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A Letter from the Editor: Tapping Creativity in Underrepresented Groups

Objectivity, precision, curiosity – these qualities are necessary to be a successful scientist and are held in high esteem. In recent years, the scientific community has embraced a new core value: creativity. Students with disabilities, often under-recognized, surmount unique hurdles, even in their daily routines, giving them exercise in creative problem-solving. When going Back to School, the task of accessibility often lies on the student. To be successful, they must think out of the box – whether this is making a conference call accessible for someone who is hard of hearing or redesigning text as a person with dyslexia, scientists with disabilities often create clever ways to complete tasks that are taken for granted. These challenges foster innovative mindsets, giving a different perspective on scientific problem-solving.

People with disabilities, especially those in scientific training, often don’t have the skills or support to advocate for accessibility – sometimes they are unaware of the services which could be provided to them to enable their success. For this reason, networking and mentorship are critical for this underrepresented group. The National Research Mentoring Network can help connect us nationwide, allowing us to share and develop solutions for accessibility as a collective.

As a biomedical scientist with progressive hearing loss, my access needs are constantly evolving – new solutions always in the works, as I face challenges that weren’t present last year or the year before. Yet, these challenges are what, unexpectedly, enabled me to find my scientific niche – studying hearing loss. The cochlea – containing only 15,500 sensory cells, encased in the hardest bone in the body (the temporal bone) – is an organ with a different accessibility issue. To gain access to this organ, and this field, a group of deaf scientists organically came together, forming HI-ARO, which was covered in last month’s issue. Their mentorship to each other, and within the group, has supported their success as scientists.

As a graduate student at Harvard Medical School, in the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology Program, I was fortunate to have a peer mentor who was also deaf – he was, and continues to be, a pivotal ally and colleague. Through him, I was able to speak about Cultural Competency to Audiology and Speech Language Pathology students to enable them to have more positive interactions with future patients. Mentorship is key. A recent article in The Atlantic noted that there are only fourteen Black Deaf Ph.D.s in America (“D,” denoting the use of American Sign Language and involvement in the Deaf community), and named mentorship as a defining force.

Scientists with disabilities have made great contributions. For some, their disability enabled their success. Geerat Vermeij’s blindness gave him a tactile perspective on paleontology; Alexander Graham Bell’s deaf mother and wife inspired him to invent the telephone; John Gardner, a blind physicist, left his field to develop tactile maps with auditory integration. What was thought of as disability, enabled their creativity.

With research, writing, and in life, creativity is an important value – for certain, it is one that I am bringing to NRMN, whose mission is both professionally and personally relevant for me. I’m grateful to be joining the team as your new Assistant Director of Communications and Outreach for NRMN, within the Diversity Program Consortium, and to be leading our monthly publication.  In the newsletter we will detail the accomplishments of NRMN scientists, the goings-on at our various core universities, and what to expect as we move forward with our mission – to promote the involvement of underrepresented groups in science, in great numbers, as we head Back to School. It means everything to give back to the communities which have given me so much.

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