A Wheelchair for Chemists?
A video of a new wheelchair has been making the rounds this week, and it’s pretty cool. The device allows you to either sit or stand while moving:
The first thing that crossed my mind on seeing this video is how useful such a device would be for someone disabled who wanted to work in a lab. Yes, there are adaptations you can make to laboratories such that someone in a (seated) wheelchair can work, but I have never actually seen a facility with them. And what is to be done about shared instrumentation? Do the able-bodied people in the lab have to work on lower benches, or does the student in the wheelchair need to find a way to elevate himself?
It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to see how a wheelchair-bound student could be very successful in computational research without too much difficulty, but it seems like a disabled student who aspires to conduct “wet” chemistry would have a much more difficult time. The experimental work typical of graduate school is inherently solitary, and even with modifications like reduced-height hoods, a wheelchair-bound student is still going to run into all sorts of problems that will hinder independence. For instance, how do you insert samples into an NMR spectrometer? How do you reach the top shelf in the stockroom? How do you swap out an expired nitrogen cylinder? How can you carry things from building to building?
If you are an aspiring basketball player or construction worker, a spinal-cord injury means giving up your dreams. The cold, hard facts dictate that you will not be able to contribute to these endeavors in a significant way. But as far as chemistry goes, being in a wheelchair doesn’t fatally disqualify someone from being a professor or industrial group leader. You can still think, write, talk, and teach just as well in a chair as you can standing. What’s tough is that in order to earn your way into such a position, you are going to have to tackle two phases of solitary, physically-demanding experimental work as a graduate student and postdoc.
In all my years in academia, never have I encountered a single wheelchair-bound undergraduate chemistry major, graduate student in chemistry (experimental or computational), postdoc, or professor under the age of 80. I have heard of one chemist (Todd Blumenkopf of Pfizer) who went through graduate school and a postdoc in wet labs (Berkeley, then Irvine). That isn’t to say there aren’t other examples, but they seem to be very, very rare.
It seems like anyone who wants to be a group leader in an experimental field is going to have to find a way to perform lab work. Maybe assistive devices like the TekRMD will open the door for a class of people who would otherwise be reluctant to attempt to climb the ivory tower or industrial ladder.