STEM Untapped Mentor, Katie Hillan: 5th Year Medical Chemistry Student

Girls in STEM Mentor jan Choudhury

by | 23 May, 2022 | Girls in STEM

Katie shares her STEM story with Untapped Innovation as a 5th year MSci student, studying and managing a placement throughout COVID, Navigating a change in career mindset early on and moments of imposter syndrome, Katie looks back and offers her pieces of advice to secondary students considering their next steps into a world of STEM.

Fate allowed me to realise that I didn’t want to be a doctor

I grew up and went to school in Glasgow, Scotland. I was always quite a quiet student but I worked hard and for that reason it was never doubted that I would do well. I got good grades and the teachers liked me and throughout the entirety of my school ‘career’, I did very well. When I got into my final year of school, I decided that I wanted to apply for medicine. I did the entrance exams, applied for four medical schools in Scotland and got rejected from every single one of them. I didn’t even get any interviews. At this time, I felt like a complete failure. None of my friends were applying for medicine or anything similar, they were all applying for degrees which they were confident they would be accepted into. I was 16 when I applied for medicine.

The acceptance rate for medicine in the UK is around 31.6%. To put this into context, the acceptance rate across the whole of the University of Glasgow is 70%.

Following the advice of one of my teachers, I went on to take a gap year with the intention of reapplying for medicine. During this gap year, I realised that I really didn’t want to be a doctor. I was interested in the medicinal side of things but the idea of spending my day dealing with patients was not one I found at all exciting. After looking deeper into what the degree programme of medicine actually contained in comparison to what my chemistry at school had been, the thought of becoming a doctor of medicine was simply a path that I thought I should take rather than one I wanted to. I should add here that many people don’t get accepted into medicine the first time they apply, it is becoming increasingly popular (with all degrees but especially medicine, dentistry, etc…) to take a gap year, do some more work experience and live a bit more of an adult life before going into university. If you want to study medicine, go for it. However, I quickly decided it wasn’t for me.

I’m now enjoying my fifth and final year of my MSci degree

Since chemistry was the subject I liked the most in school, I decided to apply for various medicinal chemistry courses and ended up accepting and studying medicinal chemistry at the University of Glasgow. I am now in my fifth and final year of my MSci degree and although this is an achievement in itself, at times I feel like the way I was perceived in school and the way I perceived myself has completely changed. During my degree, I saw myself as someone who scraped by. This wasn’t actually the case, I did well in the earlier years of my degree and I also had a really enjoyable university experience. However, that rejection from medicine did shake my confidence. I had never failed at something before. Looking back, I’m really glad that I didn’t get into medicine. I would’ve been good at it but I genuinely don’t think I would have enjoyed the course and style of learning anywhere near as much as I have during my chemistry degree. It also taught me that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Have women in STEM ever experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ like me?

When starting to think about writing this blog post, I did a quick poll on my Instagram asking my friends and colleagues who considered themselves women in STEM if they had ever experienced ‘imposter syndrome’. Out of 27 responses, only one person said no. This wasn’t a planned, thought-out study and I’m not claiming that this is representative of all women in STEM but I was trying to get a feel for what proportion of the people I know had also felt like this at some point in their career/studies. For those unaware, someone experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’ would generally think they were not as competent or intelligent as others believe them to be.

Essentially, Imposter Syndrome is a lack of belief in your own abilities.

Throughout university, I have experienced this a lot. Going from being a virtually straight A student in school with seemingly minimal effort to working extremely hard at university to get good enough but not-straight-A grades does take a lot out of you. I relate to imposter syndrome in the sense that I sometimes feel as if everything I have achieved has been a fluke, down to luck. Now even writing that seems ridiculous but let me explain it. Due to the COVID pandemic, my third-year exams were online. These were the first exams that counted towards my final degree, they were open-book and lasted 24 hours. I studied hard and did really well in these exams. Did it cross my mind that I potentially massively benefited from the circumstances I sat the exam in? Of course.

My placement year at GlaxoSmithKline

I moved to Weybridge, near London, for my placement year at GlaxoSmithKline and worked in the innovation team of their oral healthcare department. However, due to COVID, the majority of my year was spent back at home in Glasgow, working online from the comfort of my own bedroom. Again, I did well during my placement year. Would I have felt much more confident in my abilities going back to university if I’d been doing laboratory research for the entire year and working in an office alongside others? Absolutely.

However, it is important to realise that I gained many other skills during my placement. I worked on various projects in oral healthcare, across many different departments. I was treated as a real employee, not a student. People listened to my ideas and took me at my word.

This was a really empowering experience. I learnt how to present confidently and consistently (albeit over Zoom), I put myself forward for various projects that I had little to no previous experience with but learnt along the way. I would definitely recommend a placement to anyone considering it. I now have a real feel for what industry is like.

Due to not being able to be in the lab, a lot of my work was literature research based and discussing with colleagues. I have no doubt it would have been a great placement had I actually been able to get into the lab.

Then we come to now.

In my fifth and final year of university, I have had very little face-to-face teaching and online recorded lectures. I had never been under the impression that chemistry was an easy subject and wouldn’t challenge me but having to motivate yourself to learn from and focus on a screen in your bedroom is challenging. I’m sure many people over the last year or two can relate to this in terms of school, university or work. Some advice I would give to anyone trying to motivate themselves from home is to not have extraordinarily high expectations of yourself. I’ve found that it is relatively impossible to sit at a desk on your own for 8 hours a day. But that’s not what happens in the real world of work anyway, you are in the lab or alternatively are taking coffee breaks, chatting with colleagues over projects and meeting people in the corridors of the office. No one ever works the full 8 hours. So, as long as you are hitting your targets and getting done what you have to do, don’t put yourself down if you end up going for a walk in the middle of the day or having a slightly longer lunch break.

COVID changed my University experience

It’s easy to see how I would feel slightly deflated at this point in my university career. However, over the last few months I have worked really hard at believing in myself, trying to understand that everything that has happened that is making me feel this way is out of my control. Without going into too much detail on the specifics; COVID restrictions, close family illness and my own mental health have really impacted the last few years for me, as I’m aware they have with many. I think this is why I felt it was important to talk about ‘imposter syndrome’ and mental health in STEM, especially for women. Everyone we know, including ourselves, is going through something hard – and if they’re not now, they probably have or will at some point. It’s slightly uncomfortable to think about but it’s simply the way of life. Looking back, I am immensely proud of myself for what I have achieved in life but it has taken me a long time to realise this and I’m still getting there.

Sometimes in university, specifically when studying a STEM subject, it can feel as though everything is about grades and job offers and that everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing but it’s actually not about university at all. Believing in yourself comes from working hard, accepting criticism, reflecting on what your colleagues and supervisors say or think about you and always pushing yourself to learn more. Thinking about who I used to be in school, a quiet straight A student, compared to who I am now makes me happy because although I’ve worked really hard and sometimes felt as if I’ve not reaped the rewards, I’ve also been through a lot personally.

My final pieces of advice

So, to finish off, I think the most important thing for me right now is knowing that university isn’t the be all and end all. To maintain a balanced life, you have to enjoy yourself and do things that make you happy. To be successful, you have to work hard but know that you will always have more to learn. My main piece of advice to anyone who might feel the same is to believe it when the people around you tell you that you’re doing well and work hard to prove them right.

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Written by Katie Hillan