Liz Percak-Dennett

by Leslie Jernegan

Examining the résumé of Liz Percak-Dennett, a Wisconsin alumni who completed her Ph.D. in geoscience in 2014, would bring pride to any fellow Badger, and awe to any employer, including Hess Corporation in Houston – the lucky one that snatched her up right out of an internship.

From an outsider’s perspective, the company’s eagerness to hire Percak-Dennett comes as no surprise. With her research in microbial iron cycling in modern and ancient environments, as well as her well-rounded Madison history of participating in work for the university, the Geology Museum, the Delta Program, the Urban League, competing with the Wisconsin Triathlon Team and completing Ironman Wisconsin, fulfilling an internship for her current employer, and – oh, yes – earning her Ph.D. in the meantime, an observer would believe Percak-Dennett must have had her career confidence intact her entire life.

But like many graduate students, Percak-Dennett too was presented with moments of uncertainty as to what to do with all of her interests – even beginning her undergraduate career oblivious to her talent and interest in science.

Realizing her fascination in astrobiology, Percak-Dennett moved from Alaska to Madison for six of some of the best years of her life, filled with “the highest highs and the lowest lows.” Percak-Dennett’s grad school dilemma: being captivated by too many interests, and feeling the sensation of “imposter syndrome” in regards to her place in her program. Her solution: seeking a diverse array of mentors, and, as her credentials prove, packing her schedule.

I was constantly busy, but that’s the joy in it. I took advantage of every single opportunity that came my way. I was always surrounding myself with people I admired, and picking people’s brains for career advice.

—Liz Percak-Dennett

Such ambition has reaped rewards for Percak-Dennett, including self-confidence, realization of interests and talents to incorporate in her personal and professional life, and the flight of her fears of not finding the right career.

For those with future fears and, quite possibly, Percak-Dennett’s sensation of imposter syndrome during graduate school, she offers some principles: step outside your comfort zone, trust your gut, and choose your attitude.

Continually learning, engaged, and maintaining that “life is 90 percent what you make it,” Percak-Dennett has brought her contagious positive attitude, sense of teamwork and zest for blending her interests with her work and community, all the way down to Texas, where she plans to stay and make her mark with some lasting Badger footprints.

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