Hello everyone and welcome to the latest “Meet the scientist”!
In this series I wanted to show you the range of research being undertaken by PhD students across the country- and shine a light on the secret world of the PhD student. The scientists showcased in this series are all amazing scientists and role models, and will be sharing their stories about life as a Scientist- I hope they interest and inspire you!
So, without futher ado, I would like to introduce my next Scientist: Emily May Armstrong.
Emily is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, and is an avid Science communicator and disability advocate. I am very excited to be able to share some of her science story with all of you, so lets get started.
Lets start with the basics- what are you currently studying, and why did you choose to do research in this area?
Emily: I’m currently studying in the Institute of Molecular, Cell, and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow, in the Plant Science Research Group. I also work collaboratively with Miriam Gifford at the University of Warwick. My research aims to bring causality to tissue-specific gene expression in plant roots, whilst simultaneously investigating tissue-specific transcriptional landscapes in response to salt stress. I think roots are really underappreciated, I study their architecture, and the decision making processes they use to grow properly under stress conditions.
I chose to go into plant sciences because everyone relies on plants for food, shelter, their day-to-day lives. As climate change reduces our fresh water supplies, farmers are turning to increasingly salty water to keep their crops growing. Plants aren’t adapted to high levels of salt, and this stress causes 8% of crop losses world-wide. I work in model species Arabidopsis thaliana, and am really focussing on the basic and fundamental knowledge which will underpin future endeavours in improving salinity tolerance.
You are a massive advocate for PhDs with disabilities and those in STEM, and are very open about your own disabilities. Could you share a bit more information about your disability- and some of the adjustments you need to make in your lab?
Emily: I didn’t actually start out to become a plant scientist. I was driven to genetics as a means to answer my own questions about my body, and once I was satisfied I had the answers, I turned to trying to understand plants instead. I live with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hypermobility type -EDSh), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), and some more run-of-the-mill stuff like asthma.
EDSh is an autosomal dominant disorder, and causes defects to collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, and is the molecular glue holding our bodies together, and is especially important for holding joints and forming our gastrointestinal tract. I first became symptomatic around 11, when I partially dislocated my ankle. Today, I have anywhere up to ~10 partial dislocations a day, and 1 full dislocation a week. I can dislocate nearly every bone in my body, my least favourite are my jaw and top vertebrae, the other common locations (knees, hips, elbows, ribs, fingers, shoulders) are a little more manageable.
I graduated my BSc (Hons) in Genetics with three dislocated ribs, and wrote my MSc (Res) thesis not knowing if I’d walk again. POTS is a failure of the autonomic nervous system, meaning my GI tract doesn’t always work, my heart rate and blood pressure can’t regulate themselves well, I get faint and lose speech ability, and have rubbish heat regulation. MCAS is a funny one, and explains my seemingly unexplainable allergies to cinnamon and aerosols (both cause localised rashes and GI issues.)
I have a few very important adjustments in the lab which make my PhD much more manageable. I have an ergonomic mouse and keyboard which prevent finger dislocations, and a very mobile PC monitor which I can adjust to my eyeline from any position (preventing neck strain & eventual dislocation). I have the fanciest full back support office chair (there’s levers I still don’t know the use for), and special lab chairs (which are a bit useless but I’m humouring my funders by having them).
Most importantly, I have a beautiful set of Eppendorf pipettes which I get fully serviced regularly. Using old and tough pipettes dislocates my fingers and wrists, and make me fatigue faster. Using shiny new ones reduces this fatigue and means my molecular biology is on point 24/7.
Disabilities and mental health aren’t really talked about in the world of academia. What would you like to see change?
Emily: Academia is a do-or-die environment. This, combined with an ‘old-boys-network’, has created an academic leadership devoid of disability, neurodivergence, people of colour, people from working-class backgrounds. women, trans* and non-binary people. It’s never talked about because there was virtually nobody at the top with these lived experiences. This is changing, arguably not fast enough. Once we can get a truly intersectional leadership, then true representation will continue. This has to happen from the bottom up, we need to take any available opportunity, criticise this exclusive system, and rebuild it to make it our own.
This is of course emotionally and physically exhausting, but something has to change and it’s not going to change itself. The more intersectional people we get at the top, the more intersectional the rest of academia will slowly become. The Disability and Equality Act of 2010 is doing some things to help us out, but as Personal Independence Payments and Employment Support Allowance are being slashed by the UK Government, soon many disabled students and early career researchers won’t be able to access more permanent research positions due to this financial destabilisation.
Can you offer any advice to those who may be putting off applying to a PhD due to health issues?
Emily: The first, and hardest thing to do, is disclose your needs. You need to provide people with practical solutions as to how they can best help you. Abled people are de facto petrified of harming or making a disabled persons’ situation worse, so useful solutions soften the disclosure. An example I used was, “heavy lifting fatigues me instantly, and can make me dislocate. I need a trolley I can push XYZ around on to be safe”. If you aren’t au fait with a lab environment, you and your potential supervisor should be able to collectively identify where things might be a problem, and can slowly build a ‘survival-plan’ for you. They might be able to bring in an emergency ‘dry-lab’ project for you to do when you can’t get into the lab (my bioinformatics and RNA-sequencing data analyses has been a lifesaver for when I can’t get out of my house).
For mental health issues, it can be as simple as reassuring your anxiety about a protocol by confirming your actions with a lab-mate, or, for more serious incidents, taking two weeks of medical leave to get yourself back in shape. The most important thing to do is disclose.
Make yourself aware of what support your school or University offers: the student’s union or advisory body should be able to signpost you to the best department for your needs. These include, but aren’t limited to: Disabled Student’s Services, Counselling & Psychological Services, The Student’s Union themselves, your Disabled Student’s Representative, the Equality & Diversity Group. Once you’ve made contact with these services, they’ll be able to point you in the right direction and help organise logistics. Most research institutions should have a ‘disability champion’ or someone who takes point on assisting disabled students/staff specific to lab environments.
- Disclose: transparency is key
- Practical solutions, work with those around you
- Connect: know your services and how to access them
- Reach out: there are loads of cool disabled academics on Twitter
- Your research, your pace: you’re in control! Take as little or as long as you need
- Evidence: keep track of your health record, get letters from medical professionals outlining changing circumstances as often as you can
Breathe: it can be overwhelming, but you got this.
What are the most valuable lessons you have learnt so far?
Emily: Pace yourself. It’s not a sprint, sometimes it’s not even a marathon. Knowing how and when to best take breaks is key.
Growing plants in hydroponics is like trying to keep a class of 300 five year olds alive with a single apple
When you aren’t busy in the lab, what do you like to do?
Emily: Too. Many. Things. Right now I’m working with 35mm film photography, and have my second exhibition in Glasgow in February. I play acoustic guitar, am an avid vegan cook, and have 30 different houseplants. My new years resolution was to read at least one book a month, I’ve just finished Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and am moving onto Inferior by Angela Saini. I get stuck in with a lot of political stuff too; refugee/migrant detention support, preventing illegal fox hunting, helping out homeless folk, working with direct action groups against neo-fascism and racism. That’s actually where the name of my blog (The Radical Botanical) came from.
Emily: Science is funded (mostly) by tax payers. We owe it to them to explain what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it, in an open and accessible way. It builds bridges, opens doors, in the research community and outside into the non-academic world.
It helps me to connect with fellow scientists who I’d otherwise not know about, and fosters that beautiful academic collaboration we all know. Research can be very isolating at times, so sharing the ups-downs-inbetweens with other people who get it is a massive support. It can seem daunting at first, navigating different channels and building new connections; but the time investment pays off when you’ve got over a hundred people excited about your new root system phenotype.
And finally, what is the one thing you would like people to know about Plant Science?
Emily: Plants are the very reason you’re alive. We’re working to make sure it can stay that way forever.
A massive thankyou to Emily for talking to me about her science story, and being so open about her experiences as a scientist with a disability. Make sure you check her out on her Instagram, Twitter, and Website.
I am always looking to share stories about new Scientists, if you would like to be a featured scientist please drop me a line 🙂