Navigating Imposter Syndrome & Research Anxiety

As I wrapped up my year as a Malouf scholar, I reflected on whether or not I was able to meet the goals of the award. A mixture of everything going on in the world, created the perfect storm for uncertainty and doubt to creep into my mind, and I struggled with a bout of imposter syndrome. I revisited my Malouf application and was reminded that this was not the first-time uncertainty appeared. In my personal statement I asked myself “why would I be a good fit for this scholarship, and why is my research valuable to the Oregon Sea Grant community?” My response was “why not? The Malouf Scholarship aims to support graduate students who combine societally relevant research with education and public engagement, and that is exactly what my research aims to do. To educate people on underrepresentation in marine and fisheries science, and to engage the public and science community in a conversation about diversity and inclusion.” Reading through my statement I was quickly reminded, that although I had not accomplished all of my goals, I was able to make progress on many of them.

Navigating Research Anxiety

In addition to dealing with imposter syndrome, I also dealt with research anxiety related to my work and the increased attention on diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM fields this summer. For a while, it seemed like every other day I was receiving an email about the topic, which was encouraging, but I also felt a sense of pressure to get my research out. I wondered if I was missing an opportunity to capitalize on the amount of attention the topic was getting. However, while it seemed like a reasonable idea from publication perspective, it did not sit well with me on a personal level. I had to remind myself why I decided to pursue my research in the first place; because I believed in the importance of shedding light on underrepresentation in marine and fisheries science. At the very least, I felt that I owed it to my research participants to put the time and dedication into my data analysis and results. The fact that I was dealing with research anxiety made me realize that it might be best to take a break from my research.

Redirecting my Attention to a Virtual Internship

The perfect opportunity to pause my dissertation research presented itself this summer. Prior to Covid-19, I was scheduled to go to Seattle for an internship with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Unfortunately, instead of an in-person internship we decided that a virtual one would be best, which I began in September. The timing of the internship worked out perfectly and provided a valid justification for taking a break from my dissertation research and focusing my attention elsewhere. The research project I’m working on with NOAA looks at the ecological and social drivers of salmon restoration projects in Oregon and Washington and has an environmental justice component, which I am excited to explore. While the internship required me to shift my focus to a new project and new methodology, I think my qualitative data analysis will benefit from the pause. Hopefully, I will be able to look at my data with fresh eyes and less research anxiety.


As I reflect back on the year, one thing that stands out is the importance of self-care and finding what works best for you. It was definitely hard to stay motivated this year. The task of continuing “business as usual” seemed wrong. For my first few years of graduate school, I was able to find a happy balance by taking regular trips home for an academic and mental break. Not being able to travel as much as I would like has required me to seek new ways to find a balance and practice self-care. I admit, I’m still not the best at it. One of the highlights of the past few months has been having video calls with my 9-year old cousin, talking about Roblox and TikToK (both of which I still don’t understand) and finding similarities in our struggles to navigate virtual learning. She’s much better at it than I am. Our calls are reminders that it’s okay to forget that I’m a graduate student and disconnect from the academic world every now and then.

Advice for Future Scholars

One of the biggest lessons I learned over the past few months and the best advice I could give to future scholars is to remember, it is okay to not be okay all the time. Life is hard. Work is hard. School is hard. However, we all have something to bring to the Oregon Sea Grant community and we all deserve to be here, even if we don’t always feel that way. So, continue to be great! Best wishes!

Starting out as Malouf Scholar, ODFW Marine Team, and deep-sea research on the Okeanos

Every day I get to go out on the Ocean I feel like the luckiest person in the world!

I was in Portland OR, attending the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting, when I first heard the good news that I had gotten the Malouf Marine Studies Scholarship! I could not believe it, and was so exited. I ran all over the Oregon Convention Center, trying to find my adviser to tell him the good news! I finally had the funding to start doing field work and begin my PhD research.

During September I had my first chance to go out with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Marine Reserves Team, and learn how their Hook and Line survey methods works. A method I plan to use as part of my research.  I learned so much those few days I was out there with ODFW’s David Wagman (also known as Wolfe, bottom left). He is a really good mentor and gave me great suggestions on how to improve my proposed research.

Photos: Alex Avila, Participating in ODFW’s Hook and Line Surveys

Photo: Alex Avila. Wolfe measuring fish

Unfortunately that was the last outing of the season. I need to finish writing all my permit application in the winter in order to be ready to hit the ground running next year.

NOAA scholarships have given me the opportunities I would have never even dream possible. Just like Oregon Sea Grant is part of NOAA Sea Grant College program , so is another scholarship that has greatly impacted my life, the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship, from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. I’m currently serving aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos in the Gulf of Mexico, as part of a program collaboration opportunity that was given to me as a Dr. Nancy Foster scholar. I’m here to serve as in data logging and samples processing. At the end of the expedition I will be writing a report that will help prioritize data for researchers, ensuring that the data can be efficiently used.

Photo courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research (OER)

Photo courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research (OER)

The  NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer expedition is running from November 29 through December 21 2017, and is investigating deep-sea habitats and the associated marine communities in the Gulf of Mexico basin. Through the Okeanos expedition,  other researchers and I, are exploring and discovering vulnerable marine habitats and investigating areas relevant to resource managers, submerged cultural heritage sites,  and marine protected areas. Okeanos is equipped with telepresence, meaning people on shore – whether scientists or the general public – and anyone can watch the remotely operated vehicle (ROVs) dives live in real time (click here to stream video).  In fact, next week, we will be conducting a Facebook Live event from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer in the Gulf of Mexico this Tuesday, December 12th 2017 at 11:00 am PST  (2:00 pm EST). Science Co-lead Dr. Diva Amon, Expedition Coordinator Brian Kennedy, and I will be there to answer everyone questions! Check out Diva’s, NOAA’s OER and my twitter profiles for daily updates from the Okeanos!

Left to right: Diva Amon, Brian Kennedy, Alex Avila. Photo courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research (OER)



Vessels, Pumps and VIs – Oh My!

Since my last post I have completely re-designed my chemostat system. Take a look at my last blog post to see a picture of the previous system (aka Cv1.0). Although good in theory (autoclavable culture vessel, large culture volume, inexpensive to implement), many problems came out in the test culture phase.

To begin with, although the culture vessel itself was indeed autoclavable, the bulkhead fittings that connected tubing to the vessel were not. The silicone sealant used to close off gaps was also not autoclavable.

Additionally, the peristaltic pumps for this system quickly became very unreliable and refused to stay synchronized. Since the principle of a chemostat system is dependent on constant, synchronized influx and efflux of media, lack of synchronization in the input/output pumps leads to serious problems such as excessive dilution of the culture or (far worse) draining the culture vessel dry.

The culture vessel for Cv1.0 was also far too large. Topping out at 4 liters, it required an enormous amount of media to keep the culture at steady state.

Because of these problems I have decided to adopt a new system design (Cv2.0). Instead of the previous two pump chemostat system (one input pump and one output pump), the new system is an overflow chemostat. This simply means that the culture vessel has an open port in the side of the flask that drains excess media when the media level rises to the overflow level. This has the great benefit of requiring only one media pump (the input pump) since the overflow port drains media at the same rate that it is being pumped into the system. This new culture vessel is also much smaller (2L media capacity), so media demands should be less. Upgrading to a better quality peristaltic pump seems to have solved the flow inconsistency problems experienced in the previous system.

I have also begun the process of writing a LabVIEW VI (virtual instrument) to control the gas manifold (see picture) in response to culture pH. Slowly but surely, progress is being made.

Gas manifold with solenoid valves and non-compressible gas lines

In between working over my chemostat I have been writing my thesis proposal. It looks like I’ll be defending my proposal sometime in March or April, so I’ve also been working on some preliminary data to relate Alexandrium cellular health to pH. Hopefully I’ll be including this in my next post.

Happy 2013! :)