I’m a Scientist With Learning Disabilities and That’s Okay!

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About a month ago, I was playing with my 3-year-old niece, drawing pictures with Crayola Crayons. She pulled out a purplish color and asked me what it was. I dutifully read the name, as phonetically as I could, “MAG-A-NEAT-A… what the hell is MAG-A-NEAT-A?” We all laughed, and my brother (the dad) intervened: “It’s MA-GEN-TA.” I told my niece I probably am not the best person to read her these names. Also that I should learn to use better language around 3-year-olds.

I read between a 6th and 9th grade level and have a language processing speed in the bottom 14 percent of the population. I have an unspecified reading disorder (DSM-IV 315.00) and learning disorder (DSM-IV 315.9). Despite these learning disabilities (LDs) and my love-hate relationship with Crayola Crayons, I have a PhD in molecular virology and microbiology and I am a second-year post doc at University of Cape Town. My life is not a mental contradiction.

I want to help address the misinformed stigma that having a learning disability is synonymous with being unintelligent. What does it mean to be intelligent? Is it the ability to learn new information efficiently? The ability to process complex information quickly? Is it more important to intelligence to comprehend what you read, or to effectively communicate through your words (either written or spoken)? Intelligence is ambiguous. Maybe intelligence is similar to former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

On the surface, I don’t make the “that guy’s really intelligent” cut in pretty much every aspect of my life. I have a hard time learning names, reading menus, following directions when driving, I get lost in conversations that are happening too quickly and almost always give up on long online articles that require you to push that dreaded ‘go to next page’ button (silly The New York Times). Anything related to words — consuming, understanding or disseminating them to new people — is incredibly difficult for me. This makes me ask, “Is it possible for me to be successful in a field that essentially uses ‘intelligence’ as a prerequisite?” Without a doubt!

Although I may be destined to watch TV or listen to audiobooks as opposed to sitting down and reading a good book, I feel intelligent where it counts in my field: understanding the research on how HIV manipulates TB diseased sites. For reasons that elude me to this day, I’ve learned and retained the literature incredibly well and how it relates to my experiments better than I know my birthday. I don’t remember authors and journals, but I do remember the experiments, results, figures and how their conclusions compare to my work. I’m able to ask questions and design experiments that objectively allow me to examine my hypotheses. What this essentially means is that I feel intelligent at my day job but not during my everyday life. I’m okay with this.

I believe this inconsistency in intelligence puts a horrible strain on the millions of Americans that have LDs. We usually struggle in school, score poorly on standardized tests (my GRE reading section was in the bottom 30-ish percent of the population), and get intimidated by the ‘massive amounts of [insert the skill you’re bad at] that is/are necessary in [insert ideal job].’ Moving past those barriers is incredibly scary and have led to many sleepless nights, self doubt, personal hatred and tears. I know this firsthand and I am about as privileged as it gets being a white upper-middle class male American, who benefitted tremendously from my dedicated parents who consistently advocated for me through high school, and were able to afford weekly private tutoring from 1st to 12th grade. I can’t imagine what it must be like for students and adults with LDs that deal with even more inequalities. The educational system is designed to teach the ‘average’ student, which means that those with LDs may not receive the help they need for success.

Scientists and engineers (S&E) with LDs is not unheard of: approximately 0.9 percent (311) of all (34531) S&E doctoral recipients in 2011 self identified as having one or more learning disorders. I wish these numbers were higher despite the extensive amount of reading or computing necessary for completion of these degrees and within a career. I wish I could say that individuals with LDs are more likely to succeed than their coworkers without LDs, but I honestly have no idea how LDs correlate to ‘success’ in S&E.

However, I do know that these individuals literally ‘think differently’ and have already demonstrated that they have figured out how to overcome their own limitations. Goal-orientation, perseverance and passion have consistently been shown as some of the most important attributes to success. In my biased opinion, individuals with LDs will have to have these personality traits, giving them a paradoxical “leg up” in academia.

Sacrifices will have to be made on all sides and it may take the student with LDs longer than their non-LD peers to complete the same tasks. I was incredibly fortunate to have a professor in graduate school that allowed me to explain my data in our one-on-one meetings in a way that was comfortable with me, while expecting just as much from me as anyone else. Currently my boss at University of Cape Town has given me an incredible amount of freedom to begin a completely new project. My colleagues in my lab and within the entire department are also incredibly helpful, answering my questions without judgment, limiting the time I lose to painstaking reading research. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by scientists, friends and family members that show me they care about me by not caring about my LD.

I hope schools will become more cognizant of identifying and helping students with LDs. I hope research program admission committees can look beyond test scores and GPAs when accepting new students (I was rejected from 7 out of 8 I applied for). I hope students are able to be open about their LDs with their bosses, working together to find the most efficient and helpful ways to have meetings, write papers, perform experiments and present results. I hope that no scientist or engineer with LDs feels like they’re alone. But most of all, I hope struggling students and adults with LDs are able to feel good about who they are.

Environments like this have helped me accept the fact that it doesn’t matter that I may be below the curve in a few intellectual areas. Intelligence, like pretty much everything else subjective, is on a spectrum. And just because you may be lower than average in one or every single area, doesn’t have anything to do with how good you will be at your job whether that’s a scientist, clinician or business woman. Whether you have an LD, work with someone that does or have no idea if anyone around has one or not I implore you to keep an open mind about individuals with learning disabilities.

I’m curious if any readers can relate to this topic. Do you or anyone you know have LDs? Please share your stories in the comments or email me at Collin@ldphd.org. The more we open up about the fact that we, as LD individuals in various fields are out in the world we can help change their stigmas.

Collin Diedrich received his PhD in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. He is currently a post doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. You can read more about his personal experiences with learning disabilities at www.ldphd.org.

This post first appeared in The Public Library of Science Blog.

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