Doubt: Stories about moments of uncertainty in science

This week, we present two stories of doubt in science, from a mysterious illness to imposter syndrome. 

Part 1: A sudden illness casts doubt on whether Maia Pujara will be able to finish her neuroscience PhD.

Jump to Maia’s story >>

Maia Pujara received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she developed a passion for science outreach, science communication, and promoting women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. She's a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health to study the brain regions that are critical for helping us regulate our emotions, learn about rewards, and make flexible, adaptive choices. Though focused when it comes to academic matters, Maia has always had a “breadth-over-depth” philosophy with hobbies and has so far taken up playing the guitar, playing the ukulele, radio DJ-ing, baking, mixology, palmistry, watercoloring, knitting, crocheting, ice-skating, ultimate frisbee, improv, acting, and screenwriting. Follow her on Twitter @neuro_sigh

Part 2: After growing up in humble circumstances in St. Lucia, Whitney Henry feels like an imposter in her PhD program at Harvard.

Jump to Whitney’s story >>

Whitney Henry is originally from the beautiful Caribbean Island of St Lucia. She relocated to the US after receiving a full presidential academic scholarship from Grambling State University where she completed her BS in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. She earned a PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Harvard University and is currently a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Dr. Robert Weinberg at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Her research focuses on identifying biological processes that drive tumor relapse following chemotherapy in ovarian cancer. When she is not engaged in lab, Whitney enjoys mentoring and traditional Caribbean dancing.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Maia Pujara

It was at the precise moment I found myself buying women’s laxatives at a CVS in San Jose, California, that I realized I had more than just a tummy ache.  You see, in the four years leading up to that very embarrassing purchase in a hot pink box, I had been focused on one thing, and that one thing was not my health.  It was on finishing a PhD in neuroscience. 

I had finally mustered up the courage to tell my adviser that I wouldn’t be doing a postdoc.  And I saved the worst bit of news for last, which is that I would be applying for a science writing internship in Washington, D.C., that would be starting that summer, which is why I needed to finish the degree on time so that I would be free to go on to do whatever it is I wanted to do with the rest of my life. 

So all of this kind of felt like the way I would imagine it must feel to tell your conservative dad that you're going on tour with the Grateful Dead.  No matter what, you’re just going to be a source of constant disappointment from that point forward. 

So I prepared in the mirror.  I went over what I was going to tell him.  You know, I wasn’t just running away from lab.  I had a plan.  I had prepared a set of calendar pages and, in our second worst meeting that we’d ever have, I handed over those sweaty calendar pages that chronicled February through May.  They told of two data sets that would be analyzed and written up for publication and they told of the writing timeline leading up to my proposed defense date in May.  So I had it all planned out. 

He sifted through the calendar pages, and after a really, really brutal round of questioning to make sure I'd thought everything through, he finally said okay. 

Relieved, I got up to walk out, and on my way out he added, “You know, this is gonna be a rough few months for you.” 

So those words became my fuel.  I was determined to prove him wrong.  And with the sense of newfound blind determination, I skipped out on one very important thing in order to meet my deadlines and that thing was lunchtime.  You see, if I skipped out on lunchtime I have more time during the day to actually work on what I needed to. 

And because I was blasting right through lunchtime to crunch those numbers, I would reward myself for all that hard work at the end of the day with these big, Wisconsin-style, greasy meals and I'd wash them down with a couple bottles of beer.  That went on for a few months and I slowly just started to develop the slightest twinge, just the littlest bit of pain in my abdomen that, with my large mammalian brain, I did a really good job of ignoring. 

That is until that fateful night in San Jose.  I was there at a conference with my boyfriend at the time, now my husband Ben, and not two nights into the conference I woke up with like this sharp, horrible stabbing pain.  A pain that I couldn’t ignore anymore. 

So I turned to him. I was really scared and so I woke him up and I said, “What do I do?  I don't know what this is.  I've never had this before.” 

He was really sleepy so he just kind of turned around and said, “I don't know.  Just maybe walk it off and take a poop?”  Our love language is talking about our bowel movements and so, to me, that was totally normal. 

I took his advice and I walked around the hotel room and tried to take a poop with no luck.  That’s when we went to go buy the laxatives.  I took the laxatives and tried to go back to sleep and, after a couple of hours of fitful rest, I got up not with an urge to poop but with an urge instead to reach into my stomach and pull out whatever was causing me the worst pain I'd ever felt in my entire life. 

I left the hospital after what would be the first of many hospital overnights with two pieces of paper about acute pancreatitis, which I'd never heard of before.  Inflammation of the pancreas.  But no clear reason about what was actually causing it. 

Soon after that, I couldn’t keep any meals down and the pain got so bad that I was forced to get most of my caloric intake from things like fruit juices and Jell-O, which a middle school version of myself would have loved that diet.  I guess it was appropriate because, by the time I lost all the weight I lost, I looked like a middle school version of myself. 

The University of Wisconsin Madison, where I was going to school at the time, is a teaching hospital so during one of my longer stays there a group of residents crowded around my bed as the senior doctor told them that I was a mysterious gastrointestinal case.  My pancreatitis remained unexplained. 

To me, it felt truly absurd that these people, who had all this collective knowledge among them, couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me any more than a few days of frantic Internet searches could.  I was terrified. 

And because I presented with some of the symptoms of patients with severe alcoholism, a lot of doctors told me to stop drinking.  I hadn’t touched a drink in months.  This frustrated me to no end.  I really just wanted an answer. 

And because I was so sick, I eventually had to tell my adviser, I had to confront him and tell him that in person, in what would be the actual worst meeting we've ever had. 

I went to his office and I told him, no, I didn’t know what was wrong with me.  I didn’t have a clear diagnosis.  And no, I didn’t know when I'd be back in lab.  And no, I hadn’t heard about that science writing internship yet.  And no, I’m not going to finish in time to defend by May. 

As I told him all this, I was met with a stony stare and slight whiff of I-told-you-so in the air, and I couldn’t help it.  I just started crying.  And I prided myself on never crying in front of Mike.  Not once.  No matter how bad our conversations got.  But at that point, instead of him coming around from his side of the desk to pat me on the back to tell me, “You know, everything is gonna be okay.  We’ll work something out.  Just focus on your health,” he just kind of sat there in silence while I cried. 

I left his office feeling like a total and complete failure. 

At the lowest point I got, I ended up calling one of the doctors and kind of just sobbing into the phone and saying, “Am I gonna eat anything ever again?  Am I ever gonna feel better?” 

I remember, in hindsight, I must have sounded like that kid in the viral video who was under the influence of anesthesia and was just like, “Is this gonna be forever?”  Because the doctor just laughed at me and said, “You're gonna be fine.”  But looking down at my knobby hands I’m sure he's seen worse, but I didn’t know what better looked like at that point. 

So after several needle pokes and blood tests and hospital stays later, I finally, finally got a diagnosis.  Celiac disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects anybody who ingests gluten.  Basically, the body attacks the small intestine in the presence of this protein called gluten.  Gluten is found in a lot of things like pasta, bread, beer, soy sauce so basically anything delicious.  Yeah, it’s true. 

Unfortunately, by the time my diagnosis was given to me, the inflammation from my pancreas had spread to my gallbladder and my liver and I had to have my gallbladder removed.  The reason it took so long for me to get a diagnosis was because I was in the less than 1 percent of patients expressing the symptoms that I had.  Most patients with celiac have really bad gastrointestinal symptoms that I won’t go into because you're eating.  But suffice it to say that, because of that, it took a long time. 

It turned out that the combination of genes I had from a Hispanic mother and an Indian father incurred greater vulnerability to the disease and things like anxiety, stress, and a poor diet only made it worse.  So to put it another way, nature and nurture had a really shitty party in my small intestine and I was their special guest. 

But through all of that, once things got better with the support of the best partner, friends, and family and all the right treatments, I started to get better.  And I also found out I got accepted to the science writing internship and I'd be going to Washington, D.C., that summer so really things weren’t all that bad in the end. 

Throughout all this experience, what I learned was that things like good health and important milestones are not things that somebody gives you permission for.  They're things that you give yourself.  Because I'd set a milestone I really wasn’t ready for, I only set myself back more in the long run. 

So, as I packed up my things to go for that summer, I came to terms with the fact that brain work would be there when I got back.  It was time I started paying more attention to my gut. 

Thank you.

Part 2: Whitney Henry

I would like to begin with the diary entry from my first year in Boston. 

“Today, I feel trapped.  Forced to put on a façade, paste on a smile and breathe.  I think to myself I can’t let them down.  I must be strong.  But the day feels unbearable as my walls crumble.  Once invisible tears, now visible.” 

You see, the first three years of graduate school were some of the most challenging.  Yes, intellectually but more so psychologically.  I was surrounded by some of the best minds in the world, astute and intellectually groomed for the rigorous coursework that lay ahead.  Their confidence was palpable and only served to remind me of my own insecurity.  Surely, Harvard must have made a mistake by accepting me.  It just didn’t make sense.  How could the same girl who once made her bed using a thin piece of yellow foam laid flat against the floor of a wooden house be in such a privileged environment? 

I was born the fifth of eleven siblings on the small but beautiful island of St. Lucia.  My biological mother was a live-in maid of humble circumstances and my absentee father, let’s just say he was a man who always seemed drunk the few times I saw him.  Life was really simple and my resources very limited. 

I can remember the smell of the kerosene lamps that lit our house just to save money on electricity and the sound of the static whenever you adjusted the antenna that shot out from the back of our small black-and-white television.  Really, my chance of a successful life was slim.  But then came the Burt family. 

My biological mother worked for the Burt family from the time that I was born and they had grown to love me as their own, eventually adopting me.  Now, I love my biological family.  The bond that I had with my adoptive family was undeniable, and it was really heartbreaking when my mom left them to pursue another job. 

One of the few early childhood memories that I can recall is a scene of my three-year-old self, so, little Whitney, stuffing her few belongings into a washed-out pillowcase insisting that I be returned back to my adoptive family. 

My adoptive mom was the epitome of a prayerful woman and, in my eyes, a modern-day Mother Teresa.  I've lost count of the number of times that I have bumped into a homeless person voraciously slurping a cup of tea on our front steps or the surprising extra pair of shoes that made it on our shopping list.  Really, at heart, I’m still her little princess dressed in frill dresses, socks and stockings and matching satin ribbons. 

My adoptive mom truly made my childhood special.  I remember how I loved the way she made the words come to life when she read to me.  Somehow, it just didn’t sound the same when I heard it.  I remember how she used to spend almost twenty dollars a day just to send me to the best high school on the island, which was over an hour away.  We would wake up at 5:00 a.m. every day.  At that time it’s still dark, the air crisp and cool, and the only people awake are the local bread man and a few older ladies still clad in head ties and roller sets, and, of course, the occasional stray dog.  I remember how she used to wait up with me and place a cup of tea and a sandwich on my desk on those long school nights. 

You see, from a very early age, I saw and acknowledged the sacrifices that my parents made in order to give me the best opportunities that they could afford.  This instilled in me a strong desire to excel academically.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Though financially more stable, my adoptive parents only had a high school education.  My mom a seamstress and my dad an electrician.  But education, discipline, and empathy were staples in our home. 

But then our lives changed in 2003 when our house got destroyed.  The image of the blazing fire lining the hallways of my house as I rushed out onto the street will forever be burnt into my memory.  The fire had devoured every childhood picture, every favorite book or high school memory in an instant.  We had lost everything.  And to make matters worse, I was almost done with my secondary school education in St. Lucia and it infuriated me that I had no foreseeable plans for the future.  While we were not poor, they just did not have the means to send me off to university. 

In fact, I had my eyes set on a scholarship to Cuba to study medicine.  It was one of the few full scholarships available to St. Lucians to go off to university.  But it so happened that when I was done with school and graduated and ready to apply, it was not made available. 

So I got a job as a public high school teacher determined to work tirelessly until an opportunity arose.  Eventually, one did.  I was granted a full academic scholarship to pursue my bachelor of science at Grambling State University in Louisiana in the United States, a place I had never been to. 

Crazy as it may sound, I loved being a student.  And getting the opportunity to go to college was like a dream come true.  One of the advantages of coming to school here was that I was suddenly exposed to the fascinating and intriguing realm of scientific research.  With each science class, from analytical chemistry to cellular, molecular biology, my enthusiasm for research began to be significantly peaked.  But the uncertainty of my future plagued me once again in my last year of college. 

So there I am, seated across my professor’s desk, staring incredulously at the list of acceptances for institutions that I had never dreamt of attending.  “Why settle?” he says.  “You belong at these schools.  Yes, it will be challenging, but give yourself the opportunity.” 

So with great trepidation I found myself signing the offer letter from Harvard.  But upon arriving at graduate school, my confidence plummeted to an all-time low.  Each class was a dreaded brew of anxiety and fear of being found out. 

I distinctly remember calling my home at 3:00 a.m. on what felt like the most dreadful day in the late fall of 2010.  The phone rang for forever.  Finally, my mom picked up.  Between uncontrollable sobs and deep breaths, I managed to blurt out that I don’t belong here, that I wanted to go home, and that I was sorry, sorry for disappointing everyone. 

I think it broke my mom’s heart to hear me sound so defeated.  She truly believed that I had what it took to achieve greatly and that, despite where we came from, I too deserved to be trained among the best.  She instilled faith and life into me and she reminded me of the strength and talent that lay within me. 

And she was right, although it took me several years before I could really realize that.  You see, all the accolades that I accrued in graduate school and all the praises from my peers and mentors just wasn’t enough proof.  I think the magnitude of my accomplishments really sunk in on graduation day.  And to celebrate with me was one of my biological aunts, my adoptive family, and an old childhood friend from St. Lucia.  There they were, beaming proudly, amidst my colleagues on the grounds of Harvard University.  In a split second, it felt like my seemingly disparate worlds had finally met.  I was part of their world as much as I was part of the Harvard family. 

The crowd cheered as I walked across the stage to pick up my doctoral diploma.  It didn’t matter where I came from, what I looked like or what I sounded like.  For once, I actually felt like I belonged.  Despite the sweat and tears, I had made it. 

I couldn’t help but remember all the mentors I had, each one strategically placed to help me navigate through life’s journey through each of my worlds.  As my mom helped me out of my crimson red regalia, I couldn’t help but feel immensely grateful for her love, her strength and her sacrifices have made me who I am. 

Thank you.