Even before COVID-19 made airports and train stations treacherous destinations, traveling to academic conferences was a logistical nightmare, says physicist Maria Elena Monzani.
Monzani, who is a leading scientist on the LUX-ZEPLIN dark matter experiment, has a diagnosis of skeletal dysplasia, which makes tasks like driving a rental car or walking the length of a conference center physically difficult or impossible. Before COVID, mobility issues would sometimes keep Monzani from attending workshops or conferences away from the US Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, where she works.
But that all changed when COVID sent the academic world remote.
Monzani says she was able to attend a CERN training session on continuous integration with GitHub, something she previously would have skipped. “And I did that from my kitchen table and my couch,” she says.
“There’s a lot of hesitation to expose vulnerabilities that might be physical or mental or emotional.”
Over the past year and a half, COVID has transformed the way physicists work. Conference poster halls have been converted into virtual spaces that resemble 8-bit video games, and impromptu conversations with classmates have moved to breakout rooms on Zoom.
But while virtual academia has encountered its own problems during this time, such as increasing professors’ workloads or disrupting their classroom dynamics, it has also helped highlight challenges and inequities already deeply ingrained in the system—especially for those with physical disabilities or mental illness.
Sarah Tuttle, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Washington, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 4 and a half. The autoimmune disease causes painful swelling, particularly in the joints; Tuttle has had both hips replaced with titanium.
Tuttle says she also deals with a generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks that began in 2010, four months before she completed her PhD dissertation.
These “health adventures,” as Tuttle calls them, have meant that she’s always keeping an eye on how her field treats those with chronic illness. How difficult it is to have a disability in academia can vary depending on the institution, Tuttle says, but prior to COVID she had noticed a troubling mindset.
“We [scientists in astronomy and physics] think about ourselves as really pushing limits, intellectually,” she says. “There's a lot of hesitation to expose vulnerabilities that might be physical or mental or emotional because of this kind of inherent feeling that those might be disqualifying for doing these difficult intellectual endeavors.”
But attitudes began to change during COVID, Monzani says.
The sudden shift toward greater accessibility is frustrating in some ways, she says. After all, many ideas that have suddenly become realities, such as flexible work schedules, are accommodations disabled people have been requesting for years.
But ultimately, Monzani says, these changes are proof that such workplace accommodations are possible and helpful to both people with disabilities and those without.
Amber Roepe, a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma studying high energy particle physics, is not living with a physical disability. But Roepe says that the new prevalence of remote conferences and workshops since 2019 has been a positive part of their pandemic experience. “I’ve already been to a number of virtual conferences—I think six, at least,” they say. “There was one conference that I went to that was the best conference I’ve ever attended.”
The shift to virtual events has made conferences more accessible for researchers with caregiving responsibilities and for researchers with financial limitations, including early-career researchers like Roepe with small or nonexistent travel budgets.
“It's much easier for students to attend these conferences,” Roepe says. “Especially when the registration fee is low and you don't have to pay for travel. It becomes much, much more accessible for everyone.”
There’s still room for improvement, Roepe says. As a part of the Snowmass physics community future planning initiative, Roepe has been advocating for the use of live captioning at conferences, particularly for the benefit of participants with partial or total hearing loss.
While less expensive than human caption-writers, AI-based transcription services tend to have difficulty transcribing scientific terms, Roepe says. Roepe says they’ve seen some movement among conference organizers toward budgeting for higher quality options, though the change is far from ubiquitous.
Monzani says she hopes that conference organizers continue to offer remote options in the future, but that she hopes the future is not completely online. She and Tuttle agree that virtual meetings, conferences and class lectures are missing a part of what makes physics research so exciting and rewarding: a real sense of connection.
“There is a lot of communication that’s lost if you're not physically in the same place,” Monzani says. “I work with people across the world, and I haven't seen most of these people in over two years.”
How to strike a balance that both provides accessibility while still maintaining a sense of community is an open question. But whatever the solution is, Roepe says, the pandemic has made it clear that inclusivity is possible when people see it as essential for getting the job done.
“When we are excluding people—whether they need accommodations, whether we're discriminating against people based on gender, sexual orientation or race—we aren't able to do our best science,” Roepe says.