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Courtesy of Shakira Quiñones-Lebrón

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How My ADHD Diagnosis Made Me a Better Scientist

I ended up in a scientific career against many odds, but some of those were not so obvious.

As a child, my father instilled in me the idea of going into higher education. He didn’t exactly tell me what career path to take but seeing myself through his eyes made me internalize that higher education was the path for me. Having good grades in elementary school really set the tone for what would have been a successful academic career. Then when puberty hit, school became a little harder and I couldn’t keep faking that I was a really good student.

In fact, I was a terrible student who obtained good enough grades by compensating at the very last minute. My compensating strategies got me into college where I did ok — failing a few classes here and there, but afloat. My behavior as a student was seen by myself and by my peers as lazy, unmotivated, and uninterested. On occasion, I would show great interest and wit on some topics, enough to convince a few I had “potential” which landed me a spot in a master’s program at the same institution where I did my undergrad.

Yes, I was lazy sometimes. When you’re tired of working so hard to focus, you end up giving up. I punished myself for my laziness and instead of using my free time to hang out with friends or attend college parties, I mostly stayed home trying to compensate for all the time I could have studied but couldn’t. I still thought I was just being lazy.

Living with an invisible disability that you’re unaware of can have long-lasting devastating effects on your self-esteem and leave you with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Luckily for me, that didn’t include drug or alcohol abuse. What it did include was establishing co-dependent relationships with others to be able to function. Most people associate ADHD with just hyperactivity and a lack of focus. ADHD is, in fact, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the executive functions of the brain including our working memory and our ability to plan and execute in a specific order and time. And thus, it affects the way we function in every aspect of our lives. I heavily relied on other people to make doctor’s appointments, drive me places, do the groceries, make sure I applied for grants, make sure I did an assignment — the small things that are essential to life.

Living with an invisible disability that you’re unaware of can have long-lasting devastating effects on your self-esteem and leave you with unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Back then, I knew something wasn’t quite right but noticing the microaggressions towards other students with disabilities was discouraging. During my master’s, I remember a classmate needed to make notes on her laptop instead of on paper like everyone else, something that upset some of the other students. Another classmate with a hearing impairment struggled to get permission from our professor to record the class. These people had diagnoses that granted them accommodations, yet they still received pushback from professors and classmates alike. There was another student in my cohort with an ADHD diagnosis. He, however, didn’t use the accommodations he was entitled to. At that point in my life, I had already started to suspect I may have ADHD too, but I didn’t seek a diagnosis because if I can’t get any accommodations, then what’s the point? I figured this student had a lifetime of struggles and microaggressions, so he preferred not to disclose his diagnosis. I don’t blame him.


Courtesy of Shakira Quiñones-Lebrón

We all sneeze from time to time, but if you sneeze 30 times a day, you know you’re sick.

As a scientist, I’m very aware that data needs to be meticulously collected. This is a rule that makes sense and I strive to abide by it, yet there I was, making careless mistakes, ruining my data set, making the analyses extra hard, and disappointing my supervisors. Why would I do that to myself? Forgetting lab meetings, forgetting to write down important information, missing deadlines, an inability to plan, communicate, and ask the right questions: all of these were symptoms, but without a diagnosis, there were seen as personality flaws.

Nonetheless, I managed to finish my master’s degree and I told myself I would do better for my Ph.D. I was going to buy a planner, never leave any assignment for the last minute, I was going to be on top of things, pay more attention to my data collection... This time it was going to be better and I was going to succeed because I was convinced this was an issue of will power and my motivation for the new project would carry me through.

We all sneeze from time to time, but if you sneeze 30 times a day, you know you’re sick.

As you probably guessed by now, during my Ph.D. I found myself following the exact patterns of self-sabotage I had sworn I was going to change. And so, I decided to have a child. There is absolutely no logic here, just bear with me. During the second year of my Ph.D., I had my son. All the other academic mothers I knew always said that having a child really helped them with time management because their work hours were limited, and the time pressure was enough to help them focus. Some became even more productive after motherhood! This was it, I thought. This child will save me from my wrong old ways! …but, of course, he didn’t. My scatterbrain, my poor memory, my lack of time management; it all became worse with motherhood. And so, at the age of 30, I was finally at the psychologist getting an ADHD diagnosis.

Courtesy of Shakira Quiñones-Lebrón


It has taken me at least two years to finally recognize that ADHD is in fact a disability. Even if it did not completely impair my life, it did make things extra difficult and left me with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. The diagnosis didn’t come as a shock, in fact, it was quite a relief. Do you mean I’m not lazy and irresponsible? I was thrilled!

I was also scared. Part of me thought that I no longer had a reason for any of my symptoms because knowing the problem meant that I was now able to do damage control. Of course, that’s not how it works. Taking yourself to a point where your symptoms are not as disruptive takes time, training, patience, and a great support system.

With a great therapist, I started to develop coping strategies for the most urgent stuff: data collection. I identified where I was likely to fail and we explored options for time management, as well as the best ways for me to keep track of my data and lab work. The improvement was substantial after just a few weeks. Consequently, my confidence grew, and my self-esteem has been restored to a healthier state since then.

Taking yourself to a point where your symptoms are not as disruptive takes time, training, patience, and a great support system.

A year after diagnosis I tried medication. Although they helped immensely with my ability to sustain focus and with my working memory, some of the side effects concerned me enough to discontinue them. Trying a new medication is still an option that I will consider in the future when I gather the courage to see a doctor again. There’s just too much shame and misinformation around the use of ADHD medication, and I haven’t been immune to it. During my last visit, my doctor suggested I needed to take my medication before studying. This comment may sound innocent, but it made me feel like I was just seeking cognitive enhancement medication to be able to work on my Ph.D. I never returned to the doctor’s office for future appointments purely out of shame.

Thankfully, I have been able to significantly improve my life and my work by trying several strategies for time management and focus. In April 2020, I successfully defended my Ph.D. and my research contract was extended for another 18 months. I am now in charge of a small collaborative lab project where I can exercise not only my newly found time management skills but also manage a project with collaborators. Slowly, my confidence as a scientist is improving and I feel like I do belong in science after all.

Of course, the bad days do come around often, and I still mess up from time to time. However, I remind myself what a long way I’ve come. I’m proud of who I am now. No shame.

Courtesy of Shakira Quiñones-Lebrón



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Shakira Quiñones-Lebrón

From San Juan, Puerto Rico, Shakira obtained her Bachelor's and Master's in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico and her Ph.D. from the University of Ljubljana. Currently residing in Maribor, Slovenia, she studies the evolutionary ecology of spiders, which involves observing quite a bit of spider porn. Shakira is has a special interest in sustainable fashion and is also a SCUBA diver.

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