Written by Gillian

When I was 10 years old, I decided one day that I would no longer be afraid of anything. Spiders no longer meant me harm, heights were just temporary discomfort, and the shadows in the forest should be explored- not feared. All I had to do was just push through my hesitation and just say yes to everything– and it all would be fine. Simple, right? I thought so at the time. My new mentality pushed me away from the painful shyness that had defined my childhood and towards exploring the wilderness in my hometown, pursuing sports, and standing up for myself. 

As a thirteen year old, I solemnly decided it was time to prepare for college and a career. Having grown up surrounded by pets and wildlife, pursuing wildlife biology seemed like the obvious choice. I wanted to start my career as soon as possible, but the tricky thing about being thirteen is there’s a lot of growing up to do before anyone lets you, you know… perform research on dangerous animals and whatnot. To bypass this barrier, I began volunteering at the local zoo saying yes to every opportunity along the way. 

The zoo is pretty busy today, can you handle this large crowd? Yes. 

The penguins bite, are you sure you want to go in there? Yes. 

We could use more help on this holiday, can you do an extra shift? Yes. 

Saying yes often brought me fun experiences and knowledge, even if sometimes it took up time that I didn’t have. By the time I was 18 I had found my niche- big cats! I spent all the time I could working near them. I soon noticed a pattern: zoo visitors could recognize and recite facts about lions, tigers, and leopards, but often knew nothing about mountain lions. Some didn’t even know that they were here in California. This was what inspired me to make another Big Logical Decision: I wanted to work with big cats, and there were some practically in my own backyard that needed to be understood better. So at 19, I began interning with my college’s mountain lion research project. 

I always said yes to carrying the heavy supply packs on long hikes, traversing perilous canyons and valleys, entering burn zones, and working during heat waves and storms alike- even when I felt uncomfortable. I told myself it was what biologists did, and if I didn’t do it someone else would. I learned how to navigate, place trail cameras, use telemetry, and track. I assisted on more than two dozen capture attempts and helped to sedate and collar several mountain lions over the years. I’ll always regard these years of research as some of the most fun and formative of my life. 

Yet despite finally feeling like I was doing what I was meant to do, doubt towards my abilities and a fierce need to be taken seriously always seemed to be in the back of my mind, unspoken but constant. The need to prove myself in both my college life and my internship usually left me working myself to exhaustion. I felt like saying no to opportunities was evidence that I wasn’t a “real” biologist, college student, or athlete. At one point I was working two jobs, two side gigs, the internship, 5-6 days a week of NCAA track and field practice, and a full college course load.

More than once I studied for midterms in a tent using a flashlight during overnight captures, and would be exhilarated but exhausted the next day (Worth it? Yes. Did it impact my scores? Likely). When I would return home from some extra long field days covered in mud and blood, I secretly relished the horrified looks I got from housemates and would often joke about the times I almost got heat stroke during long hikes or broken bones sliding down some steep terrain. Online I saw other biologists proudly sharing their similar field horror stories and the unbelievable stress they were under in school or work, and felt validated. People praised me for working so hard and putting myself out there, feeding the beast within that associated being reckless with working hard. 

One morning when I was supposed to go out by myself to pick up a trail camera, some rain rolled in. My supervisor emailed saying that he would appreciate it if I still went out, but understood if I didn’t want to. He is a kind and fair guy, so in hindsight I know he wouldn’t have minded if I said no. But in the moment, reading that email made me feel like it was another challenge I shouldn’t say no to. My imposter syndrome and the need to prove myself as a tough biologist overrode the common sense feeling in my gut screaming that it was a horrible and dangerous idea. 

I set out into the rain. It was freezing, but I had brought multiple sets of clothes, warm coffee, and rain gear. I had hiked in the rain many times before and naively thought this would be the same. It was not, and I knew that when I began to lose feeling in my fingers once a biting wind picked up. I kept going. I reasoned that I had hiked out so far that I might as well accomplish what I said I would do, secretly afraid to say I failed the task if I turned back. 

After I reached the camera I was soaked to the bone, and my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. That was when my brain started getting increasingly foggy. My legs grew heavy as I stumbled back down the trail and I lost feeling in my tongue. I began to mutter nonsensically to myself as I just kept trying (and failing) to put one foot in front of the other. At one point I sat cross-legged in the mud for a few minutes, trying to summon some energy to get back to the parking lot. For some reason, the most frightening part of it all was the strange, deep longing I felt to crawl off the trail and curl up in a hollowed out redwood tree to sleep. It was all I could think about. 

Somehow, despite a glitchy GPS, no phone service, and my brain shutting down from what I assume was some level of hypothermia, I finished the long trek back to the parking lot and then drove an hour home in the dark. How I managed that, I have no idea- I was not in any condition to drive, but at that point my brain had turned off. I was shaking violently (the truck’s heating was broken) and only remember flashes of it to this day. After taking an hour-long warm shower and sleeping for most of the next three days, I finally had a clear head again and realized just how much I messed up. My insecurity had put me in danger and I vowed it would never happen again. It took a lot of time and self reflection to work past the anxiety I would feel when hiking alone after that day. 

I regard that day in the storm as a huge wake-up call. Since then I have worked on never saying yes when my gut or my mental health tells me no- and I am a better biologist for it. I’ve learned that working hard will get you far (after all, catching a mountain lion isn’t always easy), but adding self-confidence to that gets you farther. I’m proud to say that I’m now a meticulous hike planner and trail safety extraordinaire, and I actively work on trusting my abilities and instincts. To anyone reading this, I hope you find it in yourself to define the line between working hard and being self-destructive. Imposter syndrome runs deep, but I believe in you. Hopefully, with practice, you will too.

For more of Gillian, check out @notesfromthelionsden on Instagram