Disability Pride Month – A look at disability inclusion in STEM 30 years after the ADA(Americans with Disabilities Act)

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By: Alyssa Paparella founder of @DisabledStem



As a disabled scientist, I struggled to navigate academia as I lacked a mentor with a disability.

I attempted to find others with disabilities in STEM, who could provide advice for navigating the path, but I could not find anyone. The most staggering statistic in my search to understand navigating STEM with a disability was that the 2009 National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Engineering Doctoral Recipients by Field and Disability Status data reported that 1.02% of STEM doctorates are earned by students with disabilities (https://sites.udel.edu/seli-ud/facts/).


As someone with the desire to attend graduate school, that statistic stood out to me as

it felt like those with a disability could not navigate graduate school.

Had acceptance of the disabled changed or was I setting myself up for an arduous task? Although over a decade ago, this 2009 statistic highlighted the lack of representation of those with disabilities in STEM. Using this statistic as motivation to see if STEM fields had changed to be more inclusive, I dove into more recent data published to understand how the disabled in STEM are treated, with specific attention to graduate school and long-term occupation.


July marks Disability Pride Month, which is celebrated among those with disabilities and their allies to help amplify disabled voices. The first Disability Pride Parade was held in Chicago on July 18, 2004, with more attendees than expected, indicating the desire for those with disabilities to create a sense of community and show their pride for their lived experience (https://mn.gov/mnddc/news/inclusion-daily/2004/07/072004iladvdispride.htm). July was chosen for Disability Pride Month as it was the month that the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which set forth legislation to prohibit discrimination for people with disabilities. As we approach the 30th anniversary of this legislation, it is important to reflect how ADA has impacted STEM to make the field more inclusive for the disabled.

According to the 2019 Census, there are 12.7% of 40.7 millions of Americans living with a disability


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Despite representing a significant portion of the overall population, the disabled are not equally represented within STEM fields. Where does this discrepancy take place along the way, pushing those with disabilities out of the field?

 The National Science Foundation releases reports on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in STEM and Engineering every few years to track the success of these groups. One interesting statistic that was reported in the 2019 report was regarding financial support during graduate school for those with disabilities. In terms of funding their doctoral career, 18.3% of those with disabilities had reported using funding from personal or family funds versus 13.6% of those without a disability (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data).

This is significant to note as a disabled person may have more annual expenses given the need for potential medical care involved with their diagnosis. In America, those with disabilities spend more on healthcare, sometimes as high five to six times more and have more out-of-pocket costs associated with their care (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5798675/). In terms of institutional funding, those with disabilities also report a higher percentage of using Teaching Assistantships for funding (20.2% for disabled versus 18.4% nondisabled), but lower percentage for Research assistantship, traineeship, or internship (33.9% for nondisabled and 31.0% for disabled) (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data). By relying on Teaching Assistantships, this often is a detraction from research and can be more taxing for someone with a disability. These statistics help illuminate how disabled students make ends meet during graduate school, but also potentially highlight the extra pressure placed on them. A doctoral degree is often a stepping stone into a career, which is why occupation of those with disabilities in STEM must also be considered.

Out of all minority groups, including ethnic groups, people with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate at 5% within science and engineering fields,

which is slightly higher than the total United States labor force of 4.4% (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/employment#unemployment-rate). Looking specifically at occupations within science and engineering-related and non-science and engineering, the disabled had a slightly lower median salary than their nondisabled colleagues (https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/digest/employment#unemployment-rate). Is it possible that the STEM fields are not inclusive to those with disabilities and do not value their contribution, ultimately pushing them out of STEM despite their educational background? Are employers not willing to accommodate those with disabilities, making it a difficult experience? This is a gap that should be further explored to truly understand if the STEM workforce is inclusive of those with disabilities.


We must make active steps to work on inclusion and retention of the disabled within STEM. To close this current gap, there must be actions taken to work towards active recruitment and encouragement of this population.

I have created an initiative, called DisabledInSTEM, that seeks to create a sense of community for those with disability and be a voice where there previously was none. The statistics show that the track record for people with disabilities in STEM has had a historically difficult path, but is improving. As part of my DisabledInSTEM initiative, I am interviewing those with disabilities in STEM to share their story and experiences. These interviews ultimately serve to generate more awareness for disabilities, inspire others who may be facing similar situations, and also used as a way to generate understanding to create better allies. Thirty years from the passage of ADA is significant, but the accessibility of STEM still presents an issue for the disabled. We must work together to increase accessibility and inclusivity in STEM for all, with the ultimate goal to create a better and more diverse scientific community.

Connect with Alyssa via 

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The website currently being revamped but where you can find forms to apply for a Mentor and to share your story as someone who is disabled in STEM. ada mentor application pic

Do you know someone who is experiencing life with a disability? 
Let July be a month to touch base with them and let them know you’re there to listen and help if at all possible. 

ada types of disability


S.T.R.E.S.S. – Glucocorticoid plasticity: do all individuals regulate glucocorticoids similarly?

Few habitats on Earth are entirely constant through time, and many organisms will experience changing conditions over their lifetime. Unfortunately for most organisms, one phenotype is rarely optimal under all conditions, and biologists have long been fascinated by how organisms respond to changes in their environment to optimize survival or reproduction. As the environment changes within an organism’s lifetime, so too do the optimal behavior, physiological state, and life-history investment that would result in maximum fitness. Luckily, many phenotypes show some degree of phenotypic plasticity—where one individual is able adjust their phenotype as the environment changes—which provides organisms with the opportunity to change their phenotype as environmental conditions change.


Glucocorticoids are a key vertebrate hormone thought to help animals track changing environmental conditions by coordinating modifications in multiple other phenotypes at once, including changes in behavior, physiology and life-history. Glucocorticoids circulate in the bloodstream at different concentrations and have diverse roles ranging from regulating daily metabolic demand to coping with sudden perturbations. Not surprisingly, this hormone circulates at concentrations that are highly plastic—where individual animals are perpetually adjusting the production of glucocorticoids according to their current environment.

To date, few studies have examined the degree to which different individuals from the same population facing the same environmental change might regulate glucocorticoids differently. If individuals do respond differently to the same environmental change, we can conclude that individual variation in glucocorticoid plasticity exists.

Why should we care about individual variation in glucocorticoid plasticity? Well, some of our research on glucocorticoids assumes that all individuals respond the same way to changing environments. For example, we often sample individuals from different populations found under different environmental conditions in an effort to learn about how glucocorticoids would change if the environment were modified (Study 1 in the figure below). This assumes that all individuals respond to changing conditions the same way. We can design our studies to test this assumption by exposing all individuals to multiple environmental conditions and analyzing our data in a reaction norm framework (i.e. on an individual basis, like in Study 2). The latter can reveal whether individual differences in glucocorticoid plasticity exist.

Several researchers have begun using reaction norms to understand whether individuals within a population differ in how they adjust glucocorticoids in response to changing conditions. Six studies have performed comparable analyses, and four of these find that individuals differ drastically from one another in their glucocorticoid plasticity. Individual house sparrows (Passer domesticus) differed significantly in their baseline glucocorticoid plasticity where some increased in baseline glucocorticoids under experimental food restriction relative to conditions where food was plentiful while others did not (Lendvai et al. 2014). Similarly, house sparrows typically show a decline in stress-induced glucocorticoids as they age, but the decline in stress-induced glucocorticoids with age is much more rapid in some individuals than others (Lendvai et al. 2015). Thus, not all house sparrows respond to food scarcity or to ageing the same way.

Similarly, two studies in mammals where glucocorticoid metabolites were repeatedly sampled from excrements (urine or feces) also found support that individuals differed significantly in their glucocorticoid plasticity in response to diel variation (Sonnweber et al. 2018) and conspecific density (Guindre-Parker et al. 2019). More specifically, some chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) showed strong diel variation in their urinary glucocorticoids while others did not (Sonnweber et al. 2018), and some North American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) adaptively increased their fecal glucocorticoids in response to increased population density whereas other individuals did not (Guindre-Parker et al. 2019).

In contrast, two reaction norm studies in fish measuring glucocorticoids secreted into the water found individuals did not vary in plasticity as animals were habituated to handling (Houslay et al. 2019) or experimentally exposed to variation in perceived predation risk (Fürtbauer et al. 2015).

It is difficult to conclude from these studies alone whether individual variation in glucocorticoid plasticity is common, and this is likely to differ across species, environmental changes, or methods for assessing glucocorticoids. Reaction norm approaches where individuals are exposed to different environments and re-sampled multiple times are needed to understand when and why individual variation in glucocorticoid plasticity exists.

Guest Blog Post submitted by Sarah Guindre-Parker, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia

S8- Long Limbless Locomotors: The Mechanics and Biology of Elongate, Limbless Vertebrate Locomotion

Elongated, limbless body plans are widespread in nature and frequently a result of convergent evolution. Despite the implausibility of their bodies,animals with no limbs and uniquely long bodies they are able to move effectively through a wide range of microhabitats, and have a particular advantage in cluttered or confined environments. Increasingly powerful tools from multiple disciplines and technologies (snakebots) have enabled more detailed examinations of limbless locomotor biomechanics, and improved phylogenies have shed light on the origins and evolution of living and moving without limbs. This collection of research is showcased in our upcoming issue which brings together prominent researchers on the topic from around the world, including biologists, physicists, and roboticists to offer new perspective on locomotor modes, musculoskeletal mechanisms, locomotor control, and the evolution and diversity of limbless locomotion.

“I’ve always been fascinated by snakes, and this fascination was a big driver for me to pursue an academic career.  Bringing together so many experts on the biomechanics of limbless movement and seeing how much enthusiasm this symposium generated has been an amazing experience, and I’m thankful to everyone who contributed and for the support from SICB, SEB, and COB.”- Session Chair, Dr. Henry Astley, University of Akron

Elongate body forms, such as those seen in snakes and eels, are widespread throughout the animal kingdom and are frequently examples of convergent evolution.  Bergmann et al. 2020 focused on their evolutionary dynamics and distribution on the vertebrate tree of life. In this symposium issue, they conduct a craniate-wide analysis of how many times elongate body forms have evolved, as well as rates of its evolution and reversion to a non-elongate form (Fig 1).

Bergmann et al
Fig 1 Family-level phylogeny of the Craniata showing the distribution and evolution of elongate body forms. (from Bergmann et al. 2020)

After comparing several species with elongate body forms to their quadrupedal relatives the results from Bergmann et al. 2020 support convergence in the number of trunk and caudal vertebrae, but not vertebral shape. They also find that the elongate species move with lower frequency and higher amplitude body undulations, meaning that they are relatively slower than their limbed counterparts. The only exception to this was found in Isopachys (worm-like skinks). This is among the first evidence of locomotor convergence across distantly related elongate species.

In most tetrapods, locomotion involves coordinated efforts between appendicular and axial musculoskeletal systems. In this case interactions between the limbs and the ground generate vertical (GV), horizontal (GH), and mediolateral (GML) ground-reaction forces that are transmitted to the axial system (Fig 2). However, snakes have a complete absence of external limbs and represent a fundamental shift from this perspective. The axial musculoskeletal system of snakes is their primary structure to exert, transmit, and resist all motive and reaction forces for propulsion. Their lack of limbs makes them particularly dependent on the mechanical interactions between their bodies and the environment to generate the net GH they need for forward locomotion.

Capano 2020
Fig 2. Reaction forces during terrestrial in limbed tetrapods (A) and limbless snakes locomotion (B). Reaction force (G) is described as: the vertical reaction force (GV), the horizontal reaction force (GH), and the mediolateral reaction force (GML). (from Capano 2020)

As organisms that move on their bellies, the forces that enable the various modes of snake locomotion involve two important structures: the integument and the ribs. Capano 2020 reviewed previous work in this area and found that the shape of the costovertebral joints, the joints that connect the ribs to the vertebra, appear to be derived and not homologous with the ancestral split ribs of Amniota. Capano 2020 states that future comparisons with other limbless lizards are necessary to identify mechanics that produce the locomotor versatility observed within snakes.

Sidewinder snakes are an example of locomotor specialization with no transitional locomotion stage in closely related taxa (Fig 3). Some desert-dwelling vipers are so specialized they rarely use more common types of locomotion, however, some non-viper species sidewind in particular circumstances.

icaa011.jpgTingle et al
Fig 3 During sidewinding, a snake alternately holds some sections of its body stationary on the ground while lifting other sections up and forward in loops, eventually anchoring them to new stationary points farther along. (from Tingle 2020)

Tingle 2020 has compiled accounts of sidewinding, uncovering evidence that dozens of species perform sidewinding with varying proficiency under a variety of conditions. These facultative sidewinders can reveal insight into the evolution and biomechanics of sidewinding, and they provide ample opportunities for future study.

Snakes have many different locomotion patterns which can changes in conditions, such as irregularities in the terrain. In structures that are less complex, such as a narrow aisle, snakes exhibit concertina locomotion, which can be described as the tail is pulled forward while the head stays in one place, and then the head moves forward while the tail stays put (Fig 4). This ability to modify a decentralized control mechanism was further explored by Kano & Ishiguro 2020 using a combination of mathematical models and snakebots.

Kano & Akio

Fig 4. of snake-like roots moving on terrain with pegs and an aisle (from Kano & Ishiguro 2020)

Using 2-D and 3-D snakebots Kano & Ishiguro 2020 proposed a Tegotae-based decentralized control mechanism to demonstrate that it can exhibit both scaffold-based, concertina, sidewinding, and sinus-lifting locomotion. Their results aim to form a basis for developing snake-like robots applicable to search-and-rescue operations and understanding the decentralized control mechanisms that make up animal movement.

When snakes traverse complex terrain, they end up deforming their bodies in order to accomodate the non-flat surface (Fig 5). This makes it challenging to maintain stability. Fu et al. 2020 evaluated how how snakes and snake robots traverse large, smooth obstacles (boulders & trees) that lack “anchor points” for gripping or bracing. By analyzing the base of support using the interpolated continuous body 3-D kinematics, they discovered snakes are actually able to maintain perfect stability during traversal, which was further tested in a snakebot with variable heights.

Fu et al
Fig 5. A kingsnake traversing a large step, using a partitioned gait combining body lateral oscillation and cantilevering. (from Fu et al. 2020)

Their results showed that snakebots could rapidly traverse steps nearly as high as a third of its body length while maintaining stability. However, the snakebots decreased in stability and rolled as height increased without increasing surface contact. Fu et al. 2020 used snakebots that traversed large step-like obstacles more rapidly than most previous snake robots, approaching that of an actual kingsnake. Their results showed that a combination of lateral oscillation and body compliance to form a large, reliable base of support. This may be useful for snakes and snakebots to travel over diverse 3-D environments that contain large, smooth obstacles.

Being social while distanced… Creative Mornings

“I don’t like the term social distancing.” author Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told NPR’s Terri Gross in a recent interview.

“We need to be social, we just have to be physically distanced.”

Osterholm is most assuredly correct. We are such social beings but as COVID drags on, just how to do this, being social while physically distant, can be very difficult.

creative mornings

Creative Mornings is helping in this effort by providing their gatherings online. If you’re not familiar with them, you should Google the chapter closest to you. (creativemornings.com) A world wide organization that prides themselves on bringing creatives, scientists, engineers, community leaders, teachers, students and visionaries of all types together to discuss a particular theme, it typically meets in person monthly in various cities.

When COVID’s threatened their usual mode of operation, they’ve adapted and made some great interactive talks to be apart of online. On May 29th, 2020 I was privileged enough to take part in this one below held by the RDU chapter & hosting  Adrian Smith, Ph.D. is an entomologist and media maker. I’ve listed the session in their format below in hopes it may spark some ideas for your own class sessions/forums.





Adrian (Introducing the speaker)

Most days, you can find Adrian Smith working in a glass-walled research lab at the science museum in downtown Raleigh, filming insects. In his research he’s discovered curiosities of the insect world ranging from ants with 200 mph jaw movements to fly maggots that live in dead trees and use their bodies as a spring to fling themselves into the air.

His more creative work centers on media production and sharing stories about science, discovery, and interesting bugs. At NC State, he teaches media making to scientists in his course Creative Media Production for Scientists. He is the Head of the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and a Research Assistant Professor in Biological Sciences at NC State.

The session opened with a game and people getting to know each other by taking turns introducing themselves to their smaller break out groups.

Then a poll was taken on Zoom at the start of the meeting asking people if they knew more than 5 bugs. Needless to say, not many did.

Adrian discussed how he forms most of his research and his life around

             Moments of Wonder.

“What happens when these enter our lives and what we do with them?” he asked.

He showed slides of a colony of ants in New Mexico.


(*On the SICB JOURNAL front, this made me think of IOB’s own – Effects of Abdominal Rotation on Jump Performance in the Ant Gigantiops destructor (Hymenoptera, Formicidae 
https://academic.oup.com/iob/article/2/1/obz033/5679790    and it turns out Gibson and Smith know each other.
It’s also a great tie in to the upcoming https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icaa078
by Alyssa Stark and Stephen Yanoviak )

 Adrian worked on ants for a long time and his first job was a Florida state. He started washing dishes at a lab. Since then he’s studied ants and insects ever since. About ten years ago, Adrian was studying how reproduction was mitigated in a colony of ants. The Queen rules everything to do with reproduction.

Ants, bees and wasps- workers can lay their own eggs. This spreads their genes to the next generation.  It’s not good to have a lot of workers who go off and reproduce on their own. Their supposed to maintain the queen’s colony.

When a worker stops working and lays their own eggs the rest of the workers can tell and they stop and the sister workers physically put pressures on her to stress her out then send  her back to work.

Some escape (withstand) this punishment and when they do this they smell like a queen to the rest of the individuals once they do then they’re indistinguishable from the queen as far as chemical touch cues (advanced reproductive state). Only the real queen can sniff out a pretend queen.

Adrian’s experiment introduced a pretend queen to a real queen. The real queen fought the pretend one to preserve her place. His research uncovered the secret drama and hidden wonder in this underground community.

adrian ants

The queen seeks out the pretend queen sprays a special gland on this pretend worker to mark them so their body falls apart. The queen has a chemical death mark to enforce her reproductive monopoly in her colony. It all happens in complete darkness under the earth.  (The article is in Animal Behavior, and search Adrian A. Smith 2012) – his article is 35.95 for purchase. – this cost really bothered him.

“Is all the work I did, is it just an academic curiosity? Is it only of interest to a small group? I thought the answer is no.”

In talking about the disappointment about this Smith quoted Joseph Campbell  There is nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering you’re on the wrong wall.

“There’s nothing worse than working so hard and then it may only have a few readers or 20-50 citations. It made me wonder what else can my work produce?”

When he collected or vacuumed ants the other ants separated when dumped out from the army ants. Adrian had no exposure to scientists as a kid, none of his immediate family graduated from college.

I have young kids now and I often think of Fred Rogers’ quote   I’m very concerned that our society is much more interested in information than wonder.

Back then, I thought about “What if I knew as a kid that you can study ants?”

Only in his second  year in college when he happened upon an ant research lab did  he find out he could do this. He asserts that science starts with a moment where you realize something for the first time and that the hard parts of science are driven by pursuit of wonder. His pursuit is driven by this order:

Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment, Analyze, Interpret

“I’ve started to not focus on the end but to help spread the feelings of wonder and amazement to others so I can let them in to my special view of what I’ve seen and how I saw it. This is a major part of what I do.”

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Working at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Ant lab, Adrian also uses digital media to communicate what he’s working on.  (adrianalansmith.com)

 At  this time in the meeting Creative AM provided break out rooms where small groups discussed a moment of wonder they had out in nature and what further questions it sparked.

Here in my small group with Adrian he shared,  “On top of my recycling can were tiny little specks and it turns out they were Springtails. Not an insect, close to it, used to be, they’re one of the most abundant soil arthropods on earth. They’re called this as they have a tail that slaps the ground so they can spring into the air (1.5mm). They slap their tail and send themselves into backflips that send them up… could be the fastest spinning animal on earth.  There’s only been one paper ever published on the jump of a globular springtail out of Japan.

    “This was something I found on my trashcan.”

Then in a ditch on a frog pond I saw them on top of the water, able to jump off the surface of water. Now that we are in quarantine time, I am filming Springtails in my laundry room and you can see the ripple of it jumping on water. They never jump forward off solid ground, on water, because their tails dip, they only jump forward. Nature’s version of sonic the hedgehog.


“These are moments of wonder that will generate months and years worth of work.”

These are the kinds of moments of wonder I bring into other’s lives, reasons for conservation right? If our goal is to build a great appreciation for the natural world, the more we know the stories the more we can make that real to others.  These stories help people preserve green space and reasons to care.

My journey has been to experience wonder, keep it to myself and use it for my work but now expanding to share these moments with others digitally etc and we can all share wonder with everyone, why we do what we do…getting others on board with what we do…”

During the ending Q and A time, this one Adrian answered was of great interest considering his amazing YouTube videos.

Why do you choose YouTube or blogging over other platforms?

“I only applied to two schools, and week one when I showed up, I found the film school but quickly realized I was out of my depth but it’s always been an interest. When I was a grad student I took film classes at a community college. Using YouTube is a great union of science and film.”



To participate in other discussions surrounding themes of interest and have social time while being physically distant sign up for emails from your local Creative Mornings.

You might even be a featured author?



free to make an account and receive speaker emails


to connect with Adrian

YouTube videos : https://www.youtube.com/user/adrianalansmith

email him via aasmith7@ncsu.edu

follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DrAdrianSmith

Other links mentioned

Osterholm Fresh Air episode and book

deadliest enemy


#100 Voices – breaking the taboos of talking about mental health in academia



This year… what can one truly say about this year? Just since the start of 2020 we’ve experienced a Pandemic/COVID-19, quarantine, sickness, isolation, death of loved ones, careers ending or being upended, for some suddenly being thrust into teaching from home and or increased childcare and home schooling for those with children, more devastating violence against the black citizens of our country at the hands of law enforcement, widespread protests to enact long overdue change that is vital for those same citizens so the violence and mistreatment of them does not continue, and then there are the struggles each of us face individually in this time, the ones we don’t like to talk about…


Just reading the above is cause for duress, but I wanted to list at least some of the things we are facing to acknowledge what is going through many of our minds each day on a loop. We cannot stop ourselves from thinking about what has happened. We have increments of time at best where our minds are not saturated with it. No doubt reading this, stopping to think about it, really think about it, can be troubling to say the least.


Now can you imagine being someone who already had depression or anxiety or other mental health issues before the start of this year? Can you imagine how it must be for someone having difficulties getting through everyday life as it was, to now be in this world as we are coming to know it? Maybe you can. Maybe you are someone who is in the ever- growing group of those living with mental health issues.


And this is what our PhD students will come into and back to their programs with after this. This is what all academics, professors and students alike, will bring with them to their institutions once they’re allowed back on campus – shared traumas. Though mental health has always been a concern during the stress of bachelors, masters and doctoral programs, it will now be even more of a concern as when people have such widespread shared traumas, there must be resources available to treat it in order for them to progress.


To have the right resources to treat, we must first start talking about it. Talking is where awareness begins. For this reason, #100 Voices highly interested me when I found it via Twitter. I was so glad to get to interview the founder and originator of the project Zoë Ayres who is a research scientist in the water industry, with a background in electrochemistry and analytical scientist. Zoe is also a mental health advocate, driving for change in academia. After going through her own struggles, that you’ll read about below, you’ll see why she still cares deeply about improving the culture to make it inclusive for all even though her time in academia has past. She could not have known when she began this project that it would be even more vital in light of this year.



It is voices like the ones that Zoe features in #100 Voices that will help get the conversations about mental health started and keep them going on campuses. By speaking out and making mental health issues less taboo in academia, it is these voices that will help to start healing the trauma.


What event or personal experience led you to becoming a mental health advocate for PhD students and those in academia? 


During my PhD I experienced mental health issues for the first time and was diagnosed with depression. A lot of what I was feeling was centered around the impostor syndrome and not knowing how to deal with my research projects not working. I found out I wasn’t alone. Approximately 1 in 2 PhD students have mental health concerns during their studies. Looking back, I would not do away with any of my experiences in regard to my mental health during my PhD, as I now find myself in a position where I can help people who are struggling like I was. A few years after my PhD I found myself in the right space to be able to speak out about my experiences and advocate for others.


Many people are driven out of academia, in part, because the toll on their mental health it can have. The culture of overwork and all too often presence of racism, bullying and harassment, as well as things like impostor syndrome, frequent rejection and research simply not working, can be a particularly toxic mix. I think it is incredibly important that we work towards changing this and making academia accessible for all. We need to recognize that we need a diverse set of people to solve many challenges in science today, including those that experience mental illness.

100Voices_NatRodLopes_2 (1)

Do you feel that talking about mental health matters (struggles) is getting easier to do in academia or is it still such a taboo topic? 


I have seen significant changes in the last few years. I think we are at the start of a much bigger conversation that needs to be had. I guess if I was to describe it in an analogy it’s like we’ve made it to Everest base camp. We are part way along the journey but we’ve got the biggest and toughest bit to go. We’ve started raising awareness, and now the seed is there we’ve got to start pushing for action and towards institutional culture change.


The competitive nature of academia makes it so that people don’t want to share having mental health concerns, as they worry they could be perceived as weak. This prevents people speaking out. The culture must change to enable people to be people rather than encouraging them to be robots who’s only output is work. The fact we are people, and everything that comes with that, including compassion which is vitally important, can sometimes get lost, particularly in the sciences.
Speaking out about mental health can be difficult for fear of it being weaponized too. We have to acknowledge that there is a power dynamic at play, which particularly impacts people in academia that don’t yet have tenure, like PhD students and early career researchers. If someone wants to get you out of your PhD program they could use your mental health issues against you. Universities must protect the vulnerable from this and hold the people using their power inappropriately accountable.


It is important that we talk about mental health, because by acknowledging there is a mental health crisis in academia we can do something about it. It’s also essential for us to know the signs of when someone is seriously struggling, and how to listen and we need to better equip people to be able to help someone in need. Currently there’s not much training around mental health, but in the U.K. there’s Mental Health First Aid training so someone even in your department can get trained to listen to people and point them to the right resource. This can also normalize mental health to show it’s just as important as physical health. We wouldn’t tell someone who’d broken their leg to get on with it and yet that can be the attitude with mental health – this is absolutely the stigma we have to fight. Mental health is part of us all.


What do you hope to achieve with your #100 voices project?


For the #100voices project I wanted to show people that they are not alone and to see that they could be successful in academia spite of any mental health struggles. It is important to work towards breaking the stigma around mental health.


I was so shocked when I put a call out for the project on Twitter and within 24 hours I had 100 people. I’d panic recruited some friends, thinking the project would be a bust and there was no way I’d get that many.  Unbelievably – I now have nearly 100 others on a waiting list who want to be part of it when I run the project again. By doing this project I hoped to have people open up more about their mental health experiences – and I think I’ve seen that from the number of people coming forward. So often mental health is touted as an individual thing, and the onus is put on the person rather than the university. If you can pull out themes however with projects like 100 voices, universities can work with that to have workshops and support.


What’s great about Twitter also is that it’s international and you can empower people everywhere. A large portion of the 100 voices are from the U.K. and the U.S. currently as that’s really where my network (when I started) was from when I started the project. I hope that I can have even more international representation as it goes on.


As for the use of the number 100, I wanted to be ambitious and amplify a range of voices and experiences. I wanted to try and create 100 journeys where at least one of the mental health journeys might resonate with someone. I also felt having a large number would mean I would be able to cover a more diverse sampling of people. You are more likely to connect with something if you can see yourself mirrored in it.


In working on this project what are some things that have surprised you about the participants or trends you see in what’s being shared? 
The true openness of the individuals has been inspiring and I could not have done this without them. The fact that they are willing to put this information out there is amazing – all in the hope they can help others. So ultimately, I think it’s the kindness people have shown, as well as their commitment to creating a more inclusive academia, that has really stood out.

How do you feel academia can better foster an environment that promotes academics sharing their struggles? 


I think it is important we recognize that there is no amount of personal resilience that can get someone through some of the toxic environments in academia. You can’t just be resilient against things like racism, bullying and/or harassment. Changes need to be made at an institutional level to address these concerns which can heavily affect mental health. At the moment, only 1% of UK professors are from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, which is much lower than it should be. Universities need to have clear action plans on how they are going to improve diversity and inclusion. These need to be more than just a tokenistic statement. Clear signposting to resources that already exist is also essential.


On top of this, there are a variety of themes that emerge when we talk about mental health in academia (and these crop up in the #100voices project too). If we can extract themes from peoples’ experiences then we can absolutely create actionable items to address them.  A few steps to begin would be creating workshops on dealing with failure and reframing failure, impostor syndrome, and managing complex student/Principal Investigator relationship. Prioritizing mental health care and making sure it is accessible to all, is also critical. We’ve also got to address that vulnerability is not necessarily a bad thing. It can make us better mentors and ultimately help us support others.


The main thing universities can do is listen. By creating conversations and forums to discuss mental health concerns you enable people to come forward. By opening up dialogue about what it’s like to work in the current environment means you can pinpoint what needs to change to improve the experience for people. One thing I know for sure, if you’re not listening – nothing will change.


Follow Zoë at: @zjayres on Twitter

Next year Zoë will do another round of the #100 voices project. Contact her via her website (www.zjayres.com) if you also would like to be involved.


Website for first aid training for mental health –




link to Zoe’s episode on  Papa PhD – (a podcast featured earlier this year on the ICB blog)


Zoë Ayres – Part 2 – Being a Research Scientist in the Water Industry

Black in Nature

A #BlackBirdersWeek Conversation

By Alexus Roberts and Shaz Zamore

For many nature lovers, a good day in the field means successful observations: spotting their favorite organism, or witnessing a rare event. As seasoned enthusiasts and researchers know, the sweet victory of such sightings is often matched with frustration, as most days yield fruitless searches. This pattern parallels the experience of a Black STEM professional, whose searches for other Black scientists often come up short, but successes are very sweet indeed.

The disparagingly low numbers of Black individuals in natural spaces and research communities is largely due to systemic racial poverty. As described by a 2018 study by the National Parks Service, limited socioeconomic resources, a widespread cultural perception that certain ethnic groups have select types of leisure outlets, and racial discrimination are among the leading reasons why Blacks infrequently visit national parks. An example of such racial discrimiation is seen in the infamously viral video taken by Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper who, in May 2020, was threatened with the violence of calling the police specifically because he was Black.

Yet, tragic and unjust incidents like these can fortify solidarity in Black and allied communities. Conversations are starting, protestors are marching, and social media is buzzing. Now more than ever, people are uniting to fight for radical social change. Black people especially are strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing efforts to collectively enact change and share our culture with the world. 

The BlackAFinSTEM collective (@BlackAFinSTEM) and Black Birders’ Week are powerful examples of such efforts. Conceptualized by Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman (@itsafronomics) and organized by over 30 members of BlackAFinSTEM, the Black Birders’ Week movement serves as an act of solidarity with global protests against racism and police brutality. As tweeted by Professor Stacy Farina, an Associate Professor of Biology at Howard University and SICB Member, “a key feature of #BlackBirdersWeek has been the soothing of trauma through education and celebration of Black excellence.”

To capture a slice of the diversity of perspectives of Black scientists during this time, with Black Birders’ Week in mind, we caught up with fellow BlackAFinSTEM members. 

Have you experienced racism while in the field?

Racism can be anywhere, and that includes fieldwork and research settings. Black scientists and nature enthusiasts often encounter persistent, yet thankfully less menacing, racial encounters. Black scientists have been mistaken for other Black colleagues, expected to have roles of servitude or assistance, and often have their skills or expertise questioned. 

Harmful and traumatic incidents, however, also occur. For Armand Cann, a graduate student at Loyola University, Chicago, it was an unprecedented, aggressive, and public police interrogation that occurred after completing a day of fieldwork. While in the field, Armand’s car had been hit and abandoned, so he went door-to-door, asking neighbors if they’d witnessed how his property was damaged. For reasons unjust, someone called the police. 

When they arrived, Armand explained his situation and answered questions, but was met with disbelief. The officers questioned him further, “as if [he was] telling a lie,” Armand recounts. Armand complied with unwarranted requests until the officers “felt comfortable” with his answers and his presence. Fortunately, Armand was able to walk away from this situation, but not without emotional scars. Cann’s story serves as a crushing reminder that a Black person’s appearance can be deemed threatening regardless of the setting.

Encounters like Armand’s, Christian Cooper’s, or even Ahmaud Arbery’s are unpredictable, and can happen at any time. Our need for safety affects how we move through our lives: which universities we consider for work and schooling, which conferences we can attend, and field sites that we decide to use, whether it’s for research or pleasure. 

The prevalence of racism is undoubtedly a point of consideration when we consider whether we can actually be Black, safe, and in STEM. Especially considering national discourse, this may generate fear and discourage younger generations of Black youth from exploring, enjoying, and appreciating nature. 

What has Black Birders’ Week & its community meant to you?

Black Birders’ Week affords levity in otherwise arduous times, and also a space for support. It has been “one of the only positive things in my life in the past few weeks,” states Kassandra Ford, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate student and SICB member. Academics, environmentalists, SciCommers, and hobbyists alike can share their stories with people who deeply understand their experience. Expanding on that experience publicly, through movements like Black Birders’ Week, defies the presumption that Black people don’t thrive in natural spaces or succeed in science fields.

Why is visibility of Black people enjoying STEM and nature important?

When it comes to STEM careers, Black people are the severe minority, making up about 7% of STEM jobs, according to a 2018 Pew study. Thus, in the pursuit of STEM careers, there are very few Black role models to guide the aspirations of young Black scientists. As children and young adults, many of us felt the joy of being outdoors, savored problem solving challenges in our STEM courses, and were endlessly curious about the mysteries of natural life. But we could not escape the feeling that nature and academia did not hold space for us. 

With few Black faces in the academic track, it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s a sinister reason why we aren’t present: that you don’t belong. The number of faces dwindle with the advancement of our career, often making careers in STEM fields synonymous with tokenism. Symone Barkley, the National Aquarium’s Manager of Education Programs describes it as supporting the burden of tokenism. She elaborates that it feels as if we are “carrying the weight of being perfect at all times. … I do not have the luxury of ‘not knowing’ or dropping the ball.” Visibility of Black people in STEM mitigates tokenism.

The benefit of Black STEM enthusiasts visibility is extensive. As Rhiannon Kirton, a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario, states, “Having Black folx can also increase the diversity of perspectives and therefore, the impact of programs and decisions made within organizations.”

Assertive representation of Black scientists will not only pivot collective thinking within STEM careers, but as postdoctoral fellow Tiara Moore claims, we can “show the next generation that there is space for them…[that] we can finally breathe and move comfortably in this space now!” With Black scientists visible, there is three times the likelihood Black students will take an interest in STEM careers.

What is your favorite aspect of doing fieldwork and research while Black?

Our push to transform unfamiliar areas is primarily driven by our love of nature, and the next generation of Black thinkers. For the Black Birders’ Week team, some of the most savored moments are ones where we can deeply connect with nature: getting down to business in muddy marshes or enjoying peaceful stillness of the ocean while birding or whale watching.

Dr. Tiara Moore examining a large macroalgal bloom in Upper Newport Bay California.

There is also joy in seeing children react to meeting a Black scientist or naturalist, often for the first time. As Kassandra puts it, “they are so excited to see a Black woman in that role, I hope it inspires them to become scientists themselves.” 

When Black nature and science lovers of any age find others like us, it’s better than a good field day. These moments stoke calmness, joy, and feelings of safety. Having a network of fellow Black nature and STEM enthusiasts encourages us to contribute ideas and perspectives our nonBlack peers may not have considered. In turn, starting these conversations can promote political discourse that may not have otherwise occurred. Simply put, our presence is change.

Our stories represent a small window into the Black STEM professional experience. Black Birders’ Week is just the beginning. Mississippi State undergraduate student  Kanshisha Taylor said it best: “[we] will not sit by and let injustices keep going and [we will not] be quiet about our experiences as Black people in STEM.” Our hope is that this movement will fortify allyship with the diversity of scientists and nature enthusiasts of all walks and colors.

Follow our featured STEM professionals on Twitter for more on their experiences!

Amber Wendler @amberwendler — Virginia Tech

Armand Cann @devonian_one– Loyola University, Chicago

Kassandra Ford @kassthefish — University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Kaylee Arnold @Black_Ecologist — University of Georgia 

Kinshisha Taylor @Sasha_Melanated — Mississippi State University

Rhiannon Kirton @rhi_kirton — University of Western Ontario 

Symone Barkley @Scientistsymone — National Aquarium

Tiara Moore @curly_scientist — The Nature Conservancy 

Check out @BlackAFinSTEM, #BlackBirdersWeek, #BecauseofBlackBirdersWeek, #BlackintheIvory, #BlackAFinSTEM, and #BlackInNature for more stories from fellow collective members and the broader community of Black STEM professionals. 

About the authors: 

Alexus Roberts

Alexus Roberts (@Alexuss_Symone) is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. Her research combines functional morphology, kinematic analyses, and cutting edge phylogenetic comparative methods to explore the effects morphological innovations on fish feeding mechanisms. Outside of research, Alexus is devoted to diversity and equity in STEM as evidenced by her extensive leadership within the UC Davis community. She has held appointments as President of an outreach and professional development organization; Primary Coordinator for the inaugural Diversity in STEM Conference at UC Davis; and Chair of departmental DEI initiatives. Alexus aspires to use her role as a Black woman in STEM to continue inspiring and spearheading the recruitment, development, and retention of historically marginalized students in STEM.

Shaz Zamore

Dr. Shaz Zamore (@TheDoctaZ) is a neuroengineer by training and STEAM Outreach Coordinator and Instructor by trade. Dr. Z has dedicated their academic career to increasing visibility and support of BIPOC in STEAM paths. Working for the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder, Dr. Z has merged social justice into STEAM Education in and out of the classroom by developing a neuroscience comic series for under-served students to lower barriers to STEAM interests, and illuminate pathways to STEAM careers. This work stands as the culmination of 12 years of science communication and outreach. They also sit as the Chair of the Public Affairs Committee for SICB. On their days off, Shaz is found in the mountains, searching for reptiles in the summer, or backcountry snowboarding in the winter. Shaz presented their research, Visual behavior in flying snakes: measurement and exploration with virtual reality, as part of Symposium 8: Long Limbless Locomotors Over Land: The mechanics and biology of elongate, limbless vertebrate locomotion at the SICB 2020 meeting in Austin, TX. This research will be published in ICB later this year!

NYC – science educators persevere


“Education is the key that unlocks the golden door to freedom.” 

George Washington Carver

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In this historically significant time in our country, cities all over the world are being irreversibly altered first by the quarantines for COVID-19 and now, in the U.S., with  protests that have erupted in order to affect much needed change. There is no doubt that the state of things is taking a toll on our children – their day to day lives, safety and also their education. Some might say, at a time like this, learning is somewhat arbitrary, yet others might counter that consistency, when at all possible, and the diversion of learning could only serve to help.

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BioBus in N.Y.C. has been ever vigilant in their efforts to ensure that children are able to engage with science in the face of hardship. Even when the group’s usual methods of driving their bus into neighborhoods that don’t often have access to hands on science and offering a chance for kids to do experiments alongside them are not available, they’ve regrouped and developed online content.



Ben Dubin-Thaler, one of their key educators, made time to share their mission, their hopes and provide ways to get involved.

What is The Mission of the BioBus initiative? 

Bio bus is about giving students who historically haven’t had the opportunity to do science, an opportunity to pursue science as much as they want.

How do you identify areas of the greatest need? 

 We look for communities who have had the least opportunities, low income communities, as well as Latino and African American Communities who for centuries have been part of a historic inequity. BioBus focuses on the Lower East side of Manhattan – a long standing immigrant community with vibrant civic and community life. We have a lot of partners with schools and communities there to get students excited about science. We also focus on Harlem and the South Bronx.

New York City schools still have the issue of opportunities not being equally distributed such as schools with low income students having less teachers and labs and supplies.

We do know that students all across NYC want to do science and families and educators across the city know how important it is for students to get lab experience and do science experiments.

BioBus tries to keep the spark alive by mobile labs going to the schools, and students get to work with professional scientists and help them further explore in depth scientific topics as well as help provide resources to give high school and college students info about scientific careers. Last year alone, we had 39 paid college interns who helped to teach.


biobus bus

 Where does the bio bus you help with operate from? 

We have 2 mobile labs in NYC but are part of a larger network Mobile Lab Coalition.

What causes you to be passionate about this project? 

 When I was a kid, I think I liked science but disliked what it was in the classroom, especially biology. It seemed most of it was about memorizing things out of a text book. Because of the emphasis on reading and memorizing, I was really bored.

When I was in graduate school, I loved bringing people into my lab and seeing how excited people got and hearing them say they wished they’d known this is what science could be like. Bio Bus is a way to create this experience anywhere and give access to this to everyone.

 What implications to do you feel the current state of things could have on the project? (this interview was conducted when we were facing COVID changes only)

What keeps us going is that we’ve recently had a lot of data about our program and how it affects attitudes about science across the board. When the virus shut down schools, we immediately started thinking about how to continue have the essence of Bio Bus represented in online learning

We want to keep this essence by keeping these three things in tact:

1)  Creating a safe space in the lab where students can feel they can approach and play and be comfortable.

2)  Mentorship- we have over 20 full time staff of mostly scientists- students meeting scientists for the first time, and then students we work with long term…how do we continue to provide mentorship?

3)  Science is fundamentally constructivist – we try to make all of our pedagogy and experiments based in that approach that ideas aren’t just something to be memorized but things to be manipulated and moved around.

It’s a big challenge to do this online and we’ll be posting our schedule of events on biobus.org

We are working for it to be useful and positive.

 How can people get involved?

 1)  We hope to see you in our online classes and get feedback

2)  If you’re in the NYC area, we have a lot of volunteer opportunities and you can find them on our website, we’d love to have you.

3)  Like many social service organizations, we are struggling with our incomes right now, so if you believe in our effort, please donate to our cause.

4)  Mobilelabcoalition.com would also have mobile labs near you for you to volunteer with

Connect :  

Ben Dubin-Thaler      ben@biobus.org


Here is a link for schools, orgs, or individuals to sign-up for our live, online science classes:



Here is the link to our full online program line-up, including weekly student town halls, at home science activities, and more:


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Spotlight on Biomechanist- Dr. Crystal Reynaga

Biomechanist and recently published ICB author Dr. Crystal Reynaga shares her experiences in science and her career path. Even with technical constraints of holding an interview over Zoom, Dr. Reynaga’s radiant and cheery personality beamed through our screens. Her enthusiasm for science is undeniable, as you will see, only to be rivaled by her passion for mentorship. A current post-doctoral researcher at Duke University, Dr. Reynaga will be starting as an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College in summer 2020.


Growing up near the coast of California, Dr. Crystal Reynaga first became interested in the natural world by exploring her own backyard – the Pacific Ocean. From a young age, class field trips to the local aquarium helped develop an appreciation for the diversity in ocean animals. Ocean creatures come in all shapes and sizes, and this early exposure to marine biology and animal science instilled the curiosity, drive, and excitement she continues to demonstrate throughout her career in animal mechanics and physiology. “The first scientist I met was giant-squid biologist, Dr. Clyde Roper”, she remembers, “and I wanted to be a scientist too”.

Her interests in the ocean ultimately led Dr. Reynaga to the University of California, Santa Cruz to continue her studies in marine biology. She began her formal research career as an undergraduate researcher working with Dr. Rita Mehta where she studied body shape and swimming in fishes. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she followed her research interests in animal mechanics to the University of California, Irvine where she began her PhD in biological sciences. Here, she worked with Dr. Manny Azizi studying novel gaits and substrates in frogs, and she published her first-authored article in Integrative and Comparative Biology. Her featured work examines how passive changes in muscle and limb kinematics are required for frogs to adapt to new types of environmental substrates. Meaning, the elastic energy in tendon and muscle are modified as a direct result of the terrain the animal experiences. Even in unfamiliar or new environments, animals can utilize their mechanic abilities to quickly adapt and still perform efficiently.

Currently, she is completing her post-doctoral appointment at Duke University with Dr. Shiela Patek. The Patek laboratory focuses largely on mechanics of movement across a variety of animal models, and the lab’s diverse research portfolio is unified by a central theme of interdisciplinary science.


patek lab


To borrow a well-known quote from philosopher Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, and this is no exception in team-science. Approaching questions with an appreciation for mathematics, engineering, biology, and physics exemplifies the integrative approach which Dr. Reynaga values and looks forward to implementing in her own research laboratory. Addressing scientific questions in a creative way offers dynamic insights both in the question at hand and sparks future innovation. When asked what her favorite part of her job is, she smiled, “being able to ask, ‘Can I make it work?’ and tinkering to find out”. She looks forward to building on the interdisciplinary approaches integral to biomechanics and drawing inspiration from chemistry in future work.

Mentorship has played a strong role in Dr. Reynaga’s career and professional development. She credits her many mentors, past and present, in helping her develop into the scientist she is today. Like a true mentor, she imparted many words of wisdom during our interview. She encourages others to be open to finding mentors who may not be in their immediate field of study. Colleagues and mentors can serve different roles, and these roles can evolve over time. “I hope to be the same mentor for others”, she says and is passionate about encouraging young students that science is truly for everyone. With curiosity and motivation, anyone can learn the ability to do science professionally.

Dr. Reynaga notes the importance of building a community in one’s field. As an ICB published author, she notes SICB can create scientific communities for both early career and seasoned scientists. In addition to presenting research and learning about new science, attending scientific meetings provide opportunities to expand one’s professional network. While public speaking may not be a favorite activity of many scientists, scientific meetings and online resources allow opportunities for like-minded researchers to connect. Divisions within SICB, such as the division of comparative biomechanics, can be a resource to learn about special topics and develop future collaborations.

Looking towards the future, Dr. Crystal Reynaga will begin her appointment as an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr college in summer 2020. Her passion for student involvement and research is undeniable, and future students will be fortunate to train with her.  From the young student enthralled on a science field trip to a soon-to-be PI, Dr. Reynaga’s passion and curiosity about the natural world has always been constant and her leadership will continue to create lasting benefits in our communities. Additional information about Dr. Reynaga can be found on her personal webpage.

Crystal Reynaga's picture

Crystal Reynaga

Research Focus: Muscle physiology and biomechanics

Crystal is a postdoctoral fellow in the Patek Lab. She received her B.S. in Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the lab of Dr. Rita Mehta. Under the advisement of Dr. Manny Azizi, she received her PhD at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The broad aim of her research focuses on how organisms overcome constraints by studying the motor control strategies, muscle properties, and kinematic basis of movement. For her dissertation she investigated how the mechanical properties of the environment may shape musculoskeletal function and the development of novel locomotor modes in frogs. In the Patek Lab, Crystal will be working with Dr. Gregory Sutton and the rest of the MURI team to investigate the scaling principals of fast animal movement using experimental and musculoskeletal modeling approaches. For more information, visit her personal website: crystalreynaga.weebly.com.


Contributing author

schkoda icb

Stacy Schkoda is a PhD student at North Carolina State University and a member of the digital media and outreach team for the journal ICB. She has a long-standing interest in science communication and hopes to increase science literacy through accessibility to both scientists and their work.

Remote STEM education in response to COVID-19 pandemic




As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe, educators face new challenges in supporting their students as they move to remote learning. While remote learning under normal circumstances is not without its stressors, now with the added anxiety of Stay-at-Home edicts, bedrooms and living rooms are being transformed into makeshift classrooms, not to mention having to do more with less due to limited resources if in a home with multiple students and one computer, or limited wifi access.

How do we innovate remote learning? Can remote learning live up to its promise and provide a seamless learning environment during the current pandemic that has forced educators and students into their respective corners without the possibility for physical contact? Specifically, can remote learning pertaining to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) blaze a new sustainable trail that will leave bread crumbs for educators and students to follow into a postCOVID-19 world where we may have to re-think how we teach STEM in a hands-off environment?


One recurring message that is being broadcast daily in the media and social platforms is “science will save us.” As scientists across the globe race to gather fundamental basic and applied information about the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus in an effort to mitigate the over 2.8 million cases of infected people, STEM fields are receiving primetime exposure and scientific terms such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), antibody resistance, viral load, contact-tracing, social-distancing, are now apart of everyone’s vocabulary. In the midst of this real-world science experiment to save lives, STEM educators have an opportunity to Carpe Diem and move the needle on how remote STEM content is disseminated and assessed.


On April 2, 2020, a consortium of Ed-Tech STEM start-ups led by David Bakker of PocketLab, offered a free all-day un-conference ScIC (Science is Cool). Bakker pulled together the unconference with the idea that “with in person venues and workshops being postponed, why not assemble a day of presentations from the most innovative next-gen science start-ups in the education field?” Bakker clearly hit a nerve as more than 2,700 educators registered, and 1,600 attended the conference with an average of 500 at each session. “Based on the overwhelming number of attendees who signed up with less than 2 weeks notice, a second ScIC event is being planned for May 21 (featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson), with more coming this summer”.

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In addition to Pocket Lab and Killer Snails, eight other EdTech innovators participated in the SCiC unconference: ADI, Green Ninja, Tyto Online, Vidcode, Estes Rockets, Brown Dog Graphics, Bozeman Science, and TeacherGeek. And in keeping with why we were having this virtual meeting, the conference kicked off with Professor Robert Siegel, Professor (Teaching) of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University sharing an informative poem about SARS-CoV-2, highlighting how it differs from other viruses before discussing more about its structure and function.




During the SciC virtual meeting, each company presented learning initiatives that make STEM both approachable and relevant to K-12 learners and importantly, to offer some COVID-19 relief, many of these resources are freely available for educators, students and parents to use. These resources meet and exceed remote learning expectations by providing engaging content that educates and excites STEM learners using innovative approaches that are multimodal, aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, contain Common Core Literacy & Math, and are largely collaborative so students share their learning with their peers, which has an added benefit in our social-distancing COVID-19 context.  Specific products from the meeting include:


BioDive, a multimodal dual Hybrid/Virtual Reality (VR) immersive learning experience for middle school students developed by Killer Snails. In BioDive students take on the role of marine biologists investigating the delicate ecosystems of venomous marine snails. Throughout their expedition, students observe, discover, and hypothesize about abiotic and biotic factors that impact marine biodiversity. BioDive is designed to support educators and learners using real-time educator assessment, and a compelling narrative about our planet and our lives.


PocketLab provided an overview of “Kitchen Table Physics.” Attendees learned how to investigate the laws that control our universe from the convenience of your kitchen table. They explored the Albedo effect and how it influences the melting point of crayons and the macroscale forces that set off ice ages and warming epochs.


BioDive and Kitchen Table Physics exemplified the spectrum of remote learning currently being offered to STEM educators, students and families. BioDive’s use of emerging VR mobile technology to explore the ocean as a marine scientist expands the walls of the classroom, or any room for that matter, providing a sense of discovery and excitement about science that can be contextualized and assessed using a companion digital personalized journal and a real-time educator assessment dashboard. PocketLab’s Kitchen Table Physics experiments require you explore the kitchen cabinet and refrigerator in your home. Whether high or low tech, the options for remote learning presented at SciC merge high quality science with the desire for full student engagement and learning.


The COVID-19 abyss that we have all been plunged into requires iron lungs for us to raise above sea level. The Ed-Tech developers of STEM remote learning tools are flexing their muscles and jumping in to support, guide, and assist educators, students, and families to ensure STEM education is not compromised, but rather rises to the occasion that is required to combat the global SARS-CoV-2 virus STEM challenge. ScIC will be a recurring conference and is one of several new virtual Ed-Tech conferences taking place. Teachers and students eager for options for remote STEM learning will not be disappointed by what Ed-Tech innovators have to share.


About the Authors:


Mandë Holford, PhD is an Associate Professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center Programs in Biology, Chemistry, and Biochemistry. She has scientific appointments at the American Museum of Natural History and Weill Cornell Medicine. Her joint appointments reflect interdisciplinary research, which goes from molluscs to medicine, combining chemistry and biology to discover, characterize and deliver novel peptides from venomous marine snails to manipulate cellular physiology in pain and cancer. Her Laboratory of Chemical and Biological Diversity investigates the power of venom to transform organisms and to transform lives when it is adapted to create novel therapeutics for treating human diseases and disorders. Co-Founder, Killer Snails, an award-winning education technology (EdTech) learning games company with the mission to make science accessible by bringing it out of the laboratory and into classrooms, living rooms and boardrooms. She is actively involved in science education, advancing the public understanding of science and science diplomacy.




Jessica Ochoa Hendrix, MBA, is CEO, of Killer Snails, LLC.  She has worked in K-16 education since 2003. As CEO, she has led Killer Snails to produce seven award-winning educational games in three years. She created the iterative development process which has led Killer Snails to pilot with 80+ schools and thousands more students at conferences and informal learning centers. Under her guidance, Killer Snails was named by the Small Business Administration’s New York District Office as the 2018 Small Business Innovation Research Recipient of the Year. Ochoa Hendrix was awarded the 2019 TED Residency, an in-house incubator within TED for breakthrough ideas and gave a TED talk on incorporating VR into the classroom.



Posted for Dr. Holford and Hendrix by Suzanne Miller, Managing Editor & social media contributor of SICB journals

Guest post: The lost generations of women in STEM and the power of surprise.


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In the rear view mirror, all I could see behind us was a 6-ton elephant in musth moving quickly towards the research vehicle that housed myself and my male Kenyan companions. In the background I could hear their panicked pleas to move and to do it quickly. But I was tuned into the elephant and his behavior, and my training and intuition were motivating my next decisions. The bull we affectionately called “Uhuru” (Freedom, in Swahili) moved quickly towards us and then continued on his path as I maneuvered out of harm’s way with a cackle of delight and my heart racing. I did not find the same joy and excitement in the expressions of my companions. Their panic was subsiding but what was almost more memorable than our close encounter was the displays of utter shock on their faces at how I had handled the situation.

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So how does one middle-aged woman find herself in the Africa bush dodging elephants and living with lions in her “backyard”?  I am a conservation biologist studying elephant behavior and movements, human elephant coexistence, and stakeholder engagement in the Kasigau Wildlife Corridor of Kenya. I am also a non-traditional, first generation PhD student, determined to fulfill her career aspirations even though it’s 20 years later than most. I want to share with you why I think it’s never too late for women to keep surprising people.

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I am part of a new generation of women who are undertaking remote field work to advance our scientific knowledge and aspiring to show that bad-assery isn’t just for men (See some women who inspire me at: https://fellowsblog.ted.com/meet-12-badass-scientists-who-also-happen-to-be-women-ace8d797bcad). There is a long list of pioneers that came before me such as Jane Goodall, who showed that our sex doesn’t limit our ability to learn and thrive in challenging conditions. Traditionally, these roles were held by men, and as times change and more women are represented in STEM, inevitably I still find those surprised at my career choices.

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When in non-academic settings, if I told people that I was going into the field for several months, the unwavering reaction from most was “well what about your husband?” or “oh, are you going on mission work?” Throw in the fact that I am pursuing a degree at “such an age” and that I’ve spent up to 8 months alone in the remote bush, and I can start to see their brains melt a bit.

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I used to become defensive at people’s surprise, and think “it is because I’m a woman.” But then I began to realize it wasn’t because they (well, most) think women are not capable, it is because it’s just not what they are used to seeing. Those surprised looks that I (and I bet most of you) get are usually pleasantly shocked reactions. I knew I needed to shift how I reacted to people’s assumptions to create a situation for an opportunity for growth. But while the conversation on female equality and empowerment has definitely taken a positive turn, the expectations for STEM practitioners is still male-dominated. The struggles of women, minorities, and the LGBTQI+ community in STEM are inextricably linked in their fight to be viewed as equals.


I was terrified as I returned to academics. Like many others, I constantly suffered from imposter syndrome, and my insecurities ran rampant. I was wondering if I was in over my head trying to undertake calculus and analytical geometry after a 20 year math gap, and I questioned whether I would fit in with undergraduate students half my age. However, I was delighted to find female (and male) mentors that pointed me in the right direction, and I was encouraged by the students who dared to use the word “inspiring” and my name in the same sentence. As my friends and family rallied around me and pushed for me to keep going for my MSc and PhD, I remember clearly telling my husband how unexpected it was for me to find that other people weren’t surprised at the fact that somehow my dreams were coming to fruition. He stated very simply that these people were not surprised because they had always believed in me. . . .and maybe I had finally started to believe too. Another of the great powers of surprises is the ones we find hiding within ourselves.

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All of the revelations throughout my experiences have left me wondering so many things. How many generations of women have been lost to the STEM fields because of their insecurities or acceptance of what society expected? How many of those underrepresented in STEM did not fulfill their ambitions because they thought those were jobs that they could not get? How many people were sidetracked from their original career choices by life’s many surprises: a sick parent, an abusive partner, a lack of mentorship, economic constraints? How do we find those lost souls like me, and make them realize it’s never too late to return to their original, yet sidetracked plans?

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So, for every underrepresented group in STEM, I encourage you stay tenacious. I think we should embrace every surprised expression, and nurture those reactions so people realize that things are changing. We should keep surprising people until what used to be the norm simply isn’t anymore. We burn the idea of the STEM patriarchal model to the proverbial ground by finding young (and older) women to mentor in STEM fields. Until people can look at a group of others, learn one of them is an doctor, and not be surprised that it is the woman, then the work is not done. We have generations of societal norms to overcome, and generations that still have time to make their impact. As women, we have to keep pulling new surprises out of our metaphorical bags of tricks (even though we shouldn’t have to). Shameless self-promotion is acceptable and encouraged, as the more visible women in STEM are, the more the norm shifts.


I am a woman. I am a scientist. I am #NonTradInStem and I will always be full of surprises.


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Connect with Lynn Von Hagen, AAS, BSc, MSc

Presidential Research Fellow,

Auburn University

Field Team Co-Leader,
Elephants and Sustainable Agriculture in Kenya,
Earthwatch Institute Project


Skype:  lynnvonhagen141


Posted for R. Lynn Von Hagen and invited by Suzanne Miller, Managing Editor of ICB