New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists

Accessibility in Lab | Accessibility in Education with Sara Rivera, Ph.D. and Madelyn Cook

January 03, 2023 SLAS Episode 136
New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists
Accessibility in Lab | Accessibility in Education with Sara Rivera, Ph.D. and Madelyn Cook
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to the first part of our series on Accessibility in the Lab. This series will explore different areas of accessibility throughout education and the workforce, along with the necessary conversations about the topic.

In this episode, we begin by discussing the current state of accessibility in education with our guests Sara Rivera, Ph.D., lab manager at the University of Michigan, and Madelyn Cook, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. Whether a student requires additional time to complete an exam or a physical accommodation in their research space, accessibility is not one-size-fits-all for students. Rivera and Cook provide insight into academia through their personal experiences with accessibility which makes for a valuable conversation to hear.

Key Learning Points:

  • What accessibility looks like in academic research
  • What kind of accommodations are available for students
  • The responsibilities academic institutions have to provide accommodations
  • How students can approach conversations about accessibility with their professors and faculty

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Hannah Rosen: Hello everyone and welcome to new matter, the SLA's podcast where we interview life science luminaries. I'm your host Hannah Rosen and today we are kicking off our series on accessibility in the lab by focusing on accessibility in the lab in education. Joining us today is Sara Rivera, lab manager at the University of Michigan. And Madelyn Cook, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. Great to have you, Sara and Madelyn.

Madelyn Cook: Thanks so much Hannah glad to be here.

Sara Rivera: Thank you for inviting us.

Hannah Rosen: Our pleasure. So, to start off, I would love it if both of you could provide us just with a little bit of your backgrounds and tell us what really got you interested in the topic of accessibility in the lab.

Madelyn Cook: Sure thing Hannah, that sounds great! So, my background is I came from a different background. I came from chemistry before I joined the Earth and Environmental Sciences department at University of Michigan. But I joined a department where a lot of people had a lot of work that took them out into the field out into remote settings and it was newer to me as a kind of emerging grad student to see this kind of work being done. And as someone who has different kind of work structure, work schedule, I think about accessibility in the lab in terms in terms of how different schedules might affect neurodivergent people. So, I'm a person with ADHD. The way that certain field campaigns go in long hours can be really, really challenging for people who might have hyper focus issues or just generally kind of struggle with that kind of work. So, I came in a little bit surprised by the kind of demands of field work and what people are asked to do but also excited at the prospect of this becoming like a more inclusive thing for more different people.

Hannah Rosen: Oh, thanks, Madelyn.

Sara Rivera: On my side, I tend to be a very active person, which means I go through various stages of injury and recovery which can limit my ability short term and more long term too. And I also deal with mental health issues. I've been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD for two different incidents, and so, you know, I kind of have dealt with a variety of needs and accommodations and requests, starting as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, then as a graduate student out in California at the University of California, San Diego, and then again, now as a staff member at the University of Michigan, and each of those came with their own challenges and successes, I would say, and navigating each of those is a little bit different. And so, I've really tried to become an advocate for especially students who might not know what resources are available and how to navigate, especially in the university system, all the bureaucracy and red tape, because I was that student and had to figure it out and it can be a very difficult process when you're dealing with something unexpected, and then having to figure out like, who do you even talk to and where do you even start, so I've been very involved, and it grew out of this like, personal need and then trying to be that support now.

Hannah Rosen: That's great, Sara, thank you for sharing that. I think to start off with, I would love to ask you guys, you know, why... why should we as a society care about accessibility and higher education?

Sara Rivera: I'll jump in. I think one of the reasons everybody needs to care about accessibility is that by creating accessible spaces, it means that everyone can participate, and you might think that that doesn't apply to you, but I can tell you that, you know, I think I'm totally fine reaching that high shelf until I sprain my ankle walking off the curb and now suddenly I need help because I can't reach that, and if that had been an accessible space to begin with then I would just continue on with my life as if it didn't matter and keep doing my work. You know, that's like a simple example, but I think most of us in our life, you know, have had some kind of situation where something was totally fine until it wasn't. But by having accessible spaces and having, you know, policies and understandings about these are the accommodations already in place, it makes that process so much smoother. Or you're not trying to figure out how do you keep doing your work? How do you keep progressing with your life? If instead of fighting constantly about just doing the thing that you were doing last week.

Madelyn Cook: That's a great answer Sara. I completely agree and I kind of thought about this question a little differently just in terms of if we don't have accessibility in higher education, in the classroom, in the lab, the people that are not able to reach their full potential or aren't able to perform their best because of certain standard operating methods that exist in the classroom or traditional methods that don't favor the way they think or logistical challenges in the lab that don't favor the way that people can move their body, things like that. It's very, very mentally and emotionally burdensome. So over time the less access that we have everywhere. For those people that can't participate in the activities based on this standard or mainstream way, which has really just, it's standard or mainstream, because it's been repeated for a long time, it's not because it's right, It's just because it served a certain population that was really in power, and so we kind of developed these structures in time, and that definitely that affects minority populations more so. It certainly, a good example in academia, is just that, the challenges that women who are building families have in becoming faculty members and achieving tenure at different institutions is an accessibility issue that has become way more visible, but because there are fortunately many more women, at least in STEM fields in academia in recent years. But the less access we have at every point, the amount of nonbeing and non-belonging that people who are crowded out of those spaces feel that is just like cumulative and harmful. And as someone who believes that everyone has value, we need to make sure there's a place for everyone, every brain, everybody, every person and their mental emotional health. Yeah, yeah, I think.

Hannah Rosen: You guys are both bringing up some really great points almost just regarding what do we consider as a person with a disability or a disability that's worth protecting or accommodating? Because I feel like a lot of the times when we talk about... about accessibility and people with disabilities, the mind automatically goes through the physical disabilities, but you guys have both brought up a lot of points about mental health and neurodivergence, and even some gender issues in there, and so I'm curious what... what, do you see a difference in the way people approach this idea of accessibility when it comes to obvious physical disabilities versus perhaps some of these subtler disabilities that people might not immediately think of?

Madelyn Cook: Well, I think at least, and I'm no expert in terms of like policy in the past or the legality of this work, but I know the existence of ADA makes physical physically recognizable disabilities something that people are very focused on accommodating. And buildings have to accommodate them in certain ways, there are laws to make sure they're accessible physically. They're different things like elevators, but in older buildings, things like that you actually can get around to being ADA compliant in different institutions. My undergraduate institution is a small liberal arts college and a good friend of mine on my freshman hall had cerebral palsy. And she had a walker, and at different times she had a cart too, and it wasn't, there were buildings that she couldn't even have classes in because they were not ADA compliant. So that just that was a really challenging thing for her to navigate. And of course, she wound up being her advocate and raising a kind of alarm at this institution of this is not right, we need to do better things like that, but it is, it's... it's unfortunate that it falls a lot on... on the person with the disability. I think that physical disabilities are a little bit, maybe more palatable for people to try to accommodate than mental health ones, especially people who don't understand that mental healthcare is healthcare and there are very, very valid great reasons for changing access to different things based on the way people's brains work that isn't as obvious.

Sara Rivera: Yeah, to talk about kind of how people's brains work too. You know, it's not always mental health. It can also be, you know, like neurological diseases and things too that are, you know, would fall more into that medical camp in terms of stereotypical what you would, you know, what most people think of as medical. And I think part of what we're talking about too is kind of the visible versus the invisible disability. So, you know, if I walk in with crutches, you could see that. If I walk in and I tell you I got a concussion, you know, that's not obvious. And you know, maybe I did bring a doctor's note. But like depending on who I'm talking to, different people have different reactions. Some people believe like, believe me right away. Some people don't, and they don't believe that I actually have an issue, that I'm just trying to get out of something that I'm being lazy, I don't wanna do. And one of the things that I've also experienced is, you know, you can get accommodations sometimes from the university. It's easier when it's an obvious need, even with documentation, things that are, fall more into that invisible category are harder to get help for, and even when you do manage to get like, an official accommodation for classes or lab spaces, it really depends on who's in charge, whether or not they actually follow through with that accommodation, or if you have to fight to have the university sort of force them to. So you know if you have a concussion and you can't read the notes that you, or the textbook that you need to read and you need an audio version. Then there's a process to make that happen that the faculty are supposed to follow and request from the library. But of course, that's on, they're supposed to read the documentation and do that, and if they don't, then as a student you have to decide are you going to, you know, have that conversation and potentially have that fight with a faculty member that like, you know, you'd love to read the textbook, but you can't and you need the audio version and like, they, you know, that's part of your accommodation,  that's what the university said you're allowed to have, you know, and that might have been a fight to get? But some of these things that you can't see, I think there's a lot. More pushback in that realm, whether it's, you know, mental health or just an invisible disability and not always necessarily, you know, head, neurological related, but you know, even things like Crohn's disease and stuff like that. There's all these different kinds of challenges that people face. And a lot of it, I feel, is you know, interpreted through the person you're talking to, and those people are different and have different interpretations and can come to five different people with the same problem. And they're all going to give you a different answer, which Is really frustrating.

Hannah Rosen: Yeah, you alluded a little bit to some of those possible accommodations for people with disabilities. What types of accommodations are typically available for students with disabilities, and how can students go about just finding out what accommodations might be available to them?

Sara Rivera: I think some of the obvious ones for what we typically consider a student are things like extended time on exams. You know they have, typically universities will have someone that can like sit with you and read questions if you have trouble with that, you know someone who can write down your answers for you if you struggle with that aspect. There's some of these things that people consider, like if you think of accommodations you're like, yeah, you're just gonna get time and a half on this exam. Once you start getting into things like graduate school where there aren't classes and it's more lab work based or field work based, it's a little bit more up in the air. And I don't think there's necessarily good resources to figure out even what to ask for, that I think can be really hard. Some of the accommodations depending on the university and the policies and stuff, but most universities have some kind of version of leave where you can take a medical absence. Whether or not that's what a student chooses to do or is approved is a whole other question, but it is an option and I think not enough students are willing to kind of pursue that, but it is... it is there. And then once you get kind of more into the... the staff. It's again a little bit more wishy washy about what... what you can request. But that usually involves things like, you know, a modified schedule where you work four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days. Or, you know, moderating your schedule around doctor's appointments or other things that need to happen, so I think probably the grad student one is the most ill-defined. So, I'll let Madelyn talk a little bit more about... about her experience with that.

Madelyn Cook: Yeah, that is true Sara. I actually hadn't even really thought, I've been thinking so much about accessibility in the classroom in terms of like lecture, classroom and laboratory structured laboratory settings for undergraduates, but just even being a grad student, I think one of the really good things that has happened in terms of maybe being more accessible to neurodivergent people or people who don't thrive in standard testing environments who might not even, so as far as ADHD in adult women goes, that's... that's a seriously underdiagnosed thing, ADHD in women. I think there are way more people, and I was diagnosed as an adult when I was in my PhD, so that was really helpful and like liberating to actually learn because I was wondering why I was really struggling to meet certain goals and certain coping mechanisms that I developed throughout my life were starting to fail. So, this was this was really helpful to learn, but in terms of grad student accessibility. For exams, I think that the GRE being dropped, I think in part this might have coincided, there was already a movement happening in our department, Earth and environmental sciences at Michigan before the pandemic. But the pandemic itself at different graduate institutions and undergraduate institutions, it has had a lot of harmful outfalls, you know, it's been it's been tough, but one of the better things that has happened is actually being test optional or test free because students couldn't get into testing environments during the pandemic, so lots of different undergraduate institutions have actually done away with SATs, ACTs, graduate with GRE, which on the whole means that we might be getting some people who have lots of different ways of being intelligent and not necessarily test intelligent because that is a skill, you know, being good at taking tests is a skill that people develop if they take a lot of the same type of tests, and it means that we might have more people who think differently or need different accommodations in the Academy now. So, in a class of 30 students, all of the students deserve to be there, but because we were test optional, maybe now 20% of those students are requiring different testing environments, and that's... that's actually like, that's been a very good thing. And that's something I've heard about happening at different institutions at undergrad level, but without enough staff and there's been major attrition since the pandemic. It's smaller institutions, and also in general shifting that kind of time burden onto either the graduate student instructor of that course or onto the faculty if you're at a non... a non-graduate institution, just an undergraduate institution like a small liberal arts college that is very burdensome, and that's where resources from universities need to be invested in more people to provide more support for testing, so that's not even thinking about graduate student education. I think accessibility and graduate student education in the PhD program is probably super different from student to student, because it also kind of depends. And this is maybe a structural challenge of PhDs, but it depends on what your advisor kind of advocates for you to do. So, if your advisor is suggesting, you know, you don't need to get straight A's, I want you to learn in your classes, I want you to do your best and I want you to get B's and A's stay in the program, but, you know, just get what you need to get out of it and we can do things in terms of our research separately or in ways that work for you. That's... that could be making something really accessible. I actually think some advisors, they want their students to be productive. It is... it is kind of a machine in that way where advisors want grad students to be productive, but those that recognize that students all work differently to reach their best are sometimes making things more accessible and not even on purpose, they wouldn't even maybe use that word accessibility, but because they want a productive student they understand that letting the student do what they need is good. The student doesn't always know the best ways to work.

Hannah Rosen: Yeah, no, totally. It... it... it is, it's tough because yeah especially I've had some similar experiences in my life where working with someone with a disability, where, yeah, they're like you said they don't even know what they need and that just can make it so much even more challenging because we're not providing people with the resources to help them even understand what they need, so I think that, that could even be part of the accessibility issue is educating people on tactics or resources or whatever it is that they need to help them figure out their best path.

Madelyn Cook: I agree, and I'm, I also think, the less I can be, so my sister is an elementary school teacher. She was formerly a middle school teacher and the amount of work that she has to do to meet, this is just elementary and middle school age students, IEP needs, so they're individual education plans, is amazing. It's such a huge amount of work and education in our country is kind of, in my opinion, it's in a crisis state. Public education, all of the work to make things accessible, falls on her and she of course does it, but it comes at the expense of her mental health. It comes at the expense of her time and her ability to work sustainably in a field she really cares about, cause she's born to be an educator, you know. So even at the academic, like, the academy level as much as we can make accessibility not fall on the individual for changing the system, I think the better. I think that's really harmful in public education and that happened from different policies that were put in place over the last several decades, that's how we've had this evolution there, and there's like a reckoning happening. I think a lot of people are exiting that field. I think one of the good things that's happening in academia is this kind of lively group of instructors who care about teaching in diverse ways. So already if we move towards more, maybe flipping the classroom, maybe thinking about not offering this exam in a standard examination setting, doing a group test, all of these things actually are ways to help make things more accessible to different learners. And if you're not always sticking to just one method, you might be hitting, what is optimal for students? And I'm thinking again this is about brain and thinking differently. This isn't necessarily the physical accessibility challenges that academia faces. That's one way that you can kind of kill two birds with one stone, like making progress. Being a better educator, evolving your pedagogy and being more inclusive, because there might be students who don't even know that they have a certain kind of disability.

Sara Rivera: Yeah, I want to add to that too, that I think letting students know, especially in like classes and in labs, what the expectation is. So, when I teach at the university, my standard is like, if you e-mail me and you need extra time on something, you get 2 weeks. Like, most people I know are going to give you like, 24 hours, maybe a week, so I do 2 weeks because I don't want my class to be the thing that like, stresses you out even more. I don't want it to be the thing that like, you know, you got so stressed because everybody gave you two days that like, it was even more overwhelming. And I let people know that ahead of time. Like, if you e-mail me like, I'm not gonna dig into whatever is going on like, you get two weeks. If you need more than that, let me know when we can talk about it. So, I think there are some ways too where people, well, in power, you know, whether it's your advisor, or the professor in charge of the class or the lab, can kind of open those doors early on to say you know, I'm here, I'm willing to negotiate and talk about things and you know, especially if there's a way to have at least some sort of space to say like, you know, no questions asked, you can have, you know, until tomorrow. You know, something like that, where as a student I can get a little bit of breathing room to be like oK, let me just like, take a minute to... to figure out what I need to do next, I think can be really helpful. The other thing that Madelyn said that I wanted to touch on, so my mom actually is a special education teacher in K12. And so I grew up in that space too, and I think K-12 isn't perfect either, but I think one of the big differences, and can be hard for students to overcome, is that in K-12 there are a lot of legal standards that have to be met because it's public. And so, there are set schedules and paperwork and things that have to be done with certain types of people and groups of people, whether it's a social worker or a teacher or a counselor, and then when students move into university settings, whether it's community college or a four-year institution, a lot of that falls away and it's put on the student to handle that, whether they were handling it, you know, in high school or not. Now it's on them and they have to figure out who am I supposed to talk to, what paperwork am I supposed to submit, what am I supposed to ask for? How do I do that? And not every student is equipped to do that from the beginning, let alone navigate like all of the bureaucracy that incoming students have to figure out to begin with, you know? And then students that move on to graduate programs have to do it all again at a different institution with, you know, the offices are called different things and the people have different job titles and whatever you thought you figured out is totally different now and there's usually not a a flow chart of what you should do if you need help. It's just kind of left to you to figure out which office and then, you know, hopefully you get a person who's sympathetic and understanding who will help you navigate what... what needs to happen at that point which is different in K-12 because, you know, there's a public responsibility for education which does not exist in higher education.

Hannah Rosen: So that actually leads into my next question that I was wondering, and it sounds like you may you hinted at the answer already, but I'm curious with all of these potentials for accommodations out there. How easy or hard is it to actually get these accommodations, and how common is it for professors to kind of open up their... their class by making it clear that it's a welcoming environment for people who require accommodations?

Madelyn Cook: I can speak a little bit just about how much, in my experience, what I've seen in terms of professors trying to create a welcoming environment where students are encouraged to ask for accommodations. In every class that I've taught with a professor at Michigan, I felt like that's been a priority. Certainly there's always, of course, a section on the syllabus that describes offices to reach out to that could help students achieve whatever accessibility they need. I don't know in practice how often it's utilized or how effective that information is, but I have seen it in many places and I do know a lot of people very much care about helping students have success and be optimized in their learning, you know, have optimal learning environment because they're paying a lot of money to learn at this institution and a lot of the faculty really care deeply that students walk away with better critical thinking skills or walk away with more knowledge than they came in with. I think though intention is good, execution can be really hard. I feel like it... it really depends on the group of students in the class, how many students have accommodations, and then it makes... makes the job of the graduate student instructor sometimes more challenging depending on how the faculty member and their TA kind of work out the additional time that might need to be spent providing a secondary testing environment or tertiary, you know it depends. Some students need, there could be 9 different tests that need to be administered for a single exam. So making sure it, that you're really on top of tracking your hours if you're that graduate student instructor, that's also part of your job, so it... it just means that time might be spent a little bit differently, and it might be hard to meet some of the grading goals if you're spending other time in a job and tracking your hours, meeting certain different accessibility needs for students. And if that's the case, then, you know, the grad student needs to advocate for themselves, make sure they're compensated, make sure they're communicating. There are protections there for time, so I think the intention in my experience is always to try to help the students have optimal learning environment.

Sara Rivera: I agree that typically there are good intentions, although sometimes execution is lacking. I think it depends a lot on the accommodation that you want. If it's something that the university considers standard, like extra time on an exam, that's typically easier. If it's something that they don't consider standard, so you know maybe an accommodation for going out to the field for research that's harder to navigate, and figuring out, you know, if your advisor feels that you're meeting expectations and requirements. But still, having that accommodation, you know, that can be much harder to navigate, and my advice to students is always to use the resources that are available to students. So, there's usually some kind of office for students with disabilities of some kind. Those people can be very helpful. They can also feel like a giant brick wall that you ran into, in which case I always recommend if that's how... if that's how it feels the conversation went, to go hop over and visit student legal services or whatever service like that, to kind of get a better understanding of what your rights are and what you need to provide to... to access those rights within the university space. Because sometimes, you know, there's certain documentation or language that you might not know, I didn't know when I started, and once you kind of figure out what you need to provide, the conversation can be a little bit easier to have because then you know it fits within that university policy or lingo or jargon or whatever they were looking for that you didn't have the right vocabulary to vocalize, and sometimes it does take that step of, you know, contacting somebody on the legal end to write you a letter or help you understand the process so that it kind of smooths out that bumpy road, especially if it's kind of a crisis situation or something like that. Getting somebody that can help kind of interpret between you and the university can be essential I think in... in finding the right accommodations and making sure that they happen in a timely manner.

Hannah Rosen: That's a great point, and so what kind of legal options are typically available for students who are having these sorts of difficulties? Do most school... universities or colleges have these legal offices, or do students sometimes have to find their own representation?

Sara Rivera: Most universities have some kind of student legal service that's covered as part of tuition. If not, there's usually some kind of pro bono, you know, ADA office that you can call or you know, go in to. But most, at least in my experience, most sort of legal professionals are willing to... to meet with students and advocate pro bono where you're not... you're not paying for their services. If you wanna sue a university or something like that, that's a little bit more expensive. But if you just need help, kind of navigating and understanding, usually they're... they're very happy to provide their time.

Madelyn Cook: And I'll just add, I think if it's not obvious to a student whether or not there is a legal services office at their institution, a good place to go to figure out things might be the ombudsperson. There's always an ombudsperson at different colleges and universities, and there might even be different... different kind of branches of larger colleges and universities, and part of their job is to explain policies and procedures and what exists, I think, to the student, in addition to being able to like, mediate conflicts. So that is a non-legal within university or within college kind of structure or person... point person who could help with these kind of things and maybe connect you with legal counsel.

Sara Rivera: And ombuds typically confidential. So, a lot of these resources are confidential, at least initially, until you waive that right. So, when I was an undergraduate student, I actually had some of the resources on campus contact my professors on my behalf because I was not in a place where I could have those conversations. So I, you know, signed the one waiver saying yes, please share my information and they sent out a very nice letter with, you know, a little bit of the details of why I needed accommodations and what I needed at that time, and that worked out really well for me because it was coming from the university. It wasn't me just requesting something it was like, the university is requesting, you know, you provide these accommodations which, you know, I did end up having conversations with those faculty about that letter, but I didn't have to sit there and explain what was happening and what I needed. I could just be like yes, thank you for acknowledging me about that and yes, I do need that thank you. 

Hannah Rosen: Yeah, that's great.

Madelyn Cook: I will also add this. I don't think, if you mentioned this Sara I'm sorry, but another thing, depending on what is happening and where, the student might need, kind of clarification of their rights. There's also a Title 9 office at every institution, and if it's, it might, especially for gender-related issues, that's kind of something that pops right up into my head. There are always Title 9 offices and officers, so they are a great resource and it might help in terms of whatever thing feels inaccessible. Or what kind of burden might be placed on the student if there's any kind of discrimination or harassment or something.

Hannah Rosen: That's a great point. Where do you feel that, are we still falling short with these accommodations, or do we have any accommodations that are just completely missing or insufficient?

Madelyn Cook: I think in the lab. I think in a chemistry lab or in any kind of lab that requires hood work or research in a lab, it... it's very challenging to me. I think accessibility demands, specifically ADA and physical disability, these it would be very hard to work in certain lab spaces because of this and there are certain things, even the height of certain hoods might be inaccessible to people who are not able to stand or are wheelchair bound or things like that. So that is a practical, logistical challenge and I don't have a suggestion for how to solve that, because some of the way these things are designed is also knowing that there are really dangerous things happening within the hood, and it's a height suited to most people who are standing, and you need to be able to move quickly in case something happens. So that is, those are serious challenges that I don't know whether or not they're insurmountable or we have to be a little bit more creative in our thinking about how to make sure these kind of careers are accessible to people with physical disabilities. But I do think one thing that, especially in like PhD world or in pursuing a graduate degree in a chemistry or peripheral field. To that, I think that one thing that can be done by advisors is really help their students be successful, by not necessarily mandating that they are the ones doing the work in the lab. If there is someone who has a disability and it makes it unsafe for them to work in a lab, they won't be working in a lab. That's something that no institution would actually, I think, endorse or recommend, I hope especially like lab safety officers. However, having partner students on different PhD projects where they are helping each other, generating data, doing data analysis, ideating together, this could be a way to kind of... it has to be kind of a creative thinking style for the advisor. Who is looking to make sure they can bring in any kind of student with any kind of physical ability to their group. But that I think is, that's like a glaring thing to me. As someone who works in a clean lab in a hood, I don't know the solution to that.

Sara Rivera: I think the biggest place that we continuously fall short is lack of foresight. We design spaces with kind of ourselves, I think, in mind and we don't really think about everybody else until you know you have a student that needs something and now all of a sudden it's “Oh no. How can we accommodate that?” And there's a lot of, sort of, standard wording, I would say, that gets thrown on to job applications and internship opportunities and summer research programs that you know, “even if you are a person of color or woman or a person with a disability, please apply anyway” and it's like, OK, that's great, but also like, is that like, are there actual accommodations for me or is this just like a feel good, we got some people to apply, but like they can't become, you know, I... most of my graduate research was on a ship, so that's an entirely different environment. Everything's moving constantly, having accommodations in that world is different than a lab, which is different than an office, and I think the fact that we're inviting students into spaces that they aren't really being invited into is a problem and I think we need to have more foresight about that and think about, you know, how are students going to participate? How are people going to be involved and not just, you know, somebody who can walk in and you know, doesn't have any sort of issues ever in their life, which is no one. But you know, how do we handle that before it's right in front of our face? I think that's the biggest area that we're falling short in, is just handling things sort of after the fact and trying to figure out what to do then. You know, there are things that I could do, repetitive motion exercises in the lab that I, you know, could do all day as an undergrad, and now I can't. And so, there are things like that too. A lot of faculty, you know, end up not working in labs in the long term, and so they don't always necessarily remember what it's like to spend hours doing the same thing over and over again and you know, what that can... can do to a person, and so I think just really having those thoughts ahead of time, you know, really thinking through what we're asking of people before they need to decide if they're gonna try to have that conversation with us about what they, you know, that awkward, like, “hey, by the way I might need something now that I didn't need before but now I feel really awkward asking” or “I thought it was gonna be fine and now it's not.” You know, as a student, that's really hard go up to somebody in a position of power and say, actually I thought I was OK and I'm not and I don't know what to do now. So I think... I think the people in charge need to be to be thinking about that before that comes up.

Hannah Rosen: So that end, you know, what responsibility do PI's have to make sure that their labs are accessible. And what are we doing to train PIs or lab leads to ensure that they are providing an accessible space?

Sara Rivera: There is a huge lack in training. There's a lot of optional if you so desire and you want to learn about these things kind of work happening, but not a lot of actual like, mandatory this is what the university policy is and you need to know this and this is what we're doing, partially because some of those policies don't exist, or they're too unofficial to have a training. It's kind of just oh well, this is how we handle things, even though it's not written down. So, I think that there is a lot of responsibility if you are a PI that has a lab, that lab is your responsibility and everyone who works in that lab is your responsibility. And I think that not having that training and not having that understanding is a... a really big problem. Because again, it puts that onus on the student to come to you and say this is... this doesn't work for me. You know, as an incoming student, that's you know, your boss. Essentially, that's not a comfortable place to be, especially if you don't know how they're going to react and you're asking for something that they might disagree with and not want to provide. It could be very awkward, and I think PIs need to understand and accept that, you know, it's not just responsibility in the way that they might have envisioned, but they're actually responsible for the safety and success of the people working. In their lab.

Madelyn Cook: I agree, and I think, one thing that is positive... first of all, I agree that the PI is the leader of the lab and responsible for the lab members, and to that end needs to make sure that what they're asking of their members, they're able to safely do. Because like you said, in oceanographic research, if you are a data scientist, if you're going out and doing modern oceanography on a ship, there are things that are absolutely not safe to ask some people to do. You might have certain physical disabilities and that is hard, but that's true, and making sure that no student is ever made to feel guilty or inferior or like they can't be successful in that field because they might not be able to do some aspect of the work, is very important. If a PI wants to lead a healthy lab, I think it's OK for not everyone to do all the same things. We're not trying to, you know, crank out mini-mes, but I do think one thing that is good in terms of helping students figure out how to advocate for themselves and helping students have a healthy experience where they might be put in a position where they need to ask for something from their boss is that, in our department, after having a recent 10 year review, not tenure but 10 year, where we had external people come in, a new policy has come into play where students get a secondary advisor as well, which is not research related but is termed an academic advisor, but they're also meant to just be a person who can get a realistic check on how things are going for the graduate students. So, if there are challenges the graduate student is facing with accessibility, with the demands of their lab work, or their research data processing, whatever, this is a great second step. It might be that just as things go with academic advising, some people are really stellar at this role and others aren't, because another challenge of this work is that there's no mentorship experience required to run a lab. It's really just that you gotta publish and do well, at least to be in that position today, do well in the publication sphere, and do good enough in the teaching sphere and in the mentoring sphere. Or honestly, just not terrible sometimes, so those are all different challenges, but having a second person who can check and give advice might be a good way to help people not get left behind.

Sara Rivera: Yeah, another thing too that I think PIs can do better is, you know, some PIs feel that they don't have time to understand these issues and they don't have time to learn about all this stuff. People can have their own opinions and feelings. I think everyone should have a basic understanding, at least of, you know, the different challenges people face. But at least PIs should know where resources are available at their institution. They should at least know where to direct a student to get an official accommodation, even if they feel uncomfortable having that conversation. And I mean, that's just something that every, you know, employee who supervises students should know. They should know what are the basic resources available to students that struggle or have challenges and might need help. So even if it's not something they feel comfortable handling themselves or dealing with, they need to at least be able to direct students appropriately.

Hannah Rosen: Well, unfortunately, we're about at the end of our time. But Sara and Madelyn, thank you guys so much for joining us today. I think this was a really great conversation and one that I hope doesn't end here. With that, we can all continue to have ongoing to make sure that we're making the labs and academia as accessible as possible in the future.

Sara Rivera: Thank you so much for having us.

Madelyn Cook: Thank you so much, Hannah.