Conquering impostor syndrome
With the help of IBM mentors and her first patent in 2008, Tara Astigarraga, who is part Choctaw Indian, conquered impostor syndrome and now helps younger women and men from underrepresented backgrounds see the possibilities of a career in STEM.
Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs who have made a positive difference in the world. This month, we focus on IBM Master Inventor, Tara Astigarraga.
“I don’t know if it’s being Native, being female, [or] coming from a non-traditional path,” says Tara Astigarraga, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, “but it took me a long time to realize that I actually belonged in the fields of STEM, that it wasn’t an accident that I was having success.”
That revelation came to her in 2008, after she received her first patent.
Born and raised in Arizona and part Native American through her father, Tara did indeed take a non-traditional path to get where she is today: an IBM Master Inventor named on not one, but 81 patents. It was a path she could not have imagined as a first-generation college student, when she double-majored in Spanish linguistics and communications with the goal of being a bilingual teacher or social worker.
An unexpected opportunity changed all that almost overnight. It came during her senior year at the University of Arizona, which she attended with financial aid from the Choctaw Nation and the University’s Native American Student Affairs organization. Through her enrollment in the University’s cooperative education program, Tara was offered a diversity program internship with IBM Systems Group, which in turn led to a full-time job at IBM Tucson after graduation.
“It was my first, I guess, real job beyond just part-time things that I was doing to make a little extra money,” she says. “And I had a really great mentor when I first joined [IBM] from the Native American community. She was the head of our diversity group at the time. Her name's Michele Morningstar ... And she pulled me immediately into the diversity group there and got me involved with all the other folks across IBM.”
“I was excited about the opportunities at such a large company,” says Tara. “I really wanted to grow my skills and make a difference.”
At the same time, she struggled with a challenge all too common to young women and men, especially those from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): impostor syndrome.
“I accidentally got into IBM,” Tara would think. “At some point, they'll figure out I don't belong here.” It was a mental roadblock and a mindset she was able to start chipping away at, in part, through the help of another mentor, a distinguished IBM engineer named Mikey Brown, with whom she was paired up a few years after joining IBM.
“He pushed me far outside my comfort zone, but in a very safety-net kind of way where it was just go learn, go explore,” says Tara. “It was a one-year role of basically learning everything I could across the company and divisions and working with him on a lot of client cases … That year completely changed my career trajectory, realizing I could do a lot more than I thought I could and giving myself some credit to try and push myself forward.”
That lesson was driven home when Tara experienced another, even more common challenge that we all have, at one time or another, in school or at work. Hers happened at a conference.
“I needed [to give] a presentation. My drive failed and I had to rewrite the entire thing like an hour before I was supposed to be talking.” Later, she vented about it to Brown.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asked her. “How are we going to fix this? Go brainstorm and come back in a few days and we'll talk about it.”
“I like solving real-world problems,” says Tara, who eagerly accepted her mentor’s challenge. What came out of her efforts, with the help of Brown and another colleague, was Tara’s first patent in 2008, for “end-of-life prediction for flash memory,” and the revelation that she was not an impostor.
“It made me realize that I was smarter than I thought I was and that I could do this,” she says. “I actually know what I'm doing and I can move forward and have an impact.”
Move forward and have an impact Tara did, first in IBM Systems Group, later in IBM’s corporate offices, and now at IBM Research, “a group of scientists and researchers around the globe who deeply believe in the power of the scientific method to invent what’s next for IBM, our clients, and the world.” Also, and more importantly, given the 80 more patents on which she was named over the next 14 years—for a variety of innovative storage, networking, security, and blockchain solutions—“I realized that I didn't have to ask for permission, that I could just go innovate and do things. That put me in a different mindset.”
That different mindset is something that Tara, now a resident of Upstate New York and a mother of two—including a daughter in high school—has been actively promoting to younger audiences around the country, including high school students in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, “the third-largest Indian nation in the United States, with over 200,000 tribal members and more than 11,000 employees.”
“The Native American community is 1.2% of the U.S. population, but we represent 0.03% of the STEM workforce,” says Tara, referring to the last available study, from 2015. That same report noted that American Indians represented only 0.4% of all engineering bachelor’s degrees and only 0.1% of all engineering faculty. A National Science Foundation study in 2018 found that the percentages of Native Americans earning master’s degrees and doctorates in science and engineering were 0.4 and 0.3, respectively.
“When people talk about activities in STEM or how to build pipelines and get people involved,” Tara says, “they typically talk about the Black and Hispanic communities and even women. But Native American communities hardly ever get brought up because when you round that data, we get rounded to zero and we don't even get included in those conversations.”
Not surprisingly, the less than 0.4% of Native Americans that do pursue degrees in STEM are more prone than members of most other underrepresented groups to struggle with feelings of impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, according to a study published earlier this year by the American Society for Cell Biology.
“Developing a diverse and culturally competent STEM workforce requires a deeper understanding of what deters Native American individuals from pursuing a STEM career,” wrote the study’s author. “They have the lowest college enrollment and retention rates compared with any race in the United States and could be vulnerable to racial bias and discrimination. Understanding impostor phenomenon through culturally relevant experiences would be crucial to broaden participation in STEM careers."
Tackling that larger systemic challenge is a passion of Tara’s, one that she approaches through the work of the Choctaw Nation and nonprofits like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), the Society of Advancement for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and AnitaB.org. At some events, she speaks in Spanish and Choctaw during her introductions and then in English for her presentations.
“I just want to make sure that [students] understand the options that are out there,” says Tara, who likes to joke “that I became an engineer before I knew what an engineer was. I didn’t have anybody in my background that I ever knew that was an engineer.” Working with young students, especially girls, young women, and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups like Native Americans, allows Tara to break down that barrier for others, to be that example of a successful engineer they can see and relate to. One of the events at which she did that recently is an annual hackathon called hackAISES, targeted at the Native community.
“We actually kind of had it wide open what they could do,” says Tara, a Sequoyah Fellow and corporate advisory board member at AISES, “but we had Snap Kits [prototyping kits] and other applications that they could build. The team that actually won created an application [that] could do translations of images into indigenous languages. So that was kind of cool. And that was all within the day that they built that.”
Tara also partnered with the Choctaw Nation to volunteer, virtually, at their high school fair in 2020.
“We had an IBM booth there trying to get students interested in STEM, or just realizing that there are options as they start looking into what they want to be after college and where they want to go to school and what they want to study.”
Occasionally, Tara is rewarded with direct, firsthand experience that these efforts are paying off. Recalling one event that stands out in her memory, from Minnesota in 2019, she says, “We were working with some of our … robotics activities and we had one student that was very quiet, not engaged during all of our introductions [about] the different activities.”
“But then the minute that she started working hands on with the technology,” Tara adds, “she was the one that got everything first. [She] not only did the activity, but went above and beyond and was actually coming up with new things that we hadn't even thought about including in the structure.”
It was a valuable lesson for Tara, and for STEM educators more broadly. “There's lots of different ways that people learn,” she says. “Even though they might not outwardly show their enthusiasm, or they might be more on the shy side, doesn't mean that they don't have really good aptitude for picking up some of the technologies.”
At the same time, Tara is a realist. She understands that a future in STEM is not for everyone. “It's not that I want every student to go into this field,” says Tara, whose own daughters don’t seem that interested in engineering, though her older one is interested in medicine. “I want every student to know that this field exists and have a chance to pursue that path or not … I think that's really important to me and also for them to understand.”
“I always tell them, you know, you’re not expected to know what you want to do … and [to] not be afraid to try different things and see what interests you, and that even if it looks and sounds like others have all the answers, trust me, they don’t.”
While her efforts are typically aimed at students anywhere from kindergarten to college, Tara also focuses some of her time talking to young women already pursuing careers in STEM, as she did recently at AnitaB.org’s annual Grace Hopper Celebration—named in honor of the famous computer scientist, mathematician, and U.S. Navy rear admiral whose many awards included a 1991 National Medal of Technology and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It was a weeklong event where you're there with … 15,000 in-person attendees of just women in tech,” says Tara, who was excited “to talk to so many of the folks that are just starting to enter the workforce and try to help them on their journeys.”
One critical piece of advice Tara gave them from her own journey of innovation comes directly from that revelation she had after receiving her first patent in 2008: “not to be intimidated and not to have impostor syndrome.”
“Absolutely nobody in our field knows everything,” says Tara, who was profiled last year by The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, as well as in a children’s book called “Who is a scientist?” by award-winning author Laura Gehl, who has a B.A. in psychology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Georgetown University.
“It's humanly impossible to understand this field across the different areas,” Tara adds. “Your entire career you're going to be learning. So, don't be scared to jump in, start learning one thing, and then start looking around and realizing what are the neighboring components.”
“Tackle it a puzzle piece at a time.”
Where does Tara see herself 10 years from now? The answer, for her, is not a difficult one. “I hope to continue doing what I’m doing,” she says, ”going down the path of technology and bringing leading-edge solutions to clients. Making sure that what I’m working on is delivering value in the field.”
“I definitely envision myself continuing to volunteer,” she adds, “maybe even more so as I get older and potentially in retirement.” That spirit of giving back, and of being a role model and a helping hand for younger generations, is very much in keeping with Tara’s Native American cultural heritage.
“Choctaws have always kind of put a focus on education and trying to strive to obtain a better life for yourself and for the community around you,” she says.
“I don’t imagine ever not being involved.”
Produced by the USPTO’s Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.
Story by Eric Atkisson with additional contributions from Jay Premack. Special thanks to Tara Astigarraga.
Photos on the USPTO homepage and throughout this story courtesy of Tara Astigarraga, unless otherwise noted in the caption.
The photograph at the beginning of this story shows Tara Astigarraga at the Grand Canyon, wearing a tank top reading "Choctaw" in cursive letter over a silhouette of the state of Oklahoma.