PhD Student, University of Toronto, Canada
Field of expertise: Computational Biology
Years of experience (since start of PhD): 5 years
- Twitter: @alexijielu
Describe your hearing: Profoundly deaf; I’m oral and voice for myself, but I use ASL interpreters for professional interactions
I grew up mainstreamed in Vancouver. For most of grade school, I used hearing aids —back when I was in elementary school, we still had those clunky FM systems that attached to your hearing aids through wires and boots. I was lucky to have a hearing resource teacher who recognized the importance of sign language, and she brought in a Deaf teacher to teach me and a few other Deaf/hard-of-hearing students the basics in grade 9. In grade 11, I decided to stop using my hearing aids entirely. Part of my decision was practical—I had a progressive hearing loss, and it was getting to the point where I felt like my hearing aids weren’t helping enough to be worth the headache they gave me from amplifying everything. But the other reason was because I had grown to resent what they represented: how hearing people always expected me to “fix” myself to be acceptable to them. My parents and teachers were furious—I was in the middle of a highly intensive International Baccalaureate program and they didn’t know how I would get through it. But I managed to cobble together strategies, including basic ASL and borrowing notes from classmates. I’ve used ASL interpretation for my academic needs ever since.
I’m also queer, and outside of academia, I do a lot of activism in bridging Deaf and queer communities. For a while before my PhD (and even well into it), I was active in many non-profits. Some of my fondest memories include negotiating accessibility in Pride boardrooms, emceeing Deaf poets for spoken word festival events, and moderating all-Deaf panels about prison justice.
How did you get to where you are?
Many people in academia will talk about how they’ve always known what they’ve wanted to study since they were very small. I am definitely not one of those people. Rather, I got to my current interests by taking opportunities as they arose, and by being receptive to advice. I began studying computational biology as an undergraduate because a family friend mentioned it might appeal to me. I had many interests and didn’t know whether I wanted to major in English or history or a science; I figured that their advice was as good as any. As I worked through my degree, I met a graduate student who asked me to volunteer for a lab that wanted someone with computational skills, and I specifically got involved in image analysis because that was the data the lab worked with. That experience opened the door to my PhD; I applied to just two graduate schools upon finishing my undergraduate, and I figured that if I didn’t get into either, I would just start my career. But one graduate school liked my background enough that they accepted me, and I’ve been working in image analysis and computer vision ever since.
That isn’t to say that I am not passionate about what I do; I love working on challenges in big biological image datasets, and it really challenges my creative problem solving skills. But I am fundamentally a very flexible person, and I can easily see alternative histories where I stumbled into something radically different—comparative literature, maybe, or psychology—and would have been equally as happy and passionate about that. In retrospect, taking opportunities as they arose was a very good strategy for me as a marginalized disabled person—it meant that I was always surrounded by people who were eager to invite me into their space, so I attribute a lot of my success to being easy-going enough that I could let these people guide my journey.
What is the biggest professional challenge? How do you mitigate this challenge?
Anything that involves travel. I never know whether I will be able to find qualified accessibility services when I travel for conferences or other academic commitments. For conferences, my school has been terrific about having my regular academic ASL interpreters fly out with me: we have flown to New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver together, and that guarantees that I can be fully involved in the important networking connections that are being made there. However, this is not a problem I have fully solved. I’m due to spend three months in Switzerland for a research exchange soon, and since they use a different sign language than mine, I wasn’t able to find local services. I’ve had to come up with more creative solutions; my current plan is to have my interpreters in Toronto Skype with me remotely for regular meetings, and I will have to see how this works out. But in general, I think about academic mobility a lot for disabled people. While a lot of my able-bodied peers are able to take jobs and opportunities anywhere in the world, I feel like there are more hurdles for me, and I’m trying to find ways to not let this limit the steps I can take in my career.
What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I have an awesome accessibility plan with my school, which gives me “block times.” Three or four afternoons a week, I have an ASL interpreter present for any needs that might pop up: a collaborator or student showing up for a meeting, impromptu chats with my supervisor or colleagues, seminars that I learn about last-minute but seem interesting. The interpreter is booked regardless of there’s something happening or not, and if it turns out to be a quiet afternoon, she spends her time on prep or coordination.
This accommodation has really made a massive impact on my success in my program and career. For example, it makes collaborations a lot easier: while I could book interpretation for each specific meeting happening, having to set a date three weeks ahead to confirm interpretation is a lot less convenient than a collaborator just dropping in with short notice to discuss how a project is proceeding. Similarly, I don’t have to devote a lot of energy into keeping abreast of departmental and campus events to be able to request interpretation ahead of time—I can spontaneously go to seminars as other graduate students mention them to me. It’s really leveled the playing field a lot in terms of how much time and energy I have to devote to being engaged and available as a scientist, compared to hearing people.
What advice would you give your former self?
You work way better 9 to 5! I can’t believe how much more productive I became after I started sleeping 8 hours a night and giving myself more downtime—sometimes fewer working hours is more!
Any funny stories you want to share?
I once helped host an ASL-interpreted theatre production. I taught the director how to say “thank you” in ASL, so she could wave goodbye to the community members I had invited as they were leaving the show. Unfortunately, between the start and end of the play, she forgot that the sign starts from the mouth, not the chin, and ended up signing “fuck you” all night… (People had a good sense of humor about it).