Disability In Science Labs And STEMM Fields : Short Wave Scientists and students with disabilities are often excluded from laboratories — in part because of how they're designed. Emily Kwong speaks to disabled scientist Krystal Vasquez on how her disability changed her relationship to science, how scientific research can become more accessible, and how STEMM fields need to change to be more welcoming to disabled scientists.

Read Krystal's article in Chemistry World, 'Excluded From The Lab.'

You can email Short Wave at ShortWave@npr.org.
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Disabled Scientists Are Often Excluded From The Lab

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Disabled Scientists Are Often Excluded From The Lab

Disabled Scientists Are Often Excluded From The Lab

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Krystal Vasquez didn't plan to study atmospheric chemistry.

KRYSTAL VASQUEZ: My whole career is really an accident, honestly.

KWONG: (Laughter).

VASQUEZ: I came into college as premed. And then I was like, don't really like bio; I'll just stick with chemistry 'cause I like my professor.

KWONG: Power of a good professor, am I right? And when Krystal needed credits over the summer...

VASQUEZ: I was like, I'll take this environmental science class 'cause it seems easy, and I get financial aid by taking it. And I really liked it, so that was my minor.

KWONG: Which led to an awesome internship experience in atmospheric science.

VASQUEZ: Where I got to fly on a plane and sample air while flying. And then I basically was sold from there.

KWONG: And in 2015, Krystal dove into an atmospheric chemistry Ph.D. program at the California Institute of Technology. Her research focus - how air quality is impacted when urban pollution mixes with natural emissions from trees. She describes her first couple of years as pretty high-stress, with back-to-back field studies. And in 2018, something unexpected happened that transformed Krystal's sense of herself and her relationship to science.

VASQUEZ: I was starting to feel really weird. So I was starting to feel really achy. I would get these random, like, zaps of nerve pain. And I was just - like, I kept brushing it off. I was like, I'm just stressed. I'm just burnt out. Maybe it - my anxiety is just acting up, and so maybe I need to go just talk to my therapist more. But none of that helped.

KWONG: Krystal was eventually diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, known as hypermobile EDS, a rare genetic condition that can weaken the connective tissue in your body.

VASQUEZ: And so up until my third year, my whole personality was being good at science, being good at school, being good at my job. And as my disability started progressing a little more, I couldn't necessarily - like, I was still good at it, but there were things in my way. There were barriers. So chemists work in a fume hood where they conduct all their experiments safely, but the fume hoods in my lab - they have cabinets underneath, so you can't really pull up a chair; you have to stand or sit uncomfortably on a stool. But I couldn't really do that for long periods of time.

KWONG: Krystal says she had to learn how to navigate this new world. So today on the show, a conversation with disabled scientist Krystal Vasquez on how disability changed her relationship to science and how science needs to change to be more accessible. I'm Emily Kwong, and this SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: So as a woman of color and first-generation college student, Krystal Vasquez said her default mode in her Ph.D. program was to not call attention to herself.

VASQUEZ: I was very much still like, you know, my job is my life. Just do your job and prove that every label that you have and you're holding is worth getting this degree.

KWONG: But after Krystal was diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, things started to change.

VASQUEZ: You can't really ignore all of the sexism, racism, ableism when you're really in it. And disability was something that, like, I just couldn't ignore because, like, I physically couldn't do my job.

KWONG: And as Krystal became more comfortable and more confident living with her disability, she became more open about it.

VASQUEZ: It made me a lot more vocal about diversity, about discriminatory practices, even the subtle ones - and kind of just gave me my voice.

KWONG: She and a friend co-founded an affinity group on campus called Caltech Disability Coalition. She turned to Twitter to express her thoughts on accessibility and frustrations around being a disabled scientist.

VASQUEZ: And even started a - like, a blog that didn't really, like, become anything, but it was essentially like, I've never really heard of disabled scientists; I'm going to start trying to find them and write about them.

KWONG: Eventually, people started to notice.

VASQUEZ: An editor from Chemistry World found me. I guess I was vocal enough. And they reached out, and they're like, oh, I really like what you're saying on Twitter.

KWONG: Yeah.

VASQUEZ: Would you like to write for Chemistry World about disabled scientists? And I was like, yeah, sure.

KWONG: Krystal's article in Chemistry World focused on inaccessibility in the lab - how the doors to the science lab can be too heavy to push open or how painful it can be to use some of the scientific tools.

VASQUEZ: They're not ergonomic. So, like, that's very painful for, you know, my wrist.

KWONG: Or how difficult it is to physically move sometimes around the lab.

VASQUEZ: There's clutter. I think every lab has clutter, but clutter is especially annoying when my cane would get caught on something or hit something. I can't really use a wheelchair in there because the aisles are too narrow.

KWONG: But there are ways, Krystal suggests, to make science labs more accessible. And it's important because a lot of science goes down in labs themselves.

VASQUEZ: So one way is kind of incorporating what's called universal design into these labs. And that's basically a method that designs a space so that it's usable for the majority of people, regardless of disability status or anything else.

There's no, like, guidelines, but there are suggestions. Perhaps wider aisles that are clean and able to be moved through any mobility aid that's used regardless of the size. Automatic doors would be great. Fume hoods, you can - there are some that are built where you can - the spaces underneath is cleared, and then you can move it up and down for standing or sitting positions, depending on what's more comfortable for someone. Pipettes are something that's very common in labs, and I think there's ergonomic versions of that and also ergonomic versions of other tools. Yeah, those are just a few things that come to mind.

KWONG: Yeah, those are really great points. I want to ask you, too, about another space where science happens all the time - science and career advancement in science - and that is conferences. Conferences are places where scientists are networking and presenting papers and finding collaborators. So what are your thoughts on them, from an accessibility standpoint?

VASQUEZ: So I've only been to one conference so far after I became disabled. It was a very small conference.

KWONG: Yeah.

VASQUEZ: And it was hard (laughter). There's so much noise. And, like, when you're networking near poster sessions, it's usually standing room only. And then in a bigger conference space, like, that's just more walking, more navigating through different places, more interactions with people, more stimuli. So conferences - physical conferences are, I believe, extremely inaccessible, and they should definitely be doing more to make sure that their disabled attendees are more accommodated. That said, I think virtual conferences, while they can be more accessible to a lot more people, I think that conference organizers also need to start incorporating more accessibility features.

KWONG: Yeah.

VASQUEZ: They could be doing a lot better.

KWONG: Can you name a few things that would make presentations more accessible - PowerPoint presentations, lecture presentations? 'Cause you bring up some great examples.

VASQUEZ: Yeah. So first things first is always have the PowerPoint available before the talk or before the lecture. Microsoft PowerPoint is really great with accessibility features, and you can Google how to do that, how to make sure that your - any images in your presentation have alt text, which is basically the words that the screen reader reads that describes the image. And then just kind of, when you're presenting, talking out your figures - so instead of saying, the figure shown on the slide says blah blah blah, you can say, like, the figure shown on the slide has blank on the x-axis and blank on the y-axis and the trend is showing Z, so that people who may not have been able to access the slides but also cannot process or see the slides on the screen can still know what's going on.

KWONG: Got it. Krystal, a lot of what you are describing, these adaptations and changes to presentations in conferences, to conferences themselves, to the lab - they seem like they would actually be beneficial for a lot of people. You make this really good argument in your article that making labs more accessible is actually beneficial for everyone involved, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.

VASQUEZ: Yeah. So a natural part of ageing is that you may acquire a disability. And so if we do want people to have long, like, successful careers in STEM, I think it's really important to ensure that these accessibility options are built in. I think that accessibility is beneficial to everyone no matter what. So having captions on the presentation is great in pandemic world if you have, you know, your kids in the background playing or a plane flying overhead or someone - your partner vacuuming in the background. Having asynchronous events - so, like, prerecorded lectures that you can access later - would be great if you have appointments you need to get to or, like, you have a part-time job and you need - so that, you know - pay for your tuition. So you need to do that instead of go to class. And so you can still access the materials; you can just do it at a later time.

So I think that accessibility is really focused on disabled people and rightly so because we really need it, but I think that it can be better framed as just helping everyone access content better.


KWONG: There is a big push in different institutions right now around diversity, equity and inclusion. And you write about how disability's often left out of that conversation, you know?


KWONG: What do you think needs to happen for it not to be left out of that conversation?

VASQUEZ: I think, first and foremost, that disability needs to be thought of as an identity. Just as you have your racial identity, you can have, like, different sexuality, different gender identity - it's an identity. It's something that is inherent to the person and affects how they navigate through life. I think that disability right now, as it stands, is very medicalized and stigmatized. It's thought of as an individual problem, as something that makes someone less. And so I think we really need to change that mindset, thinking of it as something like, oh, this is a group of people who we're not including; we should start incorporating them into positions of power, to these diversity initiatives and have them tell us how we can make it better and then help them make it better.

KWONG: Do you find that your ability to be so open and vulnerable helps other people who are disabled actually just be open and say, hey, this is going on for me?

VASQUEZ: I hope so. I mean, that's really my goal. I think it's especially important as someone with a more invisible disability. So I think it's important for people who look like me and have that privilege, to hide it, to be a little bit more open so that, you know, people who can't hide it are more welcomed in spaces because it's a lot. There's a lot of stigma and a lot of fear about being judged or being seen as, like, not worthy of being in a science space.

KWONG: And I'm wondering how you navigate advocating for your own accessibility while also recognizing that access can look really different for different teammates and different folks across the STEM world who want accessibility along the axis of their particular disability. How do you navigate that?

VASQUEZ: Yeah, so first, listening to different people. Twitter has a great disabled in STEM community. And so hearing what they're saying, their problems, just makes me more aware of...

KWONG: Yeah.

VASQUEZ: ...Different types of access that's needed. And then just trying to incorporate people of different disabilities into whatever space that I have been welcomed in or creating spaces where we can gather and talk about issues - so creating spaces, inviting voices, making sure I share platforms and making sure I'm listening and people are able to hold me accountable if I mess up and to take that with grace.

KWONG: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us so that more people can hear it and maybe find their community wherever they are in STEM, too.

VASQUEZ: Yeah, thank you for having me.


KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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