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Imposter syndrome is overrated. Find what excites you and cultivate contacts.

Currently a third-year doctoral student, Katarzyna Hryniewiecka took a not-so-obvious path to her doctorate. She studied two majors – philosophy and psychology – because she couldn’t decide whether to go into the sciences or the humanities. Now she knows that this is a false dichotomy. She decided to pursue a PhD in molecular neuroscience because, as she says, “I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of the mind.”

The beginning of her scientific career

During her studies, Kasia had internships where she learned electrophysiological methods for studying the human brain. She also learned programming and, as she notes, “I drifted toward the exact science.” While writing her master’s thesis in psychology, where she used magnetic resonance imaging in her research, she experienced how much she enjoyed discovering new research techniques.

“It gave me something like a tool box of little scientist’s essentials. Almost every problem can be solved, the limits of my creativity are the tools I know how to use and create for myself” – she says of what she learned from the process of writing her paper. She adds, “I love working as an experimenter.”

Although, she admits, she didn’t have one particular moment when she felt that a career in science was it. Over the last few years of her studies, it simply became obvious to Kasia that this was the path she wanted to take.

Getting to know new tools

Despite the lack of such a moment, Kasia dedicated herself to further developing her skills in novel research methods.

“I treated it like learning a language. The more words you know, the more you can say, the more you can ask”

– she says of her doctorate.

She works at the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology at the University of Warsaw. She focuses on electrophysiological, optical and computer methods:

“I’m introducing an absent element into my research group, which is quite classically biological, and others from the lab are teaching me the methodology of molecular biology and genetics. It’s our fair exchange.”

Her dissertation focuses on disorders of electrophysiological activity in the brain and their possible impact on symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders. Kasia notes that this is an important issue, especially now that society is learning about neurodiversity and its impact on psychological problems.

Research work is freedom and inspiration. But there are also difficult moments

She says of her research work that it is an endless source of inspiration and freedom. She finds a lot of excitement in experiments, discovering new topics and technologies.

“And now in neuroscience comes this breakthrough of combining the resources of different scientific disciplines. It’s amazing to observe this and be part of this generation.”

Kasia also notes the dark sides of a career as a scientist. She talks about workaholism and burnout, and that it’s easy to forget what you started for. Her important personal goal developed over the years is not to lose the sincere excitement for her work. This excitement “is a condition for producing good learning outcomes, not just self-care.”

Speaking of difficult moments in her career as a scientist, Kasia emphasizes another element – internal challenges.

“Whoever has never had imposter syndrome, let him cast the first stone,”

– she says.

At the beginning of her scientific path, she herself felt overwhelmed by how vast the subject matter of her research was, and noted how much she didn’t know yet. Now she’s working on herself and reminding herself that even the smartest people don’t know the answers to all questions.

She tells an anecdote about looking for answers instead of agonizing. She once told a senior scientist about her fears that her knowledge and skills were not sufficient for the challenges of her work. That, after all, there is so much she doesn’t know yet and so many methods she can’t use. This person told her something that stayed with her to this day – “if you don’t know something or don’t know how to do something, there’s a huge chance that in the university building where you’re currently sitting and feeling sorry for yourself, there’s at least one person who has this knowledge and knows how to do what you struggle with. Go and ask.”

Collaborate and look for opportunities to grow

Kasia notes that young scientists feel pressure to prove their worth on their own. Few are aware of how collaborative science is.

A good way to start a scientific career is to look for interesting initiatives and take part in courses and fellowships. In this way, young scientists not only develop their skills, but also meet other people from whom they can learn.

“It’s best to start from the local backyard”

– says Kasia.

She herself is a member of the non-profit scientists’ group Nencki Open Lab, in Warsaw. It’s a group of young scientists from several continents based in Warsaw, which organizes courses, summer schools and various events aimed

at training scientists at every stage of their careers in cutting-edge technologies, on the one hand, and providing a space to discuss ideas and theoretical directions in neuroscience, on the other. For Kasia, it’s a place to learn things that she herself would have liked to know a few years ago. In addition to young scientists, Kasia has seen more than once professors who are eager to join the training sessions themselves.

She herself teaches the Bonsai program there. Also, together with scientists from Buenos Aires, she is organizing a summer school to teach people to operate commonly available, inexpensive components to build their own research tools.

“The idea is for people to leave the courses with a sense of empowerment. So that they see that science can be less intimidating,” Kasia sums up the initiative.

In addition to local endeavors, the doctoral student has also participated in international trips and fellowships, such as the Cajal Advanced Neuroscience Training. This has given her a taste of science abroad and the opportunity to see other approaches to research.

She also meets many scientists on her trips and often forms various collaborations. As she says, this translates into quality and value in research. During one such trip, Kasia made contact with Professor Zhanyan Fu from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As part of this cooperation, state-of-the-art equipment is to be brought to Poland, which will enable the development of research in the doctoral student’s scientific project, but also enrich the methodological resources of her immediate scientific community. Kasia says in an interview with Coopernicus:

“There are few more fruitful methods of doing science than dialogue. Which sounds cliché, but I emphasize it nonetheless. This comes back to the story I shared  – there is always someone to answer your question. Maybe in your building or three buildings away, or maybe two countries away.”

Do what excites you

When asked what advice she would give to other young scientists and academics, Kasia laughs that she would love to say something wise as a senior colleague, but the first thing that comes to mind is:

“I would say find what feels good. Doctorate is a lot of sacrifice, a tendency to stay after hours and workaholism, and often pays little financially. It requires flexibility… So by “find what feels good”, I mean – it has to be done in a way that makes it worth it. If I agree to all these sacrifices, then my minimum requirement is that the work makes me happy.”

She also says how important it is to respect yourself and your health. Trying to develop self-confidence and courage. Not to be afraid of failure, which is an inevitable part of the process, and to not let it affect your self-esteem.

Ultimately, Kasia adds one more piece of advice:

“And do what excites you. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling lost. I’m still young myself, and for the time being this feeling doesn’t go away. But it can be transformed from something terrible to something motivating.”

Bibliography:

Nencki Open Lab. (n.d.). Nencki Open Lab. https://nenckiopenlab.org/

Barbara Niemczyk
Bio:
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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