Exploring Evolutionary Biology and Bioinformatics in Vienna, Austria

The Hofburg, a royal castle in Vienna, is show in the center of the picture. There is a statue of a warrior on a horse holding a spear in the foreground and the sky in the background is filled with dark clouds.
The accessibility that Luca Sax experienced interning abroad for the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria set a higher bar for scientific spaces and the STEM field in general to welcome more diverse scientists, including those with disabilities.

One late afternoon in March 2020 I was in my Zoom class learning about molecular biology, when I got an unexpected email. It was an acceptance letter from the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST) for their annual summer internship program. IST is a federal research institute in Vienna, Austria working on cutting-edge discoveries in a variety of STEM fields such as physics, mathematics, computer, and life sciences. I had just spent the last three months applying and getting rejected from STEM internships across the country. The program at IST had been the only one that I applied for outside of the United States.

Getting this acceptance came as a total surprise due to the selective nature of their summer positions and the state of the world at that point in time. My university had just sent students home a few weeks before due to the COVID pandemic and the sense of uncertainty especially as a disabled person was intense. While IST ended up having to cancel the internship program for the summer of 2020, they were kind enough to extend the offer to the following year.

"I had gotten so used to the constant questioning of my disabilities in the US, that I had forgotten that in another context, this may not even be the norm."

Prior to the start of my internship, I was nervous about what accessibility would look like there. Scientific spaces have historically been designed without consideration for disabled researchers and research systems have systematically excluded disabled students and academics by perpetuating ableism1. As a person with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and many related comorbidities, I myself have experienced inaccessible lab spaces, protocols, and setups at my college which I have been able to address with the help of the scientific staff and faculty.

However, entering a new scientific space with research topics to learn about, methods to get acquainted with, and coworkers to get to know, I was not sure if I would be able to advocate for myself if there was a lack of accessibility. So, I reached out to my supervisor before coming to IST to talk about accessibility. For my internship, I was placed in the group of Professor Beatriz Vicoso and from this first meeting on, she was the most supportive Principal Investigator I could have imagined.

I arrived in Vienna ready to explore new research in late May 2021. For my internship in the Vicoso Group, I was involved in their research on sex chromosome evolution using bioinformatic tools. I specifically worked on optimizing a bioinformatics pipeline to characterize the gene content of the W chromosome in A. sinica, a species of Brine shrimp.

Luca, a white non-binary person with short brown hair, brown glasses, and a green shirt, is standing next to a fellow intern with long brown hair, black glasses and a black shirt. They are in a kitchen, holding a sheet cake in their hands and are smiling in the direction of the camera.Because my work was all computational, I was able to work from home on days when I wasn’t feeling well and most meetings were held on Zoom which allowed for greater accessibility for me. At the same time, my work hours were flexible and I had a lot of freedom to decide on when to tackle specific tasks. This helped me accommodate the effects of my chronic illnesses and work with my body instead of feeling pressured to actively work against it. Whenever I worked on the IST campus, I was surprised by the accessibility of the buildings. Elevators and push buttons were the standard- even in the old buildings.

Because I was interested in what getting other accommodations for work would look like at the institute, I contacted HR and chatted with one of the people there. I asked whether documentation from a US doctor would be sufficient or if I needed to find an Austrian one, and the HR person looked at me as if I had just suggested the most absurd idea. She said “why would I not simply believe you that you have a disability? Why would I ever need any documentation for that?”. This conversation has stuck with me ever since. I had gotten so used to the constant questioning of my disabilities in the US, that I had forgotten that in another context, this may not even be the norm.

"The accessibility that I have experienced there has allowed me to grow so much both as a person and as a scientist."

This theme of general accessibility for me continued outside of my work life into my free time. While I was in Vienna I of course wanted to explore the city and its cultural institutions. When visiting museums, for example, it is the standard that visitors are not allowed to take larger backpacks with them. However, at any museum that I went to the staff was understanding that I needed the medical equipment in my bag for emergencies and without hesitation let me enter the space with it.

I am incredibly grateful that I have had the opportunity to work for the Institute of Science and Technology Austria during my internship. The accessibility that I have experienced there has allowed me to grow so much both as a person and as a scientist. Since the end of my internship, I have been able to show the findings of my research in my first ever professional presentation at one of the largest evolutionary biology conferences in the world- at the satellite symposium of the Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology. I have also been able to imagine my own scientific future more than ever before and I am excited to work my way towards it.

Luca, a non-binary person with short brown hair and brown eyes, is standing on a bridge over a river with a park and a tower in the background. He is wearing a yellow shirt and brown glasses.Meet the Author

Luca Sax (he/they) is a student of Biochemistry/Molecular Biology & International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon where you can often find him studying or working outside in Portland's vast parks. He identifies as non-binary and is active with his campus' Queer Student Union and Gender Minorities in STEM club. In 2021, he was awarded with the inaugural Heumann-Armstrong Award. His hometown is near Munich, Germany.

1. Resources consulted:

Byrne, D. (2021). Science diversified: Tackling an ‘ableist’ culture in research. Nature. Published. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00317-3

Martucci, J. (2017). Science and Disability. Science History Institute Distillations. Published. https://www.scribbr.com/apa-citation-generator/new/article-journal/

Powell, K. (2021). Academia’s ableist culture laid bare. Nature, 598(7879), 221–223. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02695-0