NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle talks reality of imposter syndrome

Elena Waldman

It’s not every day women in STEM get their credit or recognition. Every now and then, we learn of new female figures throughout history who made major contributions to science and whose achievements were either glossed over or miscredited. That’s why the annual Women in Science Symposium is so important. 

This year’s symposium on March 3 was themed “Building Bridges to the Future,” and it focused on the contributions women are making in science today that are moving society forward.

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Dr. Yvonne Cagle, a former United States Air Force colonel, former Air Force medical liaison and, most notably, a NASA astronaut, gave a keynote speech about her work as a scientist, her research and what it is like to be a woman of color in science, technology, engineering and math. 

Dr. Yvonne Cagle, NASA Astronaut and aerospace researcher and retired Air Force Colonel, was the keynote speaker at Colorado State University’s Women in Science Symposium March 3. Cagle spoke of some of her experiences in space and about the health research she is involved with regarding how the body adapts to conditions in space. (Addie Kuettner | The Collegian)

Dr. Cagle used her unique perspective to focus on the humanistic, artful aspects of science. Her research extends from how the body adapts in space, to the differences in how people heal in space, to how space affects muscles. No longer eligible for spaceflight, Dr. Cagle turned her focus from the skies back down to the Earth to advocate for human rights.

Because of her experiences as a woman in science, one of the many recurring themes of Dr. Cagle’s keynote speech and the Q&A following was imposter syndrome, which is feeling inadequate even when you are qualified and credible. 

“The way that you overcome the imposter syndrome is two words: You don’t,” Dr. Cagle said. “You just don’t. Because it’s always there. I still have it. I go to sleep with it every night. I wake up with it every morning, to the point where it’s companionship, … and then I try to marginalize or sideline the imposter because I have bigger things that I’m working on.” 

Dr. Cagle recognizes that imposter syndrome exists, and she experiences it herself — but for people like her who are changing the world day by day with their work, there simply isn’t time to let the negativity win. 

“(I tell myself that) everything the imposter syndrome is trying to say or do is correct, and I’ll get around to it — after I land a human on the moon,” Dr. Cagle said. 

This is a feeling that some of the audience members, especially those that are also women in STEM, shared. 

Aly Cavalier, a health and exercise science graduate student at CSU, said she is all too familiar with imposter syndrome but doesn’t let it stop her from succeeding in her studies. 

“The imposter syndrome is so real,” Cavalier said. “You have to just set aside whatever insecurities that you have because you literally don’t have time to deal with it. … There’s too much to be done. You have to keep putting it off because obviously you deserve to be where you are, or you wouldn’t be there.” 

Another grad student, Elizabeth Havlik, who is pursuing her master’s degree in toxicology, described her own experiences with imposter syndrome as constantly comparing herself to her peers in the field. 

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“I feel like I did relate to some of what (Dr. Cagle) was talking about, (like) imposter syndrome,” Havlik said. “(Imposter syndrome) sort of feels like I always should be doing more, like I’m not doing enough.” 

This is why events like the Women in Science Symposium are so essential; by having a community of women who may share these unwarranted feelings of inadequacy despite being smart, capable and successful, the strength of unity can help people overcome these insecurities. 

“If everyone feels that way, then no one is truly an imposter,” Havlik said. 

the more that you understand failure to be not an end game and not the finish line, but the starting line, that is simply the edge of the envelope of knowing what the full capacity of whatever you’re working on, including yourself.” -Dr. Yvonne Cagle, former NASA astronaut and keynote speaker at the 2020 Women in Science Symposium

Imposter syndrome is not specific to just women, but it can be critical to the presence of women in STEM fields. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up 28% of the science and engineering workforce. Successful women in the STEM fields, then, are crucial to providing role models and a strong support system for women who wish to enter these male-dominated fields. 

Dr. Cagle was once one of those young, ambitious women herself, and she noted her own role model and mentor — Katherine Johnson. 

A major game-changer in space travel and a force to be reckoned with, Johnson was a NASA mathematician who helped calculate some of the first trajectories to the moon. Featured in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” Johnson’s work was integral to the success of several space travel missions in the 1960s. 

“Everybody talked about what she did, but not many people asked her how she did it,” Dr. Cagle said of Johnson. “I asked (Johnson) that one day, and … as complex as her brain was, she just gave such grounded, simple answers. I braced myself for this highly complex (answer), and she said it was simple. She said, ‘I was an error checker. We did the job that needed to be done.’” 

Dr. Cagle noted Johnson’s integrity while working for NASA and how much attention to detail she put into her work. 

“As an error checker, she became more expert than the experts,” Dr. Cagle said. “She knew all the different ways that you could calculate the trajectory in the space around the Earth and onto the moon.” 

Dr. Cagle worked, as a medical professional and NASA astronaut, to model her own approach to her career after Johnson’s. 

“I wanted to have that level of precision, and in order to get to that level of precision, there’s no space for imposter syndrome or imposter voices,” Dr. Cagle said. 

Johnson died last week, Feb. 24, 2020, and will be remembered for her contributions to space travel. 

Another important message Dr. Cagle conveyed is the importance of failure. It is something she experienced throughout her career, and she noted that often, failure can teach a person more than success. 

“If you’re failing, it just means that you’re finding alternative ways of solving a problem,” Dr. Cagle said. “So anyone who gets to an answer first time out of the gate, that’s great, but life doesn’t work that way. The more that you can learn along the way, that’s the real success.” 

For Dr. Cagle, failure does not mean giving up. In fact, in many cases, it means a new beginning. 

“The more that you perform and the more that you see that you fall forward and bounce up in the face of failure and the more that you understand failure to be not an end game and not the finish line, but the starting line, that is simply the edge of the envelope of knowing what the full capacity of whatever you’re working on (is), including yourself,” Dr. Cagle said. 

Elena Waldman can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @WaldmanElena.