Just because someone can’t do everything, doesn’t mean they can’t be a great scientist. The inclusion of diverse people, experiences, and ideas in our laboratories, drives advances in multi-disciplinary science and superior solutions to world challenges.
Image: Wanda Díaz-Merced at the inauguration of the the Inspiring Stars exhibition at the IAU General Assembly in Vienna, Austria. Credit: IAU/M. Zamani
The business case for inclusion goes far beyond mere compliance. Diversity facilitates specialisation and balances bias. People from different backgrounds choose to investigate different questions and approach the same question with different perspectives. Those with disabilities offer special abilities, perceiving sensory stimuli in different and useful ways.
In a recent webinar presented by the American Chemical Society [acs.org] , Missy Postlewaite, Chair of the Disability Out Reach Inclusion Community (DORIC), focused on what people can do in the laboratory, rather than what they can’t. Inspired by her talk, it wasn’t hard to find some inspirational examples of these impressive people.
Deaf or hearing impaired
Those who are deaf or hearing impaired can tune out background noise and have high levels of concentration. As a result, they tend to be thoughtful, adaptable, detail focused and very good listeners. According to himself, a high level of focus resulting from his silent existence benefited Thomas Edison . More recently, Melody ‘Pepsi’ Holmquist carried out her graduate research in mass spectrometry and is now Adjunct Professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Blind or visually impaired
Blind or visually impaired people can mentally imagine structures and reactions that are invisible to the functioning eye. They pay attention to auditory cues and learn how to use them more efficiently. As such they make great scientists. Geerat Vermeij relied on tactile feel to inspect relics yet brought what his colleagues described as ‘singular insight’ into our understanding of evolution. When she lost her eyesight, Astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced developed sonification, a system which converts astral data into sound.
Image: Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, on November 17, 2007 in Istanbul, Turkey
People with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are day dreamers, creative, spontaneous, highly energetic, resilient, risk averse and natural problem solvers. Many famous entrepreneur’s, such as Sir Richard Branson, have ADHD. Samantha (Sam) Athey (samanthanathey.com) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. She studies the sources and release pathways of anthropogenic microfibers, microplastics and associated chemical contaminants to the environment.
Image: Samantha (Sam) Athey
Those who carry the schizophrenia gene are in a state of constant alert. They are less prone to viral infections and offer mathematical reasoning, high IQs, increased creativity, and divergent thinking. Just ask acclaimed mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. Talented writer and former Editor of Ophthalmology Times Europe, Erica Crompton has a history of paranoid schizophrenia and now speaks publicly on the topic.
Image: Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian polymath, a true genius of the Renaissance period
Dyslexia and learning difficulties often drive people to become gifted storytellers and inventors. If nurtured in the workplace, someone with a dyslexic brain will not only see things differently, but will grasp new concepts quickly, spot patterns and connections, and drive innovation. Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci are both thought to have been neurodiverse. Microbiologist, Natalie Lamb may not be able to spell without assistance but is a PhD researcher in Civil Engineering and Microbiology with Anglian Water and the University of Sheffield.
Image: Nathalie Lamb
People with autism are highly logical, ethical, honest, and persistent. They are not socially driven and tend to notice small details that others do not. Animal behaviourist, Temple Grandin’s personal perspective inspired her groundbreaking work in the livestock industry. Quantum physicist Daisy Shearer was diagnosed as autistic and now celebrates this, in her project ‘Neurodivergent in STEM’.
Image: (Left) Temple Grandin at the 2010 Emmy Awards, 29 August 2010 in Los Angeles, CA (Right) Daisy Shearer
People with Downs syndrome are punctual and motivated. They are very good at thinking outside of the box and bring good vibes into any workplace, helping to instil a good work/fun balance. Many great artists and actors have Downs syndrome. Judith Scott was internationally renowned for her fibre sculpting. Spanish actor Pablo Pineda Ferrar was the first European with Down syndrome to complete a university degree.
Physical and mobility impairments
Image: Farida Bedwei is a Ghanaian software engineer and cofounder of fintech company, Logiciel
Physical and mobility impairments such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, spinal cord injury and amputation can bring about some incredible adaptations and encourage heightened memory skills to boot. Software engineer, Farida Bedwi was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of one yet pioneered cloud platforms. Marine geologist and computational scientist Sang-Mook Lee was Assistant Professor at Seoul National University when an accident left him quadriplegic. Now, he uses his position and circumstances to influence major change.
Image: Sang-Mook Lee 2019 Credit: Zyzzy2
Neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s, dementia and motor neurone disease affect both brain and nerves, yet those diagnosed can still share their unique perspective, have novel ideas and pass on knowledge gathered throughout their careers. Stephen Hawking was one of the most celebrated scientists of modern times. Although he had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor when diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, Hamied Haroon now has an exciting research career in biomedical MRI at the University of Manchester.
Watch the full ACS webcast: ‘Not Everything Meets the Eye: Invisible Disabilities and Special Abilities’ on acs.org
If you wish to share a story about a STEM superhero in your lab, please do get in touch via email@example.com
1 Webinar, Not Everything Meets the Eye: Invisible Disabilities and Special Abilities, www.acs.org, 16 Dec 2021
2 Rossen, J., 12 disabled scientists who made the world a better place, www.mentalfloss.com, Oct 2016
3 Celebrating scientists with disabilities, www.royalsociety.org
4 Archer, D., ADHD; The Entrepreuneur’s Superpower, www.forbes.com, May 2014
6 Why schizophrenia need not rob us of a life in academia, www.theguardian.com, Feb 2017
7 Reyero, D., Pablo Pinea, a talent without limits, www.davidreyero.com