5 Tips for coping with emotional overwhelm at work or school

We aren’t robots. We’re human. We have a wide range of emotions, all valid and normal. From happy to sad, angry to grateful, each and every one of our emotions is to be treasured, learned from, and used for our growth.

Since I started The STEM Thrive Guides, I have heard too often from people who feel emotionally overwhelmed because of personal and professional circumstances and issues. They feel frantic, searching for some quick-fix way to overcome their emotions of grief, anger, or fear, especially since their school or workplace environment views these emotions as weakness or problematic.

The truth is, in a healthy work environment all the emotions we feel should be seen as normal, and not looked upon badly by our colleagues, coworkers, bosses, etc.

A few months ago, my coworker came into work despite both her uncle and father passing away from COVID within weeks of each other. She openly shared what happened, feeling safe to do so. You could tell she was still in the shock phase of grief as she described how the day prior she came to work wearing two left shoes. She did not know what to do with herself, and did not want to stay home alone, so she came to work.

While she was excused from rigorous work, she kept busy and her coworkers and bosses, including me, lent a listening and empathetic ear. We were there for her, and empathized with her situation, understanding that she was going through a difficult time and not expecting her to suck it up and go on as if nothing happened. Her job security was not threatened, her performance review would skip this tough time, and she was allowed to grieve and do what she could in the meantime. Allowances were made, and communication prioritized.

A few years ago, I went through my own period of grief as I suffered intense anxiety and c-PTSD. At the time, I felt lucky that I had supportive coworkers at the company I worked for, and that, while what I went through was incredibly hard, I could squeeze in enough time for self-care throughout my days so that I could survive.

From my own experience, I learned many valuable lessons on how to navigate overwhelming emotions while maintaining a full-time job (as a research scientist).

  1. Locate safe spaces where you can go to break-down and feel all of those overwhelming emotions.

During my period of grief and anxiety, I had 3 safe spaces I would retreat to: my car, an empty office, and the restroom.

My car was by far the best because I could recline the seat and take a nap, cry, or meditate easily without being disturbed.

Nearly every day at 3pm I would take a 10-30 minute break and meditate in the empty office space.

The restroom was a great “quick escape” if I needed to catch my breath, but it would echo if I cried and people would enter, so it was not very private.

If you’re at a university, locate different offices where you may be allowed to take some quiet time to yourself. At one of my universities there was a women’s center with a nice couch, for instance. There may be spaces tucked away you can claim as your own when you need them.

2. In those safe spaces and at your workstation or desk keep a self-care kit.

I first built my self-care kit that I keep easily accessible in my bedroom during a panic attack. In the moment, I thought about which items I could use right then and there to ground myself and self soothe. In the next moment when I could move, I quickly grabbed an empty shoe box and filled it with items like tea bags, photos that made me smile, my essential oils, and these funky diffraction grating glasses because every time I wear them and see rainbows everywhere I can’t help but be amused.

My self-care kit also grew to include a journal, my favorite pink sparkly gel pen, and other sentimental items that make me feel happy.

Keeping a self-care kit on-hand for when you experience overwhelming emotions can decrease the time of distress from hours to minutes (it does for me!). It’s easy to pack a small container of things that make you feel serene or happy in your car or at your work desk.

I’ve since healed from PTSD and anxiety, but still keep self-care items at my desk like a heating pad for period cramps. You’re allowed to make your workplace comfortable and conducive to producing your best work!

3. Inform at least those who need to know about your emotional state.

I hope you work in a healthy environment for this one! It’s important to have psychological safety at work, and part of that means sharing when there is something that may lead to a reduction in your performance and finding solutions.

When I first started having anxiety and PTSD, I told a coworker I could trust about what I was going through so that at least one person knew what was going on if I had to leave the workplace suddenly or my symptoms got worse. I also told my boss, though left out the personal details surrounding why I was struggling. I kept it to only what I felt he needed to know. Both were understanding, and happy to step in and help provide accommodations if I could not keep up with my work load. I felt lucky I was in that kind of work environment because the previous one would not have been so considerate.

If you’re the only woman in your team or company (or the only person of any specific demographic), it can be daunting to share your struggles for fear of being seen as problematic or weak (or even fired). Remember, you are your own best advocate and you do not have to share anything you are not comfortable with sharing. When I am in this situation, I draw strength and courage from remembering that my most important job is to ensure that I feel safe and comfortable at work or school, and to take care of myself.

Note that whatever you are going through is a normal part of life. By reaching out, being vulnerable, and sharing with supportive coworkers you are not only ensuring your own psychological safety, but also deepening professional relationships. If anyone makes you feel lesser-than for struggling, that is a reflection of their own issues and not you. It’s important not to take it personally, though that can be difficult.

4. Prioritize your own wellness inside and outside of work.

From the self-care kit, to communicating to coworkers about your struggles and how that may affect your work, you are ultimately performing self-care. It’s important not to stop there.

Get really focused on the few things that have to get done, and forget the rest. Minimize where you are spending your time and energy, and use as much time as possible to self-care.

For me, this looked like working 40-hours (no more), taking the breaks I’m allowed at work (and using them to meditate and eat), and after work doing NOTHING but caring for myself. I did not take on any professional development trainings or volunteer work. I did not try to plan a trip to Europe. I just focused on the present moment, getting through each day, and learning how to care for myself and heal. I attended therapy weekly (which I HIGHLY recommend), which helped me learn different coping strategies.

Focus on you, and do the minimum at work and outside.

5. Learn coping techniques.

Everybody is different, so no two people will have the same coping strategies that will work for them and their situation. They key is to be curious and experiment with different coping techniques until you find what works best for you. STAY CURIOUS!

When I was at the height of coping with anxiety, I used my self-care kit for panic attacks, meditation about 3 time a day (10-30 minutes per session), and breathing techniques to soothe my nervous system.

I first started learning about meditation with the app Headspace, which was my 3pm ritual every day at work.

I also had a FitBit watch with this feature called “Breathe”. When activated, it would pulse and light up indicating when to breathe in and out, leading you in a rhythmic breathing exercise. This was a life-saver! I would use this whenever I felt a panic attack coming on and it often stopped it in its tracks. I could even use it quietly at my work desk; nobody had to know I was taking a 5-minute breather!

There are a variety of different coping techniques I learned in therapy and just through YouTube videos. Grounding techniques that root me in the present were most helpful for my situation, but perhaps you may need something different.

One of the most important things I learned is that just ignoring or brushing off an emotion was NOT the way to cope. There were some moments I had to brush off an emotion just to get through a work day, but I would write it down and remember later that day to really feel into that emotion so that I could process and release it.

When we cry in sadness or punch a pillow in anger, we are processing and releasing our emotions. This is essential to heal and move forward in a healthy manner. If you find yourself holding back tears at work, know that it’s a good thing to cry and go to your safe space to release that emotion. Keep crying, keep processing that emotion. Eventually things will change and you won’t be crying as often.

As I healed from my anxiety and c-PTSD, restructured my life to be full of self-care, and deepened my relationships by sharing my struggles and connecting with others who were going through similar, life seemed so much more beautiful and profound than before my suffering. I found the beauty in suffering, in loss and grief, and in the love that grew from the despair (love for myself, and the love from friends and family). Know that whatever you are struggling to cope with will lead to valuable lessons and perspectives, and help you grow into your best self.

My favorite mantras were: “one day at a time”, “find the beauty in this tough emotion”, and “this too shall pass”.

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!


Hello Fresh really helped me stay well-fed and nourished during a time when my anxiety induced a lack of appetite. I highly recommend using this meal service, which is delivered to your door weekly (or as frequent as you’d like), and very delicious!

Email stemthriveguides@gmail.com with the subject “HELLO FRESH” to get a discount!

5 ways documenting harassment surprisingly changed my life

You can either listen or read this blog post! Click on the player below to hear the podcast episode.

E7: 5 Ways Documenting Harassment is Life Changing! Resilient in STEM

In this episode I share the 5 ways documenting harassment changed my life (for the better!). I held off on documenting harassment for years because I felt like writing each instance would make me feel shameful or make the instance more real. I just wanted to forget about it and brush it off. In the end, once I documented, I realized I was validating myself, my emotions, and my experiences around harassment. It empowered me to learn and grow, and continue to advocate for myself. Listen to hear more about how documenting harassment can change your mindset and life! Links: Minicourse: How to Document Harassment (https://www.stemthriveguides.com/courses/mini-course-part-2) Article: Help! I'm being harassed and don't know what to do.  Join the Facebook Community: Resilient in STEM (https://www.facebook.com/groups/3677864482326139) For The STEM Thrive Guides courses on navigating inappropriate behavior at work and school, visit http://www.stemthriveguides.com.

I didn’t realize what I was missing out on for all those years I didn’t document harassment.

I’m not sure why I didn’t write down each instance. Perhaps it was because I was socialized to take punches while playing nice, or because I thought writing it down would make me feel even more ashamed that I was a target.

Either way, I conquered my social upbringing as well as my fears and started writing down every instance when I was in graduate school. By that time I was knee deep in trying to figure out whether the harassment was substantial enough to pursue legal action or just argue my case for why I should be permitted to stay and complete my PhD against my advisors’ wishes.

I started documenting harassment out of necessity after some quick google searches revealed that I should have been documenting harassment if I had any hope of justice. I’m not proud of this, but I suppose we all start documenting it for some reason or another.

Ever since that rude awakening back in 2016, I have kept up the habit of documenting every instance of harassment, and even taking the time to recall previous instances that date back to when I was an undergraduate physics student.

Documenting every instance did much more than just inspire me to found The STEM Thrive Guides, where I teach others how to navigate harassment at work and school. It transformed the way I approach life and my career in ways that completely surprised me. The advice I tend to give those who ask me for help with navigating harassment begins with “document harassment”, and this is why.

  1. Documenting harassment helped me grow awareness of how often I was harassed.

Documenting each and every instance when someone made feel uncomfortable or unsafe in my work or school environment resulted a long list of incidents with detailed descriptions of things including how it affected my work and how I resolved the issue.

Before I had this record, I felt like my strong feelings of self-doubt and imposters syndrome were mostly my own fault, and I was hard on myself for not feeling more confident in my technical skills. However, once I had a visible, tangible record of everything I had a HUGE “Aha!” moment where I realized that the root of my self-doubt was likely more due to the repeat instances where others disrespected me.

I, then, expanded my documentation to instances that happened outside of my workplace or university, and that further underscored that the harassment I faced in my life, from everywhere, added up to mental and physical health issues.

2. Documenting harassment inspires how I self-care.

After I started documenting harassment and growing awareness about how often I was harassed, naturally it helped me realize why I suffered certain mental and physical health symptoms. In 2015, it helped me realize that my advisor triggered me to the point where I’d experience strong stomach pains after every meeting with him. In subsequent years, I was able to identify the connection between harassment and panic attacks, anxiety, and self doubt.

While documenting harassment did not necessarily help relieve my health issues, it gave me confidence that it was indeed the harassment that was causing my symptoms. I, then, could make better decisions for my self care. Depending on the situation, I can then remove myself from the harasser by leaving the workplace or setting stricter boundaries, and/or ramp up my mindfulness and meditation practice, for example.

In fact, I’m an engineer, so I developed my own process I call the “Resilience Mindset” and “Reporting Framework” that I use to self-care and, then, work to resolve the issue while minimizing the overwhelming emotions I feel when I am harassed. This is what I teach in The STEM Thrive Guides courses.

Documenting harassment helped me develop tools that I use to self-care.

3. Documenting harassment validates my experiences and empowers me to continually advocate for myself.

When I documented each incident and every detail, saw the long list, breathed a sigh of relief that my feelings of self doubt were not my fault, and then started sharing my experiences with trusted friends and colleagues, something beautiful happened. I validated my experiences.

Many of my own experiences with harassment and bias have included gaslighting, where someone would invalidate my perspective or experience by telling me that how I perceived an experience was wrong or not that big of a deal. Seeing the long list of incidents, sharing my story with others, and hearing that I was not alone counteracted the effects of gaslighting.

I grew confidence that my perspective of my own experiences is valid, and that it is important and necessary for me to continually advocate for myself. I deserve to and have a right to feel safe and comfortable in my workplace or university, and reporting instances of harassment is my legal right.

Every time I took action to resolve an incident when I was harassed since documenting harassment, I have successfully resolved the issue, which only continually adds to my own confidence and empowerment.

4. Documenting harassment has given me a record of my growth and progress.

As I write down and review each instance of harassment I experience, I see this story of resilience and strength. For countless instances of harassment early in my education, my record reflects that I “did nothing” and tried to brush it off; however, nowadays, my record reflects different actions in the face of similar instances of harassment.

These different actions to resolve issues reflect my own personal and professional growth. While I could have taken better actions in my past to resolve harassment and self-care, I was doing the best I could. I had no resources like The STEM Thrive Guides. I was on my own. When I look back on how I used to navigate harassment, I practice compassion for my younger self. I see how hard she was trying and I’m proud of her for her growth and who she grew into. I’m proud of myself for how I am able to navigate inappropriate and difficult situations today.

5. Documenting harassment has grown my emotional intelligence and empathy, making me a better scientist, businessperson, leader, friend, and person.

Documenting harassment, validating my experience, tracking my growth, all came together in a surprising and beautiful way to me.

I wasn’t expecting documenting harassment to erase the shame and replace it with empowerment and confidence.

I wasn’t expecting sharing my story to grow and strengthen my relationships with colleagues, friends, and family.

I wasn’t expecting these relationships to inspire me to start The STEM Thrive Guides, starting a ripple effect of helping others learn to navigate harassment with ease and a lot less suffering than the “traditional way”.

I know as I move forward in my career and life, I will continue speaking my truth with confidence so that I can repel those opportunities and relationships not meant for me, and attract those that are.

Documenting harassment was the first step toward a very bright present for me. My life isn’t perfect, but my relationships are loving, and I have a healthy amount of confidence in my ability to overcome obstacles, whether they are from harassment or otherwise.

If you’d like to learn more about how to document harassment, I’ve made it easy for you! Check out The STEM Thrive Guides mini-course How to Document Harassment. This includes a special checklist designed so that even when you face overwhelming emotions you can easily document an incident of harassment including all the details necessary in case you wish to pursue legal action.

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe to the The Resilient in STEM podcast!

Best wishes on your journey! Remember, The STEM Thrive Guides is here for any support you need as you navigate difficult situations and inappropriate behavior at work or school. For more information about The STEM Thrive Guides, you can visit www.stemthriveguides.com.

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!

Remember, you deserve to and have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work and school, and don’t forget to document EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE OF HARASSMENT! 🙂

What does Empowerment Look Like?

Listen to this blog in podcast form! Plus hear a bonus conversation between Jill and Brianne C. Martin as they discuss what empowerment looks like and their empowerment journeys.

I remember when I was in elementary school being assigned to do a report on a role model. I was 10 years old, I think, and my mind blanked. I knew what a role model was, and I felt pressured to have one by my parents and teachers, but I did not have any. There are presidents, astronauts, movie stars, and other celebrities, yet never felt like I wanted to be them, or follow in their footsteps. (I ended up doing my report on Sally Ride because of parental pressure.)

To this day I struggle with finding a true role model who I aspire to be like, and instead have settled for admiring different traits of different people I learn exist on this planet. All of the people I look up to have one thing in common: empowerment. From a young age I always wanted to be one of those empowered people, and now I have the self awareness to know that the reason why is because I want to be significant and loved for who I am.

Empowerment is a word I hear thrown around a lot by people, communities, and organizations that call themselves feminist. There was even an Empowering Women series of lectures at my alma mater; I attended the lectures but did not feel particularly empowered afterward. In some contexts I see, like on social media, empowerment is promoted by showing “boss babes” flaunting their luxury items, dressing in designer clothes, and sharing how they made 6 or 7-figure businesses. In other advertisements on shoes, makeup, toys, soap, and even telecom service, women’s empowerment is promoted along with the product. But are these REALLY empowering?

What is empowerment?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, yes I’m stating the dictionary definition, to be empowered means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself.

Psychological empowerment is composed of four cognitions: meaning, self-determination, competence, and impact. Empowerment manifests self-confidence and renews your sense of purpose. When you act on your ability to do things and make decisions for yourself, you grow self-confidence and can follow your purpose.

Reflecting back on those advertisements, by nature purchasing something advertised will not necessarily lead to empowerment. You are making that decision to purchase the good or service, but that product in and of its self may not empower you. And let’s take this a step further to look at your purchase through a wider lens:

We live in a capitalist society. Not only that, but it’s patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-normative, imperialist, and white supremacist. This means that most of the images we see in media of what “empowerment” means and what a person who is empowered looks like is a straight, cis, white male from the upper class of society, with a well-paying job and property (including but not limited to a house, expensive car, wife, and children), AKA the oppressor.

When we see advertisements to “empower women”, what are the women doing? In a Verizon commercial, there is a girl working with power tools in a garage. Others have women wearing suits in minimalist corporate offices (the origin of minimalism is fascist and focused on erasure of culture, by the way). Some advertisements have women dressed in provocative clothing (for the male gaze), supporting men as gatekeepers to women’s power. Nearly every advertisement I have seen that purports to empower women, does so by portraying women in a “masculine” context, succeeding while being more masculine, or by promoting the message that a woman’s level of empowerment is measured by her proximity to and/or support from a man.

This is just one example of the false narrative of empowerment and how it can be sexist. Messages about empowerment can also be racist, classist, and ablest (and other -ists) as well. For example, media messages portray that to be empowered for black people means to be more like white people, for poor people to be more like rich people, and for people with disabilities to overcome their disability and achieve more than even an able-bodied person.

The underlying message by mainstream media is that to be empowered means that you think, look, and act like the oppressor.

Is true empowerment to be like the oppressor? No. Like I said earlier, it means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself. You don’t have to be a white male in order to do things or make decisions for yourself. Oh wait… People who are oppressed are treated cruelly or are prevented from having the same opportunities, freedom, and benefits as others. This means that they are prevented from (in certain situations) exercising their will and ability to make decisions for themself because of authority, the oppressor.

So, in a way you do have to be like the oppressor, a straight, white, cis, wealthy male, to have true empowerment and be able to follow through completely with your decisions (and this is true even for straight, white, cis, wealthy men).

Now that we understand what empowerment does not look like, what does empowerment look like?

When I was listening to the podcast Equivalence by EVE List with Sophie Leray: S1 E1, I had this moment where I thought, “wow, so this is what it’s like to listen to empowered women!” The podcast Equivalence explores what is equivalence in corporate and other places, and many episodes explore gender equity in the Middle East. It’s great!

The guest on the episode I listened to is Hermoine, a TV reporter and activist and advocate for women. She is originally from Australia, but works in the Middle East. In her role as a TV reporter and advocate, she feels like she’s constantly working against sexism.

As I listened to this episode, I felt in my soul that I needed to make this blog post about empowerment because I felt I found a role model of empowerment in Hermione (and the show host Sophie)! I want to share what qualities this woman has, as she self-describes in the episode, to provide this example of an empowered person.

Qualities of an Empowered Person:

1. Dedicates themself to Personal Development

Hermione spoke fondly of the years she dedicated to her own personal develop, getting to know herself and develop her self-awareness. She said how you see yourself is indicative of your self esteem.

2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness.

My ears perked up when Hermione said that she fought every sexual harassment case in her career. As someone who struggled a lot with navigating and reporting harassment, especially in my early career, I was impressed. I know the courage and self-assurance required to stand up for yourself, and this woman sure has quite a bit of that! It really excites me to hear from a woman with that kind of strength and courage.

Hermione credits her mother and father for raising her to be confident and strong, and feels like this kept people from harassing her as much as other women. She says she “didn’t fit into their box of what would be a victim”. The ones who did harass anyway, she prosecuted.

“You have to know yourself, love yourself, and stand up for yourself as a woman.”

– Hermione

3. Grounds themself in Core Values that Gives Resilience

Hermione states that her values from family and identity and faith in God, her spirituality, helped her develop her resilience because she knows she was made in the image of God. Even though she missed opportunities because of harassment, she kept going.

“The people who don’t give up are the ones that win.”

– Hermione

I included this key to resilience in The STEM Thrive Guides courses, which teach how to navigate difficult situations involving inappropriate behavior like microaggressions at work and school. In the courses, I share the resilience mindset, which are a set of 5 truths, or values, that I use to empower myself when deciding what actions to take to resolve a situation and reach justice. Grounding to your core values and acting from that place allows you to keep going and live with purpose despite uncertainty or setbacks.

4. Learning About and Growing Awareness of their Societal Context

Throughout the episode, it was evident that Hermione was well aware of issues in society, oppression, and how she is directly affected. She shared deep wisdom that she has grown through her learning and awareness. She feels like women have self-hatred and self-deprecation. Women tend to put themselves down while men build themselves up. We have to look at our identities as women and question why we do that. She knew that sexual harassment is usually subtle comments (also called microaggressions), and can be hard to identify.

She pointed out how in our culture, women are oversexualized; there’s pressure to look a certain way in her industry (news, TV) and many women have had procedures like plastic surgeries to stay working. She says she thinks the world has a long way to go to reach equity.

Growing this awareness of society, why you’re treated certain ways, helps one distinguish what they can’t control from what they can control. Since empowerment comes from a place of making decisions and choices, knowing what you can actually affect is important so that you don’t feel defeated. For instance, if you change how you dress to prevent harassment, you can feel defeated over and over again because how you dress has no control over how people treat you. Realizing that you have no control over preventing harassment allows you to focus on what you can control, which includes advocating for yourself as well as documenting and reporting harassment.

Once you realize what you do have control over, you can act on that while knowing what is outside of your control. Empowerment is action-based, and confidence grows when your actions produce the results you desire.

5. They Lift Others Up.

Hermione talked about how when you’re empowered you want to lift others, not tear them down. She said how it’s about relationship building, and it’s a mutual benefit in the long run; she believes what you sow is what you reap and that success is saving lives. This demonstrates how she has a growth and abundance mindset, not needing to compete but to collaborate with others to solve issues. She’s focused less on how others see her, and more on what is within her control: her thoughts and actions.

This is, by nature, the opposite of being an oppressor. Lifting other people is love. Loving is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth, as Erich Fromm says.

6. They Combine all the Above Traits to Pursue their Purpose

Hermione notes that the role of Hollywood is to please men not women, and, because of this, has been up against sexism to pursue her career in film and TV. She advocates for more women directors and writers and producers in the film industry, and has been director of the World of Women Film Fair Middle East. Despite setbacks, she is now the CEO of Straight Street Media, a global media consulting business. She continues her advocacy work as well with the House of Rest, a privately funded, non-political and non-governmental resource center run by women for women survivors of sex slavery, war, violence and oppression.

You can see that her entire journey, from Australia to the Middle East, from navigating sexism in her industry to promoting women in her industry, and then to building businesses and organizations around lifting others… her entire journey combines everything she has learned to act with purpose. She not only serves her higher good, but also those around her.

She may be oppressed, but she minimizes and counteracts oppression. She has not become the oppressor.

7. They Know They Can’t Do It All Alone.

Empowered people know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and surround themselves with people who love and support them. Hermione emphasized that she married someone with a similar vision as her, to help lift communities. Throughout the episode she discussed the support of her family throughout her life. And here she was on a podcast sharing her story, connecting with the host of the show.

From her business, to her work as a film festival director, to her new initiative The House of Rest, you can see through her actions that she is all about building communities that lift their members and others. She knows that she can’t make the big, positive changes in the world by herself.

The image of empowerment as one who conquers solo is simply false and, honestly, probably improbable. True empowerment incorporates community because the decisions that stem from the empowered person are enacted to love and respect themself and others.

I had Brianne listen to this podcast and wanted to hear her opinion since she is an empowered person. …

These are just 7 qualities of someone who is empowered, and, to summarize, they are:

  1. Dedicates themself to personal development
  2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness
  3. Grounds themself in core values that gives resilience
  4. Learning about and growing awareness of their social context
  5. They lift others up
  6. They combine all of these traits to pursue their purpose
  7. They know they can’t do it alone

There may be other traits and qualities of an empowered person that I did not mention here. If you think of more, DM @stemthriveguides on Instagram with any additional qualities you think an empowered person has.

The image of empowerment as similar to an oppressor is so toxic and does not match reality. You can be oppressed and still be empowered, and simply acting like an oppressor does not make you empowered (it gives away your personal power and freedom).

Lately I have been reading the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, which provides amazing insight arguing that education is freedom. Originally when I was planning this blog post and podcast episode, I was not thinking of including this text; however, I happened to start reading it and it COMPLETELY coincided with this reflection on what empowerment looks like. I seriously wish I could just quote the whole book here, but that would take too much time and probably be Copywrite infringement, so go ahead and please read this book but keep in mind it can be a little sexist (which the book Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks discusses).

In this reflection of empowerment, I’ve been sharing how simply the oppressed becoming the oppressor, or acting like the oppressor, is not empowerment. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire discusses how the oppressed are yearning for freedom and justice and struggling to recover their lost humanity. He explains how the oppressor loses their humanity by stealing the humanity from the oppressed. So, in our society, both oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized. He writes, “…sooner or later being less human leads to the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”

There are a few stages to liberating yourself as an oppressed person, and I won’t cover them all here, but I do want to speak about the ones that relate to becoming empowered. Essentially, empowerment is liberation, right?

Freire states that the initial stage of the struggle of the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, they tend to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors. This is exactly following how media messages are shaped: the oppressed struggle but see that a product or service can make them more like the oppressor, and so they purchase the product consciously or subconsciously fighting against their own oppression. But by putting money in the pockets of their oppressors, they are fulfilling status quo in the end, and not liberating themselves at all.

Looking back at when I first entered the field of physics as a college student, which is a very male-dominant field, I even remember feeling like I needed to assimilate and be like my straight, white male colleagues. I was already white, but I tended to dress in khaki pants and polo shirts, which were very uncomfortable for me but I thought it would save me from my oppression, the harassment I faced. I talk about this in episode 5 of the Resilient in STEM podcast, all about embracing femininity in the workplace. By changing how I dressed, and even how I acted, I was essentially trying to become the oppressor. I thought this would make me feel empowered, but, it did not. My choices were not coming from a place of love, but, rather, a place of fear.

Another example that is less obvious of a time when I became the oppressor to try to counter my oppression, was when doing science outreach to children. Instead of recognizing their humanity, I approached teaching science as if I held all the keys to knowledge, which I was then bestowing upon them. It was like a performative savior type of dynamic that made me feel good because of false generosity, yet did probably more bad than good. I was not really teaching them anything because I was not speaking to their identity, while simultaneously upholding status quo dynamic of teacher-student, which is very hierarchal and dominating. I want to speak more about the pitfalls of science outreach and how it perpetuates inequity and oppression, but I’ll save that for another post.

That first stage was essential to me in order to become more empowered. I had to try and fail to empower myself by trying to become the oppressor. I’m not proud of it, but it seems like the normal path so I forgive myself and try to do better moving forward.

The next stage to empowerment, and liberation, is reflection. And this is where I want to leave you today. I feel like this post may be enough to open your eyes or validate feelings you already had but maybe did not know how to put in words. By researching and reflecting for this post myself, I learned a lot about myself and oppression. Reflection is the next step, growing awareness of yourself and society in general (which is the 1st and 4th trait I listed of an empowered person!).

And, now that I’ve written this whole post, I now see that perhaps we use the word “empowerment” to mean “liberation” interchangeably. At nearly any point during this I could have replaced “empowered” with “liberated” and it would have meant the same. Wow. Perhaps women empowerment is simply a term gaslighting women because empowerment stems from the individual but the connotation of liberation stems from society or government, and those in power put the onus on women to change (and empower themselves) rather than change the systems that are keeping them oppressed.

Well, I’ll just leave you with that!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast! Leave a review if you liked this episode!

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!

Embracing Femininity in the STEM Workplace

When I entered the world of physics and engineering, what I saw were men wearing khaki pants and collared polo shirts, or t-shirts and jeans. Sitting in classrooms as one of only a few women, I stood out, and felt like I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing in order to become a physicist and engineer. The way some of my professors and colleagues treated me made me feel like I didn’t belong and that I needed to prove that I could fit in, so what did I do? I decided to dress and act like them.

I hated wearing khaki pants and polo shirts. It felt frumpy and unflattering on me, and I did not feel comfortable or beautiful wearing that outfit. I wore minimal makeup and did not style my hair. I just wanted to blend in to be treated with respect, like “one of the guys”, but the harassment and microaggressions continued.

I’m sure the way I speak changed to fit into this culture. Even today when I speak to people who are not in science or engineering, they tell me I come off as blunt or rude. I’ve been trained to write emails and messages that are to the point so as to be efficient, not recognizing the humanity of the person on the other side. When I would write “how is your day?” or “I hope you’re doing well,” I felt like I may come across as being too flowery with my language and not taken seriously.

And more recently as I was promoted to a senior scientist role, in my performance review I received criticism that I was not dominant enough. I shared credit and collaborated more than I took ownership over my achievements, which made my managers feel like I was not contributing as much even though I achieved all of my goals successfully on time.

I’m not the only one who has felt pressure to shift my behavior and appearance from more feminine to masculine. All people feel this within male-dominant fields, especially when femininity is perceived as weakness or frivolous.

In a Clubhouse room that discussed this topic of femininity in the workplace, many women spoke up about their experiences, many of which mirrored mine:

  1. One graduate student researching at an R1 institution found a theme regarding how people respond when she shares her career aspiration to be a professor. She said she gets a sense of pushback from male colleagues as they inform her that there’s the option of working at a predominantly undergraduate research institution (or PUI). Every time she expresses her desires for her career path she gets that feedback. Males likely don’t get that opinion pushed on them as much. Women are pushed toward these “less desirable” opportunities.
  2. Myself and others found throughout our education that professors pushed us to do more education and outreach related activities even though we wanted to be research scientists and had no formal training in pedagogy. I felt like this was because I was a woman, and, thus, perceived to be more nurturing a suitable for a teacher. Professors also saw my great communication and leadership skills, but saw that useful in teaching rather than in a research environment (but, trust me, communication and leadership skills are very important in a research environment!).
  3. There’s also the question of ownership over shared space; how much responsibility do we have over our space and how much are we expected to be training and advising colleagues versus our goals. Women may more often be put in the position to do more lab cleaning, secretarial work, and mentoring that can take time away from research and goals.
  4. Another woman shared that in an internship her employer told her that she was not allowed to work in the engine room. He thought he was doing her a favor, and that it was the right thing to do. However, she went ahead against his guidance and did the work and did receive a great letter of recommendation from him. This incident reflects how people are often brought up certain ways culturally and don’t know how to work with women.
  5. One person shared that when their university hosts female speakers in their department, fewer people attend lectures, and the questions focus on their identity as a female researcher rather than their research topic.
  6. Some women even experienced push back and mean looks from other women when they showed up at work authentically, dressing more feminine. And many felt that when they display emotions of joy or excitement at work, others view them as less credible and serious about the work.

All of these experiences contained similar themes:

  1. Expressing femininity in any way is seen as less professional, which is sexist and racist.
  2. Both women and men can perpetuate sexism and racism.
  3. All women who spoke about their experiences had negative emotional reactions, and felt like this was an added barrier to their career progression.

Embracing femininity in this context, simply means to show up authentically as yourself in your school or workplace. Both men and women ns non-binary people can be feminine and masculine; it’s actually healthy and normal to be both!

How I Embrace my Femininity at Work

As a cis woman, there are several ways that I embrace and express my femininity at work.

  • Wear what makes me confident and happy!

I dress in ways that make me happy and confident, and for me that means wearing makeup and dresses!

  • Leverage strengths in collaboration and inclusivity to reach work goals.

I also have an inclusive and collaborative work style where I take initiative on important projects by pulling together teams of people to find solutions. While I could work on tasks independently, I believe that teamwork is often the best way to share knowledge and find the best solution. It also helps improve the culture of the company, breaking down hierarchies and shifting power dynamics. When you have the least experienced collaborating as much as the most experienced, and everyone shares credit, nobody has a chance to dominate. Everyone is focused more on reaching a solution than worried about getting credit.

  • Create space for others to be authentic too.

Another way I embrace my own femininity at work is by giving others space to be themselves, and respecting them. By being authentic myself, I create a safe climate for others to be themselves as well. We all like that person on our team who brings up humor to break tension at the perfect moment, or tells us that they are happy we are their coworker, this increases psychological safety and belonging in our workplaces. By being myself, I hope to contribute toward the psychological safety of others in my workplace. This, in turn, lets me be myself too!

  • Set and enforce boundaries.

Finally, I embrace my femininity by setting boundaries. I do not have tolerance of any harassing behavior, which includes comments about my appearance. “I like your dress” is totally ok with the right tone and intention, but when they say things like “You look good today,” or “Why do you always dress up?” or make me feel like I should dress differently, I trust my intuition, and if they make me uncomfortable, I take action. If someone oversteps my boundary I will either talk to them or report them for harassment. No matter how I dress, I deserve to feel safe and comfortable at work, and I have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work. I do not treat others that way, and do not tolerate that kind of treatment from others.

I recognize that I have a lot of privilege as a white, cis female though, and that not everyone at all points of their career can reinforce their boundaries without serious retaliation. For instance, up until recently, it was legal to fire someone because their hair was deemed “unprofessional”, and the people who were targeted the most for this are black women. “Professional” is often used to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchal dominance. For instance, the descriptions of “business casual” wardrobes are modeled after the attire men would wear to a frat party; khaki pants and a collared shirt or suit. The narrow definition of “professional” attire excludes non-white and non-male people and, thus, perpetuates racism and sexism.

But wait! There’s so much more!

There is such a deep-rooted history of devaluing the body in education and the workplace. Teaching to Transgress, a book about education as a form of liberation written by bell hooks, discusses this in depth. bell hooks writes that in a classroom minds are valued over bodies, spirit, and soul. She sites a simple example about being uncertain if she was allowed to take a bathroom break during class as a professor.

In society, our schools and workplaces often try to ignore the fact that we have bodies that have needs. Ergonomics, paternity and maternity leave, and sick leave are a few examples of times when our bodies are given “accommodations”, yet there is so many more ways our bodies need respect and love.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the extra care I need during my period every month. I’ve found ways to work while on my period, like using a combination of pain-killers and electric heating pad I keep at my work desk for cramps. I also try to not schedule too many tasks on those first couple days of my cycle. While I try to be as gentle to myself as possible, I would rather power through the pain than take one of my precious sick days every month. You may recognize other ways schools and workplaces fall short of providing space for care of our bodies, especially if you are not cis-male, and/or white.

Embracing my femininity is so important for me because it is part of who I am, and when I don’t act authentically it requires emotional labor. Emotional labor can be tolling, leading to extra stress and exhaustion. It can also lead to serious mental and physical health issues like depression, PTSD, nausea, fatigue, and more.

When we are focusing our energy on consciously acting inauthentically, we are also taking energy and focus away from our work, decreasing our productivity.

It’s best not just for you, but also for your company or organization, for you to act authentically.

When you respect yourself, others will respect you. You teach others how to treat you, and when you show up as yourself you give others permission to show up as themself too. What makes you unique is your biggest strength!

There will always be people who will not respect you no matter what, and it’s important to recognize that you do not have control over how they treat you; no matter what you wear or how you act, they will not respect you. It’s best to set boundaries and distance yourself from these unloving people, and recognize that the reason they treat you this way is not because of you, it is because of their own issues.

Now, I want to end with some advice and resources if you find yourself in a situation where you are being bullied or harassed at work or school. First you should check out this article where I detail some steps to take if you are being harassed. It’s important to know your legal rights so that you know the types of harassment and bullying you are protected from.

Also, I just stared a new podcast called Resilient in STEM that offers more discussions on topics related to thriving in your career! If you liked this article on embracing femininity, I recommend you check out a previous blog post and podcast episode I created on how self-love is revolutionary where I share different ways you can integrate self-love into your lifestyle.

If you would like to join a supportive community to help you on your career journey, you are invited to join Resilient in STEM!

Best wishes to you on your career journey!


5 Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I knew this since April 1st, yet hesitated to create any content around this topic because it is triggering for me. As I proceed in writing this, I am being hyper aware that I should step away if it is too much. And, if this topic triggers you, know it’s okay to stop listening and self care at any time.

I want to start with that only way I’ve been sexually assaulted is that one time I was kissed against my will. I did not sustain long-term trauma from this, but because so many of my loved ones are survivors of sexual assault, the offenses of sexual assault of my community have still left me with trauma. I’ve learned this is called secondary PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and this is what I mean by saying I get triggered from this topic. Sexual assault, like any trauma, doesn’t just affect the survivor, it affects the whole community.

A few years ago I was the caretaker for a sexual assault survivor, and it was the hardest year of my life. I learned so much about psychology, therapy methods, what flashbacks were, learning to identify and cope with triggers and much more. While a survivor of sexual assault may walk away with no physical injuries, the mental injuries can be so deep and profound that they literally change the person. And, in truth, it’s terrifying.

Like I said, I want to keep myself from being triggered so much, so I want to just convey what I think is incredibly important for everyone to know, which is how to support a survivor of sexual assault. This is from my own personal experiences; I’m not going to list anything I found online just in 10 minutes of searching, so this is REAL and I’m not sure if you’ll find this information in many other places.

Ways to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

  1. Never victim blame.

Victim blaming is when someone says it’s the victim’s fault for the assault directly or indirectly. When it comes to sexual assault I’ve heard “well, you shouldn’t take drinks from strangers”, “you should have worn something less provocative”, or “what do you expect going to a bar alone?”. All of these are unhelpful at best and incredibly triggering, shaming, and unloving responses.

When someone experiences sexual assault, there is already a layer of shame and regret often involved. They question themself and how if they changed their actions the situation could have been avoided. However, they were never to blame. EVER. The person who assaulted is ALWAYS AT FAULT.


  • Validate the survivor’s experience and emphasize that they were not at fault.
  • Do not focus your conversation on what happened and how the person can make different decisions in the future, focus the conversation on what the survivor needs now to heal.
  • Do not ask questions about the incident in order to judge who was at fault, instead listen to what the survivor wants to share with empathy.
  • Don’t pressure the survivor to share everything; trust that they will share what they feel comfortable sharing with you when the time is right for them.

2. Never question whether it happened or whether it was sexual assault.

When a survivor experiences sexual assault, there is typically a period of shock that follows. They wonder if they just dreamed it happened, or even maybe if they did want it to happen. Especially when survivor does not have a clear memory of the event due to drinking, drugs, or a black-out from fear, the survivor could feel like they’re losing touch with reality if someone asks “are you SURE that happened to you?”. The survivor could be questioning if it even happened to them, and questioning why they feel so “crazy” or traumatized.


  • If the survivor asks if the incident actually happened, kindly let them know that their recollection of the events is valid, and that you believe them.
  • Always listen more than you speak when the survivor is discussing the incident. Let the survivor lead the conversation.
  • When you feel the urge to question whether an incident of sexual assault was actually consensual, DO NOT AT ALL question this. If the survivor says it was sexual assault, believe them the first time.

3. Offer resources to help them if they ask for some, but don’t be pushy.

There are many resources for sexual assault survivors out there. I won’t list them all here, but RAINN is an organization with many resources and a hotline to help. The important thing to remember when providing resources is that the survivor must be open to these resources. After sexual assault, a survivor can sometimes feel so much shame that even seeking help is out of reach (this is especially what I’ve observed male survivors of sexual assault). This feeling of shame is normal, unfortunately, and it’s important that the survivor know that the feeling is normal and valid, but that healing is possible; they won’t feel this way forever.

The healing journey for sexual assault survivors is very personal. Therefore, certain resources aren’t for everyone. While a group therapy session may be great for one person, for another that can have the opposite effect, for instance. Also, a survivor could need different resources at different points in their healing journey. At first they may need therapy, and then down the line join a support group. It all depends on the person. Listening to what the survivor wants is most important, and helping them work through bureaucracy to reach resources can be very helpful for them. Let them heal at their own pace.

4. Understand what a trigger is, what a flashback is, and how to encourage them to perform coping skills when necessary.

Triggers and flashbacks are wild. When I was caretaking for a sexual assault survivor, I witnessed first-hand someone learning what their triggers were, and it’s not a fun process at all. Picture this, the survivor has some mundane, everyday experience and as a result plunges into a state of panic and anxiety where they don’t even seem like they are in the same room as you even though they are right next to you. You try to communicate with them, ask them what’s wrong, and all they can respond with are cries, panicked sounds, and flailing gestures. Their face could go pale with fright, or they could just get supremely sad, or they could just get really angry and start cursing. It’s unpredictable, and can happen hourly, daily, weekly… you never know.

Flashbacks happen when the mind basically takes the person back to the original experience of trauma. The person can dissociate from the present reality and feel like they are back being assaulted. It’s terrifying. And triggers can cause a flashbacks. A trigger can be as simple as a phrase, smell, location, thought,.. anything really.

After sexual assault, a survivor has to go through the process of learning what their triggers are in order to heal from the incident. This is best done with a licensed therapist, so don’t take on this work. It takes time to learn what one’s triggers are, so being patient and supportive of the survivor is key. When they do have a flashback or panic attack, recognize that in that moment you may not be able to really help them. When the survivor is more conscious of the present, you can direct them in performing coping skills like grounding techniques and rhythmic breathing exercises as long as the survivor is open to it.

Overall, be empathetic toward someone who experiences these triggers, and know that they are not being overly sensitive. They don’t have control over this. This is normal for a trauma survivor. The best thing you can do is just be there to offer love and support, and reassure them that they are safe.

5. (Especially for partners of sexual assault survivors) Understand that your relationship with the survivor will change, and don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

When someone experiences sexual assault, they are injured mentally and perhaps even physically. Just like any injury, there needs to be healing before they can be “themselves” again. However, traumatic experiences have the ability to completely alter a person’s personality. Before the incident, they may have been a “go with the flow” type of person who loved large social events, but after they may develop agoraphobia and never want to leave the safety of their home. Fear may now rule their every decision, and there is no quick fix to get them to be who they were before the assault.

In the world of “parters of survivors with PTSD”, most of the resources are for military wives; I’m sure you can see why. PTSD is so commonly associated with the effects of war; however, people can get PTSD from any source of trauma, even workplace harassment and abuse! When your partner has experienced trauma and has PTSD, they may no longer be able to offer the same level of love and support as they did before the incident because they are in a state of survival and fear. They are the one who needs help. What can happen is the partner of the survivor either falls into a caretaking role; the relationship dynamic is altered.

When one is a caretaker, it can be emotionally draining, overwhelming, and traumatizing itself as you witness the unfolding of the symptoms of your partner, as well as deal with the grief and cognitive dissonance that your partner has changed and your relationship has changed. Online I found many resources that described symptoms military wives face: emotional outbursts like crying fits, extreme fatigue and exhaustion, as well as secondary PTSD or complex PTSD (c-PTSD). The same thing can happen to anyone close to a person with PTSD, including a sexual assault survivor.

While you may not be the survivor of sexual assault, know that you are also a victim in this and allowed to feel all the feels you may have by witnessing the resulting trauma. Seek your own supportive community and resources to help you in your caretaking role. Be sure to fill your own cup, feed your own soul, and take care of yourself, or else you may end up needing more help than the survivor.

Well, I made it through writing all that and I am proud that I was able to because I seriously hope this helps someone. While there are so many resources on sexual assault out there, there is so much lacking for support at the same time: the inability of law enforcement to catch criminals, the high cost of hiring lawyers, the lack of affordable and quality therapy, the limited resources and information for partners and loved ones of survivors, the absence of discussions of male rape which contributes toward shaming male survivors, the taboo nature of sexual assault in society in general, and much more.

I want to end with:

Believe survivors, and be aware that if you don’t know of a single person who has been sexually assaulted, you may need to be concerned as to why people don’t feel comfortable coming to you for love and support. You likely know at least one survivor of sexual assault, even if they have not shared that with you.

And to survivors:

You did not deserve what happened to you, and you are worthy of joy, healing, and love.

How Practicing Self-Love is Revolutionary

Listen to this blog article on the Resilient in STEM podcast!

Self-love is revolutionary.

If you’re someone who is oppressed by society, your practice of self-love is revolutionary. Social oppression refers to oppression that is achieved through social means and that is social in scope—it affects whole categories of people. This kind of oppression includes the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). That being said, with self-love being the opposite of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation, by performing self-love you are countering the effects of your oppression. When you are oppressed, society does not want you to be fully human and thrive; you are simply a commodity to be exploited for their gain. Reclaiming self-love is an act of revolution as it challenges status-quo; it challenges the current definition of “normal” accepted by society.

That being said, when you are oppressed, the way society says you should self-care is another violation of your own autonomy. The same society that mistreats you cannot also offer you relief from your suffering. It is not easy to recognize gaslighting in messages you get in the media, unlearn what society has taught you about self-love, and relearn what is actually good for you, but it is possible. This is why self reflection as a means to grow your self-awareness and emotional intelligence are so important. With emotional intelligence and self awareness you can better recognize gaslighting, and learn what feels good to you, and grow your self-love practice.

Growing self awareness and emotional intelligence is so important in not only developing your self-love practice, but also in navigating difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination at work or school. I actually have a whole chapter dedicated to this in the STEM Thrive Guides courses. In the courses I provide methods for growing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and teach processes for using self awareness to resolve uncomfortable situations at work.

I’m really excited to share with you about my annual self-love tradition I started practicing back in 2018. At that point in time I was healing from PTSD from a toxic workplace as well as a personal event, and had the realization that I needed to reconstruct my life so that it positively served my happiness, health, and overall wellbeing. I was learning a lot about psychology, and experimenting with different methods to heal from trauma.

Today I want to share how I use the month of May as a moment to reaffirm, adjust, and expand on my self-love practice. Doing this every year has seriously changed my life for the better and healed me in many ways. It has also strengthened my relationships, and deepened my connection with the world around me. I used to put up with disrespect and abuse because I didn’t want to be problematic in my workplace or not be liked, and this caused so many issues for me throughout my education and career. I was miserable and feeling hopeless, but when I centered my own wellbeing everything changed and now I’m more confident, happy, healthy, and more myself than ever! And I want to share one of my most important practices that has transformed my life right now! Now you can probably see why I’m so excited to share this! This is literally life changing!!

First, I want to define self-love for you since I feel like this REALLY matters, especially if you’re someone who is oppressed in society.

Self-love means loving yourself and caring for yourself. I like the definition of love written by Erich Fromm and repeated by bell hooks in her book “All About Love”, which is an amazing read by the way. It is:

Love is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

– Erich Fromm

I like this definition of love because it is so expansive and allows room for each person to have their own unique needs for love, as in needs for spiritual growth.

When it comes to spiritual growth, it is very personal. Often when I have been told how to care for and love myself, I get a step-by-step list or a set of instructions. The problem with this is that while those things may have helped someone else, they may not necessarily help me. I have my own past, ailments, struggles, and lifestyle that certain methods of self-care may not be suitable for relieving. For instance, someone who needs to stress-relieve after a busy day of running errands may need a bubble bath with some scented candles to unwind. However, when I was suffering from the affects of abuse in my workplace, a bubble bath would not be conducive to helping me; I needed a different set of self-love actions to take care of myself. In the age of capitalism, you’ll hear a lot of different tips and tricks for self-care, but it’s important to be skeptical as most of this is just marketing; it’s intended to sell you something, not necessarily help YOU.

That being said, while I’m sharing a self-love tradition I do annually, this may not be suitable for you and your self-love practice. I’m simply providing this as an example that may perhaps open your mind to exploring what works for you to deepen your love of yourself and grow.

First, I’ll give some background of my self-love practice, then I’ll share the self-reflection questions I use to assess my current state and where I’d like to grow, and I’ll finish with my favorite practices for May, my month of self-love!


This time of year, May or late Spring/early Summer, is a very special time of year for me. It is my favorite part of the year for many reasons! First, my birthday is in May, and I have many amazing memories of celebrating with friends and family. Also, it’s the time of the year where I live where the weather gets warm, flowers are blooming, and I can resume all the outdoor activities. I can also wear summer dresses without needing a sweater, and walk around with bare feet if I choose to do so!

I feel naturally excited, adventurous, and my heart feels full of love at this time of year, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In many traditions and religions around the world, the beginning of May and end of April is celebrated as a time of the year where the world is coming to life! Historically, people use this time of the year to welcome the summer by having bonfires, May Day festivals with flower crowns and dancing, picnics in parks, maypoles, decorating with greenery and flowers, choosing a Lei Queen, and more! The name of the celebrations varies (May Day, Irminden, Calendimaggio, Walpurgisnacht, Lei Day, Vappu, Valborg, and Youth Day), but the sentiment and traditions remain similar. Even Mother’s Day and celebrations of Mary in Christianity are celebrated in May (following the symbolism that the Earth is coming back to life after the Winter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

I’m not a religious person, but I do like to use the different energies I feel throughout the year to amplify my health and wellbeing. May is a time when I take advantage of that energy I feel of love, new life, and creativity to nurture myself. For me, May is the time of year I reflect on and reaffirm my commitment to love myself.

To me, all that I do stems from self love. If I am trying to help others or contribute to society in a positive way, I need to center my wellbeing and, therefore, love myself too. Years ago, I fell into the trap that I think many women are socially conditioned to do, which is to put others ahead of their own wellbeing. I sacrificed my own wellbeing to help others, and as a result, lost track of who I was and suffered from different ailments including depression and anxiety. When I am in that state of emotional exhaustion from spending all of my energy caring for others, not only do I suffer but the help I give falls short of truly being great help. I end up helping nobody, and feeling depleted, exhausted, and hopeless.

By centering my own self-love, I fill my own cup until it overflows and, by extension, helps others. Even as I write my blog posts or record my podcasts, I am mindful of the energy I am giving versus receiving from these activities.

Now, I do want to be clear on one thing before I go through the self-reflections I use and my self-love practices for May. Just because I use May to refocus on self-love does not mean I abandon any effort for the rest of the year. I simply use this time to really focus and reset my habits so that they are positively serving me. I technically do this throughout the year, but May is an especially powerful time to reaffirm my vows of self-love. Self love is not simply a to-do list; it is a mentality and a practice that I embed in my lifestyle so that no matter what I am doing I am loving and caring for myself.

Self Reflection

The first thing I plan to do this May is a deep self-reflection. I journal about the following:

  1. What are your ailments and where are they coming from?
  2. Take note of harmful habits
    1. Create a plan to maintain awareness of bad habits
  3. Reflect on your relationships
    1. Which have progressed in healthy ways?
    2. Which are more negative and draining, and how can you set boundaries with those people?
  4. Recognize what you love about yourself and how much you have grown.
  5. What is fun for you and brings you joy?
    1. Integrate those into your lifestyle so that they are part of your daily habits!


  1. Journal about reasons you love yourself
  2. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love, respect, and happiness
  3. Nature Walks – smell flowers, sage, plants. Observe seasonal changes and new life.
  4. Wear clothes that feel good to you, and make you feel beautiful. (I like wearing more feminine outfits and dresses, as well as rose quartz jewelry to amplify my self love practice.
  5. Grow awareness of cycles in nature: moon phases, your menstrual cycle, etc.

Now that I’ve shared all these amazing revelations and practices around self-love, my hope is that this inspired you or reaffirmed to you the importance of self-love. This practice of annually celebrating May and this time of year in this way has made me more grateful for my life and relationships, and aware of all the beauty of this world, even the beauty in suffering. I’d love to hear if you have your own self-love practice, and maybe we can exchange wisdom! If you’d like to start your own self-love annual tradition, I have a treat for you! I made a self-love month-long challenge that you can complete at the time of year that resonates with you! Simply follow the link here.

And on that note, I want to share a few opportunities with you!

I started an online community called Resilient in STEM on Facebook to provide support and resources for people navigating difficult situations in their career. No community out there is like this one, which focuses on learning from and resolving issues related to taboo topics like bias, harassment, microaggressions, and discrimination. We would love to have you be a part of that community!

If you ever find yourself struggling, feel free to reach out for help. You are not alone, and you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your workplace or school environment!

22 Tips for Physics Major Success

Listen to is blog post through the Resilient in STEM podcast!

Before I was a senior scientist developing lithium ion batteries, I was once a physics major. Can you believe it??

I have my bachelors in physics (with a minor in music and a Masters in materials science and engineering). When I started as a physics major I had no clue what was in store for me or what it really meant to be a physics major. All I knew is that I liked music, science, and math, and physics seemed super interesting and challenging. I was curious about spacetime, black holes, string theory, dark matter, and all these mysteries of our universe! 

Looking back, I wish I had some extra advice because I did not recognize some of the more toxic qualities of the physics culture until much later in my education, though I suffered from the symptoms throughout my time in college.

As a physics major, whenever I introduced myself and what I studied people would ALWAYS give me a surprised look and response. They’d reply “A PHYSICS major?!?” in shock or surprise as if I had just turned water to wine, or question why a “pretty girl like me” would study such a subject. At first it felt flattering to receive feedback that I “must be smart”, but over time it made me hesitate when telling someone what I studied because the reply was almost always annoying and emotionally tolling; I sometimes felt the other person wanted me to explain myself as if I had to justify why I picked the major. Now, I see that this type of response is a microaggression, and a form of harassment that added to my feelings that I didn’t belong in physics.

It’s obvious that physics lacks diversity and inclusion, especially for those of us in the field. From the moment I started as a physics major, from the make-up of my classes (often I was the only or only 1 of 2 women in a classroom) I felt like I must represent all women and prove myself worthy of being called a physicist. The problem was, I would try to conform how I dressed and acted, trading in my authenticity to try to be respected. It never worked because true belonging comes when you stay true to yourself and are given acceptance for your authentic self (Thanks Brené Brown!). Harassment and bias continued no matter how hard I tried to conform.

Harassment is so normalized in society that I did not recognize it for years. Once I did realize I was being harassed, I felt like if I spoke up that I would be seen as problematic and that I wouldn’t make the networking connections I needed for my career. It felt scary to speak up or report as I thought it would put the career I was working toward into jeopardy.

With the harassment, bias, and microaggressions, plus looking different as a woman in my field, I had a hard time feeling like I belonged in physics. My self doubt grew (even though I was a top performer in my classes), and I shied away from forming professional relationships with many of my professors.

The following tips come from my perspective as a female physicist as I look back on the lessons I have learned:

Study Tips (5)

  • You don’t have to be a genius to study physics. Everyone’s jaw will drop when you tell them your major, and in a workplace people still find physics majors impressive; however, there are probably many times you will feel like you aren’t smart enough or aren’t tough enough to be a physicist. The truth is that you do not have to be exceptionally smart to do well in your science career. Seeing failure and being wrong as learning moments is far more important. Keep learning and trying. Perseverance is more important than being a genius.
  • Read the textbook! It helps prepare you for each lecture AND often problems from the textbook (or similar) end up being exam questions.
  • Form study groups with your colleagues. It’s great to develop lifelong friendships and connections for future career success. Don’t be shy if you’re the minority in the group; everyone is just learning and growing as an undergraduate! If colleagues do ever harass you or treat you disrespectfully, you also don’t have to put up with that behavior and should address it right away. (See this post for more information on navigating inappropriate behavior.)
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to learn ALL of physics as a physics major. As an undergraduate, you’ll get a broad overview of many subfields of physics, and learn how to problem solve and learn how to find information. If any one subfield of physics interests you, read papers and get involved in research on that topic to explore your curiosity and see if you would like to go into a career related to that topic!
  • Fall in love with the beauty of math, but learn all the tools you can use to simplify your work. If you really enjoy calculus and thinking deeply about applying mathematics to scientific concepts, it’s a good major for you! Calculators and programming languages that help you perform complex calculations will make life easier for you in school and in your career.

Career Tips (9)

  • A physics major gives you the skills to problem-solve and succeed in nearly any field, but especially ones related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You have options for your career! Take the time as an undergraduate to learn about and do research in various fields to follow your curiosity and see which subfield you want to specialize in.
  • Know how a degree in physics will set you apart from other science and engineering majors, and use that to leverage job opportunities. Compared with chemists and engineers and other STEM majors, you will be more comfortable with mathematical concepts and formulas and derivations once you enter the working world. Coding is likely easier for you because of this- you only really need to learn the languages themselves, since you will have already learned the mathematical concepts involved in coding. And btw just learn coding – you might as well. I’ve heard it phrased that physics majors can do a job 88% as well as other science and engineering and math majors , but can do a variety of things that those majors can’t necessarily do. You’re versatile and a problem solver, understanding the connections between physical phenomena. It’s great for someone who wants to go into project management or systems engineering. 
  • Learn how to pitch yourself to a potential employer or graduate school advisor. You may have to find creative ways of explaining your skills to people and what you are capable of since it may not be obvious to them. The skills and knowledge of physics majors are not well understood by the general public.  
  • Take time to learn about different types of work environments through internships and research experiences. While you may be interested in one subfield of physics (let’s say materials for quantum computing) you can work in a variety of locations. Amazon (a large global company) has position for quantum materials scientists, as do national labs, academic research labs, and other mid-sized, small companies and start-ups. Different work environments have different cultures and work-flows; finding which types of work environments you can thrive in is just as important as picking the industries you want to enter for your career.
  • In many universities, professors uphold the opinion that pursuing a PhD in physics and continuing on to become a physics professor is the most noble and best type of career to have in physics. While there is nothing wrong with becoming a physics professor, there are so many other options and in reality there are very few positions for physics professors. Not all physics majors can go on to be physics professors. It’s perfectly okay to choose to go into industry, pursue graduate school in a different field (I went into materials science and engineering!) or work at a national lab. Do what you want to do, and take others’ opinions with a grain of salt.
  • Form positive, supportive professional relationships with colleagues and professors. They are your network for your career! Physics is a small world, and you’ll likely work with at least a couple of them at some point in your professional career. This is another reason why attending study groups, joining physics societies and clubs, and office hours are important; growing those relationships early on is great! If you feel like your colleagues and professors harass you or treat you with disrespect, know that there are many many other people in physics and related field. Pursue relationships outside of your university with people who are supportive, or consider transferring to a different university with a more supportive and nurturing environment.
  • Study the physics GRE early if you want to go to graduate school for physics to get a good score!
  • Take advantage of hands-on learning experiences like internships and research experiences. In these opportunities, read scientific papers, learn that specific field, and ask for help if you need it. As an undergraduate student, you are not expected to know everything, but showing that you’re interested and doing the work to learn goes a long way in getting you mentors and other opportunities. Your first internship or research experience will be the most difficult to get, but after that it will get easier to find opportunities. Try not to be too picky for your first experience, but at the same time be mindful about what you do or don’t like, and try to pursue what interests you most. Which leads us to…
  • Think global, act local, and maintain a growth mindset. Don’t limit your options as you proceed in your field. You have options for grad school study- I went on into materials science and engineering to have a more applied science education for a career in energy materials research. Others can go into a wide array of grad school disciplines or even teach! You don’t have to stay in physics for graduate school or your career when you graduate, although that may be what your professors and colleagues push you to do.

Culture Tips (8)

  • Physics is its own culture. It has its own unwritten rules that you must learn, but at the same time recognize where it is toxic. For instance, many physics programs can feel exclusive, hierarchal, patriarchal, and domineering. Many within physics claim it is an objective field of study and does not have problems internally, but when you look at the demographics it’s obvious many people aren’t permitted to persist in the field (like women and people of color). The more you become aware of the culture, the more you can see how YOU are not problematic, which can help alleviate feelings of self doubt, imposter’s syndrome, and the sense that you don’t belong. Also, just because the culture of physics can be toxic, does not mean that you deserve to be treated with disrespect or inappropriate behavior. As I mentioned earlier, please document, speak up, and report any instances of microaggressions or harassment.
  • Pick a university where you’ll be supported. Not all university physics programs are the same in their culture. The state university I attended for my undergraduate degree had a culture that supported students, while the research university I attended for graduate school placed more emphasis on research. This meant that the majority of professors were more nurturing at my undergraduate institution than my graduate institution. Depending on your needs as a student, you want a university where you will thrive and grow! Prestige of a university or program does not necessarily make it the best fit for you!
  • Physics has its own culture and values, and because of its male-dominant makeup and historical ties to militarism, these values reflect the majority-group. For instance, there’s an emphasis on understanding nature in order to control it so that one can profit and have power. The way research is structured and even the topics of research that receive grant funding reflect this value system. More funding is given to research that has a monetary gain than research that is only for pure intellectual pursuit. Many fields are highly competitive within physics because of limited funding. Older and more prominent institutions and research groups typically get the most funding because of their historically high publishing rate and the connections of the principle investigator (or PI). So, if you do want to go into a more competitive sub-field of physics, you’ll want to study in those universities with those specific research groups.
  • Physics is big field and each subfield has its own culture and values. Gain research experience in different labs and internships to learn about each culture and find what suits you. Read papers even if you just struggle through them and have to google every word. (Bonus points if you read your professors’ papers and ask them questions about their research during office hours!)
  • Gaslighting is, unfortunately, very prevalent in STEM fields. Trust your gut and intuition rather than your professors or other people you look up to. Some professors may be incredibly technically brilliant, but can be manipulative, unhelpful, or even abusive. If you feel like a professor is treating you badly, they probably are; you don’t deserve that kind of treatment. For instance, if someone tells you that you don’t belong in physics or that you don’t have what it takes to be a research scientist or be successful, don’t listen to them! They are simply telling you they don’t support you, and you should seek other relationships mentors and colleagues that do support you!
  • If you are a woman, be mindful of pressures to do outreach and education and choose what is best for you. If you want to research, stick to research gaining research experience. I felt like my professors gave me many opportunities in education and outreach, and, while it did help me grow my leadership skills, it did take time away from growing my research experience. It’s ok to say no to opportunities that won’t positively serve you, and focus instead on what will actually help you grow in your career.
  • Prioritize your own mental and physical health. The culture of physics is very exclusive and competitive because of its values and limited funding. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable at school. According to statistics from American Physics Society, about 75% of undergraduate women in physics are harassed. That’s 3 out of 4! This means that if you are female, it is more likely that you will be harassed than not harassed. Be prepared for when you experience harassment because it can blindside you when you least expect it!
  • Attend conferences and join Society of Physics Students (SPS) and/or the International Association of Physics Students (IAPS) for more opportunities and networking!

Physics is definitely a challenging field, and even more so if you’re a minority; however, that should definitely not deter you from pursuing that physics major! I am grateful that I made the decision to major in physics; I learned amazing things, met incredible life-long friends, and landed my dream-job of being a scientist! Studying physics opens up a world of opportunities, and is a great choice of a major for someone who likes to be challenged intellectually. There are many high-paying job opportunities for physics majors! I make 6-figures with a BS in physics and MS in materials science and engineering. And, if you want to grow more wealth, a physics degree sets you up to be able to understand technical industries so that you can become a business owner or investor.

Overall, remember that you know what is best for you, and a major in physics is just the beginning of your career. You’re new, so it’s normal and okay to not have everything figured out and not know everything about physics. Take advantage of all the opportunities offered to you, ask for help when you need it, and stay true to yourself!

If you’d like extra support on your career journey, we would love to have you join Resilient in STEM, a supportive online community that can help you navigate those difficult situations in your career journey!

Video on Tips for Physics Majors on YouTube Channel Across the Nanoverse!

For more information on navigating a career in STEM, check out “Resilient in STEM” the podcast HERE!

Help! I’m being harassed and don’t know what to do.

Hello friend,

First, I’m sorry to hear you’re experiencing a difficult situation at work or school involving bias, harassment, or discrimination. You do not deserve this kind of treatment; you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your environment. 

I wrote out this message to help guide you in your journey to navigate this difficult situation. Since you’re already in the midst of a crisis or emergency situation, there is a lot of information that may be unhelpful at this point (for instance, how to develop supportive professional relationships. It’s likely too late to start developing those relationships in order to improve your situation.) Despite this, I want you to know that it was a good idea to reach out for help, and you are definitely making the right decision by reading this now! There is still a lot you can do to make the most of this situation. Please keep reading. 

The first thing I want you to take notice of is your mental, physical, and emotional state. If you have any health issues or illnesses, or if you feel scared and overwhelmed, know that this is normal for someone who is experiencing what you are going though. As an example, when I was at the height of being harassed in a particularly toxic situation, my symptoms were depression, fatigue, disordered eating, anxiety, panic attacks, stomach aches, food sensitivities, fear, frustration, confusion, and anger (to name a few). 

From this point forward, your prioritized focus should be your own self care as much as possible. Say “no” more often to things that do not positively serve you, take time off work or school if you need it, and ask yourself “what would someone who loves themself do?” when in doubt about what to do next or if you’re feeling particularly awful. Do something every day that brings you joy or makes you belly-laugh! (Regular meditation also helps me, and I like using guided meditations on YouTube or on the apps Insight Timer or Headspace.)

You need to prioritize self care for your own well being and because navigating harassment can be very emotionally and mentally draining. You need to maintain your wellness through whatever your course of actions may be. Focus on what you can control. An exercise to grow your self awareness so that you can self care is available in Part 4 of the Mini-course: Tips for Addressing Harassment during the Pandemic. 

The second thing to focus on is your documentation of all of the bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination you have experienced. Keep all your records of this harassment in a safe, accessible place. Your records can include your own notes as well as emails, online chat messages, and whatever evidence you may have. For more information on how to document harassment and for the STEM Thrive Guides Harassment Documentation Checklist, check out Part 2 of the Mini-Course: How to Document Harassment

When documenting and proceeding to report harassment, it’s important to know your legal protections. Your school or workplace has its own policies, and your local government also has its own policies. Harassment, sexual harassment, hostile workplace, and discrimination are a few legal terms to know and understand very well. When documenting harassment or looking over your documentation, keep your legal protections in mind. Note that your legal protections may not protect you from all forms of harassment. To learn more about how to learn your legal protections, you can take Part 1 of the Mini-Course: What are bias, microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination? Also, consider contacting a lawyer to ask them questions as they would be more familiar with all of the legal protections. 

If you want to reach a resolution or justice from the situation you’re experiencing (which, I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this), then it’s important to know your desired resolution. 

In the full versions of the STEM Thrive Guides Courses I teach 2 processes I’ve developed to navigate these situations: The Resilience Mindset and The Reporting Framework. The Resilience Mindset is a set of 5 truths that one needs to fully understand in order feel confident, comfortable, and unashamed when reporting harassment or seeking a resolution. The Reporting Framework is 5 questions one needs to answer to determine the best way to resolve an issue. Since you’re in an urgent situation and don’t have time to practice and implement these tools, for now:

  • First try to resolve the issue through your workplace/school’s procedure (usually written in an employee handbook or student handbook).
  • Second, if that doesn’t work or if your workplace or school is retaliating against you, seek help and advice from a lawyer unaffiliated with your organization, or another organization like a union. For more information on how to report harassment and develop supportive professional relationships, see Part 3 of the Mini-Course: How to Report Harassment.

Note that if you try to work within a company or school’s system to reach a resolution, the people you’ll work with in Human Resources (HR) or in an office of equal opportunity and diversity or an ombudsman office are not necessarily there to help you. They are there to protect the company/school from lawsuits. Therefore, always seek other unbiased opinions if they tell you that you don’t have enough evidence to file a lawsuit. 

Also, even if you file a formal report, the repercussions to the harasser may be just a “slap on the wrist” (no actual punishment or restrictions). Reporting my not lead to the resolution you want. (My personal opinion is that reporting is the right thing to do for your own wellness and confidence whether it gets you justice or not.) An environment that is not supportive of you is an environment that you do not want to stay in for long. Don’t waste your time somewhere that’s not helping you grow in your career! 

Overall, know that what you are going through is a normal part of a successful career. Unfortunately, at some point we all experience some from of harassment at work or school. It’s a professional skill to know how to navigate these situations. Take this experience as an opportunity to learn and grow both personally and professionally. This is an opportunity for you to advocate for yourself, grow your confidence, grow relationships with supporters and allies, and see what career opportunities may be a better fit for you! While right now may be very difficult, trust me, it gets better! 

Thanks again for reaching out for help! I want to reiterate that you do deserve to and have the right to feel safe and comfortable in your work or school environment. Please feel free to reach out to me either on social media or by emailing stemthriveguides@gmail.com. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have on which resources are best for you and your specific situation.

All of the courses that provide in-depth lessons on navigating difficult situations at work and school are available at www.stemthriveguides.com, and there are more resources at jillpestana.com

Your friend & ally,


Resilient in STEM Facebook Community: Here!

Instagram: @stemthriveguides

Twitter: @stemthriveguide

More Links: Here!

Ideas for Relationship Building with Mentors and Sponsors

What is the difference between a mentor and sponsor?
  • Mentors advise their mentees.
  • Sponsors advocate for their proteges.

How do you get a mentor?

  1. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor explicitly.
  2. Do ask someone for advice, help, or feedback.
  3. Then, follow up every few months to let your mentor know how their advice helped you achieve x, y, and z. Develop the relationship by touching base and meeting with them periodically over time.

How do you get a sponsor?

  1. Do develop mutually beneficial, professional relationships with people inside and outside of your field (networking).
  2. Sponsor people in your own network by advocating for them when they are not present.
  3. Deepen mentor-mentee relationships with those present in the spaces where you aspire to be. Those are the people you want as sponsors.

Ask your mentors for support on goals, and follow through with achieving those goals! Demonstrate your excellence, and share your success.

Where to Find Potential Mentors and Sponsors

  • Your university: Professors, staff, students
  • Your company: coworkers, management, etc.
  • Social Media: Experts in your industry, visionaries in your field.
    • Twitter
    • LinkedIn
    • Facebook
    • Instagram
    • TikTok
  • Conferences
  • Organizations and Professional Societies
    • Toastmasters
    • Rotary Club
    • Public services like libraries

The best way to find mentors who can become sponsors is to do the following:

  1. Start a project, enter a competition, or work toward a goal that excites you.
  2. When you get stuck or need help, ask people (experts) for help!
  3. Build relationships with those who offer you help and support.

Remember that building relationships takes time and communication. Mutually beneficial relationships will be more authentic and valuable in the long-term. Treat everyone with kindness and respect. Everyone has different experiences, both personal and professional, that they’re navigating. If they say “no” to helping you, do not make assumptions and take it personally. Shift focus toward someone else who can offer help.

If you are a minority in your field, it can often be difficult to identifying mentors or sponsors who have a similar background or qualities as yourself. Professional societies that cater toward certain demographics, like Society of Women Engineers (SWE), can be a great places to find mentors. If there is not an organization in your field that includes people like you, this may be an opportunity to create that space or organization yourself! It’s fairly simple to start a student organization, group on Facebook or LinkedIn, or chapter of an existing organization, though it does take time and energy. Having someone with a similar background as yourself as a mentor can be incredibly helpful, especially when navigating difficult situations unique to you including racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism.

As a minority in your field, it is also important to be mindful of finding the right supportive mentors and sponsors. Sometimes, people can have good intentions, but may not treat or value you in a way comparable to the members of the majority group. For instance, I have had mentors who encouraged me to do more education and outreach-related activities even though I wanted to go into scientific research, not education. These mentors failed to truly understand my career goals, and, instead, placed me into a stereotypical role for a woman in my field. Having a mentor that listens to your needs and goals, and guides you in a way most beneficial for you, regardless of your immutable characteristics, is key to avoid wasting time and energy toward a path not suitable for you. It is important to take all advice with a grain of salt, and seek opinions and feedback from multiple people while always valuing your own intuition and desires.

When pursuing a mentor or sponsor, it is always important to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities as they come. A mentor or sponsor can be in your field, outside of your field, older than you, or younger than you. They can be the same nationality, race, sex, or creed, or different. They can help you over the whole course of your career, or only for 1 day. They can help you more than you help them, or you can help them more than they help you. You can meet them at a conference, classroom, networking app, or even a bar. Communication, respect, and mutual support and encouragement are the foundation of any professional relationship and are what really matter.

5 Tips for Developing Leadership Skills as a College Student

The sooner you can begin practicing leadership, the better, especially if you aspire to be a leader. Leadership skills require practice to develop, and book-learning alone cannot instill the same lessons as real-life experience.

Even though I was shy and introverted as a teen, I gravitated toward leadership roles. I always seemed to be the group project leader, captain of a sports team, or camp councilor, and I thrived in those roles. While I did not always want to be the leader, people saw me as such and followed my leadership. When I entered the [male-dominant] field of physics, things changed.

As a woman in a male-dominant field, I discovered that there were only a few avenues to practice leadership as a college student.

In college, I decided to establish a chapter of Society of Physics Students at my university since I had no clue what I was supposed to do to join the field of physics. I felt like starting this organization would benefit both me and my colleagues, and help us find the opportunities we needed to become full-fledged physicists (like scholarships, REUs, internships, conferences, and more). When I think back to our first meetings, I remember the feeling of apathy or indifference lingering in the air. The graduate students would come by for a moment to grab free pizza and almost gloat (we were just the lowly undergraduates). And if a physics faculty member passed by me in the hall or the department office, I felt this air of condescension yet curiosity as if they were saying “oh you’re the little girl who is trying to lead this organization”. I did not feel taken seriously as a leader of this organization by most of those I looked up to for support in the physics department.

At the same time, as an undergraduate student and officer of Society of Physics Students, I was singled out for opportunities in education and outreach initiatives. When there was an open-house, I was asked to volunteer and lead educational workshops. When a month-long college preparatory program for high school students, called Upward Bound: Math and Science, needed a councilor/tutor who was a physicist, I was asked to fill the role. At these education and outreach events, I felt positive energy as I was grated leader-level status. My professors and fellow students encouraged me in this path, and I felt like I was fulfilling my moral imperative of sharing my love and wonder of science with others.

At the time I was not aware of this double-standard:

In the physics community, I was not granted leader-status in physics or in the physics community, but I was granted leader-status in physics education and outreach.

Despite the fact that I was learning physics, and not teaching skills, and growing my expertise in physics, not pedagogy, I was granted a higher level of leader-status in pedagogy than in physics. Why? I am fairly sure it is because I am a woman, and women are stereotyped as naturally nurturing and as educators. My colleagues were comfortable with granting me leader-status when it came to education, but not much else in the physics community.

Throughout my career, I have seen this pattern emerge for myself and others. Stereotypes play into the type of spaces where each of us are granted leader-status or benefit-of-the-doubt in general. As a college student seeking leadership opportunities, it is important to recognize that in certain spaces it will be tougher to lead than others simply because of your immutable characteristics and stereotypes. For instance, from what I hear, people who are black or LGBTQ+ are often asked to lead diversity initiatives and programs. This is because this is the space where they are granted authority. Women tend to be asked to do more education and outreach (in my experience).

While I feel like it is a shame how strongly stereotypes dictate where someone is granted authority, as a college student you must make the most of the opportunities you have to learn and practice skills, including leadership. Even if you have minority-status in your field and are, therefore, not given leader-status like your majority peers, there are ways to leverage what you can control to practice leadership.

As a senior scientist, entrepreneur, and leader of multiple organizations, these are my tips for developing leadership skills early in your career:

Tip #1: Consider leading in the spaces where you are granted authority, but be mindful of your own interests

  • Recognize that while this space may not be where your passion is, the leadership skills you will practice here will still benefit you.
  • For Beginning Leaders: I recommend to start growing your leadership skills in a space where you are granted authority because you will be going with the grain of society (and if you have self-doubt, it can be incredibly discouraging to start in a space where you are looked down on).
  • Word of Caution: While you are granted authority in this space, it is important to realize whether or not you actually want to spend time growing in that space. For example, I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate doing education and outreach because I was given authority in that space; however, I did not want to become an educator. I wanted to become a research scientist. Spending time doing education took away time that I could have spent honing my research skills, entering technical competitions, etc. While those spaces were great for growing my leadership skills, I could have grown leadership skills in other spaces as well, even if I had faced more resistance.

Tip #2: Take initiative

  • Start a student organization related to a topic that you want to learn more about and recruit members
  • Run for election at an existing student organization
  • Enter a competition as a team lead and recruit teammates
  • Plan an event to host a speaker you admire
  • Ask to join a professor’s research group

Tip #3: Seek leadership opportunities outside your university

  • While your university may lack diversity and you may feel like an outsider, recognize that there is a big world beyond that ivory tower. Any hostilities or indifference you face may just be the culture of your university and not the field as a whole.
  • Are there leadership opportunities in your city?
  • Join a professional society (at the student discount rate) and ask for opportunities to get involved
  • Establish a chapter of a national society or organization at your university
  • Join a leadership-specific organization, or an organization that will help you practice leadership skills (like Toastmasters)
  • Join an online community or group (Linked In and Facebook have industry-specific groups that can help you connect with people with similar interests and career trajectories)
  • Volunteer for an organization
  • Start an organization or group outside your university, even if it’s just a running group or bar trivia team (if you’re 21+).

Tip #4: Use every experience as a moment to practice leadership

  • Is there a class project? Volunteer to be team lead.
  • Does your dormitory floor have a bad-smell that needs to be addressed with the housing office? Be the person to organize and file the work-order.
  • Step up when a leader is needed for any and all opportunities.
  • Take advantage of EVERY public speaking opportunity you can get.
  • Own the moments when you are a leader, and add them to your resume! Keep track so that you can describe your abilities during job or internship interviews.
  • If you have an internship, initiate or lead a project. (In one of my internships, there were several interns who had very little to do, so I started assigning them work from a project I initiated, which they were happy to do and learn more from me!)

Tip #5: Dedicate yourself to being a life-long learner

  • Read books and attend seminars, classes, trainings, and more about leadership
  • Understand that there is always more to learn and ways to grow as a leader
  • As a leader, remember that LISTENING to those you are leading is vital; you can learn so much from others
  • Take leadership courses at your university

While in academia, students are often made to feel insignificant or infantilized because of the power structures of that system. Remember that this feeling of powerlessness is only an illusion. You have control over how you take initiative to seek opportunities for your own growth and success. Remember that just because you are, perhaps, young or new in your field, you do bring value!

As a minority in your field or classes, it can be hard to be seen and treated as a leader, but know that the struggles you overcome will help you be even stronger as a leader later in your career. Focus on what you can control, and work within that space. If you do experience any kind of harassment or microaggressions as you lead, know that you do have rights and do not deserve to be treated that way. The world needs your skills and talents, and growing leadership skills early-on in your career makes your path to sharing your strengths much easier.

Me giving a speech during opening of the Sally Ride Center for Environmental Science as a college senior!
The NASA administrators selected me for this opportunity because they knew me through my internships with the NASA SOFIA Program and NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.