Home Science and Nature I worried my cerebral palsy would halt my progress in science—but I found a path forward

I worried my cerebral palsy would halt my progress in science—but I found a path forward

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I was sitting in a chemistry lab class during my first year of university, nervous about the experiment we were to perform. The procedure required us to transfer a solution from one tube to another. I grabbed a pipette and, as I feared, my hand started to shake—a symptom of cerebral palsy. I asked my lab partner whether they could perform the task instead. The experience was disheartening: I was hoping to pursue a career in science, but I started to wonder whether that would be possible if I had trouble completing simple lab experiments. I thought my dreams had crashed to the ground.

I was born after my twin brother. His birth was free of complications, but I was strangled by an umbilical cord and born with severe hypoxia. After a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. My family managed to find good doctors where we lived, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, and I took part in clinical trials testing new interventions. Shortly after my first birthday, I started walking and it became clear my cognitive functions were unaffected. So in some sense I was lucky.

I couldn’t do some things growing up. My left hand was (and still is) much worse than my right—I was mostly limited to using two fingers as pincers. I learned to write and do simple tasks with my right hand, but it wasn’t dexterous enough to do anything that required precision. Both hands also shook, especially when I was nervous or embarrassed.

As a teenager, I faced a lot of bullying at school. Feeling alone, I joined a study group focused on the natural world, thinking I would like to live far from any people, studying animals. That’s how I came into the field of biology.

At university, I enjoyed the lectures in my science classes. Many lab tasks proved impossible, however. Once, during a field course on an island in the White Sea, in the far north of Russia, I struggled to put a small marine worm in a petri dish. I spent that night walking around in the woods, wondering what else I could do other than biology.

There’s much more to being a scientist than performing the physical labor.

Ilya Smolensky
University of Fribourg and University of Basel

As I struggled with my mood, I read a book about depression. From then on, the physiology of mental disorders became my scientific passion. I looked into what was being done locally and was excited to discover a lab that did behavioral experiments in rats to study depression. I thought that even with my shaking hands, I was capable of putting a rat into a maze and observing its behavior. I wanted to join that lab.

At the end of my second year, I approached the professor to see whether I could work with her. I was afraid to admit I couldn’t do some lab tasks. To my relief, she was completely supportive. “Don’t worry, we will find work to occupy you,” she said.

She set me to work performing behavioral experiments for others in the lab. Later, when the time came for me to produce a senior thesis, I used data I collected and hormonal data collected with the help of a colleague who completed the pipetting steps. I loved the supportive atmosphere so I stayed there to complete my master’s and Ph.D.

When I graduated, I felt an itch to focus on molecular mechanisms of mental disorders. I landed a position that involved computer modeling, but I quit after 8 months because writing computer code was both frustrating and boring for me. After that I switched to a lab studying epilepsy in rats. I could do the work, but it wasn’t my passion.

Eventually I started to look for positions abroad, buoyed by advice a doctor once gave me: “If you are smart enough, you will be a scientist regardless of your hands.” During an interview for a postdoc in Switzerland, I revealed that I have cerebral palsy and can only do behavioral experiments. A few days later I received a job offer, which included a detail that the lab would hire a technician for any delicate tasks associated with my project.

I’ve been in that lab now for 2 years, and I’ve come to realize that my hands aren’t the impediment I thought they were. By finding the right people, being open about my abilities, and working as part of a team, I’ve been able to follow my passions. I’ve also realized that there’s much more to being a scientist than performing the physical labor. I may not collect all the data in my papers, but I’m fully capable of devising experiments and interpreting results—which, to me, is the most exciting part of science.

Source : ScienceMag

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