In a flashback to childhood, the start of a career

Doris Espiritu at the American Chemical Society conference, in front of a large logo reading

This is part of Break Through Tech Chicago’s series of HOW columns, which tell how women in technology got where they are today and how we can increase the presence of women in technology tomorrow — in “her own words.”

Written By
Doris Espiritu
  • Her Own Words (HOW) series

by Doris Espiritu

The rapid growth of technology affects all facets of our lives. It revolutionizes education, medicine, food production, travel, and communication. It influences human interaction and our way of thinking.

If the future is shaped by technology, is it reasonable to consider it when choosing a career? Does this mean that we all should major in computer science?

Technology is broader than just computer science, of course, but having computational skills in your toolbox is a great career advantage, regardless of your passion.

Technology and a time machine

Science and medicine always fascinated me, but a career in computing never came to mind. I did not find coding classes exciting, but I found technological applications important.

My extensive exposure to technology started when I was doing my master’s degree in chemistry at the University of the Philippines. My research on conotoxin diversity was too complex to manage manually and I did not know how to write custom algorithms, so I looked for open-source software and available computational packages. Though the tools were not customized for my research, I had the chance to learn and apply bioinformatics to solve my problem.

When I moved to the United States and started my PhD at UIC, I had the opportunity to fully integrate technology into my medical and scientific research. I measured real-time change in intracellular pH by coupling a fluorometer with visualization software. I created clones and mutated DNA to understand protein function and analyzed my data using technology. I created a website to communicate my methodologies and published papers that relied on various computational tools. My research revolved around biochemistry, physiology, and medicine, but my success was propelled by technology.

After I finished my doctorate, during the phase where I was deciding where to do my postdoctoral training, I was offered an opportunity to teach at a community college. Teaching had never crossed my mind. I was not familiar with the community college system. I only accepted the offer to help the friend who had extended it. But it was a gesture that serendipitously led me to my purpose.

The first class I taught at Wright College gave me the profound joy I used to feel when I was a child. The class was like a time machine that brought me back to my childhood. The diversity of students and their hunger for knowledge drove me to a teaching career. Today, I combine my love of science and my passion for research, teaching, and mentoring to making a difference in students’ lives.

Building from scratch and finding success

Working at a teaching-focused institution with no research funding, I created a research program that does not need money to teach scientific research fundamentals. My students learn to create a hypothesis and to extract open-source data to answer the question they are investigating. To date, we have studied the health of the Chicago River using data mining. We have extracted LANDSAT data from MyNASA, mined data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and evaluated the concentrations of chlorophyll, nitrates, and phosphate in Metropolitan Water Reclamation District data.

This research experience has helped my students transfer to four-year institutions and excel. It has jump-started their careers: one student leveraged her data science experience for medical school applications and became a podiatrist, while another is a cyber engineer at Facebook. Building on this success, I established more opportunities for community college students and expanded my work to Princeton University, a collaboration that has provided at least 15 Wright College and City Colleges of Chicago students with research opportunities at Princeton.

My passion has been recognized by the National Science Foundation, which gave me Hispanic Serving Institution funding to build bridges into engineering and computer science for underrepresented students. In this project, I design and implement practices that increase feelings of self-efficacy and belonging among students to set the stage for increased diversity in these fields. Wright College now offers guided pathways to engineering and computer science and has created partnerships with Discovery Partners Institute, colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, industry, and nonprofits.

As a scientist without formal computer science training, my career revolves around technology. Today, I am a chemist, a physiologist, and a biophysicist turned educator who advocates for equitable education for all, especially women, first-generation, and low-income students in engineering and computer science. I am exploiting technology to make a difference in Chicago, and I encourage everyone to develop the computational skills that you can apply to whatever your passion may be. Remember, the future rests on technology.

Here are some simple tips — derived not from a textbook, but from my experience — to accelerate your career progress:

1. Explore, keep learning, and develop a growth mindset.

“You do not know what you do not know until you know.”

I have observed a rising number of students who manifest the Dunning-Kruger effect, a bias that causes people to overestimate their ability and prevent them from learning. Do not let this be an obstacle to your success. Never assume you know it all. Learn, keep learning, and grow.

2. Don’t let anyone, especially yourself, tell you that you can’t.

A former student of mine scored well on a math assessment, completed a few computer science camps and classes in high school, and seemed sure she wanted to pursue computer science. A semester later, she gave up, saying, “I am not cut out for this.” I saw this as an example of imposter syndrome, the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect. People who experience imposter syndrome fear that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be, sometimes leading them to sabotage their own success. Imposter syndrome can be linked with perfectionism. Do not try to be perfect. No one is. When you feel like you don’t deserve to be where you are, reflect on your strengths. Talk to friends, talk to mentors, and talk to people you trust before saying, “I am not cut out for it.”

Alternatively, if anyone ever tells you that you are not cut out for something, show them that you are.

3. Find your motivation.

Motivation is a reason to act in a certain way. Without it, talented people will not perform to their full potential. With it, even people who naturally struggle will overperform.

I always wanted to be a medical doctor. I was motivated to impress my father. My father had the formula for happiness figured out. He did not have a fancy career; he barely finished third grade, but he made people happy. I pursued pre-med in college because he wanted me to, so when he died on the very first day of college, I lost my motivation. When I considered dropping out, someone made a frightening prediction about my future as a dropout. The fear generated by this prediction motivated me to do everything possible to ensure that it would not come true.

This motivation created perseverance, resilience, and grit that paved the way. Instead of giving up, tap into your motivation.

4. Find your passion.

It sounds like a cliché, but if you are doing what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Exciting. How do you know what you are passionate about?

Honestly, there is no straightforward answer to this question because it takes self-assessment and experience. Factors such as gender, culture, and socioeconomic background often complicate our decisions. When we factor in available opportunities and “a profession that will pay the bills,” we easily can be swayed toward doing something that we are not passionate about.

The answer comes with time and knowledge of oneself. If you can manage it, do not feel rushed to make a choice. Ask yourself. Ask around. Do your research. Try and keep trying new things. When the answer reveals itself, you will know it. If it hasn’t yet, continue gathering the skills and information to prepare you for when it does.

5. Embrace change and find the silver lining.

Humans are creatures of habit, and change does not come easily. Learn from the process and listen to your inner voice. Accept diverse ways of thinking and be ready to pivot or adjust quickly when necessary. Be thankful for life’s difficult moments and find the silver linings. A satisfying career starts with learning from difficult situations. Being able to make changes is integral to the process.