How technology can help scientists with chronic illnesses (or Technology FTW!)

This is a guest post by Elita Baldridge (@elitabaldridge)

I am currently the remotely working member of Weecology, finishing up my PhD in the lower elevation and better air of Kansas, while the rest of my colleagues are still in Utah, due to developing a chronic illness and finally getting diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  The relocation is actually working out really well.  I’m in better shape because I’m not having to fight the air too, and I’m finally making real progress toward finishing my dissertation again.

I ruthlessly culled everything that wasn’t directly working on my dissertation.  I was going to attend the Gordon Conference this year, as I had heard fantastic things about it for years, but had not been ready to go yet, but I had to drop that because I wasn’t physically able to travel.  I did not go to ESA, because I couldn’t travel.  There are working groups and workshops galore, all involving travel, which I cannot do.  Right now, the closest thing that we have to bringing absent scientists to an event is live tweeting, which is not nearly as good as hearing a speaker for yourself, and is pretty heartbreaking if you had to cancel your plans to attend an event because you were too infirm to go.The tools that I’m using to do science remotely are not just for increasing accessibility for a single chronically ill macroecologist.  They are good tools for science in general.  I’m using GitHub to version control my code, and Dropbox to share data and figures.  Ethan can see what I’m working on as I’m doing it, and I’ve got a clear record of what I was doing and what decisions that I made. While my cognitive dysfunction may be a bit more extreme of a problem, I know that we’ve all stayed up too late coding and broken something we shouldn’t have and the ability to wave the magic Git wand and make any poor decisions that I made while my brain was out to lunch go away is priceless.

Open access?  Having open access to papers is really important when you are going to be faced shortly with probably not having any institutional access anymore.  Also, important for everyone else who isn’t at a major university with very expensive subscriptions to all the journals.  Having open access to data and code is crucial when you can’t collect your own data and are going to be doing research from your home computer on the cheap because you can’t rely on your body to work reliably at any given point in time.

Video conferencing is working well for me to meet with the lab, but could also be great for attending conferences and workshops.  This would not only be good for a certain macroecologist, but would also be good to include people from smaller universities, etc. who would like to participate in these type of things too, but can’t otherwise due to the travel.  I did my master’s degree at Fort Hays State University, and I still love it dearly.  This type of increased accessibility would have been great for me while I was a perfectly healthy master’s student.  Fort Hays is a primarily undergraduate institution in the middle of Kansas, about four hours away from any major city, and it does not have some of the resources that a larger university would have.  No seminar series, no workshops, not much travel money to go to workshops or conferences, which doesn’t mean that good science can’t still be happening.

Many of my labmates are looking for post-docs, or are already in postdoc positions at this point.  I’m very excited for all of them, and await eagerly all the stories of the exciting new things they are doing.  Having a chronic illness limits what I am capable of doing physically.  I am not going to be able to move across the country for a post-doc.  That does not mean that I do not want to play science too.  I’ve got my home base set up, and I can reach pretty far from here.  I still want to be a part of living science, I don’t want to have to get to the party after everyone else has gone home.

And I wonder, why can I not do these things?  Is it not the future?  Do we not have the internet, with video chat?  I get to meet with Ethan and talk science at our weekly meetings every week.  I go to lab meetings with video chat, and get to see what my labmates are doing, and crack jokes, and laugh at other people’s jokes.  It wouldn’t be hard to get me to conferences and working groups either.

With technology, I get to be a part of living, breathing science, and it is a beautiful thing.

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