Ph.D. candidate, Oceanography
Overcoming troubles with learning and expectations, this scientist uses visualization to keep his eyes on the stars -- and Mars.
From second grade to eighth grade, David hated school. He didn’t get along with his teachers, he says — and they didn’t get along with him. “It was difficult dealing with adults that didn’t like me,” he recalls. He found the disconnection weird, and possibly charged with racism; he was one of only two Black students in his class, and found himself getting in trouble for doing things that others involved weren’t disciplined for. On the first day of high school, David woke from a nightmare that he was still back in middle school — and was relieved he was not. In his early twenties, David developed panic attacks about school. Identifying the panic attacks, he realized he had probably had them as a kid. Now an adult, he says the attacks stopped when he finally began to focus on his dream of working in space exploration and related research. He feels a sense of personal triumph in proving his early teachers wrong.
It wasn’t just math. David took two years to earn a year of junior college credits. “I was a horrible student. I am a horrible student.” He received a football scholarship to attend Clark University in Atlanta, before transferring to Georgia State University to major in astronomy, where math again caused him problems. “I don’t have a diagnosed learning disability, but I would be surprised if I didn’t.” He graduated from college with an overall GPA of 2.9 — a C — and bombed his GREs (Graduate Record Examinations. “These metrics used to measure talent and ability are unfair,” he says — and mentions that in his major courses, his grades were all A’s and high B’s. The main point: it wasn’t only grades that got him admitted to his Ph.D. program; it was mainly his research experience, which led to authorship on a scientific paper.
Along the way, David sought out and applied to programs designed to help him acquire experience working with scientists in the lab and in the field.
One summer, he took part in the University of Maryland and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Partnership Education Program (PEP), 4- week or 6 to 10-week internships for college students from underrepresented groups. Find out more here. (Link: https://www.woodsholediversity.org/pep/)
The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which helps support graduate students. Learn about it here. (Link: https://www.nsfgrfp.org)
David adds, “My mom has a saying I believe in: Just show up. Because a lot of people don’t. Just apply!”
And finally, students living in the Rutgers University area can take part in a special 4-H STEM program. Check it out here.
When David’s elders had trouble, he and his brother left school to help out. His grandmother had a stroke, his mother became ill, and his father went through a military deployment. During the 2008 recession, the family lost their California cattle farm. David and his brother suggested the family move to Atlanta, where they were attending school. “We were in love with Atlanta, and there was nothing to tie my parents to California anymore.” Now the family can’t imagine living anywhere else. “The transition was awesome,” says David. “I didn’t grow up among black people. In Atlanta the mayor is black, the city council is black, all my instructors were black. It was a bit of a culture shock, but it was interesting, and I got into the groove.”
On feeling stupid or like an impostor, David is direct: “What I would say to someone who feels like they’re not intelligent enough and finds themselves in a similar situation [to mine]: I know I’m not stupid. I don’t think I’m Einstein, either. And I don’t think it takes a great, godlike intellect to be a scientist.” He didn’t always see this clearly. “When I was first starting out I really idolized scientists. I put them on a pedestal. It’s not that I don’t do that anymore, or that I lack respect for them, but now I understand that doing science is a learned skill. If you learn it, you can be here.” And yet… “You also have to fight that feeling that you’re inferior!” How? David shares the philosophy he has developed. “Belief, I think, is a big part of success or failure. If you believe you can’t do a thing, you’re not going to do it. If you believe you can do a thing, you will — or it’s more likely that you will, that you’ll be more open to seeing opportunities.
“Oh man, this is not going to work out!” If you believe that, David says, you might miss a jumping-off point to something new that could be key to your future. For him, the change to positive thinking didn’t happen overnight. “It took my three years to fix the way I thought about myself.” It started with what he calls a quarter-life crisis, when panic attacks about his career frightened him badly. He recommends three techniques: practicing gratitude (he says listing what you’re grateful for makes you more aware of good things); visualization (imagining what you wish for is actually coming true); and affirmations (messages to yourself about being worthy, being smart enough, being good enough.) Among David’s recollections is a time when he turned the corner: “I started noticing hummingbirds!”