The Power of Support in STEM

Here’s the story behind my first tattoo. It’s a DNA helix, inked right over my heart, and it isn’t there for the reasons people tend to guess. Yes, I am a biology student, my grandfather taught science, I’m a huge Rosalind Franklin geek— but the DNA helix represents something different. Truthfully, it is inspired by a Mountain Goats lyric (“Invent my own family, if it comes to that / Hold them close, hold them near / Tell them no one’s ever going to hurt them here”) and it sits on my chest to remind me of my support system.

My support system is the reason I have survived in STEM this long. I am a disabled, queer woman, and science is not particularly fond of people like me. As persistent and dedicated as I have become, as passionate and attached to my work, I would not be the successful student I am today if not for the people who I am lucky enough to count amongst my network. This is integral to all STEM students, but I’d like to focus on the difference it can make for disabled scientists, like me. 

My support system is the reason I have survived in STEM this long.

Though I (frustratingly) do not have a solid diagnosis at the moment, I have chronic issues. This means pain, overstimulation, and fatigue typically fill my days. I sometimes rely on mobility aids and braces. Some days, I have three lab classes and don’t blink an eye. Some days, I struggle to get out of bed for class across the quad. It is thanks to my support system that I am able to continue being a person who goes to class and completes assignments and remembers to turn in labs. 

In many ways, this piece is a love letter to that support system, to those people who have helped me to thrive. But I’m also hoping this inspires you, reading, to find the support system that might make or break your experience in a school or workplace.

It has never been easy for me to accept help. Communicating and advocating for my needs can quickly become an unwinnable battle, me against the world. But I don’t have the energy to fight all these battles on my own—I expect that would be the case even without the chronic fatigue—so my support system, the people who are willing to take up fighting beside me, have sometimes had to force their way into their role (sort of an “and my axe” situation, if you’ll permit me a LOTR reference here). I’m endlessly grateful for it.

A huge portion of these people are educators. High school teachers, professors—people who have had to accommodate me in classes and who have become experts in recognizing when students (in this case, me) need help. Here’s the best way I can qualify the difference between those who are members of my support system and those who are not: I trust the first group way more. Once I know someone is part of my team, I’m around them more often, relying on their advice and thoughts and sitting in their classrooms and offices. (If you have ever been an educator who advocated for me and became part of my system, you know exactly what this looks like.) I highly recommend finding educators for your own support network, whether they’re assigned to you (e.g. an advisor) or you seek them out of your own accord. There is nothing like knowing that (some of) the people in charge of my learning have my back.

I highly recommend finding educators for your own support network, whether they’re assigned to you (e.g. an advisor) or you seek them out of your own accord.

So, what does being in my corner look like? It looks like my math professor letting me take weekly quizzes on another day because I just can’t make it into class. It looks like my chemistry professor not making a big deal out of my not getting up to help carry glassware over to my group’s lab table. It looks like my principal investigator making it clear that we can always work remotely. It looks like my professors listening to me rant about inaccessibility, or my advisor being the one to broach the subject of talking to another professor about accommodations. It’s any number of things that add up quickly and make a difference, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders.

I cannot talk up the value of a support system like this enough. It helps me fight my battles and, especially as someone who has a lot of those, it’s essential to my continued existence in academia. I am so, so appreciative of the educators (and others) who have supported me thus far and those who will do so in the future. Though much of what they do is, ultimately, little things—committing some brainpower and time to replying to my emails, knocking on the door of a department head, touching base with a colleague—these things add up quickly. I feel lighter and less worried about fighting for changes and defending my health, because I know people are on my side. It’s monumental. So, thank you, to everyone in my support system, who has made my life a little bit easier in the long run. And to those of you in similar situations to mine: good luck. I hope you find your people—it makes all the difference.

Katie is organizing a disability in STEM zine! Submit your story at bit.ly/DisabilityInSTEM to be included.

Katie Walsh
Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh is an undergraduate biology major at Lesley University, where she currently works on chemistry education research. She can usually be found advocating for underrepresented students in STEM and inclusivity in politics, with her most recent undertaking being the organization of a zine about disabled experiences in STEM. If you're looking to chat about chemistry, education, inclusivity, or local politics, Katie can be found over at @khwalsh_ on Twitter.

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