1. When I chose to study physics, even though I was nervous.
Everyone has heard the statistic: There are so few women studying physics that there is often only one girl in a class. For most people that's a horrible, disheartening fact. But when you're hoping to study science, it's more than that: It's terrifying.
When I was applying to university for a chemistry and physics degree, I was absolutely fear-stricken at the idea of being the only girl in my lectures and labs. To 17-year-old me, boys were mysterious and scary, even when I had my protective group of schoolfriends around me. I couldn't imagine having to work with them alone – especially not in the high-pressure environment of a science laboratory, where you need to have absolute trust in your lab partner lest something explodes.
My fear was so bad I nearly applied for biology instead, which had a higher percentage of female students. But I really wanted to study physics, a maths-rich subject with algebra that I could properly sink my teeth into. Despite my worries, I gathered all my courage and applied.
To my delight, I wasn't the only girl in my class. The rumours were true – there were noticeably fewer girls in physics. But it was never just me alone. And the boys were actually very nice!
Within a few lectures, I felt at ease and comfortable in the environment, and I actually found that I volunteered more for demonstrations, workshops, and experiments because I wanted to make new friends in different places outside my lectures. I was driven to make friendships outside of my comfort zone, and despite my nerves and worries, I found a place where I belonged. And I got a little braver, and a little more mature.
2. When I had to admit to breaking a piece of equipment worth more than a house.
There’s nothing scarier than doing a university science experiment for the first time. It’s almost impossible to believe that you’re solely responsible for setting up and operating a heated chemical reaction with toxic reactants. From struggling to unscrew rusted-shut clamps holding fragile glass vials to the violent hazard warnings on practically everything except water, it’s a stressful environment for a jumpy student to be in.
Which makes it even worse when you use the expensive equipment – and break it. I was operating an expensive, fridge-sized centrifuge for the first time when it suddenly started making a loud shuddering groan and shaking. I quickly turned it off, and it gradually slowed down, making the scariest high-pitched shriek the whole time.
When I opened it, there was a massive dent in the side of the thick steel cylinder. I was horrified – especially because I’d been told only hours before how expensive and new the machinery was.
There's nothing worse than the utter fear of knowing you’ve made a mistake – and having no choice but to admit to it. You can't wriggle your way out of something like that with innocence and obliviousness. I had to admit to my error, even when I knew it would cost tens of thousands of pounds to fix.
There are always broken glass vials and spilt chemicals in labs, and it soon became clear that the technicians and laboratory demonstrators were very used to equipment casualties. They didn’t offer much of a reaction beyond pointing out where to find the dustpan and brush (or hazard tape!).
After that, I became a lot braver. I realised that my entire grade and personal value wasn’t affected by my mistakes. Laboratory experiments are designed to train students to do research. You’re expected to make mistakes along the way, however terrible it feels at the time when you do.
The broken centrifuge turned out to not have been my fault, as it was a new machine that was broken on arrival. However, I can safely say that no work mistake I've ever made since then has been in the slightest bit difficult to admit to. Whatever I do wrong, at least it isn't breaking another brand-new centrifuge.
3. The times I was treated like a girl instead of a top student.
Being one of the only girls on my course did mean that I was occasionally picked above the boys to leave a lab session and make tea and coffee for professors’ guests. The loss of research hours was something I wasn't brave enough to object to at the time, but the mortification of standing in a room full of men in suits, being ignored while the kettle boiled, is so strong that I still shiver at the memory of it.
Making tea is a relatively minor example, but from then on, I never blithely claimed that I'd never experienced gender inequality and that there was no such thing these days. It made me more aware of implicit sexism in people's behaviour towards me.
Talking about my experiences to the other women on my course made me realise for the first time that even though there were only a few of us, I had a strong network of female peers and mentors who all had my back. Whatever happened, I knew that I didn’t have to deal with it on my own.
I swore that the next time a similar situation arose, I would object to it. These experiences made me a more vocal advocate for equality.
4. Having to admit I couldn't do the work.
In my third year, I did a year abroad at an American university. I was the first student on my course to ever do a year abroad, which meant that I was effectively creating a study-abroad programme for myself from scratch. I had to find modules at my host university that matched what I was studying at home. That turned out to be more difficult than I'd expected.
When I arrived in America, the professors in the chemistry and physics departments bluntly told me that they couldn't believe I'd been allowed to come. The modules I needed to match up were either too hard, too easy, or nonexistent, compared to what they could offer me.
For one terrifying week, I thought that after a year of preparation, and paying for visas, flights, and insurance, I would have to go home. I felt utterly lost and terrified.
I was determined to make it work, so I cobbled together a schedule from a strange mix of classes and took it to the professors. I suggested that I take more hours of independent research than I should really have – which meant several days a week alone in a lab playing with lasers – as well as expeditions into the unknown realm of chemical engineering. I even took several postgraduate quantum mechanics courses well above my level.
They agreed to let me stay, but I still struggled to keep up for the whole year. The American learning style was so drastically different to what I was used to that I almost failed. Eventually, I spoke frankly – if tearfully – to my professors about it, and asked if they could grade me in a style I was more accustomed to, with more weighting on end-of-year exams than the weekly homework assignments. They agreed.
That year taught me the value of independence, and the advantage in bringing people solutions instead of problems. Because I was willing to be flexible and offered a range of options, I managed to make my situation work. I've used that skill in my career more than any of the science I learned at university.
5. When I struggled with imposter syndrome.
As my course progressed and I started doing more independent laboratory research on my own, I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. I was convinced that I didn’t know everything I should have done. Because I was studying both chemistry and physics, I felt divided between the two, and like I didn’t know enough about either topic to be a real scientist in either field. I didn’t have chemical reactions memorised, and theorems didn’t slip off the tip of my tongue. I felt like a fraud.
I thought it was obvious to everyone else that I wasn’t qualified to be given free rein in a laboratory doing real research alongside actual scientists. I didn’t think I knew enough, or that I could be trusted.
Eventually I realised that everyone feels this way. It’s often better to be aware of your own flaws than to be overly confident, when you can make mistakes because you’re unwilling to ask for help.
Imposter syndrome occurs when you learn enough to become aware of just how much you still don’t know. Before I started my degree, I was happily oblivious of all the things I had yet to learn, and so I thought I was quite good at science.
If you keep working, eventually you’ll reach the level you think you should be at – and then you’ll start worrying about the next thing you don’t know.
6. The time I almost quit.
I chose to do a four-year course and graduate with a master's in science, instead of a bachelor's in three years. This meant that when I returned from my year abroad, all of my course friends had graduated without me, and I was left with the unhappy prospect of doing my final year alone.
For the first time, I wasn't enjoying science. It was suddenly a real burden instead of something I loved. I was very tempted to delay my final year – not helped by my imposter syndrome and struggles with the American course. I’d also just got a literary agent and book deal for my first novel. I would much rather have been working on my book edits than studying.
I knew that I had to finish – that it would be worse to try to come back in future years, if I ever came back at all.
It was hard. There were many breakdowns and weeks spent in bed without going into the lab once. My hair started falling out with stress. I had the first panic attack of my life. But it was all worth it.
7. When I decided to stick with it.
In that last painful year of my degree, I made new friends who turned out to be some of the best of my whole course. I discovered the joy of being in a laboratory full-time, instead of just for one afternoon a week. I revelled in the pure obsession of sinking my teeth into an enormous research problem, and the exhilaration of getting results.
Instead of template student experiments, I delighted in doing real science that had never been done before, with all the ups and downs and slow progress (and no progress) that includes. I even found inspiration for a new story in a piece of physics coursework about time dilation, which turned into my novel The Loneliest Girl in the Universe – a book about a girl struggling with her own imposter syndrome while still trying to do the physics she’s responsible for. Without knowing it, I was writing something that was subconsciously based on my own experiences at university.
In that final year, I learned that even when I'm bone-deep exhausted, I can keep going, and working, and fighting. I discovered that the absolute limits of my strength were much greater than I’d realised. And even though my focus, energy, and ambition was divided, I graduated with a first-class master's degree.
My course taught me that there's nothing shameful or weak about admitting that you can't cope when you're at your worst. Everybody has been there, and it's nothing to do with being a fragile female or a scientific imposter. It's human to struggle with stress. It will always get better.
Even though I ended up as an author instead of a scientist, I wouldn’t change a thing if I started university again now. Despite the worries, stresses, and despairing moments of my degree, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had studied a different subject.
Lauren James is the author of the Next Together series and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, out now.
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