There’s a common assumption that to be a scientist; you must also be a genius, someone who excelled at school and learns easily and quickly. But are these really the qualities necessary to produce new scientific knowledge? Collin Diedrich is a research scientist with a doctorate in molecular virology and microbiology. On paper, he might seem to be the archetypal smart scientist, but the reality is more complicated. Collin has multiple learning disabilities, and he has struggled to overcome the stigma that comes with them for his entire life.
In this episode, we explore how our narrow definition of intelligence not only holds back people such as Collin but also prevents the creation of new scientific knowledge that benefits us all. This is the second of two episodes about science and disability and was produced in collaboration with the Science and Disability oral history project at the Science History Institute.
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: James Morrison
Music by Blue Dot Sessions: “Kirkus Light,” “Li Fonte,” “Building the Sled,” “Secret Pocketbook,” “Gambrel,” “Palms Down,” “Messy Inkwell,” “Slow Casino,” “Felt Lining,” and “We Build with Rubber Bands.”
Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection
Martucci, Jessica. “History Lab: Through the Lens of Disability.” Science History Institute, June 22, 2019.
Martucci, Jessica. “Through the Lens of Disability.” Distillations, November 8, 2018.
Martucci, Jessica. “Science and Disability.” Distillations, August 18, 2017.
Diedrich, Collin. Oral history conducted on 19 and 22 June 2017 by Jessica Martucci and Gregory S. Waters, Science and Disability project, Science History Institute.
Alexis Pedrick: Prologue: Collin’s Big Test.
Collin Diedrich: My name is Collin Diedrich. And, uh, I’m a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. And I study the immunological interactions between HIV and tuberculosis. Essentially, I want to understand why is it that HIV increases people’s susceptibility to tuberculosis.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin Diedrich started graduate school right after college, and got his PhD in Molecular Virology and Immunology from the University of Pittsburgh. He’s done two postdoctoral fellowships, one at the University of Pittsburgh, and one at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death in HIV-infected people worldwide. So Collin’s research has the potential to help improve future treatment and save the lives of countless people.
Collin Diedrich: I really love this, the HIV tuberculosis research, um, because you have these two very diverse pathogens. You have a virus and a bacteria. And the bacteria doesn’t change very much, and the virus changes all the time. And the virus is relatively new, and the bacteria has been around since…they’re found mummies with the bacteria in it. And so you have these diverse things that have just like worked together really well to just have to cause a horrible, horrible outcome, which has just, just killed so many people.
Alexis Pedrick: If you look at Collins’s LinkedIn page, you might see his picture: young, white, glasses, and you might think to yourself, “Oh, of course, this guy’s a scientist. That makes sense. He looks the part.” And maybe you’d also take a look at his list of titles: postdoctoral fellow, lab assistant, lab tech, and the hard-to-pronounce titles of his publications like lymphatic endothelials, ooh, and a replicative mycobacterium tuberculosis…you, you get the idea. And maybe you’d say to yourself, “What an accomplished successful guy! He must be really smart. Look at all those words!” but the reality has always been more complicated for him.
Collin Diedrich: I mean I still deal with impostor syndrome, you know? And like, it’s, it’s that fear that, uh, that any successes or a specific success in your life, um, is something that, uh, that you… is something that you don’t deserve. When I was in grad school, I was dealing with that even more. And I thought that, like, I tricked the admissions committee to accepting me. Um, the boss of my lab, I tricked her into allowing me to, to even, uh, join her lab. I tricked the other grad students and other people in, in, um, in the lab that, like, I even, um, deserve to be there. And so, like, all of those thoughts, you know, are rushing, you know, were rushing in my head [laughs] when I was failing my comprehensive exam.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin’s in the middle of a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh, which is also where he got his PhD. But that part almost didn’t happen.
Collin Diedrich: In your second year of that program, you join a lab that you wanna do all of your research on. And then, um, you have to do two parts.
Alexis Pedrick: Part one is writing a proposal for the thesis you want to do. That part went okay.
Collin Diedrich: But then after I passed that, then you… The next step is you have to orally defend it. And that’s where, um, I had a bunch of issues.
Mariel Carr: So how quickly did you realize that things were not going well?
Collin Diedrich: Oh my god. Um, I knew they weren’t going well, immediately. Like, I am standing there in front of three PIs. So, those are the primary investigators, right, the people that run, um, their own labs, and they are experts in different areas of the thesis proposal that I just wrote. And, um, they ask you questions about, like, the experiments you propose, they ask you background questions, um, they ask you about literature that’s, um, well known or not well known in the field. And, um, it was almost immediately that, uh, I, I almost immediately became really flustered.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin’s research proposal was all about the interaction between HIV and tuberculosis. It was based on the premise that if someone had a latent tuberculosis infection and then got HIV, the HIV would reactivate their tuberculosis, and they’d get sick. His thesis assumed this reactivation would happen.
Collin Diedrich: And their question was, “Oh, how… What happens if that doesn’t happen?” And my answer was, “Oh, it will happen,” [laughs] which is… which to anyone, um, that, yeah, that’s, that’s in a PhD program, um, saying something confidently doesn’t mean that it wi- it will happen. So, I immediately started to question, like, the logic behind my experiments. Then when I was like, citing, um, some, uh, other people’s work in the area, I had a hard time articulating, uh, the names of the authors. I obsessed over the wrong things. And so like, as I was, like, uh, basically spiraling in my head, um, I started to, I started to just get like an incredible amount of anxiety. Um, and I ended up, like, just questioning everything that I was saying and everything that I was doing. Um, and so, I, I got to a point where like, when I, when I was nervous, like, I was talking too much, and I was answering questions that they didn’t ask. And so then, like, once I noticed I was doing that, like, in my head, then I would start questioning [laughs] my ability to a- you know, then I was like, “Oh my god, how am I gonna get out of this, this random tangent that I, that I got on?” And so, like, and so then when you’re, when I’m ques- you know, I would question myself, and then I was like, “Oh my god, this is terrible,” and, and like you can’t… you… I have to, like, hide that your… that you feel horrible about yourself, um, as much as you can. And so, like, it was basically, it was basically that for two hours.
Alexis Pedrick: Collin can laugh about it now, but he was not laughing then. He failed the exam. Everything he’d been working for since he was in first grade seemed to be evaporating before his eyes. And the worst part was that it seemed to prove Collin’s worst fear that he wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist.
Collin Diedrich: There’s this mentality that like, if, if you’re a scientist, then you’re a genius.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin’s not a “scientific genius,” whatever that is in reality, [laughs] rather than in movies and television. In fact, he has multiple learning disabilities. Processing information, whether it’s reading or listening to someone speak, takes longer for him than it takes the average person, a lot longer. He struggled his whole life to keep up in school, but he kept that fact hidden while he was in his PhD program. He didn’t want anyone to know because of the whole impostor syndrome thing. He thought, and let’s be real, a lot of people think that a scientist with a learning disability was an oxymoron.
Alexis Pedrick: After Collin failed his oral exam, he had one more chance to take it two months later. He knew he couldn’t walk in and do things the same way if he wanted to pass this time, because, remember, processing information he reads or hears is tough. Oral exams were not made with people like Collin in mind. So, he needed some accommodations. And to get those meant he had to come out as having a learning disability. And that wasn’t easy. People questioned if he had what it took to be a scientist, if he belonged there in the first place. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. And this is Distillations.
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter one: A culture of low expectations.
Alexis Pedrick: Have you heard of the STEM pipeline? It goes something like this: Children get identified early on as either good at math and science or not. And that sets them on a path. Spun positively, you put students in at one end and get scientists out at the other. But by what standards are these students measured in the first place? And who’s getting into the pipeline? And why? Is it students who figure out math problems quickly? Students who do well on tests? And who’s getting left out?
Jessica Martucci: Who are we kind of shutting out from the process of going into STEM from, you know, the age of nine basically by, by having these ideas of what it takes to be a scientist that are so limiting?
Lisa Berry Drago: Jessica Martucci is our former colleague at the Science History Institute, where she ran the Science and Disability project. The project is an effort to document the lives and contributions of people with disabilities who work in the sciences. She says that students who have learning differences can get pushed out of STEM long before they’ve even had a chance to get the diagnosis, help, strategies, skills and confidence they need to become successful in reading, math and science.
Alexis Pedrick: Another problem with the pipeline is that students who lack resources or go to underfunded schools might not have access to the high-level math and science classes in elementary or high school, and then it becomes very difficult for them to catch up. Jessica Martucci has spent a lot of time thinking about the so-called STEM pipeline, and why people like Collin don’t usually make it into scientific fields, and why they often try to hide their learning disabilities when they do.
Jessica Martucci: You know, people like Collin, I think, force us to think about those things differently. And, um, I think it opens up all sorts of ways of thinking about how is the process of achievement and success in STEM stacked against people who get stamped like that.
Rigoberto Hernandez: It’s like a scarlet letter.
Jessica Martucci: Right. And it’s very subtle. So it’s not like there’s infrastructure blocking people like Collin from succeeding necessarily. It’s this like culture of low expectations kind of like, “Well, your strengths really don’t lie in this area. Like, why don’t you go over to, like, something in the humanities,” um, which I love the humanities, [laughs] but if you are interested in science, um, I think there’s this con- conception that you need to have, like, a genius IQ, and be like, very good at test t- taking and learn quickly. And in fact, it seems like when you think about it, it’s learning quickly and reading fast and testing well are those really the skills that it takes to create new knowledge. And I think if you talk to people like Collin that you learned very quickly that, that is not true.
Alexis Pedrick: When Collin was younger, he was one of those kids who was placed in a low expectation basket.
Collin Diedrich: I do remember reading and learning always seem so much easier for everyone around me. I always had a hard time even just like paying attention in class, and learning was always something that, uh, I struggled with. And my parents knew it, and the teachers that I had always knew it.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin comes from an upper middle-class family. His parents were and still are extremely supportive. If he’d had different parents, or any less privilege, it’s unlikely he ever would have become a scientist because he needed all of those resources to make it.
Alexis Pedrick: Collin’s parents began to understand he had unique learning needs when he was in first grade, and they quickly got him a tutor. And he saw that tutor multiple times a week from first grade until he graduated high school. In third grade, they found out he had a learning disability.
Collin Diedrich: A counselor actually pulled my mom aside and said, “I believe Collin has a learning disability. And I think that he needs to get officially tested.”
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin’s mother went to great lengths to get him all the help he needed.
Collin Diedrich: So my mom, she helped choose my teachers from elementary school, middle school and, uh, almost, up, up to high school. So in elementary school, she started sitting in on classes for the, the year above me at the very end of the year and trying to, yeah, [laughs] you know, right? This is, um, so I’m always very, very involved.
Alexis Pedrick: His mother was trying to pick the teachers that were strict because although it wasn’t diagnosed at the time, Collin also had ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and he needed teachers that would literally keep him in his seat. So, let’s just pause and take stock here. First, there’s the awareness that there’s even a problem at a young age. Then, there’s the parents with the extra money to spend on a tutor. And finally, a mother with the extra time to sit in on elementary school classes that her child isn’t even in. And just to be clear, Collin’s parents weren’t doing all of this to make sure their child became a successful scientist. No, they just wanted him to get by.
Collin Diedrich: When I was in elementary school, they were worried that, like, they’re like, “Okay, well, how’s Collin actually gonna get through high school?” And when I was in high school, they were like, “How’s Collin gonna actually get through college?” If I told my parents that I was really interested in being a scientist, you know, um, in elementary school, I’m not, you know, I’m not sure what they would have said. I’m sure they would have been, um, supportive, but like b- behind the scenes, they, they might, might have questioned whether I could have done it or not, not out of like being malicious or anything, but just being like, is this a realistic, um, choice.
Lisa Berry Drago: When Collin was young, no one explicitly discouraged him from pursuing science, but no one ever told him he was great at science either. It never even came up as a possible career choice. Still, Collin’s parents supported him emotionally and materially, so that becoming a scientist still remained a possibility for him. They kept that STEM pipeline path open. Even though it would be a very challenging path, it was still an option. So maybe you’re wondering if learning was so hard for him, how did Collin do it, and what was his motivation.
Collin Diedrich: One of the things that I think is unique is the fact that I love to learn, and I’ve always loved to learn. And, um, because of that, I was able to sit down and study for hours and hours, you know, to the point where I was studying for hours and hours when I was in elementary school, you know, where, um, I remember my mom once went to my teacher and said, “Collin’s studying for this… your, your history class for a few hours every day and for this, you know, his science class for a few hours.” And, and the teachers were like, “Wait, what? That’s… I’m not giving that much work,” [laughs] you know? But I was just like, obsessed with learning and, and, and wanting to get good grades and terrified of people, uh, thinking that I wasn’t smart.
Alexis Pedrick: His attitudes and approach to school stayed the same all the way up until college. Even the way he talks about it now is the same.
Collin Diedrich: When I was in college, you know, I was obsessed with learning, and I was obsessed with people not thinking I was stupid, honestly.
Lisa Berry Drago: When Collins started college, he wanted to be a physical therapist, but he took a biology class his freshman year that changed everything for him. He realized he really loved science, and he wanted to pursue it. But he knew he’d have to work extremely hard just to get by.
Collin Diedrich: I was the person that would sit in the front of the class with a digital recorder, and I had my printout of the PowerPoints, and I would print four PowerPoints per page. And on the right, right side of the page, or w- um, I would, uh, write down, like, little notes during the cla- during class. But then after class, what I would do, I would go, like, straight to the library or my dorm room, and then I would fill the other side up with all the notes, um, uh, that were more detailed, tha- that were from the actual recording, then I would go back to my dorm room, and I would highlight those notes. Oh, and another thing that I did there was, um, I actually annotated all the slide numbers with, with the time of the recording, so I actually was able to, like, quickly go back and, and see what, um, uh, where the professor was actually talking about each of the slides. So that was something that was really critical for me. But I would go back to my dorm room, and I would, um, uh, highlight all those notes, then I would type those notes up, then I would go back. If I didn’t read the chapter beforehand, I, um, would, would read it, then highlight it, then type up those notes, then I would combine the, the notes from class with the notes from, um, my, uh, from the chapter, then I would type, type or I, I would print those notes up, then I would highlight those notes, and then I started making flashcards of all of those notes. And so I was spending hours and hours and hours every day studying for all of my classes. I would do it whether there was a test or not.
Alexis Pedrick: There’s this idea we have about science, more so than other fields, that you have to be super smart to make it. And because you’re so super smart, it must also come easily to you, so easy that you shouldn’t have to work very hard. You just inhale and exhale equations and correct answers.
Lisa Berry Drago: And if you do work hard, if you have to work hard like Collin did, then you must not really belong there. You must not have what it takes. It must not come naturally. This idea that things must come naturally or be effortless is a form of gatekeeping because then we can say if it isn’t easy, then the reason you’re struggling is that you’re just not cut out for it. The problem is you, not the system. But in reality, the system is too narrow.
Alexis Pedrick: I used to dance classical ballet, and I would work like a maniac, building up my muscles and my strength. It was grueling. And all that work was so that when I was dancing on stage, it looked effortless. This is what we expect from scientists. Here’s another way to put it, we’re taught in math class to show our work, but in the real world, we actually don’t want to see the work.
Lisa Berry Drago: The reality of science is that it actually is a lot of grunt work. It’s a lot of failed experiments and disproven hypotheses, which in the best cases lead to proven hypotheses. There isn’t actually any effortless science. But like all that grueling ballet work going on behind the scenes, we try to keep it secret. So, that’s why Collin kept up his study system so he could squeeze into the mold laid out before him. And as incredibly time consuming as it was, it worked for him all throughout college and even graduate school, right up until he failed his oral exam, and then he had to come out.
Alexis Pedrick: Chapter two: The last frontier of inclusion.
Lisa Berry Drago: Modern scientific institutions have excluded lots of different people from the very beginning. A lot of them were built on exclusion. Jessica Martucci tells us that since the 20th century, there has been a movement towards greater inclusion, at least for some.
Jessica Martucci: Many, many women scientists and scientists who are from racial minorities and even to a certain extent, maybe class, but disability seems like it’s kind of this last sort of frontier in a lot of ways in terms of, like, becoming a truly, welcoming and diverse institution.
Alexis Pedrick: And there’s an extra layer of stigma around disabilities that impact the mind or one’s ability to learn.
Jessica Martucci: It’s sort of the, the black sheep in, um, talking about disability in high-performance fields like STEM, right, because the narrative in STEM is that, okay, well you know, you can be a Stephen Hawking or, you know, it doesn’t matter, like the body doesn’t matter as much. So, if you have a physical disability but your mind still operates in this, like, assumed norm, um, then there’s a space for you. Um, whereas with things like learning disabilities, there’s this just stigma.
Lisa Berry Drago: Ashley Taylor is a disability studies scholar at Colgate University. She says this “black sheep” designation goes far beyond science or academia.
Ashley Taylor: Folks in disability studies have called this the hierarchy of disability. So, basically, the idea that, like, sort of at the top is physical disability in the sense that a lot of the emphasis, uh, in legal and, um, social kinds of, uh, um, work, right, around disability has been focused on physical. So, like, looking… So, understanding the person in a wheelchair is sort of like the paradigm example that you hear, like that’s the kind of posi- that’s a person that’s put forward. Um, and that’s been the case, historically, um, and also continues to be so. On the other hand, further down at the bottom, right, is thinking about folks with intellectual or cognitive disabilities.
Alexis Pedrick: Ashley Taylor studies how society makes sense of intellectual disability and how we stamp people as either able-minded or not, and how we make assumptions about what knowledge people can contribute to the world based on those labels.
Lisa Berry Drago: It’s important to note that intellectual disability is a term that has a specific meaning different from the term learning disability. Learning disability is typically defined by how someone learns, thinks, and processes information. You can look at someone for learning disability and see them as impaired or just different.
Ashley Taylor: Intellectual disability, on the other hand, is defined by, um, it’s been defined by IQ, right? So, it’s very heavily related to IQ and to something called adaptive behavior, which has to do with the way that, um, a person, kind of, uh, they’re kind of functioning, right? So, like, the way that they’re able to move about their daily life, um, take care of themselves, uh, to make sense of social situations and social cues, things like that. But that’s very heavily normed, right? So, that depends a lot on social norms, what you think of as adaptive behavior.
Alexis Pedrick: Learning disability is often seen as the opposite of smartness. Collin studied his butt off to prove he wasn’t dumb because he knew that was the assumption. Ashley says that people with intellectual disabilities are also not seen as smart, but this tends not to get questioned.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin’s learning disability is invisible, but once he revealed it, people made assumptions about his intelligence, about his ability to be a scientist.
Collin Diedrich: And so, um, after I failed the first time, um, I met with the Disability Resource Officer. And, uh, when I started talking to her, she ended up telling me, she was like, “Oh, well, you know there’s a lot of reading in science. Um, are you sure you wanna do this? You know, you could go into business school?” And I was like, “Err,” you know, it’s like when you’re ahead you’re like, “Wha- what? Excuse me.” And so, it was a horrible comment to make, but in her defense, um, after I said, “No, I know how much reading there is in, in science, um, I still wanna do this.” And she, she said, “Okay, let’s work on what you need to do in order to, um, do better on this exam.” And so the first thing she told me was, she was like, “One, you need to get accommodations for this test.” So I was already registered at Pitt, and I was getting accommodations for my schoolwork tests, but I was too embarrassed to tell the PIs that I needed accommodations and that I had learning disabilities because I was too worried about the stigma associated with it.
Alexis Pedrick: Jessica Martucci says that in terms of stigma, being a graduate student made matters even worse.
Jessica Martucci: Graduate students don’t have a lot of power. You know, it’s a, it’s an, it’s a precarious position to be in. It’s very competitive. And then to admit that you have some sort of learning disability in that environment, you know, for him was, was scary. Um, what if his mentors didn’t want to work with him anymore? What if he got treated differently? Um, what if the expectations of him were lowered?
Lisa Berry Drago: Rather than opening up about his learning disabilities, Collin just tried to use the same techniques he’d always used to get by. The note taking, the highlighting, the flashcards.
Jessica Martucci: And it paid off in that he was getting really excellent grades. And he now has a PhD, but he was sort of taking on all of that burden individually, basically. Um, there was no sort of… There’s no real accommodation, or a bit… or like even a, a sense that there could be, or that there should be really an a- accommodation for someone, who has a learning disability because the idea and… again is, you know, it’s about being able to perform in this very rigid narrow, sort of, way, um, to demonstrate that you have the kind of elite in- intelligence that is supposedly demanded to, to work in scientific fields.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin took his oral exam again and passed. After the Disability Resource Officer understood that he would not be switching to business school, she helped him figure out how to make the test work for him.
Remember that painful story at the beginning of this episode when Collin described rambling and answering questions his PIs didn’t ask, it all came back to the way he processes information slowly. He needed more time to process the questions he was hearing.
Collin Diedrich: And she said, “Okay, well, Collin, this is what you should do.” She said, “Have a piece of paper in front of you. And when they ask you a question, you say, ‘Okay.’ You take a deep breath, you jot down a few notes that can help you, um, outline the answer to your question, and then you answer the question.” And so, what she was essentially helping me see is that I didn’t have to answer questions immediately. I didn’t have to fill all the, the blanks, uh, all of the, the, the dead air with me talking, which is something that I, that I was doing a lot of at the time. And she’s like, “You know, just let everyone know and, and let all your professors know, ‘I have a processing issue. Um, I know my stuff, but I’m gonna take an extra second to answer your questions.’” And so then, um, so that I think was some of the best advice that I got accommodation-wise for the test because that, that, that took a lot of pressure off me from like f- feeling like I needed to answer questions quickly because a lot of times, we think that if you answer a question fast, then you’re more correct than someone who takes m- longer to answer a question.
Alexis Pedrick: Coming out with a learning disability wasn’t earth shattering for Collin, at least, not in a bad way. For the most part, his colleagues and professors were very understanding, and they continue to be understanding today. The whole experience of coming out even inspired him to write a blog post called I’m a Scientist With Learning Disabilities and That’s Okay.
Lisa Berry Drago: But we should pause for a second before we all get too excited about how Collin transcended his situation and defied all the odds. Yes, he made it. He’s now a scientist. And he’s contributing new knowledge to the world, knowledge that we’ll all be better off having. But did it have to be so hard for him? The obvious answer we’re looking for is no, no, it did not have to be this hard for him.
Jessica Martucci: So much about what is an obstacle in disability is the world around the person and not the person themselves. And so, by kind of glorifying these narratives of personal triumph, you’re kind of erasing the fact that society plays a really important role in, in this, and like this distract from the real sort of social and environmental and political reasons that people who have disabilities are facing these struggles to begin with.
Alexis Pedrick: And Collin might have made it, but his struggles are not over. He will always struggle with the feeling that he’s an outsider getting by in a system that wasn’t designed with him in mind.
Collin Diedrich: One of the things that’s really tricky about impostor syndrome is that even after you passed, that even after I passed that test, you know, I feel good for a little bit, but it’s always like, “Well, what have you done for me lately” is what is, like, my mentality, right? And it’s like, “Oh, just because you got past this, that doesn’t mean that you actually deserve to be here.” And so even like jumping forward, um, you know, I still question myself, and I still have these, um, uh, these really difficult, uh, like, uh, inner monologues with myself, like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” Like if I’m designing a new experiment, it’s like, “Oh, well, this isn’t gonna work. I’m not good enough.”
Lisa Berry Drago: There is one upside, I guess, you could call it to being a scientist with impostor syndrome. Having the ability to question oneself and one’s work is critical. And as we’ve learned, Collin’s really good at questioning himself. When he first got to grad school, he was so intimidated by his peers who were so confident, who seemed like they always knew the answers.
Collin Diedrich: And then I realized that like a lot of, of those students, if you’ve never failed, or if you’ve done everything right, you know, and like gotten always really good grades, there were a lot of people that had a really hard time dealing with the failure that’s just associated with science because they can come up with a good hypothesis and, and, and do, you know, do an experiment and do everything right, but the hypothesis just happens to be wrong. And so, one of the things that actually really helped me out was I have always questioned myself, [laughs] you know? And so the… O- one of the, of the few benefits of, of having these learning disabilities and having, um, impostor syndrome is that like, I would say, you know, uh, you know, like when I… when something wouldn’t work, it’s like, “Oh, wow, well, I have failed 1,000 times before this. I’ll probably figure out a way to, to get past it,” you know? And so I think that, that’s something that’s really important in science as well.
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter three: Fighting the problem with the STEM pipeline.
Alexis Pedrick: We said earlier that things shouldn’t be this hard for all the Collins out there. Not to mention all the aspiring scientists who have learning disabilities, but don’t have all of Collin’s resources. But what would need to change for it to be different? Here are some proposed solutions. Solution number one, redefine intelligence.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin thinks the first thing we need to do is question who we think of as smart.
Collin Diedrich: Because the people that we listen to are the people that we think are intelligent. And so a lot of times, if you think of… And just as, as an exercise, if you think of i- just in your head, who are the smartest people that you know. And then, what do they do? And more times than not, that the smartest people you know are the people that read a lot of books. They’re able to, um, answer questions quickly. They, uh, know a lot of, of, of random, um, uh, information where they don’t have to answer or they don’t have to Google every little thing. And, um, they’re probably pretty good at reading as well.
And, so we have these limited constructs of what we actually consider, um, intelligence. So then, we actually apply that with, “Okay, so who… So based on who’s intelligent, those are the people that we need to listen to.” We shouldn’t constrain ourselves to, uh, traditional intelligence. The people that I think are the best scientists are the ones that will be able to present their information, and they can say, “Hey, I might be wrong.” And the people that actually say, that can say, “Look, you know, if you come up with a study that demonstrates that what I’m doing is wrong, then I will look at that with, um, w- with, uh, the least bias that I possibly can.”
Lisa Berry Drago: Solution number two, redesign school.
Jessica Martucci: For a lot of kids with learning disabilities, what’s really difficult for them in school is not learning. It’s the way that learning is done, right? I mean, you’ve probably heard this before. So it’s like if we could change the way that we deliver instruction, if we could change the, the way that schooling is done, it would be more conducive to students with learning disabilities.
Alexis Pedrick: Remember how Collin studied in college, the notes and the highlighting, and the digital recording and the flashcards? Well, he has some ideas for how college could be more accessible to people like him. For one, professors should present information more clearly and concisely. And he thinks all classes should be filmed, so students can watch those videos to help fill in the gaps and their notes.
Collin Diedrich: The thing that I think is incredibly important with teaching people with learning disabilities is, if you present information in a more concise way, if you make it more accessible to, to those people to people like me, that information will be more accessible and easily i- digestible for anyone. And so we need to think that, um, in like a universal design, um, uh, type of capacity, where it’s like, “Yeah, we’re gonna teach all of our lectures. We can have all of our lectures available, you know, on video, um, or recorded, so then all the, all the students that one of you view our videos, um, or like rehash a lecture, or if they’re ha- struggling with something, then they can have it, too. I think it’s just, I think it would make, it would make learning more accessible to everyone.
Lisa Berry Drago: Higher learning and school in general is designed in a way that punishes people who have difficulty processing information at a rapid rate. There is some help in that you could get an accommodation for your learning disability, but that in itself is a scary proposition with a fear of stigma attached, and it doesn’t necessarily change things enough for you. Ashley Taylor says that school is the way it is for a couple of reasons.
Ashley Taylor: It’s designed in these ways to kind of get rid of people like it’s gatekeeping. It’s sort of like designed, like, “Oh, you’re not, you’re not making the cut.” Um, I think that a lot of that is, is done because there’s a fear around if we change the way we do things and we’re no longer rigorous. Um, I think some of it is also done just because nobody’s thought about it, right? So, it’s based on an… on the expectation that the learner will… that the person going through the program will be, will be able minded in the, in the, you know, the, the particular ways that we sort of assume, or won’t have a learning disability.
Alexis Pedrick: Time restrictions are a frequently used gatekeeper, and think about time tests. Collin’s oral exam was two hours long. He probably could have used three. He failed the first time because he couldn’t process information quickly enough, and he got flustered.
Ashley Taylor: When we time people, we think that what we’re doing is ensuring that, like, n- not everyone can do it from all this, right? [laughs] But actually what we’re doing is kind of putting in an arbitrary measure that doesn’t really tell us about whether or not person is capable of doing X, Y, or Z, but actually more so that they’re, that they’re, that they’re, they’re capable of doing it in a particular way, which isn’t the same as being able to do it.
Alexis Pedrick: Solution number three, rethink the myth of the lone scientist.
Lisa Berry Drago: Collin is very clear that his privilege and support system got him to where he is today. His parents went above and beyond his entire life with material and emotional support, and he needed all of it to get through school. So, how does this make you feel about Collin’s success? Does it make you feel like he was cheating, like he didn’t do it all on his own and shouldn’t get the credit? Well, it shouldn’t. That’s right. I’m telling you how to feel again, but hear me out. That pretty picture of lone scientists making discoveries in their lab all by themselves, it’s not real. Science doesn’t work that way. Here’s Jessica Martucci again.
Jessica Martucci: We often like to think about, like, this lone genius or maybe two working together in this sort of Nobel Prize model of innovation and, and knowledge creation. And in fact, when you’re… when you talk to people, um, who are producing this knowledge today, it’s very clear that it’s a, it’s a group effort. Um, and I… So I think that’s one of the other interesting things that is kind of come out of doing this work is it really brings into focus the fact that science is a, a, a network, um, and not everyone in that network gets acknowledged or is even considered to be working in science, right?
I mean, everyone from the Disability Services Coordinator, to the people who are processing like financial aid in the [laughs] university are like important parts of making sure that science is getting produced. So, I think, you know, Collin’s story, other people’s stories kind of highlight that and make it, make it much more obvious that those people are there, and that they’re an integral part of our s- our scientific process.
Lisa Berry Drago: This episode is all about that question of belonging. What is intelligence? Who gets to be a scientist? Who gets invited into the STEM pipeline and who gets kicked out? And it’s about a bigger, deeper question. What’s the problem with doing things in a different way? Why are we afraid of people who think differently, look at the world differently, process information differently? What are we so worried about?
Jessica Martucci: So, I think w- what this idea of, um, intelligence tied up with value does is it kind of justifies inequality in a lot of ways because we believe that the people who are successful and at the top are the ones who deserve it the most, and, um, the people who aren’t are also there because they deserve it, and that it’s a reflection of their true sort of ability and contribution and worth. And it’s really not, right? It’s tied up in questions of these invisible supports that people have or don’t have. It’s tied up in is the way that your… Is the precise way that your brain works and how you learn match up with the systems of education and evaluation that we’ve designed? I mean these are all things that get r- that get sort of erased when we talk about the people that taught being there because they deserve it. And I think when you talk to scientists who have disabilities, those invisible systems become more visible.
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
Alexis Pedrick: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa Berry Drago: You can find our video, stories, and every single podcast episode at Distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
Alexis Pedrick: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for news and updates about the podcasts and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.
Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Alexis Pedrick: And it was mixed by James Morrison. Special thanks to our former colleague, Jessica Martucci for leading the Science and Disability project at the Science History Institute, and for giving us indispensable guidance as we shaped these episodes.
Lisa Berry Drago: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at science history.org/givenow.
Alexis Pedrick: For distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening.