Amplifying the Voice of Neurodiverse Scientists - An SLS UG Athena Swan Project

Published on 8 March 2024

In 2022/23, the SLS undergraduate Athena SWAN committee created a project aiming to integrate and raise awareness about the neurodiverse community’s issues.

On this page

This project involved a series of interviews, describing the experiences of different scientists in the university, to bring the community together and advocate for their representation in the field.

Interview with PhD postgraduate researcher

What is your research field?

I study the post-transcriptional regulation of the segmentation clock, in other words, I am looking at gene expression at the RNA level of how the skeleton forms during early embryogenesis.

What struggles did you encounter in your job environment?

Being a PGR is quite different to being an undergraduate, the biggest difference is there is less formal support. You have to develop your own strategies to support yourself. For example, I work in the lab and strongly rely on different colour codes to ensure I don’t mix up my samples. I also rely on text-to-speech software to help me get through all the reading required, it also helps me pick up (most) of the typos. Help is always out there however, you have to go and find it.

What tips can you give others?

Being dyslexic can be a slight inconvenience when it comes to writing, it takes me longer to write something to the required standard. However, I also have many other skills which compensate for this, such as my presentation skills and my interest in programming. 

So don’t let your difficulties define your career path. It will not be easy, but with hard work, it is definitely possible to pursue anything.

Interview with DMPK researcher

What is your research field?

My area is Drug metabolism and Pharmacokinetics (DMPK)

What struggles did you encounter in your job environment?

I faced quite a few struggles, especially early in my career. My lack of a diagnosis at the time of graduation was a big part in me pursuing an industry career after my BSc, rather than going straight into a PhD. I struggled immensely with interviews at every stage of my career (apart from lockdown with the move to video-calls), due to sensory difficulties with the unfamiliar environment. Similarly, total bans on headphones or earplugs can make some areas with large amounts of extraneous sound (eg. open-plan office spaces, or labs with beeping machines and sonic baths) impossible to work in for any appreciable length of time – in the past some lab spaces I have been in have allowed the use of a single earbud or earplug in those areas. Since I moved away for my first job, I also struggled to understand the differences in language and communication, with having moved to a place with much less direct communication than my home area, and discussions with supervisors or management were fraught with miscommunications.

What tips can you give others?

  1. Learn to know yourself. What you can cope with, what you struggle with, and what your limits are. My struggles improved dramatically in the years after my diagnosis as I learnt what I needed to work well, and where I could push myself. For me I need written (ie. Email, MS Teams, or paper) communications, busy and detail-orientated work, a quiet office space with headphones, and good bright lighting. Similarly, needs change over time – what you needed to get by in one job, of what you needed during uni, is not necessarily what you need in the next job.
  2. Find a reliably quiet spot away from people that you can take a break in for 10 min if you ever get overwhelmed.
  3. Ask for clarification when needed. Written communication is helpful for this.
  4. Research cultural tendencies if living in a new place – people from different places communicate differently, and its helpful to have an awareness of those tendencies going into things even if you struggle with communication (eg. directness, individual vs collective etc.).
  5. Use templates. Email templates, spreadsheet templates, report templates. It's easier to avoid communication issues with standardised wording and systems, and it saves time.
  6. There is not a single, standard conventional career path to follow – you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going. My “5-years time” guesses were all a good bit off, but I don’t regret any moves I made.

Interview with Lesley-Anne Pearson

What is the achievement you are most proud of in your career?

My first published paper. It was on a methyltransferase for SARS-COV2. I was working in the labs during COVID. I enjoyed having the whole (laboratory) floor to myself.

Do you feel like you have less opportunities in job search or less of a chance of getting a position when applying?

Yes and No. I’m 43 and have just been diagnosed. I’ve on the waiting list for three years. Before that, I didn’t have this framework to understand myself. Had I had it [when job hunting] I would have probably made different decisions. I didn’t do very well on the last year of my degree. There was a lot going on and I didn’t know how to ask for help. I struggle with change, so when I graduated I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t get the grade required to go into a PhD. Not having a PhD can be limiting, certainly in academia. When looking for jobs, I’d read an advert and feel like I didn’t fit the person specification. I got a job in a contract research organisation. I was there for 8 years (as I struggle with change). I would apply for other jobs, the interview would go very badly and and I would get frustrated and stop applying for other jobs. In the interviews, I struggle with answering questions on the spot and with appropriateness. I can go off topic and say random things, which would make me off putting. I once got rejected because they didn’t think I’d fit in the team. So to a degree yes, but structurally no because at the time I didn’t have that understanding of myself. If you have that framework (autism diagnosis) it does make things easier.

What do you think could change in life sciences for you to feel more comfortable?

Things like getting questions in advance would be useful to me. In general a willingness to make reasonable accommodations. I’m really lucky where I am now. My department is very supportive and flexible. But I get the impression that other people can be concerned about disclosing that they are autistic because they would be taken less seriously. Me and others I know have stories of patronisation for being autistic. Also broader awareness on neurodiversity would help. There are more neurodiverse people than we think in our workplace.

Interview with Postdoctoral Research Assistant

Did you encounter any struggles in your job in environment?

The way that I work with my team, it means it's not actually a barrier. For example, labelling samples, I very easily mix up some letters and numbers, to me a 5 and an S, I really really can't tell them apart unless I'm really looking. My brain just doesn't see it. So, when we're working with particularly long sample ID's or if it's been a long day, I'll always get my colleagues to just double check that I've labelled something correctly or that I've not duplicated a sample ID, or something like that because it has happened in the past. Now we just ask each other to check each other's labelling just in case. Also, when we can choose sample IDs for a project then we make a point of not putting letters and numbers together that I find it difficult to differentiate between, but it’s now just something that we do naturally. I feel like definitely work in a very open and supportive group that accepts me and the way I work.

Would it be one of the things, why you would not consider changing your job?

The idea of changing my job makes me feel anxious... Really anxious because I don't know what environment I'm gonna go into and if they're going to be as open and accepting as where I am just now. I've been thinking a lot about that actually, it does make me quite nervous and I think that anything that's unknown makes me particularly uncomfortable. I mean, I imagine it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but I'm not very good with change. I quite like to have, you know, set routines and I feel like I work better when I become used to the environment or people because I'm just more relaxed and I know what to expect. You've got all of these other things to consider, for example, I don't work well with vague instructions. I need instructions to be very specific, and I don't mean spelled out to me like I'm a child but if it can be misinterpreted or there are two different ways that it could be understood then I really do need clarification. Again, people are used to that where I work just now, and I wonder, if in a different environment when I ask for that sort of clarification... I'm not sure how that might be taken. That's a bit of a tricky one.

Are there more struggles in your day-to-day life?

Something that I struggle with, both in my job and on everyday basis is eye contact. I'll tend to look over someone's shoulder or I'll look at something behind them. I've always been terrible with it, and sometimes I can tell that it's making other people feel uncomfortable. I'm not even particularly good at making eye contact when I'm on a video call, I tend to look all over the place. Eye contact and understanding people's intentions when something isn't direct are two things I really struggle with. Something that isn't a struggle but is actually a positive thing is that I'm very good with deadlines because I tend to hyper focus on things. When it comes to situation where "I need this done within a couple of hours" I can completely shut out everything else and just bang straight on with it and get it done.

What tips can you give others?

I think it's probably important that once you feel comfortable enough around your colleagues to have an informal conversation about being non-neurotypical. It helps in case something happens that might make you feel a bit overwhelmed or uncomfortable and I think it's nice for your colleagues as well to know how to offer you support or recognise that you're getting overwhelmed. So, I think being able to have a relationship with your colleagues is one of the most important things.

What are you the most proud of in your career?

When it comes to science, I'm certainly proud for myself. Growing up, I didn't think that I would be the sort of person that would be able to be a scientist. That's a very personal achievement for me. It could have been easy to quit a lot of the time, but I didn't. I kept doing it and I'm here now and it's great. I really feel that one of the most important things to me is encouraging young people that come from lesser advantaged backgrounds to push themselves forward. I've done a lot of work with that and as a result won a lot of awards, nationally and internationally.

Do you feel that you have less opportunities when applying for jobs?

No, I don't actually. If anything, because places are so understanding now and there are laws about equal opportunities. I actually wonder sometimes if, when I'm applying for positions and mention my neurodiversity, that it may work in my favour when it comes to interviews due to diversity statistics for universities and organisations. I'm not saying that's OK, I don't need or want any special treatment, I want to be interviewed or employed based on my skills, not as a token diversity statistic but I get the feeling that I may be at an advantage at times. That being said, I don't think it would help with actually being offered a position but certainly think it might play a role in the likelihood of an interview.

Do you think that science community is more acceptant than other communities in the sense of getting a job?

Generally science is very fact based and analytical so I think it may draw neurodiverse people to it. There are so many people like us in science that it's just kind of normal when you have someone that has some little quirks because there are so many people that have them too. I don't know if this makes it easier for neurodiverse people to get a job in science but having mega hyper focus and very logical thinking does help. I certainly feel like I fit more in the scientific community than I do anywhere else.

What do you think should change in the scientific community to make people more aware?

I feel that there should be a fine line between making people aware of neurodiversity and making neurodiverse people feel accepted to things then swinging a little too much the other way. I think that what's happening just now, studies like you're doing and the recognition that the university are doing is great. There was a whole day about it in the university recently and it's becoming quite a normal thing to talk about. I see a massive change in perspectives, which I think is fantastic, but I think it's also important that it doesn't go too far because if it does people become over exposed, and impact of neurodiverse equity may become diluted or lead to people becoming less understanding.

Story category Equity and inclusion