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Becoming Visible: STEM Role Models & Mentors for Disabled Students

Guest contributor Helen Rottier shares her path to a STEM PhD program. Not having disabled STEM mentors or seeing them in the greater science community meant that Helen never considered a STEM path. Having visible STEM role models for disabled and other marginalized groups of students is important. When students don’t see themselves represented, there are increased obstacles to participation and success. To learn more about Helen, her program, and her advocacy work, check out her bio below. Thanks, Helen, for this encouraging post that works to create more space in STEM for autistic and other disabled or underrepresented students!

Growing up as a girl in Wisconsin in the early 2000s, I didn’t know that I could be a scientist. I actually didn’t know what a scientist was, beyond the stereotypical, visible images of men in white coats looking into microscopes. I loved school and was asked often if I wanted to become a teacher or librarian, and sometimes I did. Later I was interested in becoming a lawyer. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be a scientist.

Ultimately, however, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a psychology major. After my own struggle with mental illness and treatment at a child and adolescent psychiatric hospital, I thought I would be an okay therapist. I was not enthusiastic about the idea, but I knew that the first years of college would give me room to grow and learn. I still didn’t know that I could be a scientist.

As I immersed myself in my psychology major, I started to learn more about psychology research, and I was fascinated. I even started to meet and learn from women who were psychology researchers. Scientists! I was only scraping the surface, and I knew I didn’t want to dissect cadaver’s brains or listen to the endless whirring of MRIs all day, but I fell in love with the scientific method. At the same time, I continued to struggle with my mental health. While I was stable and happy with the right medication and therapy, I was drowning in the stress of academic life. I knew now that women could be scientists and that psychologists could be scientists, but I didn’t know that I had what it takes to be a scientist.

At the beginning of my junior year, I began exploring graduate school as an option following graduation, partly because I loved school and partly because I was terrified to do anything else. I visited one of my favorite past professors/mentors during her office hours and told her that I was willing to do any kind of psych research if I could get into grad school. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that this was a bad application strategy and that I should narrow my focus to something I was passionate about.

It took little reflection to realize that in the past year, I had completed five different assignments, in five different classes, ranging from movement therapy to history of American education, about autism spectrum disorder. When I shared this revelation with my therapist, she asked if I ever thought I might be autistic. I said no- it had never once crossed my mind, because I had grown up with the stereotypes that autistic people were usually boys, couldn’t speak or care for themselves, and definitely did not become scientists.

Over the following weeks and months, however, I began noting whenever my life experience meshed with something I read or learned about autism. Autistic girls are less likely to receive a diagnosis and present differently than boys. Autistic youth have co-occurring depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Autistic people tend to do things in rigid and repetitive ways- I was being treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder for writing and rewriting lists, despite lacking obsessive thought patterns. Autistic people are sensitive to noise and bright light. Autistic children are more likely to experience medical/dental phobia. Over time, I began to accept and embrace my autistic identity. I knew that I wanted to study autism, but because of my disability, doubted whether I could become a scientist.

I started working as an undergraduate research assistant in the Hartley Lab at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center. Over the course of a year, I had opportunities to help lead studies, interact with autistic children and their families, transcribe interview, enter and analyze data, and even develop my own research project. I learned so much from Dr. Hartley and her graduate students, and I am incredibly grateful. The experience immersed me in the wonderful world of research, and I started to feel like a scientist.

Early in my senior year of undergrad, I began applying to graduate programs, mostly in developmental or social psychology programs. On a whim, I decided to apply to the disability studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I began to learn more about disability studies and recognized that the work I was doing in psychology and in gender and women’s studies was also disability studies. Disability studies is inter- or transdisciplinary, meaning that it encompasses arts, humanities, social sciences, biomedical/clinical sciences, public policy, and any number of other disciplines. The uniting theme or thread through disability studies is understanding disability as natural human variation and/or through the social model of disability. After I was accepted to the program at UIC, I realized that I wanted to continue to do social sciences research within disability studies.

Helen Rottier (left) and Dr. Morton Gernsbacher (right)

Last summer, before I began grad school, Dr. Morton Gernsbacher invited me to collaborate on a research project. Dr. Gernsbacher is an amazing mentor and researcher who recognizes my potential because of and in harmony with my disabilities, not despite them. Dr. Gernsbacher is a distinguished professor in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, and she uses psychological research methods to answer disability studies questions. As a result of this ongoing project and my first encounters with faculty at UIC, I decided that I wanted to use science to open doors for more autistic and otherwise disabled scientists, students, historians, artists, and scholars.

My research examines systemic/structural barriers in academic spaces and my community leadership is focused on supporting and uplifting students who, like me, were never told they could succeed in college or in STEM. I am a student, an activist, a mentor, and a scientist. My roles converge in my leadership of Access STEM Chicago, a free STEM mentoring program for disabled high school and college students in the Chicago area. As is evident from my story, mentors and role models play a crucial role in educating and empowering students about STEM careers. Like programs that target students of color or women and gender minorities, Access STEM and other disability specific programs nurture the scientific curiosity in students who aren’t as readily encouraged or represented in STEM education.

Funded through a generous grant from the Foundation for Science and Disability, Access STEM Chicago will have monthly workshops, guest speakers, and a science fair at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. This year’s theme is Accessing Health Sciences, and students with interest in medicine, clinical sciences, pharmacy, biomedical engineering, disability studies, and other related fields are especially encouraged to apply. If you or someone you know is an eligible student in the Chicago area, they can register at bit.ly/registerASC or reach out to me (Helen Rottier, hrotti2@uic.edu) for more information.

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Helen Rottier

Helen Rottier is a graduate student in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her identity as an autistic/disabled scientist fuels her work in dismantling academic ableism, supporting autistic postsecondary students, and reimagining academic spaces that celebrate neurodiversity. Helen is the student coordinator of Chicago Autism Spectrum People in Education (ASPiE) (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ChicagoASPiE/) and the director of Access STEM Chicago (bit.ly/registerASC). She is an alum of Illinois LEND (https://www.illinoislend.org/) and ASAN Autism Campus Inclusion (ACI) (https://autisticadvocacy.org/projects/education/aci/). She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and gender/women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!). You can follow Helen’s work on her blog (helenrottier.wordpress.com) and on Twitter (@helenrottier).

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