My Lab Makes Me Sick

How do you supervise undergraduate research if you can no longer work in your laboratory?

Brian Taylor

September 16, 2013

Asthma is an impairment that can go unnoticed. For many people with asthma, the physical work environment is essential to being able to function on the job. That is absolutely the case for me.

I have been in and out of chemistry laboratories in an academic setting for the past 20 years, first as a student, then as a postdoc, and now as a faculty member at a comprehensive master's university. A few years ago, I became an asthmatic after what appeared to be a minor lab accident. Unfortunately, as it turned out, my asthma was (and is) triggered by volatile organic compounds. Imagine an organic chemist who has asthma attacks as a result of volatile organic chemicals.

A doctor advised me: "Put a picture of your kids on the door of the lab to remind yourself to never go inside." It seemed nearly impossible to consider how I could maintain the degree of professional participation necessary to teach lab courses and conduct research.

I love lab-based chemical research. I enjoy doing it myself, and I enjoy guiding research students in the lab. As a result of the asthma, I have had to concede that, short of a full-body respirator, my physical ability to do my own research is now limited. But I am unwilling to give it up entirely. Research keeps me fresh and connected to the larger science community. I view it as an integral aspect of my job as a faculty member in a department of chemistry that offers only an undergraduate degree.

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 16.5 percent of Americans ages 21 to 64 are disabled. The Americans With Disabilities Act broadly defines disability as limiting an aspect of everyday life through a mental or physical impairment. Information on accommodations for the most obvious types of disabilities—mobility, vision, and hearing—is widely available. Accommodations for people with asthma, which according to a Centers for Disease Control report in 2011 affects 8.2 percent of the adult American population, are much more difficult to find. Mostly, employers recommend that people avoid contact with whatever triggers their asthma.

Students with disabilities have benefited from technology in many ways, like instruments that enlarge documents for vision-impaired students and streaming video for students unable to be in the physical classroom. Not surprisingly, examples of faculty members making use of adaptive technology on the job are not very common. The ADA specifies that employers must provide reasonable accommodations, and a 2012 report from the American Association of University Professors discusses the need for faculty accommodations for disabilities. The lack of information available regarding such accommodations could be a result of institutions' and/or faculty members' simply not reporting them. It could also result from institutions' focusing first on students and only secondarily on the needs of faculty members, staff employees, and administrators. But faculty disabilities affect students, too.

Two years ago I was getting ready to advise a couple of students for a summer of undergraduate research, which I knew would be a challenge because of my asthma. I needed a way to visually supervise them, so I contacted the IT department at my university about getting a video-chatting system set up in my lab. My department allowed me to commandeer one of its laptops, and the IT expert installed Skype and then configured it to automatically connect to my own computer once the lab computer was turned on for the day.

I recognized that Skype would have limitations when it came to teaching students the techniques required to complete their research. Thus, for the hands-on training with glassware, I taught the students the necessary techniques largely in a hall outside my lab. They used water and benign solids like ordinary table salt when learning the methods. Once they had mastered the basics, I used Skype as a means to ensure safety, proper technique, and, most important, to provide guidance when needed.

As the summer progressed, the students turned off the camera. They kept the instant-message function active and sent questions when they had them. When necessary we used the video function, but only in a limited fashion by the end of the summer. We discussed the data face to face, but our daily interactions when students were in my lab were largely by camera or computer. I was present on the campus the entire time the students were working, but I spent very little time in the laboratory.

I recently completed a second summer of supervising the undergraduate research of five students via Skype. As before, I did a lot of training with water first, but I also used Skype. For training on more-complex techniques, a colleague provided much-needed instruction in the laboratory.

As I observed during the first year, the video capability was brilliant for enabling real-time interaction with my students. And once again, as they grew more confident in their skills, they relied less on the camera and more on the instant-message functions. In addition to the video chatting and instant messaging used the first summer, students e-mailed pictures of data (via smartphones), so I had almost real-time access to their data.

So this approach worked for me. But did it work for the students? I think it did. In the first summer, one student completed an honors thesis based on her research in my lab, and another realized from the experience that research was her passion. She is about to begin graduate school in organic chemistry. All five students who conducted research with me this past summer plan to continue their work into the fall. Two will write honors theses using their work. Another has presented a poster about his work.

As for me, using this approach, I am able to continue doing research in organic chemistry and advising students in the lab. Skype has given me the means to stay active in my chosen profession, despite my inability to work consistently in the laboratory.

The support of my colleagues has been essential. My department has made it possible for me to avoid teaching laboratory courses. My colleagues have stepped in when one of my students needs help in the laboratory or needs something from the stockroom that it is not good for me to retrieve. The dean of my college has provided me with leadership opportunities that will give me options in the future in case this arrangement no longer works for me, my department, or my students. I feel grateful and lucky, because I'm not sure all departments would be so supportive.

In the grand scheme of things, my problem with asthma is not as challenging as some other disabilities. But it does draw attention to the way campus discussions about accommodating disabilities usually focus on the student. Of course it's easy to see why. But it may be time to recognize the needs of faculty and staff who are, after all, essential for the education of the students.

LuAnne McNulty is an associate professor of chemistry at Butler University.