Interview Series- Erin Leigh Anderson

Another week means another interview series out! Today we are featuring Erin Leigh Anderson! Erin is in here last year of her doctoral studies, so watch out for her on the job market soon! If you want to know more about what she does, visit her website and what I have done. She is also known to haunt Twitter to follow her favorite scientists and communities @eandersonbrock.

As always, we would love to have more interviews with those DisabledInSTEM. If you want to share your experience, please fill out this interest form.

Image description: Pictured above is Erin, wearing a print top with black and gray swirls. She is smiling at the camera. She has pink hair.

Where are you from? South Carolina, USA

What is your current career? I am in my last year or so of doctoral studies in graduate school studying neuroscience in the Drug Discovery & Biomedical Sciences program in the College of Pharmacy. 

What made you interested in your field initially? I worked in drug discovery in the cancer field for several years before deciding to come back to school and pursue my graduate degree. As I had spent so many years studying cancer, I wanted pick up new knowledge and lab techniques that would still be applicable to drug discovery. I was able to join a neuropharmacology lab that studied addiction. I plan on returning to R&D/drug discovery in pharma after I receive my PhD.

What was your educational journey like? Was it harder to navigate with a disability? My neurodevelopmental/learning disability was not formally diagnosed until college. I always felt like I struggled more and had to work so much harder (and slept far less) than my peers to keep up and work even harder to compete. My diagnosis gave me context for my struggles and helped me gain confidence that I could succeed. I was able to learn about how my brain processed information and find tools to help me overcome my weaknesses. 

What kind of support did you receive from your mentors? I was very nervous about the rigor and pacing of graduate school, but my advisor had a student with a similar disability in her own graduate cohort. She knew that while I had to have adjustments, learning neuroscience was not going to be an impossibility. She gave me support in adjusting to preferred reading and writing styles. 

How did you go about disclosing your disability? Did you receive support from a Disability Office on campus? I have always worked closely with my campuses Disability Offices. They may not have known my STEM field well, but they always were my advocates. They were my support system and my cheerleaders. I always introduced myself to my professors and identified that they would have received letters about my accommodations through the schools. I reiterated my specific needs and brought in the Disability Offices as needed. 

How did your disability impact your journey? Had it not been for the ADA and the accommodations I received, and the toolbox I gained, I do not believe I would have succeeded in college and likely would not have graduated. I learned that it may take a bit longer to process STEM classwork that I enjoyed, but once I mastered it, the information was mine. It was very empowering. I also realized that my drive to learn the information made me dig deeper and harder to learn new information. I did not excel at rote memorization but instead learned best when I had I understood the underlying concepts. Learning the core concepts provided me a better depth of knowledge has given me a great capacity to problem solve and find creative solutions to new problems. 

Have you ever faced any ableism or barriers due to your disability? How did you overcome them? I was told in undergraduate that I must be lying about having a learning disability or I would not be in college because I would be too stupid to be able to read. I was told I must be lying. I have even had professors accuse me of trying to get extra time to falsely gain an advantage, despite me providing multiple studies that showed the opposite data. I had professors that denied my right to accommodations until lawyers were involved and then I faced retaliatory behavior. In my graduate studies I have had pushback on recording lectures in case I was trying to “get something” on the professor. I have had my Ombudsman tell me basically “get over it” when I sought redress for problems. Over and over I have had to provide data on why my accommodations only levelled the field and did not give me an unfair advantage. I had to learn how to be my own advocate and stand my ground.

What has been one of your favorite moments within your field? I learned that I have a great proficiency with robotics. I have combined this with my ability to think creatively and troubleshoot to transfer bench-scale experiments into an industrialized scale for high throughput screening. My persistence and knowledge have allowed me to find creative solutions and increase productivity in my labs.

Are there any tools that help accommodate your disability? I find Open Dyslexic font and a good audio recorder are the two things I need over and over. I also rely on Zotero to help sort, catalog, and organize my research. I can add my own tagging, keywords, and notes to be able to search for references. Lastly, I take copious notes and document my ideas, tweaks, experimental techniques, and ideas for later reference. Having your own personal reference library is extremely helpful and saves you from having to reinvent the wheel when you go back to a previously researched topic.

Do you have any resources that you can recommend for others with a focus on disabilities in STEM? I recommend getting to know the staff at the Disability Office very well. They know the ins and outs of the school. I learned people in STEM like documentation, so I always had studies at hand to provide backing for my accommodations. Find people to study with. I find collaborative science is very powerful. I also took every opportunity to educate and advocate both for myself and those who would follow me. It can be exhausting but I try and think of it as paying it forward.

As far as my learning styles, I have learned that the font Open Dyslexia is very helpful for me. Text to Speech applications are important and I learned that things just took more time for me. In undergrad, I did not take the recommended 18-20 hours a semester but rather 12-14 hours as I needed extra time to synthesize my coursework. I also took extremely time-consuming classes in the summer where I could concentrate on just that class even though it meant an extra year for my degree. I asked for help and found tutors and organized study groups. I was even lucky enough to find study partners in STEM that had different learning styles but were complimentary to my own. 

What do you like to do for fun? I love books so audiobooks and reading are favorites and usually involve mysteries and urban fantasy.

Best advice that you can offer to the next generation? If someone tells you “you can’t”, try not to take it to heart. If it is what you want to do, set aside the negativity and go for it. I think in STEM it helps to have a stubborn streak. 

Thank you Erin for taking the time to share your experiences! We wish you the best of luck as you finish up your doctoral studies and move towards the job market! We can’t wait to see what accomplish!

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