Nicole Cabrera might not have set a laboratory on fire, but she’s started a conversation among scientists: It’s ok to make mistakes, anywhere from making an error with data, all the way to breaking a telescope.
Cabrera, a Ph.D. student at Georgia State University’s Astronomy Department, used Twitter and a hashtag – a phrase, starting with a pound sign, used to identify messages on a specific topic.
With the phrase #FailingInSTEM, she hoped to deliver the message to young people that making a mistake isn’t the end of the adventure into science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
“I think it really resonated with people, because it’s just such a natural part of science,” she said. “The fact that people don’t talk about it makes the culture something where people feel as though they have to hide things – only talking about their successes.”
Often, Cabrera said, people using #FailingInSTEM mentioned that they had been afraid that their careers would be derailed if others found out about their mistakes.
“It was really encouraging for them to see all of these scientists talking about how they had failed,” she said. “Real failures, like people breaking instruments, things like that, where you think you can’t come back from it.
“The problem when people don’t talk about these things is that when it happens to you, you think there’s something wrong with you,” she said.
Cabrera, a native of Chile who grew up in the United States, said that this is especially true for individuals who are underrepresented in STEM fields – racial and ethnic minorities, and women, among other groups.
“There are a lot of women tweeting about this, and I think it particularly resonated with them, because you’re in an environment that’s male-dominated,” she said. “You look around, and there isn’t anybody like you, especially in the higher ranks, and sometimes you think, ‘I don’t belong here.’
“And when you do fail, that compounds on that feeling – it sort of validates that feeling that you don’t belong here,” she said. “And it’s simply not true.”
Everybody fails and makes mistakes sometimes – and that’s how science works, Cabrera said.
“If you’re not failing, you’re probably not taking any risks,” she said. “And in research, you have to make mistakes to figure out what works, and what doesn’t.”
Cabrera herself can relate to setbacks, from which thought she wouldn’t be able to get back up – but found the inspiration and encouragement from mentors and friends to continue on.
Jim Sowell, director of the Department of Astronomy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said he can still remember the day he met Cabrera, who he mentored during her undergraduate years.
“She came in, early in the semester after class, and introduced herself – ‘I’m Nicole, and I’m going to be majoring in this career – get used to seeing me,’” Sowell said. “It’s nice to have students like that.”
He guided her toward independent research, and encouraged her to go to graduate school – but she faced setbacks in trying to apply to graduate astronomy programs across the country.
The Great Recession was in full swing, and she could only afford to apply to five programs (some charging $100 per application). She had great recommendations, a great undergraduate research portfolio, and a great general GRE score – but she bombed the physics GRE subject test.
All five universities rejected her application. The last rejection letter came during the weekend.
“That night, I went out drinking, and I cried about it – I was so sad,” Cabrera said. “I didn’t know what to do, because it was the only thing I wanted to do – go to grad school and become a professor in astronomy.”
She called Sowell at home the next day. He didn’t let her give up on her dream.
“I contacted a few people at Georgia State, where I’ve sent other students over the past 20 years,” said Sowell, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Georgia State in the 1980s. “I told them, ‘this is the best student you’ve ever seen from me.’”
He continues to give advice, and Cabrera herself has been inspired to encourage and mentor others in STEM subjects – along with communicating science to the public, something that she’s accomplished by starting a viral hashtag on Twitter.
“Science is important for everybody. It’s for everyone,” she said.
PHOTOGRAPHY: STEVEN THACKSTON