From rebellion to research: working in STEM with ADHD and dyslexia
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From rebellion to biomedical research: Working in a lab with ADHD and dyslexia

Growing up with ADHD and dyslexia, Jacquelyn Spathies didn’t picture herself one day working on a doctorate in biomedical studies. Teachers told her she wasn’t trying hard enough and discouraged her from dreaming big. Kids bullied her about her school supports. Like lots of kids with dyslexia, she felt like an outsider, and she found acceptance in a rebellious crowd. 

Then Jacquelyn went to community college, where she found encouragement from the right teacher. She discovered her love for research and science. Now Jacquelyn works in a federal lab, where she researches topics from coronavirus to eczema. 

Tune in to hear Jacquelyn talk about self-advocacy in the workplace, and how “othering” it can be to grow up with a learning difference.

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Episode transcript

Jacquelyn: I think in college, I just kind of suppressed it and was like, I'm fine, I can do this. I'm passing my tests just fine. And then when I graduated and I started my job, my work actually offered a class on like diversity and inclusion. And one of the things they talked about was learning differences. And it was actually in that class that I realized, oh my gosh, like, that's me.

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou, and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

When the pandemic first hit, my next guest was working in a federal lab, helping other scientists learn more about the virus spreading across the globe. Jacquelyn Spathies didn't grow up dreaming of a career as a scientist in a white lab coat. In fact, as a teen with ADHD and dyslexia, she was rebellious and didn't always feel confident in school. It wasn't until college that she found her calling in research and biology. That passion has led her to research topics from coronavirus to eczema. She's now on her way to receive a doctorate in biomedical studies from Vanderbilt University. Welcome to the show, Jacquelyn.

Jacquelyn: Thank you so much for having me.

Eleni: So let's start from the very beginning. What was it like, you know, growing up with ADHD and dyslexia? How did you feel about it?

Jacquelyn: As far back as I can remember — right? — which is when I'm in elementary school and, as any mother is very concerned for their kids and wants them to have equal opportunities as their peers, my mom, you know, was very concerned and wanted to make sure I got the treatment or the diagnosis that I needed. And so growing up, she definitely sent me to certain classes and made sure I had my IEP and medication for ADHD and things like that, and just like assisted time on tests and whatnot and so forth. And so that was kind of like me and my sister were both raised that way. In high school, I kind of goofed around and didn't really focus as much. But once I was in college, that's when I started to really take ownership over my work and kind of found that study habits that worked for me, and just communicating with my professors and letting them know. One of the nice things about going to community college was that I had a small classroom size, so I could have that one-on-one kind of intimacy with my professors to just let them know like, "Hey, I'll probably be the last one taking this exam," like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they're normally very understanding and they'll work with you because again, they can in that kind of setting. And so that was kind of how I entered college. It wasn't really until then that I started to develop more of an interest in school and STEM specifically.

Eleni: The reason I asked how you felt about it is in our research we talk to, you know, a lot of kids that feel like really different at school, and they don't necessarily understand why. And it sounds like you got a lot of support. But, you know, we often hear from people that they still feel really like alone in their experience. And they look for, you know, a community to belong to and like feel normal and things like that. So even though you were getting that support, were you out about it? Like, did you talk about it? Did you feel any shame around it or like were you proud of like, you know, thinking differently? And how did that kind of show up for you?

Jacquelyn: I wish I took pride in it, but I definitely didn't. I think especially when you're younger, you don't really think about it and you just feel embarrassed. Like you're automatically the "other" because you have to get up and you have to leave the classroom, right? And the teachers like, OK, everyone who you know, you know who you are. Go ahead, go take the test. And so we all get up and everyone kind of knows. I remember one time being at the local gas station and I was like buying gum, and I was like, I have $5 and I can buy this many packs of gum. I was like doing the math. And these kids, these boys who I went to school with saw me, and they were like, "How do you know how much to buy?" Like, "You can't do math," like making fun of me because they knew I was, you know, like getting my tests read to me and things like that. So again, like, oh, like they notice when I get up and walk away and that's, that's bullying, right? Like, that's proof. And, and so of course, I remember those little moments and yeah, it is embarrassing.

Eleni: I really appreciate you sharing that because, you know, we often hear that being bullied or, you know, feeling "othered" or different and feeling rejected like kind of builds upon itself. And, you know, people end up rejecting school or whatever other system they feel contributes to that otherness. You talked about how you kind of goofed off in high school. Do you think that there was a link there?

Jacquelyn: Yeah, I kind of have an interesting story for that, actually. So it was around the time I was applying to graduate school, which was this past October. And there was a lot going on just in my life in general, right? Trying to balance work and applying to school and just, you know, social life and relationships. There was a lot going on, and I had to go through a government clearance for my job. And I ended up getting the phone call for the government clearance like around that time. And they found some stuff on my record that like I didn't report because to be completely honest, I didn't remember and thought it was important to report. So anyway, now I'm going through and I'm having to like relive these, like, you know, these mistakes and these rebellious, this rebellious stage I had in my youth. And he's asking me questions like, why did you do this? Blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, oh my gosh. Like, this is not what I should be going through. Because now I'm thinking about this part in my life and oh, you know, I'm a terrible — I'm not going to be a doctor, like blah, blah, blah. I'm not worth it. So of course it kind of brings me down. And I mean, it was it was a lot. It was really hard. I thought I was going to get like fired from my job, like, this is going to ruin my career.

And I went home and I just started researching ADHD and dyslexia, and kind of trying to see like how it had affected me. And I came across some blog posts. People are talking about how like they kind of associate with delinquents because at least there they're accepted. And I'm reading all of these things and I'm thinking, oh my God, that was me. That was me. I can definitely relate to a lot of that because it's true. I was very rebellious, right? The bar was set really low. I felt like I couldn't accomplish much. I didn't receive that motivation, I guess, or at least that's how I viewed it.

And so, you know, looking at the rebellious kids, it was like, OK, well, at least I fit in here. They accept me. They're kind of the outcasts, right? And just kind of like realizing that and associating it with, oh, my gosh, like, it's not my fault. I have accomplished so much and I've kind of overcome that and reflecting and journaling and thinking about these things. And I got the government clearance — surprise! I didn't get fired from my job. It was fine. But of course I was worried, and that was what kind of got me spiraling down that path. But it ended up leading to my ability to forgive myself. You know, I've apologized to my parents because I definitely gave them a run for their money growing up. But it really made me realize, like, OK, like I'm not alone, I'm not the only one. And that I have really grown from it and kind of come out on top. And that's not who I am anymore. And I'm proud to say that, you know, if I can do it, I think anyone can, you know?

Eleni: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's really interesting to think about that impact, as you said, of like feeling othered, feeling different, being bullied. And then, you know, like everybody is looking for like friends and a community and people they can connect with. So like sometimes it's not, you know, necessarily on like positive terms, right? Like it's just, you know, we just like especially as teens.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think for me, it was like, you know, those parent-teacher conferences where you meet with your parents and the teacher is like, "Oh yeah, Jacquelyn's, you know, she's a good student, but maybe if she just tried a little harder." Or, you know, things like that, it was, it was never very, like, motivating.

Eleni: Yeah, I can totally see why it's not motivating if, you know, at the parent-teacher conferences saying, oh like "If only she tried harder," and you're already thinking that like I'm trying so hard I'm actually trying more. We often hear like people feel like they're trying harder for less of a result, which is like really tough. You said that, you know, it wasn't really until you got to college that you started to show some interest in STEM. You know, one thing we hear is sometimes it really only takes like one mentor or one champion to, like, make a big difference, to provide either, like aspiration or encouragement or confidence. Do you want to talk about what that moment was for you and how that influenced your path?

Jacquelyn: Yeah. Yeah. And I definitely also believe that because again, I think being othered and kind of carrying that like burden of shame is a huge kind of burden to carry. And it's true, I think the one mentor who kind of sees potential in you is really all it takes. And I definitely can remember my Intro to Biology professor at community college was like, you know, the one person who I really wanted to make proud. Like I would, you know, go to his office hours and just eat lunch and we would just talk, right? Like he would motivate me. And he was so impressed by some of the things I would say. And so I wanted to get an A just to impress him, you know what I mean? And I ended up really falling in love with biology. And, you know, I still keep in contact with him to this day. And again, community college means when I go home, I get to see him. So I kind of visit him every so often. And he's still a huge motivator in my life and I give a lot of thanks to him. And it is kind of crazy because that was really all it took, right? You know, my mom, my dad, didn't matter if they wanted it. It mattered if I put in the effort and wanted it. And it was, you know, the right time for me to meet him, you know, the right person, the right circumstances. I was in the right mindset, and I think it really kind of worked out well.

Eleni: Yeah. Talk to us a little bit more about like how you went from that first like intro biology class at community college to, you know, where you are now.

Jacquelyn: I knew I wanted to do science. I'm not quite sure why. I was just like, science is exciting. It's interesting. That's what I want to do. So I was taking a bunch of science classes, and that's when I met my biology professor and that's when I decided, OK, this is what I'm going to do. And then I determined, you know, I'm thinking, OK, do I want to be a nurse? Do I want to be like a doctor? You're kind of surrounded by a bunch of people in scrubs and and you're thinking more clinical stuff. And then I realized that I don't really want to work with patients. I think I want to do, like, lab work, more like behind the scenes kind of stuff. And I remember telling him that, like, I think I want to do research. And he was like, "If you really want to do research, you have to get your PhD." Looking back, it really was like that moment from there on, every class I took, every job I took was to kind of beef up my resume, so that way I could apply and get into PhD school.

And so from there, I then went away to university. I went to a local state school in Illinois called Eastern Illinois University. I was able to do research in a professor's lab in neurobiology. And so I gained some lab experience. And then I then graduated in December 2019. And so lockdown kind of started. And again, I just graduated with this degree that was very applicable to kind of what was going on. And so I was thinking, OK, well, how can I use my talent and my degree to kind of aid in this global pandemic? And then I moved out to D.C. a couple of months later and ended up doing research on COVID-19, and so it was an epidemiology study. But I've been here for about two years now, and I really do love kind of research and where I'm at and all the hands-on experience that I've been gaining from there.

Eleni: I was actually going to ask you what attracted you to science, but you said you're not really sure. Like was there something that, you know, steered you more towards like the lab and research work?

Jacquelyn: I mean, there's a couple of aspects to it. Number one, I just think the mental stimulation. I guess the questions, right, the unknown questions and the ability to be curious. I think that's the big one. I like working with my hands, right? Like I get to, you know, do experiments and mix liquids and run analysis and do things. So I'm not sitting at a desk all day, right? There's data analysis stuff that you do, but there's also what's called wet lab stuff. So you're working with patient samples or you're doing cell cultures. So you get to work with your hands, which I think is really good for me. It's not a desk job. It's not mundane, and it's also challenging, right? It's mentally stimulating. So I kind of like that challenge. And the fact that I get to work with my hands I think is really good for me.

Eleni: On this show, this idea of working with your hands really comes up a lot. And I wonder if you've thought about how that might relate to your ADHD or dyslexia, and if you could talk about that.

Jacquelyn: The first thing that comes to mind is the challenges that are presented, because with research and with specific experiments, you know, following those steps, if you think about like a recipe, right, if we're baking a cake, following each step and making sure you know what comes next is really important. So if you make a mistake, if you zone out for a second, you know, you have to be very much so focused on that experiment if it's going on right now. And so I think there can definitely be some challenges that require like for me, one way to overcome that is to really like double-check my work, you know, look at it, you know, and double-check and make sure, OK, this is the right concentration. This is what I need to do. Because God forbid I add it and then it's the wrong concentration and I have to start all over. So there's definitely an aspect of that that I've had to kind of realize in myself and adjust in my work — and not only just me, but to let the people I'm working with know like, hey, can you double-check my numbers, right? Like, have someone else look it over. You know, have that communication with your co-workers. And then once I figure it out, right, which really doesn't take too long — it's true. I think that keeps me engaged. And I agree that with my ADHD, wanting to always kind of be up and moving and active is stimulating. And I need that in my day-to-day life. Like I need, you know, hands-on kind of stimulation in order to be satisfied in my day-to-day.

Eleni: So when you were talking about having to follow steps of an experiment as though they are steps in a recipe, like I love that analogy. And I think for people that are not scientists, that's like a really straightforward way of thinking about it. Are you trying to say that like perhaps one of the challenges is because either because of your ADHD or your dyslexia, you might miss a step or misinterpret a step? I just wanted to clarify that's what you meant.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. Yeah, I would say that like it's a very complicated process sometimes. So one small change can make a big difference. And so really making sure that I take note of everything that I do and that it follows exactly, you know, what I did the first time is really important. And then the payoff to that is when you actually see those results like science in action, it's very satisfying, right? Like when you get the results you're looking for and the experiment works in the end, it's like, oh my, you know, it's that great, you know, light bulb moment or just kind of, what's the word? Like the gratification to see, like, wow, science really does work. It's cool, like, 'cause we can't see — normally the recipes we're working on are on like a molecular scale. So I can't see the molecules or the proteins, but by the end, if I get, you know, like a fluorescent kind of signal or a positive result, I'm like, oh my gosh, it worked. Like, look, there's the protein, finally! Like, you know, so it's really cool to kind of see the evidence in the science in action.

Eleni: Totally. Yeah. And you mentioned earlier in the conversation, you know, one of the things that you were concerned about as you became an adult was that if you talked about your differences, that you might be judged or people might think that you don't know what you're doing or, you know, whatever it might be. And you said now, like, you know, you try and communicate or like get people to double-check your work and things like that. How else do you advocate for yourself? Or how else do you think about, well — I guess how else have you overcome that fear that you might be judged?

Jacquelyn: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good question, because it took me a while to even realize that that was a difference or something that I had to deal with that other people didn't. Because I think in college, I just kind of like suppressed it and was like, I'm fine, I can do this. I'm equal, you know, I'm passing my tests just fine. And then when I graduated and I started my job, my work actually offered a class on like diversity and inclusion. And one of the things they talked about was learning differences. And it was actually in that class that I realized, oh, my gosh, like, that's me. You know, like this is actually — like this is something that people struggle with or something that I struggle with that people don't. Like oh my gosh. You know, I've never thought about it in that way before. Like an invisible disparity, right? People don't know, but it's something that I have to deal with.

And then that was when because, yeah, that was kind of when I started noticing those little differences maybe in my day-to-day that other people don't have to kind of struggle with as much or deal with as much as I do. And that's when I started kind of accepting it and kind of owning it, right? And I think the biggest thing was just communicating it with my co-workers. I mean, maybe not like your boss directly, but the person training you or the people you're surrounded with on your day-to-day, like just letting them know, "Hey, I might zone out and have you repeat something." Or like, "Hey, you know, I might need to double-check my work" or blah blah blah, like making sure they know. Because I guess my fear is that I'll make a mistake and then they won't trust me, right? Like, oh no, we can't have her do the experiment. She's going to mess it up. It's like, no, I know what I'm doing. You just have to kind of work with me here. Or like, "Hey, can you repeat yourself? I totally zoned out, you know, I want to make sure I know what you're talking about." And so kind of letting them know why made me feel comfortable in asking them those questions. Because I knew they knew why I was asking.

Eleni: The fact that your workplace offered that training is pretty amazing. I'm actually working on a project at the moment, speaking to workplaces and a bunch of organizations. Think about DEI, but disability and like differences often like neurodiversity is often left out of the conversations. That's really amazing that you were given that training. And, you know, it's really common for us to hear that people feel really like validated in their experience and they hear that like others are experiencing something similar.

And what's really interesting is, you know, you talked about you kind of like pushed it aside for a really long time and like repressed it and ignored it. What that does for a lot of people is it means that you can't necessarily work on that self-awareness of how it impacts you both in terms of strengths and challenges and being able to like own some of the challenges and ask for support where you need, but also really zone in on some of the strengths that come from difference too. So I'm glad that you finally got there, you know, even if it took a little bit longer and that you're like owning it now. That's really great.

I know you talked a lot about, you know, how satisfying it is when you run an experiment and it works. What happens when it doesn't work?

Jacquelyn: OK. So that is probably more than 50% of research is failing. I will tell you that right now, that is something that everyone struggles with, is you will make mistakes and that is not easy. It's embarrassing to go to your boss and say, I'm so sorry, I have to redo this. You know, you feel bad because maybe you wasted money, you wasted resources. But it's all a learning experience. Like, you make those mistakes now, and like, everyone has to make those mistakes. Like the top researchers who you admire, guess what? They had to go through that, too. And so that is something anyone and everyone in research has to accept and realize at some point. And it's really, really hard to do, but it's just a part of it. If you don't learn from them, then there's no growth. But the mistakes are inevitable. You have to just learn from them and move on.

Eleni: I think it's so important to normalize failure. And, you know, a lot of people that are not in the science world like really think about the fact that science is built on failure, right? Like, you know, it's a constant learning, constant iteration, constant experimentation. And, you know, just like knowing that that's just part of the process, right?

Jacquelyn: Yeah. Yeah. That is a big part of it. Technically, the main project that I'm working on now started because I wanted to optimize my protocol, and the experiments I was doing to try and optimize it kind of led me down this rabbit hole that then resulted in the project I'm doing now. And I never ended up optimizing that protocol. It never ended up working. But the experiments and data I gained from that gave me an idea, which then resulted in the project I have now.

Eleni: That's so cool.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, a lot of it is just curiosity-driven. Sometimes you don't really know what you're looking for, but it might kind of elucidate itself in time.

Eleni: Definitely. Thank you very much for being here.

Jacquelyn: Thank you so much for having me.

Eleni: This has been "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, tell someone about it. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/thatjob to share your thoughts and to find resources from every episode. That's the letter "U," as in Understood dot O R G slash that job. Do you have a learning difference and a job you're passionate about? Email us at thatjob@understood.org. If you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job, we'd love to hear from you.

As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world the difference, and we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music is written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.

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