proud of myself. I gained so much strength and knowledge, and was even blessed with finding the research I really love doing.

I’m also the first person in my family to have a Ph.D., which is definitely a huge accomplishment. I want to keep celebrating this as long as possible, because it’s a win for me and my entire family!

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This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Dr. Promita Chakraborty is the founding editor of 500 Poppies. She is a scientist and founder. Find her on twitter.

A blog about women scientists. Founding editor of blog: Dr. Promita Chakraborty, San Francisco Bay Area.