The Lumberjack

Seeing is not believing: hidden disabilities in science students

HSU cellular and molecular biology majors Stephanie Valencia (left) and Shazi Saboori together in their lab in Science B on April 10. Photo by Nick Kemper.

Every morning, Humboldt State University senior and cellular molecular biology student Shazi Saboori wakes up next to a stack of pill bottles.

“Depending on the day, I take between 8-10 pills, including Adderall when I wake up,” Saboori said. “I then eat something small, lay in bed for 30-40 minutes and wait for the Adderall to kick in, and allow me to have access to my brain.”

Six months ago, Saboori was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.

“There’s a part of my brain that cannot regulate blood flow,” Saboori said. “This causes me to get blood pooling, have a sudden drop in blood pressure and almost faint.”

Saboori’s body attempts to increase the pressure drop through tachycardia, an extremely fast pumping of the heart while it’s at rest.

“At one point, my resting heart rate was 214 [beats per minute],” Saboori said.

In addition to tachycardia, POTS inhibits the left side of Saboori’s brain from communicating with the right side.

“In my classes, I can’t just read the book and understand the material,” Saboori said. “I take a long time to make a master study guide, and to write and rewrite the material. I still get mediocre scores on tests.”

POTS also causes Saboori to have anemia, or red blood cell deficiency, and gastric distress, which makes eating difficult. Saboori feels frustrated when people do not acknowledge her disorder, because it isn’t visible.

“Many people have told me, ‘You don’t look like you’re sick,'” Saboori said. “I’m not looking for pity, or for people to lower their expectations for me. I’m looking for people to understand that [POTS] is not something I can control.”

Michelle Goldberg, another HSU senior cell/molecular biology student, has ankylosing spondilitis (AS).

AS is a form of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which leads to joint degradation and inflammation of the surrounding membrane. Goldberg was first diagnosed at 12.

“For awhile, I went to a support group for people with RA,” Goldberg said. “Most of the people there were adults. I was there with my dad.”

RA causes Goldberg to experience pain in her lower body, center of spine, hips and joints.

“When I feel good, I go to the gym, and do a little bit of elliptical and weight,” Goldberg said. “If it’s bad, I take some Aleve and put a smile on my face. Some days, I can’t stand up straight. Luckily, this has only happened twice since I’ve been at HSU.”

Similar to Saboori, Goldberg recognizes that an invisible disability is not taken seriously.

“Sometimes, I can encounter people who say, ‘You’re fine.’ But really, I’m not,” Goldberg said. “You can’t see what I have until my knees are really inflamed, and turned red.”

Stephanie Valencia, also an HSU senior cell/molecular biology student, took eight years to finish a bachelor’s degree due to her hidden disorders.

“I became friends with my microbiology teacher at my community college,” Valencia said. “She told me to get tested for a learning disability. I didn’t always have the best grade, but she believed I was a good scientist.”

Valencia was diagnosed with a processing disorder, similar to autism and dyslexia. For people with processing disorders, learning new things takes a lot more time.

“I wanted to know why I didn’t figure this out when I was younger,” Valencia said. “[My psychologist] said that a lot of people who are brown, like me, don’t get diagnosed until they’re in college. Elementary school teachers assume that brown students are dumb. They don’t push for students to go get tested.”

When Valencia transferred to HSU, she began to suffer from anxiety attacks that caused her to miss classes. She was eventually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD.

“There’s a stigma about anxiety and depression in the sciences,” Valencia said. “People think that you don’t have the mental capacity to complete a rigorous program in STEM.”

Valencia hopes to eventually become a physician-scientist in the field of neuroscience, even though the stigma around GAD could cause her some difficulty in pursuing her dream.

“Unfortunately, people may not give you the opportunity to show that you could do it when they know of your disability,” Valencia said. “People think, ‘Oh, maybe she can’t.’ It’s the maybe that gets in the way of me being able to prove myself.”

For more information on individuals with disability in the sciences, check out Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai and his book Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences.