Success in STEM

Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Photo of Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Dr. Gregor Wolbring is a prominent academic, biochemist, bioethicist, health policy researcher, ability scholar and assistant professor in the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine. Here is the text of an interview we conducted with him for this guide.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What kind of schooling have you taken? Tell me a little bit about what you do for a living?
A: Since 2008, I have been an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies ( Most of my work is concerned with science and technology governance and its impact on, for example, marginalized populations. But I am also a biochemist, a bioethicist, a health policy researcher and an ability scholar.

Q: What drew you to these fields?
A: I wanted to be a biochemist since I was fourteen. I figure at that age that I would not be accepted as a physician (being a wheelchair user) if I study medicine, so I decided to do the next best thing, biochemistry, and to become a researcher in the university.

Q: What courses do you teach?
A: I teach courses on social implications of ethical theories, global health and new technologies, introduction to disability studies, introduction to community rehabilitation, and a course on innovation. I teach at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Q: What kind of schooling, and what types of courses, did you need to get to where you are today?
A: I did normal high school. I did my biochemistry degree at the University of Tubingen in Germany and diploma work in Tubingen and the University College London, UK. I did my PhD at the Max Plank Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt. Then I went as a post-doc in 1992 to the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine.

Q: What kind of disability do you identify as having?
A: None. Well again, you have to differentiate what you mean by disability. You are thinking of disability in terms of impairment, and I donít Ė I have no legs, but I donít see that as an impairment, but rather as a variation.

Q: Thatís a very good point. Can you speak a little bit more to that?
A: Well, I am very particular about language, and I think there is a problem that we use the term ďdisabilityĒ for two different discourses. One is a body image discourse, and one is for the social treatment discourse. Normally when people use the term ďdisabilityĒ, they mean to identify a body structure or function that is labelled as an impairment in relation to expected body structures and ability functioning. I do not identify my body with this use of the term. I might have no legs, but I do not see this as leading to a mobility impairment, but a mobility variation. However if ďdisabilityĒ is used with the second meaning that highlights the social discrimination one experiences due to oneís non-mainstream body structure/functioning, I see myself of course as disabled as many places are still inaccessible for wheelchair users.

Q: Okay, I agree. What would be a better way of framing that?
A: Well, I am just a person without legs. But I would not put any judgement on it, on what that means. Itís just a variation. However I obviously experience disablement within society; thatís a social reality within the social structure, in issues of accommodations and so on.

Q: During your undergraduate and graduate studies, did you face any discrimination?
A: Sure, mostly building-wise, where there were not a lot of accommodations. You just had to accommodate yourself, which I could do. I am one of the lucky guys. I can use a wheelchair, I can use legs (prosthetics).There are always tools. And I love to crawl.

Q: What kinds of things did you do to advocate for those accommodations?
A: I didnít. There was no time for that. If you want to make a career, you donít have time to try to get people to change things, because you will miss so much time. There is no time to sue... you just suck it up and do things. And I was in a lucky position that I could do things, modify myself with all these different tools.

Q: Did you ever receive any encouragement or discouragement from friends, family members, or community members when you disclosed that you wanted to enter into the science and technology fields?
A: My parents said, ďDo whatever you want.Ē And my friends and people around me were never discouraging me. I was very lucky in this way.

Q: So it was pretty supportive?
A: Yeah, of course.

Q: What advice would you give other students about accommodations within the classroom?
A: I wouldnít know. I am still the only one, to my knowledge, in Germany who went with a wheelchair, without legs, through a bichemistry degree. I never met any others.

Q: You were the only one in the entire class?
A: Oh yeah, the only one in the entire degree. There were no others.

Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Well, because if you are not able to modify yourself [it can become a problem]. I could use the legs (prosthetics), because the wheelchairs were not allowed in the labs in Germany or the UK. So I was only able to do it because I could use my artificial legs in order to deal with the lab. I think if you have to use a wheelchair it is for the most part impossible to go through a degree that involves lab work (in many countries). I would assume that the buildings are still inaccessible in many places and still have problems with wheelchairs. I canít see that there are buckets of wheelchair biochemists around. And itís pretty different from country to country, from faculty to faculty, even universities. Within different universities you have different access, willingness between different faculties, different demands on accessibilities, different problems of inaccessibility. So itís not really something you can generalize. The good or the bad, itís so different from faculty to faculty. Even within a given university itís different.

Q: So those are the more physical barriers. Did you run into any social barriers when you were trying to obtain your education? Did you face any discrimination from colleagues, professors, etc.?
A: No.

Q: So it was primarily the physical limitations within the classrooms?
A: Yeah, I mean, as long as you perform and get your results what more can they say? I mean, they were shocked obviously when I showed up for the orientation and they had never had anything like me, and I never asked before whether I should do it. I know that I qualified. They didnít know beforehand.

Q: Okay, so then you show up. What was that like? What was their reaction like?
A: Obviously kind of, ďwhat is he doing here?Ē But it changed fast. I figured itís the same thing here, right? People make associations. When I am wheeling through the faculty of medicine, people think of me as a patient. Typical assumptions.

Q: So how would you describe your experience in getting to where you are today, as a biochemist and a professor?
A: Well, I think itís as it is with everyone. You have to work hard. Itís not like you are going to get any slack. You have to work hard. You have to perform, and you have to get your results. If you donít, then you donít make it.

Q: Is there any piece of advice that you wish you had when you were a student going through this process?
A: Well I think, first, donít take any rejection personally. Second, perseverance. And just work hard. As I switch between different tools, in this way I am in a much better position than most people. I find ways of doing things. But not everyone of course can do it like I did. So everyone has to find their own solutions. And again, it depends on where you go, different faculties, different departments will have totally different willingness to adapt things. And even if they do want to adapt they often have trouble with administration; even if professors who run a biochemistry research lab want to adapt the lab, they very likely have no money to do so. No one is really paying for making a research lab accessible in many countries.

Q: There is no government funding?
A: No, not for modifying research laboratories. So therefore, if a professor wants to hire you, itís really on to you. You get along with how the lab is set up but they canít remodel the whole lab, because they donít have the money for this.

Q: In your opinion, does it fall upon studentsí shoulders to cover a lot of the accommodation costs?
A: Well, if you really want accommodation then you would have to [pay for it yourself]. But itís so expensive that you would not be able to afford it. Remodeling a whole lab would cost $50,000 Ė $100,000.

Q: What is the perception in academia? Is the perception that it is the studentís responsibility to accommodate, or the institutionís?
A: First, one has to differentiate between being a student and accessing learning labs, and being a graduate student or a post-doc where one works in a research lab. And the issue of adaptation is really problematic for individual research labs. Grants are for research material and salaries, for example, hiring a graduate student. The research grants do have not accessibility construction parts in them. When I get a disabled student to hire from grants, the money is already spoken for for salary, and not for making the lab accessible. There are no available grants to modify the lab in most countries, I think.

Q: What advice would you give those students who might not be able to navigate around the actual physical setting?
A: I would say you have to change your expectations. You have to know what you will face. You can complain all you want but, as unfair as it is, you still have to perform. Because later on you may have gotten the degree, but you are so old that no one will hire you anymore. So you have to be aware of the barriers that exist in different settings in different universities, in different faculties, in different departments. So, you should be realistic with what you will face. Even if you think that everything needs to be adapted for you, what you want and what you get are a whole different story. And I donít think it does any good to come in with the mentality that they have to adapt everything, knowing that you wonít get everything. That might be good for activism, but it doesnít do you any good for your career as a biochemist. If activism leads to changes, you can do more things; indeed disabled people can do now more in university than they could do 40 years ago. But the ones who fought for it very likely did not directly benefit. You donít have the time to wait to win a lawsuit before you actually change things. I do a lot of disability activism so disabled people have it easier, but for myself I simply had to adapt. It never occurred to me that I couldnít do what I wanted to do. But I am in a position where I can adapt myself. If people are not able to do so, then they have to do more research and they have to be much more realistic of what they can do and what kind of adaptations, accommodations you get, within a given system. Buildings do not change fast.

Q: When you graduated with your PhD, how did you find the job search?
A: I never searched. I went from one person to the next one I knew.

Q: The doors were open when you finished your PhD?
A: Well, because I knew people. And I made arrangements. If I had applied by letter, I think it would have been more difficult, simply because most people would not be able to judge my suitability and the suitability of their labs. And many, of course, have prejudice against disabled people.

Q: So networking was incredibly important?
A: Yeah, of course. Thatís why you have to be good and people have to know you in the field. So blind applying for me just didnít work. People have to know you and your work and that your work is high caliber. Itís easier.

Q: Were there any key players or mentors that helped you through your science and technology degrees?
A: No. I just knew what I wanted and I did it.

Q: Now where you are in your career, are there any physical or social barriers?
A: I do not think there are social barriers nowadays for me. I am too well-known in the different areas I work in. Sure, physical barriers I still encounter in Calgary and every time I travel. There are so many places that are not accessible. And when they build new stuff, itís still often not accessible. So that hasnít changed. They do everything that is required by code, and again, I donít have time to debate, if they want to do it like that. I try to circumvent. I do most of my teaching online so I donít have to bother with buildings and other accessibility issues. [Attitudes are] different between faculties. They behave completely different. So thatís why I say, there is no homogeneous evil and homogeneous good. It really changes from faculty to faculty about how much they even think about and how they build accessibility-wise. For example, in washrooms they often do not think about buttons. They think about the bigger stalls, but they donít think about buttons for the entrance door to the washrooms. They have heavy hinges, which means I have to speed with the wheelchair to be able to push the door to the washroom open. And I am not willing to speed, as I do not see who is on the other side and feel unsafe. So I label such washrooms as inaccessible and often do not use them, or I crawl in. People donít internalize universal design needs for different people. Thatís just the reality.

Q: What do you think would need to happen for people to internalize these issues?
A: Unless they all had no legs they wouldnít know. Even within our own movement itís a reality. People in wheelchairs often donít think about what the blind person needs, or the deaf person needs, or the developmental different person needs. We donít train ourselves to look at a building from all different subgroups. So I think our movement is just as bad. Itís not just the so-called able-bodied people who donít internalize the view of what the less-abled can do, all movements are the same thing. Very few go through life seeing every single angle. Itís human nature. People have to teach themselves to be more cross-disciplinary, more diverse in how they see the world. And we donít train people like that. We specialize people, in the fields they cover, in how they see the world. For example, many who think about a disabled person do not necessarily think about the problems indigenous people face. We have very few who would think holistically about things from many angles. Itís simply a generic problem with the human species.

Q: Do you have anything else that you think is important for students with disabilities within the science and technology fields?
A: Never take anything personal. If people treat you badly, itís not because of you, itís because they are bad or ignorant or stupid people. They just donít get it and they will do the same to others. If someone treats you badly because they are a bully, they will also bully other people. So never take it personal. Because then you just become bitter and then you are cutting into your enjoyment of life.

Q: How did you manage to cope with that?
A: My parents gave me this message: ďYou follow your dreams and donít take anything personal. Focus on the good people.Ē Therefore, I was very prepared. My parents are wonderful, what can I say. You just have to step back and not take things too personally. All the time I say that my wheelchair is a pretty good pre-screening tool. People who canít cope with me wonít treat me as an equal in the wheelchair, so people who can see beyond the wheelchair are normally less prejudiced, and I rarely face problems related to who I am with people who get to know me more. You focus on the people who treat you nicely. Stay loyal to those who are good and just ignore the others. You canít do anything about them anyway. I do a lot of activism work, but you can never take it as a personal thing. You do it for the group, especially if you have certain abilities that the group doesnít have, you can add to the capacity. But if you do it as a personal vendetta, then you are just hurting yourself. I think that, because I made it in the system, I have an obligation to do stuff for those who did not make it into the system, or who are to come. I benefited from others who wanted to help make a difference, so I think I have an obligation to help others. We often have a problem with those who make it into the system who disengage from the movement. And I absolutely do not agree with that. If you make it into the system, great, but you should think of ways to give back to your community. There are enough people who did not make it into the system and need help, and I think that if you make it into the system you have an obligation to give back.