Disabled in STEMM

Interview with Dr Richard Mankin

Tell us about your disability

Dr Mankin : I was born missing a lot of muscles in my legs and arms. That resulted in orthopedic complications and then I had several operations that eventually let me walk with crutches and braces. That ended by the time I was about 12 years old and since then I’ve been walking on braces and crutches. It has affected some aspects of my life, mostly social aspects. It didn’t really affect educational or interactions with science. I was born very interested in science and I’ve been interested in doing research all my life, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.

From physics to entomology

Dr Mankin : As it turned out, although I was very interested in physics as a means of getting into science, I always had a wide-ranging interest in particular aspects of biology and because of my mobility issues, I was always very interested in flying animals, particularly the flying insects around me. When I got into graduate school, I saw that there were a lot of research projects going on that were related to biology and then I gravitated towards entomology because I was interested in agriculture, in particular in making sure people had enough food to eat. It just seems like a good place to apply physics to help out in agricultural problems and I think that was a good call on my part, a good guess. I really enjoyed applying physics to entomology.

One of the projects that I’ve been working on for about 20 years is the detection of hidden insect infestations. A lot of times you can detect insects that are, say, in trees or in soil or in stored products, by applying vibration or acoustic sensors to them. It’s a little bit complicated interpreting the signals, but I have developed a lot of computer analyses and a lot of theoretical analyses that help people interpret those signals. It has become, not a large part of science, but it’s developed into its own separate discipline. I’ve been really happy to go around the world doing the testing and meeting with a lot of nice people and having a lot of good students working with me over the years.

Has your disability posed an impediment in conducting your research?

Dr Mankin : Yes, to some extent, it has. But I have always felt that being where the insects are is better, for at least some of the research, than only looking at, say, recordings or other items that other people have collected without me being around.
So, part of what I’ve done over the years is establish co-operations with people who were field entomologists and who were willing to try to work with me to enable access to the signals that I needed to collect. It’s been an interesting process. I mean, a lot of scientists are resourceful, that’s how you get to be a scientist. We’ve all worked together to do different things, and basically, as long as I can walk or climb a few steps and things like that and it’s not more than, say, a kilometer or two distance walking, then I’ve been able over the years to do that. Now as I get older, it’s more difficult than it was, but I’m still in good enough physical shape to do things like that.

What kind of obstacles did you face in pursuing your career?

Dr Mankin : Essentially starting off, because I had an obvious disability, I was not encouraged to go into science. That was basically my own decision to do that, and I’m glad I did. I felt, especially looking back, that I kind of had no choice because I had a great amount of curiosity. And I was smart enough. I mean, I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I was smart enough to go through school and get good grades once I understood that that was important. If you wanted to become a scientist, you had to go to school, you had to get good grades. So, even though I did not receive any encouragement at all, I was able to just proceed through, and fortunately, when I was in high school, I took the National Merit Scholarship test—I don’t know, you also probably in Japan have something similar to that—and I scored very high on that and was able to get a scholarship that paid for my tuition and gave me a stipend, and I used that. Plus, also when I was in undergraduate school, I looked for science jobs at laboratories where I was, at New Mexico State University, and was able to do that. That’s actually where I first started programming. I had some programming tasks in that. So, I kind of got a jumpstart on a lot of these in undergraduate school. And then I was able to continue on to get a graduate assistantship and a postdoc and a job. There have been different times when I’ve had difficulties moving forward, but it just seems like I've had, I don’t know, two or three lucky breaks over the years and four or five good ideas. They just all seem to kind of happen at the time I needed to be able to move forward, and so I'm still around.

What kind of reasonable accommodation do you receive at your workplace?

Dr Mankin : I do think that because of my disability, the administrative staff at the lab, and for that matter, the whole of the Agricultural Research Service, is probably more sensitive to those issues than they would otherwise be. They’ve done things like, make doors that open up automatically, and they have made the bathrooms a little easier to use, bigger stalls and things like that. So, it would benefit other people who have disabilities, but actually, there’s only been, I would say, three or four other people, during that 40 years I’ve been at my lab, who have been researchers coming into the lab, doing things with a disability. It just is not very common even in the United States. Most of the accommodations that I’ve asked for have not been administrative. They’ve been with colleagues. I’ve talked to and worked out procedures that were usually mutually beneficial because they benefited from knowledge of what the insects were doing and I benefited from a little help and been able to get to the locations and have the instrumentations carried back and forth. I don’t think it’s been so problematic for the cooperators. I’ve had people who actually came back to me and wanted to do more of the research because they enjoyed the whole process and hearing the insects themselves with the equipment while I was there.

Tell us about the Foundation for Science and Disability

Dr Mankin : Originally the Foundation started off [in 1975] as an organization of three really, I would call them, brilliant scientists who had disabilities, who were having trouble getting to conferences. I can understand that because I do go to conferences a lot. I enjoy working with colleagues at conferences and using that as a way to see what is of current interest in science. I think it’s important. Now, partly due to the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], which they were affiliated with, there was an effort to get the different major scientific organizations to make the conferences accessible to persons with disabilities. And that was largely done over a period of time, just a few years before the laws were passed in the United States, making that the case for disabled persons in general. I think that has been a big help, particularly for the people who have major limitations on movement and also for persons with visual and hearing problems.

The original goal of the Foundation has been met fortunately, but there was a need. I think that all of us felt, who were there in the early 90s and the 2000s, that there was just a need for networking among researchers with scientists and engineers with disabilities. There was a need to network. And this is something that I have focused on over the years. I’m not perfect at it because I do think that persons, like me, with disabilities a lot of times are not super outgoing. We tend to be a little bit reserved because frequently enough we’re met with kind of pushback. My wife was very outgoing and I kind of used her as a help to develop skills that let me interact better with other people.

The other main aspect of what the Foundation does is to give out student grants to graduate students. I’ve been the chair of that committee for 20 years now and we’ve given out about 25 grants. And some of the students who went through that program have become well-respected scientists. So, I feel very good about that aspect of what the Foundation has done.

Do you have any advice to students with disability who want to become a researcher?

Dr Mankin : My guess is that everyone has different strengths, and you should focus on whatever those strengths are. Now in my case, I had a whole bunch of curiosity, I had brain power, and I wanted also to talk to other people about the scientific issues and what was going on. Those things helped other people get over the stigma of being around me. I did have groups of people in high school and in college, we all got together and hammered out questions.

I would say that the more persons you are in contact with that see you as a real person…. Basically, I’ve been told by a lot of other people that they don’t see me as disabled. So, you kind of lose the stigma of disability if you’re interacting with other people in the way that they normally react with persons who don’t have disability. I don’t know if that helps, but I would also say, just being persistent. If you really want to be a scientist and kind of have an idea about the direction you want to go, it’s just necessary to continue persisting at that. Other people, not everyone, but a lot of other people in the face of persistence, they’ll give in just at least a little bit, and that might be enough to get through whatever barrier you’re running into at that particular time.