Introducing ‘Defining Duke Environment’

I am very excited to serve as a Duke Environment Ambassador this year and introduce some of the research conducted and opportunities available within Duke Environment. The main objectives of my blog are to showcase the multitude of ways that Duke faculty, staff and students are confronting the most challenging local and global environmental issues, and to highlight the diverse backgrounds, perspectives and experiences of Duke Environment students.

My inspiration for wanting to discuss the Duke Environment student experience grew from my personal feelings of inadequacy and fraudulence. That’s right, like so many other women in academia, I am a PhD student suffering from Imposter Syndrome.

The “Imposter Phenomenon” was first articulated by Clance and Imes (1978), who used the phrase to describe a group of successful women who did not attribute their accomplishments to their own efforts or sacrifices. This self-inflicted viewpoint of inadequacy and unworthiness contributes to increased feelings of anxiety and stress.

My personal perceptions of inadequacy largely stem from the simple fact that I am almost certainly unqualified to be a PhD student in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at Duke University. My resume surely would never have passed the first screen for a position as an engineer. I did not earn an undergraduate degree in any field of engineering, contrary to my peers. … I didn’t even have to take a calculus course!

Instead, I obtained a B.A. in Environmental Studies, with a concentration on Sustainability and Social Justice. In my second-to-last semester of undergrad, I took an Environmental Chemistry course with a final project focused on how estrogenic pharmaceuticals released into surface waters from wastewater treatment plants could induce physiological changes in amphibians. This concept—that anthropogenic chemicals could drastically impair wildlife—inspired me to learn more about the field of ecotoxicology. I started looking at graduate programs in ecotoxicology and while looking at the Nicholas School of the Environment’s website, found an internship opportunity with the Duke Superfund Research Center(SRC).

I was awarded a summer internship and then was hired full-time by the SRC’s Research Translation Core to communicate scientific findings to various stakeholders. I also helped with administrative tasks for the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program and began a research project in Richard Di Giulio’s lab looking at how exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) produces developmental deformities in fish embryos lacking important adaptations.

So, while I’ve never taken a college-level physics course and I’ve never needed to use MatLab, I like to think that my lab experience and communicating scientific results to broad audiences are beneficial skills for a graduate student researcher. It is my goal with this blog, to shine a light on the diverse backgrounds of our students—those that have pursued science with a determined passion and those that stumbled into it, like me!

By showcasing the diversity of our Duke Environment community, it is my hope that we can continue to appreciate the fact that unique and innovative perspectives enrich the Duke experience and that each student whose journey led them to this community, is meant to be here.

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