Can A Person With A Disability Become A Scientist?! (Yes… …read my story)

Its time for a post that takes a slightly different direction from my usual posts.  I have had the opportunity to meet some really inspiring people over the last few years that are really pushing the envelope in what they do, whether its for their focus on finding treatments for a rare diseases, raising money in new ways to fund their research,  pushing like crazy to make chemistry data as accessible as possible or taking science online to spread the word. Just last week I was introduced by email to Sarah Hyde by my cousin Martin Bown, who is very active in raising awareness for both testicular cancer and cerebral palsy. Martin suggested I could help Sarah (a young scientist) network in addition I think her story is pretty inspiring and unique. Both Martin and I suggested Sarah should start to tell her story in science – it begins here.

The following is a guest post by Sarah Hyde, MChem:

I am a recent graduate (graduated July 2013), from the University of Huddersfield, where I graduated with a Master of Chemistry in Chemistry with Industrial Experience (first class). Following on from this, I am now seeking a science based career, encompassing computational modelling, chemoinformatics, regulatory affairs, or laboratory based work, where I aim to achieve similar levels of success once more. I also happen to have spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy.

Now I have left University and am searching for employment, I wanted to share my experiences, because persons with disabilities can be underrepresented, within the discipline of science.

I was always a studious child, who preferred to study as much as possible, permanently had my head in a book and I always placed extra focus on the sciences, at school. This was due in part, to the deputy headteacher/chemistry teacher at my high school taking me under his wing, from the age of 14, and encouraging me to pursue the sciences. Prior to studying for my degree, I admittedly did think that after completing my A-levels, I should just find a “sit down” office based job and leave science and laboratory work to more energetic and able-bodied persons. Indeed, I did embark down this route, upon completing my schooling, working in office administration for 5 years, before finally plucking up the courage to study for an undergraduate degree, as a mature student. Thus, the messages I want to put across in this blog and hopefully get across to the reader are: that individuals with disabilities should not be put off studying the sciences, just because of a disability, they should not have to settle for “sit down” work, if this is not what they want, they should not feel guilty about asking for extra help and adjustments to the learning environment or workplace they are in, and if you do not pursue your chosen career straight after leaving school, it is never too late to go back.

Don’t get me wrong, at times, owing to my disability, I have panicked about being able to carry out scientific tasks. For example, I walk with elbow crutches, when it comes to short distances. Therefore, when I first started laboratory based work at University, I thought: “how will I manage to collect equipment and then set it up, whilst trying to hold onto a pair of crutches?! Will I just fall flat on my face?!” This was not the case at all! One just has to become inventive at thinking of ways to navigate any obstacles, but this means you become adept at solving problems as it requires one to think outside the box, which are skills a good scientist should possess, anyway! Then there are small adjustments that can be made, such as putting all equipment etc in one centralised area, using a trolley to transport items… …there was always a solution! Then other general adjustments were put in place, such as allowing me to park on the University campus, and some adjustments were already in place, such as disabled toilets, ramps, lifts.

Throughout my undergraduate degree course, I have been able to develop my interests in chemistry (sometimes also crossing over into biology and physics), whilst improving my laboratory skills, and also going on to focus on computational modelling (molecular dynamics and density functional theory), as an additional skill. Traditional laboratory-based practicals were carried out within all first and second year modules, and after that, this is when I chose to shift the focus onto computational modelling. Thus, I would be equipped with skills for both laboratory and computational based roles, within the workplace. I voluntarily worked for my University every summer vacation too, to hone my laboratory skills, and I was awarded a Research Bursary from The Nuffield Foundation, in 2009 – these are only given to a select number of University students every year. The project I worked on was entitled: “The interaction of multiferroic materials with microwave radiation: a new comprehensive analysis technique”. It involved the synthesis and characterisation of “multiferroic” functional metal oxides, using pestle and mortar techniques, high-temperature furnaces, x-ray diffraction, differential scanning calorimetry and microwave thermal analysis. Owing to my highly self-motivated and unwavering nature, I also achieved a mark of 80% for my degree overall, for which I won the Chancellor’s Prize 2013.

If anything, my disability has played a part in what I have achieved thus far, as it has made me more steadfast. Hence, individuals with disabilities can contribute to science in the same way as a person without a disability – even possibly as much as well known scientists with disabilities, such as the physicist Stephen Hawking, who has provided insight into the workings of the cosmos, in spite of having Lou Gehrig’s disease. Therefore, the take home message is: just go for it and follow your aspirations – don’t let a disability hold you back!

What struck me from Sarah’s initial contact was that whilst at University she struggled to acquire an industrial placement for her placement year, and was told by one company she would be a health and safety risk. Because of this, she ended up undertaking a computational chemistry academic research placement at University, and she enjoyed it so much that she subsequently completed a dissertation in this field (molecular dynamics in her industrial year and density functional theory, for her dissertation). Having past experience myself of doing an industrial placement (1989-1990) at a pharmaceutical company in the UK I can say that it was an opportunity that shaped my career. I think while Sarah missed out on working in a company, the opportunity to engage in a topic she obviously enjoys may be a great opportunity to find her niche in chemistry. I was also struck by her high level of enthusiasm for science and willingness to learn which over the course of our few interactions was refreshing to see. Sarah has started her blog and I look forward to following her as she embarks on the next stage of her career.

If there are others that have suggestions, or job opportunities for Sarah or have overcome hurdles in science I would be keen to hear them.


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