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Great minds think differently - supporting neurodiversity benefits scientific progress

Academia needs to accept that not everyone’s brain functions in the same way.

Susanna Harris


University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

Juan Pablo Ruiz

Stem Cell Biology and STEM Education

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Most scissors are right-handed. Of course, that’s not to say left-handed people can’t use them—but the handles are designed to be most comfortable when held in the right hand. For precision and ease, someone who prefers to use their left hand might want to buy a pair of scissors designed for them.

The differences between right and left-handed people are small—a handful, if you'll excuse the pun, of genes—but from driving to writing, people are most successful when allowed to use tools specifically designed for them. Though being left-handed is less common, in some cases, this divergence from the “norm” can actually be an asset; left-handed baseball pitchers and pitch hitters are prized for their unpredictable patterns of play.

Unlike baseball players, scientists aren’t defined by our dominant hands. We are free to hold our forceps in whichever hand is most deft at finely controlling the points. But we are defined by how we think, and how our minds work to solve problems.

Many researchers’ brains function differently from what society considers to be normal, complicating their work in environments designed for another type of thought process. Like baseball players, however, these differences may also be a boon, providing new ways to approach and answer science's diverse questions.

Although technically classified as mental disorders, depression and autism spectrum disorders affect 7.6 percent and around one percent of adults, respectively. Both brain disorders are known to affect a person’s concentration and abilities to solve problems. A scientist’s ability to work in groups or under pressure diminishes if these effects are not understood or accounted for.

Here are two first-person accounts on the difficulties of conducting scientific research while living with depression or autism spectrum disorder. There are significant advantages to be gained from supporting scientists with differing thought processes and less common mindsets.

Grad School Is Actually A Great Place To Build Resilience

By Susanna Harris

I fought my symptoms of mental illness for a long time: I felt hopeless, had difficulty sleeping, fluctuations in appetite, low self-worth, short bursts of happiness and productivity followed by long periods of low energy. Some days, I'd literally lay on the couch all day unable to move. But I thought I was “too smart” for my brain to be sick.

Image of Susanna Harris smiling and sitting outside

Susanna Harris

Though major depression, anxiety, and substance abuse twist all the way up through my family tree, it wasn't until a particularly long and dark period of depression almost took my life that I finally accepted I needed to face these problems myself.

That was two years ago, and since then I've not only focused on my own well-being, but also worked to support family going through similar issues. It’s scary to watch those you love struggle, but though difficult, seeing others wrestle with these disorders helped me acknowledge my own. I became more open about my symptoms, and learned what kinds of healthy coping mechanisms can get me through difficult times, without sinking further into destructive tendencies—something which has been invaluable during my second half of grad school.

Not to minimize the astounding challenges and fears of catastrophic dips in mental health, but there are some silver linings of living with mental illnesses.

Susanna Harris working in a lab with a lab coat and blue gloves

For more on plant microbiomes and being a grad student with depression and anxiety, follow Harris on Twitter at @SusannaLHarris.

Susanna Harris

  1. I always have a therapist. Even when everything is smooth sailing, I know I have someone to hold me accountable if anything changes for the worse. I've also worked hard to build a strong support network—which was invaluable in recovering from my mental health crisis. This isn't something we're normally pushed to create, even though mental health struggles—in and out of grad school—happen. All. The. Time.
  2. Living with anxiety has made me learn to appreciate procrastination and obsession as a benefit (at times) to overall creativity when writing or working on experiments. It has also taught me to seek out people to hold me accountable to a deadline, forcing me to submit things before I feel that they are perfect.
  3. I have an increased sensitivity to when others are struggling; maybe this is from my own experiences, or maybe it’s from growing up around people with these kinds of disorders. Either way, identifying signs of imbalance has allowed me to provide support.
  4. Maintaining healthy habits, like sleeping well, eating well, exercising, and being mindful help me stay on the up-and-up. These will also lead to a longer, healthier life.
  5. Building The PhDepression LLC has connected me with people around the world. I’ve gained friends and professional connections—many of whom have helped my mental health, but also in the development of my scientific projects!

Rather than seeing my depression and anxiety as a weakness to overcome or “cure,” I see it as an invisible challenge. Like wearing a resistance band while lifting weights, I have to account for the differences in difficulty as I take on responsibilities. Like with lifting weights, if done consciously and carefully, this extra work will pay off. The people I’ve met during my PhD training have become like family, and they understand the challenges grad students face and the stresses research brings—any experiment could be the make or break part of a project, defining the trajectory of our work for months or years. But stressful and unexpected times will continue throughout life; grad school is actually a great place to build resilience and learn ways to keep moving forward.

For more on plant microbiomes and being a grad student with depression and anxiety, follow Harris on Twitter at @SusannaLHarris.

I Want Spaces Where We Can Jump And Shout For Joy

By Juan Pablo Ruiz

There’s no prescription for normalcy—even the definition of "normal" is largely dependent on context. As a kid, I learned that the only way I could pass for normal was to actively and constantly consider my surroundings and, like a chameleon, try to fit into whatever social group or situation I found myself thrown into. Quirks that couldn’t be hidden were excused as the stereotypical eccentricities caused by a high IQ and eidetic memory.

Juan Ruiz in a suit looking up outside

Juan Pablo Ruiz

These traits bore me through my undergraduate degree without needing to study—meaning I spent a lot of time with my cells in the lab, or writing fantasy stories alone in my room. But in academia, particularly in STEM fields, there's a certain amount of cultural acceptance and sometimes even a veneration of the caricatured male autistic: Someone who's socially awkward, reserved, unemotionally “objective,” and obsessed with his work. The problem with this—as with all stereotypes—is that it fails to capture the true diversity of autistics, perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

In fact, while people can see autistics as uncaring or unaware of social rules and interactions, because of past mistakes I am hyper-aware of everything I say and do in front of others, unless I am with close friends. When I blunder—which I do plenty—I wallow in shame when others would simply shrug it off.  Or take my hyper-empathy and hyper-emotionality, which are quite different from autistic stereotypes. I will legitimately scream in excitement from quite standard experimental results. I can also become incredibly overwhelmed when witnessing a conflict, even if I'm not directly involved. 

This leads to levels of social anxiety at conferences and other work events that before my diagnosis I handled with either copious amounts of alcohol or many naps. Sometimes, it was both: It’s much more socially acceptable to need naps for being hungover than for being socially exhausted and sensorially overwhelmed. With strangers and even acquaintances, unless I’m talking about my data (or another topic of interest), I will inevitably struggle with the interaction

Juan Ruiz in a lab with notebook and writing in a lab book

For more on improving academic culture and being a post-doc on the autism spectrum, follow Ruiz on Twitter at @HappyStemCell. 

 Juan Pablo Ruiz 

I, like many autistics, joined science academia in the hopes that my diverse brain, problem-solving skills, and ability to passionately spend long hours thinking about my interests would translate into success and acceptance, where it hadn’t before. Unfortunately, many of us learn too late that in science as much as in politics, selling yourself and your work, as well as building social networks, are crucial skills. We join science to avoid politics, only to find ourselves deep in such maneuverings. (That is, unless we choose to become lab tech or staff, career choices which can be looked down upon.)

As a former stem cell researcher, current education researcher, and now a member of the Future of Research board of directors, I interact with plenty of people who have not yet publicly disclosed their neurodivergence. I have had the pleasure of both mentoring and being mentored by many neurodiverse scientists—some of whom were as different from me as I am from a neurotypical. But I have had the privilege to pass as neurotypical in a space that snubs difference. Others don’t.

I neither need nor want accommodations designed to make it easier for me to assimilate—making neurotypical people more comfortable—while actively excluding those who can’t. I want truly inclusive spaces, and a culture where everyone is welcomed and nurtured to grow—especially those who cannot pass, and who have been told, from the beginning, that their brain is broken and set up for failure. I want to build spaces where we can jump and shout for joy uninhibited, and receive the accommodations we need to thrive. Because just as with normalcy, there is no prescription for success that doesn’t depend on context.

We need to be able to use our pipettes in whatever hand provides the most dexterity. We must work at a bench that allows us to turn right or left, depending on how we move comfortably and produce our best work. And just the same, we need to work in a space that provides ample resources to support unique thought processes and needs.

Without glorifying mental health struggles, we need to appreciate the diversity of perspectives brought by scientists who all think differently—and who can assess the world from exclusive viewpoints.