Disabled&STEM, Lab Life

Disabled&STEM: lab life adjustments

I’ve been getting a lot more attention on Instagram recently, especially with a video of me using a multichannel pipette for some gene expression analysis. The qPCR assay is incredibly sensitive to basically everything, including the DNA destroying enzymes present all over our fingers, hands, and bodies. A few people have asked me why I am not wearing gloves in the video, given it is such a sensitive assay.

The reality of being a disabled scientist is that I cannot always follow conventional lab practice in some instances. I can’t always wear a lab coat, or gloves, or perform shared lab duties, or wash my glassware on time, or use reusable tubes, or lift and change my biohazard waste bin, or be expected to be in for 10 hours a day all week. One of the hardest parts of me adapting to research life was becoming comfortable with my limitations.

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an example of the disposable plastic falcon tube I use to grow my bacterial cultures in, instead of reuseable glass ones.

What’s up with the gloves thing?

In addition to my genetic connective tissue disorder, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hypermobility type), which I’ve given a brief overview of here, I also have a form of dysautonomia, called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia syndrome (POTs). The two are very commonly experienced together.

The autonomic nervous system controls all the stuff in your body you don’t ever need to think about; breathing, heart rate, digestion, heat regulation, blood pressure, dilation & constriction of blood vessels. Mine, for whatever reason, is failing (dys = not working, autonomia = autonomic nervous system)

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Pretty in pink: can you tell what my favourite colour for lab equipment is?

POTS is characterised by an inability to regulate heart rate when you go from sitting/lying down to standing, but has plenty of other symptoms too. When I stand up, my heart rate spikes to 150bpm and my blood pressure drops. This makes me pass out/nearly pass out/appear drunk/slur my speech/forget what I was saying/any combination of the above. This also happens with increases in heat. My body can’t regulate temperature properly, so it gets confused, and makes me pass out instead of actually cooling me down. I am on a very specific (& expensive) beta blocker called nebivolol. It’s specific for my heart tissue, not my lungs, as I’m also severely asthmatic and don’t need my lungs to be anymore slowed down than they already are.

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Unfortunately for me, human bodies are really efficient at losing heat through our feet, heads, and hands. When I wear gloves in a warm environment (like our nice climate controlled lab), I invariably end up feeling incredibly dizzy, sick, and confused. This is because my body forgets how to cool myself back down once it falsely perceives itself as overheating. (This also means as soon as it’s 10Β°C or below outside, I have to wear the thickest gloves, too).

What about really dangerous protocols? Or RNA sensitive work where your hands might destroy your samples?

There are multitudes of reasons I am studying plants; the relatively low biohazard rate is one of them. I don’t need to work with cell culture, nasty viruses, horrible bacteria, biohazardous materials, or generally other Very Cool but ultimately Very Nasty material that requires a lot of personal protective equipment. Of course I wear gloves for dangerous work, I don’t have a death wish! This does mean I change my gloves every 5 minutes, rest, breathe, and air out my hands to encourage my body to regulate. I’d definitely be a terrible surgeon.

So? Why am I not wearing gloves?

Because I really don’t feel like fainting/damaging equipment/having to fill out safety forms/annoying the building manager/ getting occupational health involved/ making everyone else worry.

But what about your sensitive assays? How does your disability impact those?

Luckily for me, I have a very supportive lab environment. If I really have to do a qPCR or other sensitive DNA/RNA work, I decontaminate my workspace with DNA or RNA away (both commercially available from Thermo-Fischer). I then drench my hands/arms/exposed body parts in 100% ethanol, which gets rid of most nasty things which might perturb the experiment’s function. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than potentially causing myself/lab mates/machines serious harm.

What unconventional lab practice do you follow? Do you do things in your own particular way compared to what you were shown?

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