Willamette University

Decoding the Impostor Syndrome

By Erin Dahl

Assistant biology professor Emma Coddington helps students discover their "inner scientists."

Emma Coddington couldn't imagine becoming a scientist. At least that's the story she told herself.

Why? Simple. In her mind, scientists were dour, humorless workaholics who preferred to work alone. Coddington was none of those things. So after earning a degree in zoology from the University of Otago, the New Zealander spent five years traveling and working as a waitress.

“I’m a flamboyant, loud and excitable woman,” Coddington says. “I laugh a lot. My hair was blond, and now it’s bottle-red. I really struggled with whether that was acceptable in science. When I looked around, I didn’t see anybody I wanted to be like. And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”

Despite her apprehensions, Coddington couldn’t ignore her calling. Each time she changed cities, her love of research beckoned her into university labs, where she stepped away from her day job to volunteer her time and expertise.

Her grandmother, her undergraduate advisor and many others came into her life at the right time to offer support and encouragement, Coddington says. Thanks to their influence, she was spurred to continue her education in the United States.

“The more time I spent helping others do research, the more I thought I could build a career around it myself,” she says. “I was lucky to encounter people who valued who I was as a person and the type of research I was trying to do. I had some amazing mentors.”

Buoyed by those who believed in her, Coddington earned a master’s degree in biological sciences and a doctorate in zoology. She pursued post-doctoral research at the University of Wyoming, Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Otago. Then, after serving as a visiting assistant professor at Willamette for a year, she returned in 2009 as an assistant professor of biology.

“Willamette spoke to me as a community of dedicated learners and scholars who were conscientious about the larger world,” she says. “It is a place that changes lives, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Research involves observing newts.

Deconstructing Context

Through her research, Coddington is hoping to understand how context and stress hormones affect the mating behaviors of newts. She hopes her findings will give scientists new insight into how hormones affect behaviors and build resilience to stress in all animals.

That work also led her into a related study of stress in humans, specifically the “impostor syndrome” that many scientists and others — Coddington included — have confronted during their careers. Because of the syndrome, people credit their successes to luck instead of genuine talent or ability.

This spring, the National Science Foundation recognized Coddington’s work with a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. As of press time, the award was projected at $710,000. The five-year award goes to pre-tenure faculty members who have effectively integrated teaching and research programs.

“It’s insufficient just to have great science,” Coddington says. “You also need a really great plan for teaching. That’s what’s unusual about this grant.”

According to the most recent data on the National Science Foundation website, Willamette is the only liberal arts university in the country to have earned a CAREER grant in the same department in two consecutive years. Last year, associate professor of biology Chris Smith was awarded a CAREER grant for his work studying what he suspects to be the co-evolution of yucca trees and yucca moths (see article on Page 16).

“The CAREER award is ‘the holy grail’ for junior faculty,” Smith says. “Through these awards, we are trying to create a space in which students benefit from intense, hands-on education, taught by people who are true experts in their fields.”

Is Stress Bad?

Coddington is using her CAREER grant to fund a full-time technician, support her work with more than 30 student research assistants during the next five years and expand a series of self-advocacy workshops related to her impostor syndrome research.

Victims of the syndrome feel like frauds, Coddington says. They attribute their accomplishments to their ability to deceive others into believing they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Coddington hopes she and her colleagues can help students through her workshops to address their insecurities and realize their personal value.

“These workshops are not typically found in science programs, but I’m passionate about them, so I included them in my grant proposal,” she says. “When you don’t realize you’re feeling insecure because impostor syndrome is rearing its head, that’s when people will undermine you. If you feel insecure, that will influence how stress shapes your performance, and you’re far likelier to sabotage yourself, your work and your career.”

Coddington says there’s a parallel between her work with students and the work in her lab. With students, she attempts to grasp how stress and coping mechanisms influence their understanding of themselves. With newts, she’s trying to determine how hormones and situational context affect their decision-making behaviors.

To aid in her research, Coddington and her students observe newts, study their tissue under a powerful microscope and use electrophysiology to understand the electrical properties of the animals’ cells.

In one experiment, Coddington takes solitary male newts out of their pens, restrains them to induce stress, and returns them to an enclosure with females. She does the same with males that were already courting females. That’s how she learned that solitary newts didn’t engage in courtship after being restrained, but the others did.

“There is something about that immediate context and experience — what we would call friendship or closeness, even intimacy — that promotes a brain that is very resilient to stress,” she says. “So this notion that stress is bad, it’s time for that to go. Stress can’t be avoided, but we can control how we conduct our lives to set us up for a more resilient brain and spirit.”

Coddington hopes her findings will have broader implications about how all animals — including young science students — respond to stress.

Breaking the Silence

Coddington’s research assistant Ashley Turnidge ‘14 and other students credit her with inspiring their selfconfidence.

Coddington’s research assistant Ashley Turnidge ‘14 and other students credit her with inspiring their self-confidence.

Although lab experience is core to Coddington’s program, she is equally devoted to teaching in the classroom and inspiring students.

One way she strives to reach students is through her self-advocacy program. A part of the program centers on acclaimed scientists — men and women, young and old, of many ethnic backgrounds — who talk about how they’ve all felt like frauds at some point in their careers. Coddington’s goal is to start a conversation so her students and colleagues can share these feelings openly, exploring why they’ve experienced impostor syndrome and how they plan to overcome it.

“Every single one of those professors was very, very nervous about speaking openly about this insecurity, because it’s not part of the culture,” Coddington says. “Yet that level of honesty is an important part of becoming strong, independent, highly effective members of a team. Feeling that we belong to a team is critical to doing ‘good science’ and making contributions.”

“The sense of being an impostor or a phony is something many students and scientists feel,” he says. “I felt that most acutely during my first year of graduate school, when I experienced this tremendous pressure to be authoritative and informed.

“The feeling didn’t really go away until I became a professor and grew accustomed to students asking me questions. I got to a place where I could feel comfortable saying, ‘You know, I don’t know the answer to that.’ Nobody knows all the answers, and part of being a professional means being comfortable with the limits of your understanding.”

As a faculty member, Smith sees students experiencing the same pressures he knows all too well. Some react by acting insincere and ill-informed, while others retreat, afraid of calling attention to themselves.

Through Coddington’s research, Smith says this issue is being brought to light.

“Emma is studying how the physiological state affects the neurobiology of animals, and she is thinking of that in terms of learning,” he says. “I find that really exciting.

“How does feeling uncomfortable or stressed out, like an impostor in an unfamiliar setting, affect one’s ability to learn? Emma is using her research to help students deal with fear and the process of learning. Her research informs the way she teaches.”

Secret Battles

Through her advocacy workshops, Coddington addresses these feelings and strives to convince her students that differences should be celebrated, not hidden. She plans to use pre- and post-tests to help gauge if her program is working.

“Many students who walk into my classroom have felt as if they don’t fit in with other scientists — it’s often a manifestation of a hideous high school experience,” she says. “They don’t see that scientists are all just human beings doing what they love to do.”

Ashley Turnidge ’14 and Audrey Davis ’13 are two students who relate to Coddington’s teachings. Turnidge, a biology major, aspires to be a medical researcher. And Davis, who majored in neuroscience, is interested in biopsychology research.

“Emma is using her research to help students deal with fear and the process of learning. Her research informs the way she teaches.”

– Chris Smith

Both have worked as research assistants in Coddington’s lab and believe her workshops shed light on scientists’ hidden insecurities.

“She has helped me embrace the idea that I can do research,” Turnidge says. “Originally, I thought my mind didn’t work the right way, because researchers think on their feet and are fast processors. I take a little while to think things through.

“I’ve learned I’m a broad thinker, which can be a very valuable skill for a researcher. Emma helped me realize that. She gave me confidence.”

Davis also credits Coddington for helping her to overcome impostor syndrome. “Emma is not afraid to challenge students to push themselves,” Davis says. “She inspires me to keep developing my research and life skills, and keep growing as a person. I feel lucky to have her as a teacher and mentor.”

Coddington says she’s eager to use her CAREER grant to give more Willamette students lab experience and to offer advocacy programs at Willamette and other Salem-area schools. Through her efforts, she hopes to dispel doubts young people may have about themselves and their place within the scientific community — to channel that “inner scientist.”

“My goal is to see a shift in attitude toward students seeing themselves as scientists, expanding their notion about who a scientist is and being able to identify whether they can affect change,” she says. “I hope, in some way, to open up their shells, to help them realize they can succeed at whatever they want to do.”

Emma Coddington

“I’m a flamboyant, loud and excitable woman. I really struggled with whether that was acceptable in science”

– Emma Coddington