It’s important for children to see people similar to themselves succeeding, so we began a Role Model programme, highlighting amazing disabled scientists. It’s vital for disabled children to see that their disability is not a barrier to success. When young people are inspired and engaged by our Sensory Science workshops, we can offer support and encourage these budding disabled scientists to look at the STEMM industry as a viable and welcoming career option.
Job Title: Doctor, Speaker, Disability and Gender Campaigner.
Disability: Ehlers Danlos Syndrome with Dysautonomia
I spent a lot of my teenage years around hospitals thanks to some sick siblings, and these experiences really captured my imagination. I originally studied Combined Arts at University (because I thought I was rubbish at science!), then got onto a nursing degree, then after I completed that, managed to get onto a Graduate Medicine course – so I’m somehow a doctor without any Science A Levels! I became disabled during medical school, which was a bit of a surprise, and now I work primarily in a wheelchair.
I love the breadth of medicine; it has opened up so many options to me, so I can do clinical work, I do politics and policy work, I work with a range of charities and travel around giving talks. But most of all, I love that whoever you are, whatever your background, the NHS team are there to care for you to the very best of our ability. I get to meet amazing people every day and try to help them!
Be versatile – you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going or exactly how you’ll get there, take opportunities that come your way, reach out to people who can mentor or sponsor you, and try to enjoy the process. By being a disability trailblazer in your chosen field, you are helping to pathe the way for others who follow, and you’re showing the world how amazing our disability community can be!
I think being disabled is a real advantage in medicine, because my patients know with one look at me that I have a pretty good idea of what it is like to live with a long term health condition! I can advise people on a lot of the ‘secret curriculum’ of disability – how to get the support they need, access equipment, and also how to process some of the feelings disabled people have around their condition. It’s also really satisfying to work with young people with disabilities and show them that they have masses of potential in STEMM!
Job Title: Space Project Lead and Tutor at G2G Communities CIC / Chief Technology Officer at Artemis Space / Open University Masters Student
Disability: Dyslexia and Irlen syndrome
My parents were both in the RAF so I had an early interest in flight and aircraft. This developed as I got older into a love for space and star gazing and spacecraft. My earliest memories of STEMM were primary School activities, going to planetarium, doing experiments using liquid nitrogen and going to museums and airshows. I decided I wanted to work in the Space Sector when I was ten years old, this is when I had a real interest in the space shuttle and wanted to be a pilot. It is this desire to visit space that made me study the sciences and I found that I had a lot of interest in Physics and Mathematics and understanding how things work.
My favorite thing about working in STEMM started due to my Dyslexia. I left School not knowing I had Dyslexia with only 2 GCSEs higher than a C and having failed at A-Level, feeling pretty frustrated with education and feeling that I had worked hard for little reward. I started Open University when I was 23 and eventually gained the confidence to do a foundation year and degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology when I was 25, at Leicester University. It was at University that I decided to be tested for disabilities and since being diagnosed with Dyslexia and Irlens I started volunteering with STEMNet. I found it very enjoyable to encourage young people with STEMM both by sharing my passion and what I was doing and by listening to their ideas and what they enjoy.
I try to use everything I learn to encourage others, from designing spacecraft structures, planning missions or working on payloads. I am thankful to have met other Scientists who are equally interested in sharing what they do with learners, from the National Space Academy, Rolls-Royce, STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council), Airbus and ambassadors from many different sectors and with different interests. Together we can create new resources and new technologies that aim to make Space more accessible to everyone, solving new problems and over coming them. Then also applying STEMM to other subjects and careers, I have encouraged farmers to use multi-spectral satellite imagery and inspired children with an interest in history by showing how catapults work and so much more.
My biggest advice is that you should never give up, there isn’t ever only one way to do something. Set out with a clear goal but don’t be afraid to change how you get there. This may mean looking for help when you need it, from friends, professionals or technology and software. The beauty of STEMM careers is that they require problem solving, systematic trial and error and the occasional leap of faith, all of which I find equally apply to learning to overcome my disability.
Job Title: Postdoctoral Scientist, Author of ‘Coding People’ due out in March 2020.
Disability: Autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger’s syndrome), ADHD.
To me STEMM wasn’t a job, it was and still is for my survival. A guide and a way of life to understanding the world around me. From the ground up, by virtue of being on the autistic spectrum with an eye for detail and analysis, I built my mechanisms so I could communicate and live on this planet. Humans are confusing after all.
I loved the deterministic nature of science, and its universal outreach that regardless of what nationality you were from, no matter what gender, or abstract social grouping you were assigned, you are a victim of scientific endeavour and force. Science and people are everywhere – which being a scientist, has enabled me to explore the patterns therein and between the two.
I have been studying my whole life to become a scientist, where I am currently in my first proper job working in AI and bioinformatics for a pharmaceutical company. The standard 9-5, the classic daily grind of commuting (which is still hard for me), and the intermittent interaction with people in different contexts. The work itself is something I am passionate about, and thanks to the humbling endeavour and character obtained from having mental health disorders – it made me realise that you can put your mind to anything if you care about it enough. I would say even more so when you are considered disabled, as we naturally don’t give up easily and are innately strong.
I specifically chose biochemistry as it was the subject that incorporated all sides of science, enabling me to branch off in any direction. I did my PhD in Cancer research – since much like the patterns in people, cancer is evolving and dynamic and changeable, and I found it hard to pin down, and a challenge which is exactly what my ADHD needs. I get bored otherwise.
There are many sides of science, and I wanted to be right in the middle, so I could move between them since choosing one would be favouritism to one angle of seeing – my OCD wasn’t happy with this, nor my ASD. The best thing about having my ‘disabilities’, or I commonly refer to as ‘mental variances’ is that you will naturally think differently, both in the solutions and also the pace of them, and also in between fields since your naturally ‘crazy’, ‘nuts’, ‘weird’ and dynamic nature will give you an edge, a head start on the route of exploring. Science needs this dysrrhythmia to evolve, and much like evolution itself, science thrives off differences.
In terms of the responses to my disabilities in the workplace, I have had both good and bad experiences. Just to paint you a picture, I have often have short bursts of intense attention span, perpetual boredom, anxiety attacks, and imposter syndrome meltdowns, and often find it hard to decipher instructions if vague and not direct and literal. This is all fine, since I know how I work, and I know that there are some people who can’t handle this, and there are others who don’t even make it an issue and if anything enable you by accommodating your needs because they know you can do the job. I have had both in that order, and as much as you can feel like people have to cope in the workplace, and that you are behind or a step back from everyone else, this is not the case. If you have the passion, drive, and hard work ethic, then it is a matter of the workplace to encourage and support you, and not make you feel like you are an inconvenience since they see past that – that is if they themselves are able to have empathy. This actually serves as a litmus test to workplaces worth working at. These people/that kind of work environment does exist and it is a two way street to capitalizing off differences. For example, my work enables me to work from home some days that helps me focus in the familiarity of my home, and also prevent anxiety attacks from commuting. I also have a standing desk since my ADHD won’t let me concentrate when sitting down for more than 15 seconds. My boss (having seen me have bawling anxiety attacks in his face many times in the 6 months I have been there) has always reassured me and supported my learning as a scientist, such as encouraging me to look at courses, such as those in mental resilience or women empowerment etc, to assist with me becoming a better researcher regardless. It does exist.
The weirder the better, and the right people will love you for it, and for others it will make them feel uncomfortable- but it is only because you challenge them. Though thinking about it – it is kinda awesome.
Job Title: Frontier’s Masters Student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan
Disability: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Pandysautonomia (EDS + PANDYS)
To be honest, science is all I ever wanted to do. I wasn’t always sure of what specific field I would go into, but I love being outdoor, exploring and catching critters, and I was fascinated by the natural world. While my disability is genetic, I didn’t start showing symptoms until the end of high school and my world was turned upside down. As I entered college, I found science to be a comfort and distraction, even though I was unsure of how my condition would shape my career. In many ways, my disability is what gave me the drive to keep moving forward and now I am doing work that I absolutely love.
I think my favourite part is being surrounded by a diverse community of people who all share the same passion and drive for learning and unraveling the mysteries of the scientific world. I have found more acceptance and support in this community than anywhere else and it is incredibly empowering.
As supportive and accepting as most of the scientific community is, just like the “real world” , you will encounter people who doubt you and your ability to succeed or who aren’t willing to help to accommodate and work with you to overcome access barriers; don’t let them discourage you. I encountered several people who flat out refused to even try working with me and who told me I would never be able to do field work and now I’m working with an amazing advisor and I’m in the middle of my first field season.
Job Title: Application Support Brachytherapy
Disability: Dominant Optic atrophy
Bio: I really fell into Radiotherapy as I was looking for something to cater for my passion of Chemistry and Biology. I saw an advert for the training in Guildford near me and was captivated with I went to the hospital and saw all the Radiotherapy machines and Radiographers. My favourite classes at school and college were Chemistry and Biology and so Radiotherapy was great as it involved the science side of knowledge. I have always loved helping people too so Hospital work is so good for this.
Fascinating people and minds! My colleagues and customers have incredible minds. I love to share thoughts and ideas and I also love to help people who are having issues with the software that we provide. A thank you at the end of a call makes it all worthwhile and makes me feel proud of myself for helping someone.
As my disability is my eyesight, I work on a Helpdesk and so anyone calling me doesn’t see or know my issue with my eyes as my company assist me with large monitors and magnifiers to help me. It’s great to be able to work in a field that you have a passion for.
Job Title: Trainee Science Teacher and Physicist
Disability: Mental Health Disability
I’ve always been very curious. When I was a child, I answered this through fiction and mythology, but as I got older I started to gravitate towards science. Not only did it answer my curiosities of the world around me, but a lot of it was just as amazing and imaginative as any of the myths and novels I had been reading! This was one of the reasons I fell in love with particle physics – it answers so many questions about the universe, but it is also so different and strange compared to the everyday world we see around us, which I find fascinating. My favourite particle, the neutrino (which is what I’ve focussed most of my studies on) is delightfully strange – it can change what type it is as it flies through space – and is almost invisible to us, which are some of the reasons I love it so much! (Plus, it has a poem written about it, which is always a big selling point for me!).
When I’m teaching, the thing I love most is getting my students excited about science. I recently got to teach space to my Year 7s, and I was so hyped up to teach it! Astronomy is such an awe-inspiring subject: the scale of it all is just so hard for us to imagine, and I had a lot of fun getting them to guess things like how long it would take to drive from the Sun to Neptune, or out of the solar system (5000 years and 79 million years respectively) and then seeing the amazement on their faces (and the one kid who then went “but Miss, you’d be dead by then!”. They all got so into the subject, and my last lesson with them was when they brought in their solar system models, and it was just so fantastic to see the time and effort they had put in, and how engaged they were with it all. I was also ridiculously proud of them, and probably told half the science teacher in the school to go check it out, and have shown the pictures to several of my friends! Imparting that enthusiasm and love of the universe to students is one of the reasons I always knew I would want to teach.
When I’m researching and studying physics, one of my favourite things is piecing together all the different bits and pieces that I’ve learnt to form the bigger picture – to tease out hidden meanings and discoveries and possibilities that lie within the science. Particle physics is really great for this, as the things you’re trying to measure are so infinitesimally small that most of what you learn about them isn’t from direct observation (you could never, for instance, take a picture of a particle) but by observing how they interact with the world around them.
If you want to be a scientist, then you can be. Don’t give up, and keep fighting for what you want, even when it may start to feel difficult. I spent several years out of education, or repeating years, due to my disability, and whilst at times that did at times make my journey into STEMM more tricky, it was so definitely worth all the hard work and time I put in. Find people who will support you and lift you up in your journey within science, and if possible, try to find people who have gone through similar things to you. One of the things I found so useful and amazing was having a mentor who had a chronic illness, because she really actually understood where I was coming from, and was able to help me in far more relevant ways than a lot of the people around me. Remember, also, that science – and anything – works best when there are lots of different types of people from lots of different backgrounds contributing unique and creative ideas, so go and have fun, learn loads, and become the best scientist you can be!
Science is such an immense and amazing subject that I truly believe is has space and interest for everyone to get involved in it! Also, remember that science isn’t just one-dimensional, like it often seems in the media: yes, it is logical and analytical, but it’s also hugely creative and imaginative! There’s so much you can do with science, and there are so many places it also crosses over into other subjects too: one of my favourite things is scientific art and literature, and I love seeing and reading artworks inspired by science! (I even occasionally try to make my own!)
Job Title: Head of Manufacturing and Technical Customer Support at Hexigone
Disability: ADHD and Dyslexia
When I was little I said I wanted to be a doctor, TV chef and actress. I had the great fortune that, while many people pointed out the impracticalities of combining three individually time consuming careers, I didn’t care and was convinced I could do anything! Slightly further along in my childhood I decided that the doctor was the greatest benefit to society and that Science had the most interesting and satisfying questions for all the whys I asked and for around 10 years I was set. I then discovered Chemistry, alongside many other things and decided that medicine was perhaps not so much for me, who can’t remember whether they’ve eaten breakfast, let alone the names and structures of 22 different amino acids. Chemistry offered me the fundamental answers I craved, a practical range of examples for application, and focused more on the understanding and less on the individual recite and recall ability.
I get to save the world a little bit every day. Part of being a Scientist or joining the STEMM crowd as it were, is that you can gain insight to how the world works, you can learn and understand the processes that drive people, production and the planet. With that you can also see the small changes most days, big changes on others, that will help with sustainability, implementing circular economies, reducing green house gas emissions and a plethora of other world saving issues. I also really like wearing my lab coat and challenging people’s pre-conceived notions.
Don’t be disheartened that some things aren’t as easy to you as they are for your peers, there is inevitably something that you fly through, that bogs down others in comparison. Everyone is different. Take the time and support you need to achieve your goals. Don’t benchmark yourself to other people, find your successes and work out what drives them. Feed it, there’s nothing like using what you’re good at to help with a less desirous task or area.
Use as much of the support as you can get, as soon as you can get it. Anecdotally, I thought the only help worth bothering with in my undergraduate was the extra time in exams, until exhausted and worn down I finally went and met the dyslexia support person, I’d had access to but never sorted for my first 2 years. They helped me with everything from scheduling, effective reading, preventing overcommitments to reclaiming my personal time for me. They may well be the reason I was able to complete my BSc in 3 years.
Sometimes things are hard. When your brain or your body don’t do what other people are expecting or what society tells us is normal, that can be hard. That doesn’t mean we’re hard or difficult, it just means we’re different. Some of the most celebrated and amazing people in history, especially in STEM, have been very different. I’d like to think that society is starting to change and view differences as the celebrated, enabled characteristics they should be. We owe it to ourselves and those that come after us to ensure that this is true and that we do everything possible to show how amazing we truly are.