“Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences” – reflections/book review

I hear a lot about promoting diversity in science. Mostly, it’s about increasing the proportion of women. Sometimes it refers to people of color. Less frequently it’s about the inclusion of Latinos or people from other ethnic backgrounds. However, it’s rarely mentioned that in the sciences, people with disabilities are also underrepresented. Why is that – and what can be done to fix this? Inspired by a talk from Mahadeo Sukhai*, a blind scientist in cancer genetics, inclusivity is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year. And once I started paying attention I came across a lot of insightful material: I found reports about providing more support for researchers with disabilities or about coding by voice, when typing is not an option. I stumbled on an 9780128040379interesting articles about how to make physics courses more accessible for blind students or welcoming deaf students into STEM. And chemist Mona Minkara has an awesome website with tools and resources for blind scientists or anyone teaching a blind scientist. But by far the most comprehensive guide I’ve read is Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences. As a 300-page book, it has been an interesting but tough read, providing lots of context and fundamental considerations, but it was also quite a slog to work my way though. So, for anyone interested in this book, here my highlights and disappointments!

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Romeo and Juliet – in academia?

The internet is like a giant self-help handbook, and generally I read sections on “Why life sucks for a young scientists and what you can do about it”, “How to manage terrible PIs” and “How not to fail in a system that has failed you”. Last month, however, I came across a couple of really interesting posts from a new chapter, probably titled “This is how things look like from the other side”. First, I stumbled across a post from the Raj lab (Is My PI out to get me?), arguing that PIs actually do care, and try to make decisions that are – at least in the long run – in the interest of their students (even if we might not appreciate it now). Next, Dr Isis complained (Trainee-Level Fuckery of the Worst Kind…) about students who apply double standards regarding the supervision they expect from their PIs, and the supervision they supply to their own students. And finally, this entry on Scientific B-Sides (Managing Upwards Works! Until it Doesn’t) described the expectations of a PI towards his students/postdocs in a functional supervisor-student relationship: primarily that they should show initiative and be pro-active.

Then, last week, I attended a big reunion at my alma mater, talked to a bunch of people – and encountered a similar discrepancy between students/postdocs and PIs in real life. Students told me, how their supervisors did not give them with proper guidance (“She says she’s giving me academic freedom to develop my ideas – I think she just doesn’t care”) – young PIs complained how the standard had dropped (“When I started my PhD I spent 6 months in the library, trying to find an interesting problem to persue. If I told my students to do this today, there’d be a riot.”). Students complained that they did not receive any training, two PIs told me they had fired PhD students, because “he was really smart – but didn’t know how to hold a pipet/work at the bench”.

Juliet's balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

So, all this got me thinking: there is clearly a discrepancy between how PIs and students/postdocs perceive the current system. But why? Sure, students might lack the experience to understand that the hard way (“forced” upon them by their mentors) is the better way in the long run. Also, everybody is keen to blame “the other side” when things go bad. But could there be more to it? What if it’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet plot: we have the superficial storyline, the conflict between the families (the PI and the student) – but in reality it’s a conflict between generations. Continue reading