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Ohio State student paves the way in accessibility and inclusion in STEM

SciAccess program promotes new opportunities for emerging scientists

As a freshman, Caitlin O’Brien worked with SciAccess on hosting the annual science accessibility conference. Feeling inspired after it ended, she asked: “What’s next?” 

SciAccess is a nonprofit that aims to develop and advocate for methods of increasing equity and accessibility in science. The program was initially founded in 2018 by O’Brien’s mentor and Ohio State graduate Anna Voelker, a recipient of The Ohio State University’s President’s Prize awarded to students committed to social change. 

O’Brien is now a fourth-year student double-majoring in astrophysics & astronomy and physics with a minor in science and engineering in the public interest. Inspired by her experience with SciAccess, she is finding ways to advance access and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

“I’ve always had these dual interests in astronomy as research – hard science – and then outreach and education and working on space policy,” she said. 

O’Brien helped found SciAccess’ mentoring program, Zenith. The student organization offers blind and low-vision students the opportunity to learn about space science. 

Mentees receive 3D models of astronomical phenomena, including constellations, galaxies and the scale of the universe. They also use sonified data, or non-speech audio to convey information. 

“Astronomy is often assumed to be a very visual science — most of the students we work with have never had someone even attempt to explain these concepts to them. We are letting them hear and feel the stars,” O’Brien said. 

Prior to her involvement with SciAccess and Zenith, O’Brien had never been closely involved nor worked with individuals with physical disabilities. Over the summer, she traveled to South Korea to speak at the International Astronomical Union about the importance of equity in science and best practices for making conferences more accessible. 

Paul Martini, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State and the chair of the astronomy department’s DEI committee, emphasized the importance of O’Brien’s work. 

“It is wonderful that students like Caitlin are engaged so much in student organizations … and have the initiative to engage in significant programs like this,” he said. “I think that helps to inspire everyone to become more engaged in this work.” 

Martini recognizes the need to diversify the STEM field. “I feel like as a human rights issue, it’s important to try to work to change the culture within STEM fields, particularly in the physical sciences, where underrepresentation is particularly stark,” he said. 

Throughout his career, Martini witnessed how a lack of diversity affected his field. “STEM is really being hurt by its exclusionary culture,” he said. “There are many very talented people who are turned away and could be contributing to the advancement of human knowledge and are not.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of the U.S. population has a disability. While 19% of undergraduate students have a disability, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the University of Delaware Science and Engineering Leadership Initiative reports that only 10% of undergraduate students studying STEM have a disability. These numbers dwindle significantly in postgraduate STEM education, with 6% of graduate students and less than 2% of doctoral students having a disability. 

O’Brien would like to improve the odds that people with disabilities will get an opportunity to pursue advanced degrees in STEM. She credited Ohio State for assisting her in pursuing these endeavors, from attending zero gravity flights to speaking at conferences abroad. 

“I have had this incredible opportunity to do these different things because of Ohio State’s support and the importance they have placed on SciAccess and on disability and inclusion,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful for that.” 

Regarding what individuals can do to advocate for accessibility for people with disabilities, O’Brien recommends “ask them what they need, and then listen.” 

Emphasizing the importance of treating people with disabilities as people first, O’Brien said, “They are people who have lives outside of their disability. Their disability is a part of their identity. That is important to them, but it’s not all they are.” 

O’Brien plans to take a gap year to focus on SciAccess full-time before attending graduate school to pursue a PhD in astrophysics. Her primary focus is to grow the organization so it can sustain itself. 

“We really want to establish SciAccess as something that is going to make change long term.”

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