Former NASA engineer speaks about how to overcome impostor syndrome

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Maureen Zappala lectured at the UNLV Student Union on 29 March 2023.

Former NASA engineer Maureen Zappala spoke to UNLV students about how to overcome impostor syndrome on Mar. 29. UNLV’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) hosted the talk in the Student Union Ballroom.

The American Psychological Association (APA)defines impostor syndrome or impostor phenomenon as, “A pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that you are skilled and successful.”

Zappala took an engaged audience of about 10 people through her NASA career to explain her experience with impostor syndrome and presented a way to better manage the effects of the phenomenon.

She began the talk by telling a story about her first job straight out of college as an engineer for the Propulsion Systems Laboratory at the NASA Lewis Research Center. Zappala defined impostor syndrome as a limit of confidence instead of a lack of confidence and that it makes itself the most apparent in times of transition.

Zappala outlined three steps in a “fraud-free framework” to better manage impostor syndrome. 

The first step is to recognize the impostor cycle and the symptoms that happen throughout the cycle. She mentioned symptoms like perfectionism and the fear of failure that stresses people out so much that they will either over-prepare or procrastinate in starting a new project.

She told students that the next step is to reverse it by catching themselves in the cycle, examining the feelings and logic behind what they recognized, and then doing something different to stop the cycle.

The last step is to “re-people it,” where working on impostor syndrome will show itself externally in one’s work and actions. She reminded students that comparing oneself to others makes them feel inferior to their colleagues but in reality, everyone’s knowledge and skillsets can’t be compared to each other.

Christian Glemaud, a mechanical engineering major, stated that he struggled with impostor syndrome when he played basketball in high school. He said that this talk was something he needed.

“I wish I knew this stuff in college,” said Zappala after the talk.

EWB President Kelly Chicas and Project Coordinator Emma Letourneau saw Zappala speak virtually at a summer internship. When they heard that she was in Las Vegas, they knew that they had to invite Zappala to speak for the club and other UNLV students.

“Students need confidence,” said Chicas, who said that she needed this talk to give her the courage to apply for internships that she otherwise felt unqualified for.EWB is a UNLV club and non-profit organization that partners with communities with unmet needs. Its current projects are monitoring composting latrines in Nicaragua and building permanent schoolhouses in Guatemala. More information on its projects and current fundraiser can be found online at https://linktr.ee/ewbunlv.

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