Nature

My international career journey as a disabled scientist

People on the famous historic and cultural area Sanfang Qixiang in Fuzhou, China

When microbiologist Christopher Rensing navigates Fuzhou’s busy streets on his mobility scooter, he finds many people in the Chinese city consider it a novelty vehicle rather than a medical necessity.Credit: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented me from rejoining my research group at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in Fuzhou, China, where I work as a professor of microbiology and director of the Institute of Environmental Microbiology.

Although my American citizenship makes me a slight rarity as a laboratory leader in China, my physical disability makes me rarer still. In 1998, I was diagnosed with a degenerative neuropathy that affects my lower limbs, which meant I had to start using canes to walk in 2002. Since 2009, I have needed a mobility scooter to get around. I don’t like being unable to move at the same pace I once could, and I miss participating in sports. That might be one reason why my work is important to me: I still exercise regularly, but I don’t have sport as an outlet.

Being disabled affects me both physically and emotionally. Since my diagnosis, I have experienced fear of unemployment together with insecurity, depression and concern about not having proper care during my retirement. I realize that my ability to find an academic position is diminished or that some people might have lower expectations of my capabilities because of my disease. However, I don’t let these fears control my life.

There are many different disabilities, and my experiences will not be representative of those of every disabled person. I have faced many setbacks in my career and because of my disability. I struggled with my diagnosis, and it helped me to find an external support group to share this experience with.

I always had an ambition to build a large, world-class research group, and I did not abandon that after my diagnosis. In fact, this ambition helped me come to terms with my disability, and it still drives me. At first, it took some time to accept my physical impairment. The good news for other disabled scientists is that changes in technology and society make it more likely that you will succeed in your chosen field. The bad news is that you will still need to face the disadvantages of your disability by yourself. Self-pity sometimes hits me, even today.

After being offered a significant amount of funding to progress my goal to start a lab group, I relocated to China. When I came to Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University from the University of Copenhagen in 2016, I had to set up my lab and the whole Institute of Environmental Microbiology from scratch. My research group focuses on metal–microbe interactions and how these affect the environment.

My previous experience as a visiting professor and part-time faculty member at the Institute of Urban Environment of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xiamen showed me that to permanently relocate and set up a new laboratory, I would need help from an assistant who is fluent in English. My assistant, Yuan Ping Li, has been essential to helping me be an effective faculty member at a Chinese university.

I received substantial physical support from the university, including an accessible apartment and nearby office on campus, both on the ground floor, and both constructed to meet my needs. Fortunately, the costs of regular medical examinations, acupuncture sessions and massages to help manage my condition are covered by my medical insurance in China, which, in turn, is covered by my employer.

When I drive around Fuzhou on my mobility scooter, most people think of it as just a cute vehicle or a toy rather than as a medical necessity. It is not common to see students or faculty members with disabilities at Chinese universities. There are many lecture halls that I cannot enter. Although I can get into most canteens, some are not accessible. When I go out to eat with my research group, I prefer going to newly built shopping centres because they usually have accessible bathrooms. I need to plan outings such as these, as well as any other travel, very carefully. For example, I have to ensure that my hotel room will be suitable for me. Sometimes an airline will not allow the battery in my scooter on to the aeroplane, so I prefer to travel on the many high-speed trains in China instead.

I met a disabled student studying computer science at my university, and became acquainted with both him and his mother. He told me there are few disabled students in other universities in Fuzhou, because most people with disabilities stay at home instead of working or going to university. In his case, other students help him when he physically needs assistance getting up stairs or to other inaccessible places around campus. I’ve been pleased to provide support and encouragement to him.

In terms of accessibility, China still has to catch up in comparison with my previous work environments in the United States and Denmark. Yet I enjoy working and living in China. Success would not have been possible without the help and dedication of my research group and university, or without support and assistance from both.

My research group is increasingly successful, and I’m glad I moved to China to start a lab. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, one of my PhD students and two master’s students have graduated this year, sometimes during lockdowns. I look forward to being able to continue my career in China once the pandemic is under control.

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