#BBBinSTEM: Building Community and Support Systems to Combat Burnout
“You won’t always feel strong, but keep going. The day will come when you will have undeniable evidence of your strength.”
~ Dr. Stephani Page
By Mallory Molina
Welcome to week two of reflections on the bravery, burnout and being a WOC in STEM show with Dr. Shine Chang! Our first week featured Amber Lenon, a graduate student at West Virginia University. She highlighted her story of finding the right communities, balancing work loads and demonstrating bravery by being front-and-center in the media after the second gravitational wave announcement from LIGO.
This week, meet Stephani Page, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Page started #BLACKandSTEM, a widely used Twitter hashtag, as a doctoral student in Biochemistry and Biophysics, and has since worked to build the online community while progressing with her career.
“Every time I think about how I started my PhD with a baby on my hip, I feel brave,” Dr. Page said, reflecting on her time in graduate school. She explained that she had heard many disparaging and discouraging comments from faculty while starting her doctoral work even before they knew she was a mother. However, she refused to let anyone or anything get in her way. Dr. Page has “been in battle mode for years.” Her determination and bravery helped her through that experience and still serve her now as she continues to pursue her STEM goals.
Being A WoC in STEM
While she was a graduate student, Dr. Page started a Twitter hashtag, #BLACKandSTEM. She originally created this because she wanted to engage with people in similar circumstances. “I like community building; it’s in my blood,” she explained. Dr. Page’s goal was to hear other people’s stories and to build an online community of support (much like #VanguardSTEM!). She was originally apprehensive about people from her university finding out, asking “What would the status-quo squad have to say?” However, she posits that being a woman of color in STEM means “finding out who is on your team,” and #BLACKandSTEM helped her accomplish that.
When Dr. Page was almost ready to defend her PhD, her father and paternal grandmother passed away. Her grieving process was hindered by the need to maintain momentum to earn her degree, while inversely, she felt the weight of these losses in her PhD space. She began to feel trapped. “It was like obstacle after obstacle arose and pushed back my timeline to finish my degree,” she said. She started crying at work and stopped enjoying things she onced love. In an effort to not lose her momentum, Dr. Page decided to speak with her advisor, who told her she was burned out. Her advisor encouraged her to take breaks, and Dr. Page began relying on her support system to help her push through the rest of her degree. She would accept dinners that friends offered to cook for her and her son, and would take regular breaks from writing. She also relied heavily on her faith to help guide her through the rest of the process. With the help of these things, Dr. Page triumphantly finished her degree.
Dr. Page tuned in to the July 5 #VanguardSTEM show on burnout, bravery and being a woman of color in STEM. She noted that one of the moments that really resonated with her was hearing Dr. Chang’s own story of burnout: “It hit me on a deep level, and showed me that my experience was normal.” In addition to the resources she relied on for strength and support mentioned above, she also received invaluable help from her advisor. “My advisor once listed my accomplishments over the course of my PhD, and told me to spend some time with that list.” The exercise of remembering what you accomplished is really important in moving forward from burnout and getting rid of the feelings of inadequacy that come with it. You have accomplished something, even if it doesn’t feel like it!
Dr. Page encourages everyone to not give up: “You won’t always feel strong, but keep going. The day will come when you will have undeniable evidence of your strength.”
Finding a way to keep going should include finding a support system and engaging in activities outside of your field that re-energize you. “Find what you need to do in order to thrive,” she concluded, and make sure that you indulge in those things regularly.
Taking care of yourself is a very big part of being successful in STEM, and you should make it a priority.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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