From the time she first walked onto UCF’s campus in the fall of 2019, Alex Stovall always seemed to be that kind of student. You know, the one who makes college look as easy as a four-year stroll toward the commencement stage. Stovall entered as a Burnett Honors College (BHC) scholar and within two years was doing lab research. She earned a prestigious internship in Germany and a position on the BHC Deans’ Leadership Council. You’d assume her to be naturally confident in her intellectual prowess.
You would be totally wrong about her.
“Up until recently I had imposter syndrome,” says Stovall, who will graduate from UCF on May 6. “Even now, looking back at what I’ve done … I’m a little shocked.”
Yes, Stovall has been that kind of student through most of her college life. Questioning if she’s smart enough to be a chemistry major. Wondering if she should be in the same space as people who could carry on Ph.D.-level conversations.
“There were times I didn’t even understand what my classmates were talking about,” she says. “It seemed so easy for them. I couldn’t help comparing myself and thinking, ‘Can I ever get to that level? Do I really belong here?’ ”
The fact that the highest level of science is male-centric only made the questions echo louder in her mind. She needed the kind of boost that every student needs, even if they don’t seem like the type who needs it.
“Encouragement made all the difference. … I realize that self-doubt was the only thing holding me back.”
“Encouragement made all the difference,” Stovall says. “I’ll never forget Dean Sheila [Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres] and Senior Associate Dean Martin [Dupuis] telling me that I can do whatever I set my mind to doing. It changed everything. Now that graduation is here, and I have a job lined up [with National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado], I realize that self-doubt was the only thing holding me back. Nothing was ever handed to me. I had to work for all of this, and I don’t want my own doubts to ever hold me back again.”
Stovall grew up in a hard-working community near Peoria, Illinois. It was just Stovall and her mother. When her mother was laid off from her job, she asked Alex if they should move to Punta Gorda, Florida, to live with Alex’s grandparents.
“We didn’t have a lot. Mom and I would spend time together driving around that part of Illinois, or in her words ‘going on little adventures.’ She said a move to Florida would be another adventure for us,” she says. “I’m glad she put it that way. My life would be completely different if we’d stayed in Illinois.”
In high school, Stovall wanted to be a forensic anthropologist, like the lead character on the TV series Bones. She chose to enroll at UCF because it was the only in-state university at the time with a forensic science program for undergraduates. Her transcript and test scores met the Bright Futures benchmarks, her mother’s income qualified for a Pell Grant, and Stovall was accepted into the Burnett Honors College because she was academically among the top 5%-8% of incoming freshman. Everything lined up for immediate success.
“But I didn’t feel like I fit the mold of a real-life scientist,” she says. “I thought because there are no scientists in my family, because I’m a young woman and because I don’t talk the talk, I’d be out of place in forensics.”
“I didn’t feel like I fit the mold of a real-life scientist. I thought because there are no scientists in my family, because I’m a young woma, and because I don’t talk the talk, I’d be out of place in forensics.”
With the imposter syndrome kicking in strong, Stovall shifted her focus to chemistry.
“I think of chemistry as the Goldilocks of science,” Stovall says. “Physics is a lot of math and less science. Biology is a lot of science, but not enough math. Chemistry is just right for me.”
Stovall also found chemistry to be a field where she could weave in her love for nature. She’ll always remember a backpacking trip with friends in the Rocky Mountains, where they didn’t see another person for three days. She literally remembers every single day because the has a picture of Paradise Park tattooed on her thigh. During her sophomore year at UCF, chemistry instructor Melanie Beazley invited Stovall to help with a study on wastewater around campus. Next came a research project on eutrophication, or excess growth of algae, around UCF’s 82-acre UCF Arboretum.
While digging up soil samples, Stovall’s self-assurance grew. She applied for a Research Internship in Science and Engineering (RISE) in Potsdam, Germany. From the 1,200 applicants worldwide, only 300 were chosen. Stovall was one of them.
“I could not afford that kind of experience on my own,” she says, “but there I was, working alongside students from the Ivy League, Stanford, and private schools. I thought, ‘Whoa, I really do belong.’”
A few weeks after UCF’s commencement, Stovall will begin her one-year post-graduate internship with NREL. She’ll help find better polymers for plastics so they can decompose quickly, recycle easier, and make our environment healthier long-term. The NREL team will not see an imposter. They’ll see a force.
Stovall is leaving her options open beyond the NREL internship.
“I’ve discovered that something you never thought of doing might be your best route,” she says.
“You can do this. And once you believe it, there’s no telling how far you might go.”
One option that comes to mind is professorship, because she knows what it’s like to be that student, wondering if they’re good enough.
“I would tell a younger me to ignore the internal voices of self-doubt,” she says. “You can do this. And once you believe it, there’s no telling how far you might go.”