Faking it

K Dhillon
Not faking it anymore: At my desk, an hour before my PhD dissertation defense presentation.

The first time I noticed the lack of diversity in the sciences was as a young graduate student as I listened to a seminar and noticed that I was one of only a few people of color in a full auditorium. I distinctly remember feeling both intimidated and conspicuous. I’m sure I wasn’t the only new graduate student who felt intimidated. It was common feeling among everyone in our class, regardless of color. We had even learned there was a name for what we were feeling, ‘impostor syndrome.’ The thing forme was that the feeling of being an impostor wasn’t just because I’m brown—Indians aren’t underrepresented in the sciences.

Feeling like an impostor came more from my personal background. Everyone seemed so familiar with the research scene. I didn’t even know what a ‘PI’ was when I first arrived since I had never done research in a lab. (FYI, PI stands for Principal Investigator—in other words the boss of the lab.) My classmates seemed to be so comfortable socializing with other students and faculty. The only PhD’s I knew before grad school were my professors from undergrad. And, it seemed like everyone else’s parents were professors or doctors or other types of academics. I came from a blue collar family. My dad was a farmer in India and worked as landscaper in the US before becoming a real estate agent. My mom was a house wife in India and then worked at a farmer’s market and a macaroni factory in the US.

I felt out of place—and I didn’t want anyone else to know. So, I faked it.

I didn’t ask questions but instead paid attention and stayed quiet until I learned what I needed to without letting anyone in on my secret, for a while anyway. It took me about a year to start to make friends—who eventually became really good friends and got to know the real me, and my family. As time went on, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. A lot of folks had come from different backgrounds, and I don’t just mean color. But nobody ever talked about it so we went around thinking we were alone in feeling out of place.

We were all faking it!

Why was there the need for secrecy? The thing about being different in any environment is that it can make you feel very conspicuous. No one has to say a single word to you for you to feel this way, you just do. I didn’t want to seem to others like the outsider I felt I was, so I kept my little secret. And so did everybody else.

Would things have been different for me in those early years had I met someone who came from a similar background? Definitely!

I am so proud (and always have been) of my family’s ‘blue collar’ background and how hard my parents worked in a country that was foreign to them so my siblings and I would have the best opportunities available to us. I’m ashamed I didn’t talk about it openly, or even hid it in an effort to fit in. Maybe if we share our stories more openly, we can help reduce the pressure of fitting in and being different for aspiring young scientists from even the most humble backgrounds.

It’s been many years since that day in the auditorium, and I still find myself thinking about diversity in science. The difference is that now I openly talk about my ‘different’ background, especially to the younger scientists. It’s time to celebrate the diverse backgrounds we all come from and use this diversity to launch us forward, and not hold us back. As we endeavor to find solutions to the diversity problem at our own institution, we’re starting by sharing our own stories. Everyone has one. What’s yours?

Note: A version of this blog was previously published on the author’s personal blog on January 24, 2014.

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