LISTEN: Krystal Vasquez's push for disability inclusion in STEM

"Bringing awareness is one thing, but then we have to ask what can we do about it?"

Krystal Vasquez joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss her work as a chemist teasing out the big impacts from tiny compounds, and the often-neglected intersection of pollution and people with disabilities.


Vasquez, a Ph.D. candidate at California Institute of Technology, talks about the "puzzle" of atmospheric chemistry, her work advocating for increased accessibility for disabled people in labs, and the challenges and joys she's found in science communication and writing.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Vasquez, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

All right, super happy to be joined now by Krystal Vasquez. Krystal, how are you?

Krystal Vasquez

I'm good and yourself?

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, I'm doing great. I'm doing just great. I really appreciate you taking time to talk to me today.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Brian Bienkowski

So I wanted to start if you could tell me a little bit about your, your upbringing and kind of what shaped your interest in going into science and more specifically, chemistry? Because I know that's your focus.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah. So as for science, as a kid, my mom took me to a bunch of science museums. I lived in the Bay Area, so I got to go to like California Academy of Science, the Exploratorium, I think there was the Lawrence Hall of Science maybe. I don't know, it's a vague memory. But I was exposed to science pretty early. And so my interest kind of developed from there, specifically, my interest in the environment, since a lot of these museums tend to have like a sustainability, like "Go Green" kind of theme to them even, even back then.

For chemistry, I really hated it at first, but I think that's because I really didn't like my teacher for whatever reason. Also, I feel like chemistry, kind of like physics is kind of thought to be like this very math heavy, like, subject. Kind of like a boy subject, quote, unquote. And so I was very turned off by it, because I was like, "Oh, I obviously couldn't do that stuff. Like I'm not good at math."

But I, when I went to college, I had a much better professor. And he made an effort to kind of relate chemistry back to, like, real world problems. Like it wasn't just chemistry is for mad scientists who want to make, I don't know, meth. Or for ph-- or for pharmacists, or anything like that. It was like, chemistry is broadly applicable and it can be found in every field.

And in my field, specifically, it's atmospheric chemistry, which I don't know, I think it's kind of like a nice puzzle. It's like at--atmospheric chemistry is a combination of, like, geoscience and analytical chemistry mixed together. It's like interdisciplinary. And so I think a lot about how, like, you want to measure, you want to measure this thing in the atmosphere that is like, super tiny in concentration. And it has like X and Y chemical properties, and I have, like, A, B, and C tools. And so I need to mash those together in order to get an answer or develop a method that combines them to get an answer of, like, how much of it is in the air? And then what does it do to air quality?

Brian Bienkowski

So you're doing some really cool work along those lines, developing ways to measure compounds. I believe I read this right, called oxygenated volatile organic compounds. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about this work and what it looks like for us non-chemists.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, so I guess I'll start with a little bit of background. So we're gonna take away the O for a second. And so we're going to focus on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and these are emitted into the air and they can be emitted by anthropogenic--or manmade--sources like fossil fuel industries or car exhaust, or they can also be emitted from natural sources like trees, ocean, swamps, fires, etc. But once they're emitted into the atmosphere, they don't really last for very long, some a few minutes, some a couple of hours. But when they react, they oxidize, or they add oxygen into their chemical structure. And that's when they're called OVOCs. So that's another class of compounds.

These OVOCs continue to react, and eventually down the line, they either form tropospheric ozone, or aerosols, specifically secondary organic aerosols. And then they can also contribute to carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, depending on different compounds.

But that question that we always ask in atmospheric chemistry is how do they lead to these finalized compounds? And also to what extent do individual compounds contribute? And both questions are really hard to answer. And mostly, that's because, well, there's a couple of reasons. But the one I focus on specifically is that OVOCs are really hard to measure. For one, they're only in concentrations of, like, parts per billion, parts per trillion. So that's really, really tiny. And they're also really reactive. So it's hard to make them last long enough in an instrument to measure them.

But I also focus on the fact that abuses are very, like, broad, like, there's hundreds and 1000s of like molecules in this class. And some of them look very similar to the instrument detector, even though they may react differently in the atmosphere. And so my research kind of focused on developing an instrument that's better at telling different OVOCs apart so that we can observe how they behave in the lab or even observe how they actually behave in the actual atmosphere by going out into the field.

Brian Bienkowski

Are you still conducting that research? Or were you successful? Did you, did you make a tool?

Krystal Vasquez

We did make an instrument and it's very successful. We have, or I'm looking at now, what happens when anthropogenic pollution and biogenic pollution mix together and how that impacts air quality. And we are using this tool just to, like, pinpoint some chemistry and, and kind of finalize that like chapter of atmospheric chemistry here.

My--the compound I'm looking at specifically is isoprene, which is emitted from a bunch of trees, but like Eucalyptus and oak trees. And it's like one of the most common biogenic molecules in the, in the atmosphere. And so I'm just kind of looking through its chemistry and seeing how it, how it affects ozone, and how it affects NOx, which is a compound that comes from our cars. So if it reacts with NOx, it can either continue on and react ozone, or it can trap it in the chemical structure and then stop ozone. So we need to know which one is more important. And that's kind of the research I'm focusing on right now.

Brian Bienkowski

It's fascinating to think that it's not just a matter of bad stuff gets in the air, and that it's there. And we know it's there. But there's all these other processes at play. That's really fascinating where and congratulations on the model, you develop the instrument you developed.

Krystal Vasquez

Thank you.

Brian Bienkowski

So this is a big broad question. I've been asking everybody and going from thinking about, you mentioned going to science museums and kind of having this early interest to where you're at now. What is the defining moment that shaped your identity?

Krystal Vasquez

That's hard. That's a hard question. I think there were a few moments honestly. One big one was I randomly took a class in the summer after my freshman year. At that time, I still didn't know what I wanted to do. I think I just switched my major to chemistry. Because I originally came in as premed. And then I took this intro to environmental science, I think it was called. And that's when I was like, oh, so my interest in environmental science and like, you know, sustainability and my interest in chemistry can actually come together. And I can do things with it, like, this is fascinating.

A second one was just learning, I could do research. I am a first generation college student. And so I actually didn't know what a scientist did, like no one ever told me. And I'm the first in my family to, like, go into science. And so I think, I don't really know when this, like, "Aha" moment happened. But um, yeah, learning that I can do research that I can, I can be, I can BE a scientist and I can like make a living out of answering these really wild questions of like, why does something happen in the world? I don't know. Yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

No, I think that's a really good point. I--when I went into science journalism I didnt know what a scientific study was. I mean, I knew there was published things that came out of these experiments. But the idea that there were these journals and all this research coming out. Not only on things like chemistry that I think we all kind of think of as very sciencey, but, you know, social sciences too, anthropology and all that. So I dont think your experience is that different and maybe that's just a failure of our public school system that none of us know what a scientist does until late in life.

Krystal Vasquez

I mean, it might be it might also just be there's a lot of hidden curriculum that, like certain people aren't exposed to. So like, in grad school a lot of the people there have scientists as parents or have professors as parents, and so they, they grew up in that environment, but I'm just there, like, I didn't know I could publish anything in a scientific journal, or like, I didn't know how to make an instrument or how to run an experiment, like, these are all things that I just kind of learned on the fly. And so I don't know, it's just wild the different juxtapositions of people that we have.

Brian Bienkowski

Right. And I got a peek into this, to your world a little bit. So in December, you wrote a fantastic piece for Chemistry World talking about how inaccessibility in labs and science, more broadly, continues to push out disabled scientists and you talked about your experience dealing with fume hoods, tight spaces--I don't even know what a fume hood is--high work benches and narrow aisles. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about not only the experience of writing the piece, and perhaps some ideas you have about how science and scientific labs can start to address this, this insidious discrimination?

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, so this piece was really fun to write. One of the editors at Chemistry World actually found me on social media, because I talk a lot about disability in STEM. And so it was a nice, little happenstance.

But yeah, like you said, it's a really kind of broad issue and there's so many pieces and components to it. But, I guess I'll start off with numbers. I think in the article, I use UK stats, but we're in the US. So I'm going to talk about that.

I think. So this is coming from a piece in Chemical & Engineering news that I saw from 2019. And I think it's using NSF data. But less than 10% of employed chemists identify as disabled. And for those who obtain a PhD in chemistry, I think it's down to less than 5%. And in comparison, there are 25%, or 25% of the US population is disabled. And so that's a huge discrepancy. And there are many, many factors that go into this. But the one I specifically focused on in the article was the inaccessibility of labs. All STEM students, at some point in their education, take a chemistry class with a lab. And if that lab is inaccessible, or the professor or university isn't willing to accommodate you, or there's no accessible equipment available, you're not going to pass that class, like it's just physically impossible.

And if you are lucky enough to get accommodations, or if you were like me, and weren't disabled in undergrad and became disabled later on, grad school doesn't get any easier. In fact, I think it gets worse, because there's usually less accommodations associated with research labs then there are in classes or teaching labs.

And so I wrote down one of the passages I really liked, that kind of sums it up that I wrote, but it says:

"When you consider the fact that laboratory experiences are crucial to the success of all scientists and engineers, it's no wonder that disabled people or pushed out of STEM are prevented from entering it in the first place. We've built and maintained an ableist system that favors certain physical or mental attributes over others. And that makes it so that these characteristics become a prereq--prerequisite for working in science."

And so, yeah, it's, it's really disheartening, but bringing awareness is one thing, but then we also have to ask, like, what can we do about it.

And so I, one of the things I talked about in the article is universal design. And this is a term coined by an architect, architect, who I believe is named Ronald Mace? I know that fun fact, he helped advocate for the first accessibility focused building code to be adopted in the US. That's pretty cool. I learned this while I was preparing for this interview.

But anyway, universal design is the idea of designing a place that's usable to the largest amount of people possible. And that is, regardless of their disability status, their life circumstance or whatever. And this can be applied broadly to a lot of things. And so, if you apply in the sense of chemistry labs, some examples for adjustable height fume hoods, which are the places that chemists usually do chemical reactions, so you're not getting fumes everywhere, but making them go up and down because they're usually at standing height would be key. Automatic doors. In my lab, my door is really heavy and so if I'm using a mobility aid, or my hands are full, or my wrists are, like, it's really hard to get in the lab.

I think I mentioned pull cord alarms. Sometimes when people fall or are lower to the ground, like, pushing the fire alarm system is kind of hard to reach. And even, like, safety showers or eyewash stations, some of them have bars underneath so you can't go all the way towards them if you're in a wheelchair, or some of them have difficult, like, mechanisms to operate, like if you're blind or you have mobility issues that way.

So it depends on the lab. And, like universal design is not going to be a cure all, like you can't accommodate for everyone. But you can get like you can check off the most common accommodations and, and then that gives you more time and money and effort to put into the people who need extra accommodations and make sure that they're feeling and included in the lab space.

Brian Bienkowski

So much of this podcast in Agents of Change is, is looking at racial issues, gender issues, really deep, deep rooted inequities. And the one thing I will say about what you just said is it seems like it's just, the difference is that gives me some hope is that we could do that tomorrow in a lot of labs. You know, these aren't, these are just design, design flaws. These are, these are people not thinking things through. Have you seen changes at your lab or other labs?

Krystal Vasquez

I know. I think it's the American Chemical Society has a booklet that like talks about like features of an accessible lab. But I don't see a lot of movement. I think there's just not enough awareness. And I think universities don't prioritize disability. Like there's a lot of effort towards other marginalized groups. And I think that's fantastic. And I'm so happy to see that. But disability is never included in that diversity... I don't know, top--topic? Diversity issue? And so it's kind of pushed aside, it's like, oh, it's a it's a medical problem. It's, it's a you problem, like we don't have to do anything. And then they they don't funnel money that way and so accommodation offices are underfunded, and professors don't have funding to be able to actually like renovate their labs, or, or do those things. And like NSF grants or diversity grants, they don't have any like specif--specific fund where you can like funnel money that way. So, yeah, I don't know.

Brian Bienkowski

A funding problem.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, it's always a funding problem. A funding and awareness problem, honestly.

Brian Bienkowski

Right. So how is the act of actually writing it? Just, just communicating your your work, your thoughts to a broader audience. It's different than science. It's different than what you do in the lab. How was that experience for you?

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, writing for the general public is way different than writing for a scientific audience. Like I had to get in a whole different mindset. And I know that some of my science writing definitely bled into that and got edited out, essentially. Because I personally feel science writing can be very convoluted and jargony, and passive voice and all those things you don't want an article going out to people.

Yeah, it was fun, I actually realized--so I used to write for my own blog back earlier in grad school, where I just gave advice about applying to grad school for people like me, like first generation college students, or marginalized people. And that was fun but that was very casual, because it's like my own personal blog. So this is like a mix of like, I need write professionally, but I also need to write like, accessibly and make it approachable to someone who's never been introduced--I don't know. It was fun. I really enjoyed it. I would like to write some more.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, what if I told you you will

Krystal Vasquez

I will write more!

Brian Bienkowski

That's why you're here.

Krystal Vasquez

Exactly. That's why I'm here.

Brian Bienkowski

I'm sorry, go ahead.

Krystal Vasquez

I said, and that's why I'm here.

Brian Bienkowski

So, I know you've ,you've thought a lot about the intersection of disability and pollution exposure given your, your work on air monitoring, and wonder if you can talk a little bit about this intersection why you feel it's one of the more neglected topics when we talk about environmental justice. Yeah, so I'll start off by saying that, for pollution and disability, I think the general public has a very much like cause and effect type mindset. And by that I mean like pollution can cause disabilities, period. That's it. So for the Flint water crisis, you think of like, all of that pollution caused maybe like rise of cancer rates, or, or whatever. And for LA air pollution, you might think of, like, the rise in asthma or lung disease. And so first immediate intersection is pollution causes or worsens

So I know you've, you've thought a lot about the intersection of disability and pollution exposure, given your, your work on air monitoring. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about this intersection why you feel it's one of the more neglected topics when we talk about environmental justice.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, so I'll start off by saying that, for pollution and disability, I think the general public has a very much like cause and effect type mindset. And by that I mean like pollution can cause disabilities, period. That's it. So for the Flint water crisis, you think of like, all of that pollution caused maybe like rise of cancer rates, or, or whatever. And for LA air pollution, you might think of, like, the rise in asthma or lung disease. And so, first immediate intersection is pollution causes or worsens disability and illness.

But I think we take this a little too far. Honestly, I think that sometimes people get the idea that we should stop pollution because we don't want to end up like those people, like other group. Rather than what I feel the actual message should be, which is: we should stop pollution because people have the right to access clean air and water. And by accessing clean air and water, they don't have to have additional factors contributing to poor health. So it's preventing it from getting worse, not preventing disability. Because you can't prevent disability, it's natural and preventing it is honestly eugenics like, plain and simple.

So then, when this weird, ableist message comes about, we start getting like these fear mongering headlines, I'm the one I see the most is "Air pollution is linked to developmental disabilities."

And so the original study that that's actually talking about is actually titled, "The risk of exposure to air pollution amongst British children with and without disability."

Very different message that it's sending.

And I don't really want to dive too much into the paper, because I've only done a few read throughs. But I will say that the stated rationale that I read was that people with intellectual disabilities commonly have respiratory disorders, like it's just a pretty common common comorbid--comorbidity that they see in this population. And so increased exposure to air pollution might cause health inequities. So it's not like air pollution causes this thing. It's air pollution might harm this population. And they also found that, like, these types of disabled people do actually do live in higher pollution areas. But it couldn't actually make any correlation with any data they had. So this whole, like air pollution causes X is not, it's just misinformation, which is, I feel like a problem we have nowadays.

But let's see there's a very real consequence that comes from the sphere of environmental issues causing disability, because it really directs where our funding goes, and which research we do. So there's a lot of focus on how pollution contributes to an area's, it's called burden of disease. And this is defined as the years of life lost due to premature mortality, plus the years of healthy life. This is a quote, healthy life loss due to disability.

I really do not like this definition. But I don't make the rules here.

But basically, this is saying how does pollution affects healthy people. And so there's little research talking about how pollution affects people who are already disabled or ill. So it's kind of like once they're disabled, public health and air quality research, like, they don't care about you. You're done.

And that's, I think that's really dangerous, because pollution can lower quality of life of disabled people. And you can circle back to the study I just mentioned about intellectually disabled people in air pollution, they're more likely to have lung issues in the general population. So living amongst air pollution disproportionately harms them. But there's nothing really talking about this, except for maybe this one study that. Yeah.

And then also, disabled people are more likely to live below the poverty line. And this is for a number of reasons, but it includes underemployment. But this means that they're pushed into the less wealthy neighborhoods, which are the neighborhoods that are more likely to experience high levels of pollution, thanks to environmental racism and classism. And so then we're having all these questions is like, how does this increase exposure impact their specific disability? Does it lower the quality life? Probably, but we don't know. There's, there's no research on this subject.

And so I'm really thankful that there's becoming more research on environmental racism, which focuses on the same types of areas. But you can't, you can only get so far, you really need to start taking disability into account to get the full picture of how, how this affects people, like as a whole.

Brian Bienkowski

That's really fascinating. And I know, I and EHN have been guilty of the headlines, the type of headlines that you mentioned. And it's a matter of adding context. It sounds like what you're saying, and this isn't just one way street of pollution causes this equals bad, read this and be alarmed. It's taking the time to provide more context.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, or even say like, X doesn't, because usually papers aren't like X causes Y. That's not really how science works, but it could be like X effects Y population, here's why kind of thing.

Brian Bienkowski

And so how do you see your work, advancing and pushing towards social and environmental change to some of the things you just mentioned? Whether it's environmental injustice, the neglect to take disability into account in the studies? How do you see your work in the lab, kind of translating into some social and environmental change?

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, that's hard. Because, like a lot of my research is, and I noticed this, like a little later in my PhD, when I became a little more socially aware about life around me, but like, a lot of my research is very, like, nitty gritty, like, I'm looking at one molecule. And that's it. And like, I might mention public health and the being of my papers. But that's as far as I really go. So I think that a lot of the work that I'm doing is kind of outside of the lab, just talking about it, finding outlets to write about it, which is, again, why I'm here.

Yeah, that kind of thing. Just, I think I am in a really privileged position to have education in these environmental issues and have a PhD into, or will have a PhD eventually, in general. But I'm also very intuned with the disability community, especially in social media. And so I hear their complaints, their life stories, their their stories of like not being evacuated in the California fires, because, like evacuation procedures don't account for disability. And so like, I hear that, and then I can translate this over to my nondisabled colleagues and nondisabled, I don't know, public health officials, and then bridge that gap. That's kind of what I hope to do. Somehow, I'll figured it out

Brian Bienkowski

So for social media, I was going to ask about that. It sounds like you're using it in one value added way. I'm just kind of curious. In general, you mentioned the blog that you had, just kind of your other outside of Chemistry World, your other writing experience, communicating to an to a lay audience and your use of social media and kind of where do you see that playing a role for you as a scientist getting your, your thoughts and your ideas and your findings out?

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, so I, I recently learned that I actually really like writing about science, but I just don't like writing about it in journal, like scientific journals. So I start, so there's the Chemistry World piece, I started writing for Massive Science a bit. I am working on a few pieces for them to just talk about air quality and atmospheric chemistry, but for a general audience, and try and tie that back. I really enjoy tying back air pollution and air quality to marginalized groups. Because I feel like there's such a, like, when you're communicating science, it's like this, is this what this paper says and XYZ, but then, like, there's never that extra link to how it is relevant, like to a broader audience. Does that make sense? I don't know.

But...

Brian Bienkowski

I was on mute. It definitely makes sense.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah. Yes. And so yeah, so I do that. I also, I had that blog. And I also am kind of, I kind of have a website, I've tried to start it. It's talking about, like profiles of disabled scientists that existed in the world before us. No one really knows about disabled scientists, like it's not... Usually disability is either, like, either they're pushed out of science, honestly. Or it's kind of hidden because it's very stigmatized. And so I've written about two scientists so far. One is...oh, I'm blanking on the name. Oh, no. Dorothy Hodgkin, I think? She was a Nobel Prize winning chemist who had rheumatoid arthritis. And so I talked a little bit about how she dealt with, like, when her hands could, like, push switches anymore, how she, like, innovated, like levers so that she can still do her work. Yeah, so I write for that, but a lot of other--I'm trying to graduate, so you know, I only have so much time.

And then I'm also in on Twitter a lot. That's kind of my platform of choice. And that's just a lot of like talking to people and saying, like, if I'm kind of one of those people who, quote unquote, bullies my school on social media when they do things wrong. It's no secret that I yell at my school, which is Caltech, because they have a couple issues surrounding racism and some buildings are named after eugenicists and stuff, but I do a lot of that and just bring awareness to intersecting issues.

I also founded it the first--I'm very proud of this--I founded the first advocacy group related to disability on campus. And so that's a brand new group that just started and we were able to get an accessibility coordinator hired. I think. I attribute that to our work. But I don't know, Caltech might say different.

Brian Bienkowski

That is so awesome. And when you mentioned the pieces you're writing about disabled scientists in the past. Is that, is that somewhere where people could go and read this? Where is that?

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, so it's, I can, I forgot my own URL. That's not good. Chronically hyphen, Invisible dot com.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. That's great. I had two more questions for you. And one was going back to something you said about kind of this idea of studying one molecule. And I'm picturing you with a microscope and is very focused on one thing. What is that like? Because as a journalist, I kind of it's bouncing from one topic to the next. It's air pollution, its water, its people. And it's kind of this, it's very good for the curious, that want to bounce around. And I'm wondering what it's like to kind of have this very acute focus on one thing.

Krystal Vasquez

I think it's for certain people, like I understand, like, I know, people in my lab are like, they're like, Oh, this one molecule, we just think it does this and I'm like, that's cool, like, thumbs up. But I'm, I'm not, I found out that I'm not really that person. I also like, I like very broad applicable things. And I like connecting more social sciencey aspects to it. But yeah, it's, it can be rough. It's kind of like you're zoned in on something. And like, you're so specialized in this one topic. And then even if you talk to your lab mate, they're like, please explain it a little more, because we don't have the knowledge you have. And yeah, it makes some dinner parties quite difficult.

Brian Bienkowski

So last question, and thank you again, for this. This has been super cool. I really like talking to you. This was fun. Um, what was the last book you read for fun?

Krystal Vasquez

Oh, that's hard. So I haven't, I'm so bad at reading. I feel like grad school has made me the worst like free time, like for fun, reader possible. I used to read books so much up to high school. College, I kind of went a little bit and then grad school just plummeted. So I don't actually have an answer. But I do want to read more like, oh, maybe I do actually have a book. I can look it up. I do read lots of books about like nonfiction books about like, I don't know, disability, because apparently that's what my life is right now.

Brian Bienkowski

So, if you don't have a book, off the top of your head, I'm gonna keep you on the spot. How about a record you listened to lately, or a TV show or movie you've watched is something that you can give us that we should check out.

Krystal Vasquez

TV shows. So I, I'm kind of a Korean drama newbie here. I... Netflix has Korean dramas now. And I'm like, so into it. I think it's Uncanny Mysteries? It's this nice little sci fi like, thing that it's just really amusing to watch. It's like action-y, but it's also like a little bit of drama. And it's like mythical powers. I love it. It's great.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome. sounds super cool. Well, Krystal, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Krystal Vasquez

Yeah, thank you so much. This is so fun.

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