Stephanie Valtierra ’08 on the value of failure

Profile of alumna Stephanie Valtierra
December 04, 2018

Stephanie Valtierra received a PhD in neuroscience from Northwestern University and a BA in biology from Lake Forest College.

Entrepreneurial Venture:

The Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at Lake Forest College defines entrepreneurship as the act of finding problems worth solving and mobilizing the resources to solve them. How would you describe an entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur is someone who has an idea and the passion to move that idea forward.

In your opinion, what is the most important character trait in an entrepreneur?

In my opinion, the most important trait is resilience and presence. It is the people who can have an idea and can follow through, those are the people who are entrepreneurs.

What inspired you to go into a field that values problem solving?

I’ve always been interested in science. Being at Lake Forest working on my Biology major as an undergrad, it instilled a work dynamic of problem solving and using research as a tool to  iterate why it was important. The inquisitive side of me likes the idea of having a problem and being able to figure it out. Although my research was not revolutionary, it was still important. Every single project and paper you publish is a contribution to science and the advancement of science.

The sciences are dependent on the ability to problem solve. What was it like to adopt this mentality?

Before my undergraduate degree, I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of what that level of problem solving really was. When you are in grad school it’s your project, it’s your business. The success of the project is contingent on your effort. The blood, sweat and tears you put into that, will make it successful. The success of your project will be the most rewarding thing in the world, but you will fail over and over and over. I tell people, “when you get a PHD in Neuroscience, you also get a PHD in how to fail.” In the sciences, most students have a history of good grades, overachieving, and not encountering failure very often, but failure is the nature of science.

“Failure makes you a more resilient human. In my experience, flailing during my research made me a better scientist. The worst possible thing that could happen is failure. Failure will happen, and you will move on.”

What has been your biggest challenge mobilizing people or resources to help you in the past or present?

One the biggest challenge in my current role is being able to communicate with various people and students to ensure success. It is talking with students and convincing them that being mindful of a career path really starts on day one. In addition, communicating with my team and coworkers to hear their needs to constantly work towards improvement.

Entrepreneurs need to know how to reframe failure as usable data. What has been the failure that has helped you the most?

Failure makes you a more resilient human. In my experience, flailing during my research made me a better scientist. Failure can cause you to question your ability and the validity of project, but it is valuable tool that teaches you to think of things differently and talking to others. The worst possible thing that could happen is failure. Failure will happen, and you will move on.

In our program we talk about entrepreneurial resilience and the psychology of an entrepreneur. When was a time you found it difficult to finish a project, and what motivated you to continue?

There can be 12-hour days in a lab working on an experiment that continues to fail. Although this is devastating, you learn from these failures. It encourages you to think about things in a different way. “This didn’t work, let’s figure out why?” These efforts not only help you pivot toward a solution, but also aid your community and their endeavors. Your journey of trial and error helps others from struggling in their project as well. First, although you can be defeated for a moment, you still love the process and the work. Secondly, as a first generation, I knew I had to value my opportunity for education. If I didn’t complete my research, I would be letting myself and my family down. My mom always said she knew I could do it. If everyone around me knew I could do it, then I just had to know I could do it.

The premise of our newsletter is asking questions. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and who did you wish you asked for help?

Receiving a PHD in Neuroscience was the hardest thing I’ve done. There comes a point when you are halfway through your education that is really challenging. You’ve dedicated time and effort towards your research and most of your experience is failure. It was difficult for me to let go of this urge to figure things out on my own, but I saw this confession of the failures in the lab as a weakness. I wish I had talked more to my network of support like my family and mentors. Reaching out to them more would have given me perspective and encouragement and reassured me that I can finish my research.

Describe a time when you asked someone for something (and for what), and their answer surprised you.

During a debrief on the status of my project with my mentor, I expressed a hardship I was facing in my personal life. My mentor’s response surprised me. He said, “okay that happened, now finish your project.” It is common that people will generously give sympathy for these situations but what I needed to hear was that I still had a job to do and it too valuable to let my hardships prevent me from completing it. It inspired me. Although I hadn’t been feeling great about the project, it was time for me to finish-and I did.

Describe a time someone has asked you for something (and for what) and your own answer surprised you.

Providing honest and supportive advice is something I think is extremely valuable. Occasionally while giving career advice, I must tell my students no, that their career choice is not right for them. I try to express that a career in the sciences implies a lot of failure and this can be difficult unless you truly love what you are doing.

How do you think this obtaining your PHD has impacted your confidence?

Failing so much in the lab made me see life in a different way. It is okay if things do not workout on your first try. As a result, this mindset has made me a stronger person.

What is one piece of advice you can give those trying to solve a problem?

Do not give up. It is unlikely that things will work out the first time you try it, but the reward is when it does work.