A hand reaches for the sky.

I Took a Step Back to Help Others Scoot Forward

I was remote before being remote was even a thing.

During middle school, I was recovering from operations on my legs and back, so I was at home instead of at school. I had textbooks and lab kits delivered to my house to “keep up” with my classmates. While they were doing egg drop experiments and volcano simulations, I had black and white pictures in a textbook and grainy, pre-HD videos from the early days of YouTube.

You get a bad haircut, you're going to have a bad start to sixth grade—so you can only imagine what it was like to get a spinal fusion before middle school.

Every summer.

And not show up to school each year until at least October. After three Octobers in a row, I was thrilled to finally start high school on the actual first day. 

I even had the opportunity to attend a high school with a college prep, STEM-focused curriculum. But then I got there … The building didn’t have an elevator, and of course, all of the STEM classrooms and labs were located on the second floor. So even though I was there, I still had to find a way to attend my classes.

I created hacks, like having a set of books at home and at school. And keeping a backpack on both floors. I never had to use it—but I could have said “it was in my other backpack” instead of “the dog ate my homework.” But I always did my homework. (I bet you did too. That’s what got us all here, right?) For me, preparing for a career in STEM wasn’t just an intellectual challenge–it was physical. I had a teacher once tell me that nothing in life worth having comes easy.

For me, the science came pretty easy. It was getting to be able to do the science that was difficult. 

For college, I had the opportunity to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full scholarship. And they don’t call it Chapel “Hill” for no reason. My dorm felt like it was at base camp, and all of my classes were, of course, at the very TOP.

I was thrilled for my first college science lab—introductory chemistry. But just one thing—I was not able to reach the lab bench and fume. So instead of performing titrations and measuring molarity, I would just record the data when my lab partner would call out different volumes and let me know when the solution turned pink. It felt like I was watching YouTube again. While I got good at recording and analyzing data, I was there, but I wasn’t. 

As for the lecture hall, I had the option of sitting either at the very back of the auditorium or on the edge of the actual stage. I opted for the stage. I knew in the back I would be distracted, I would be sleepy. Sit on the edge of center stage and you stay sharp. But to get to the stage I had to ride my scooter through the basement, zooming past the “authorized personnel only” signs in the Genome Science Building to the lift.

The only way to get in was by taking paths that aren’t allowed.  

I always enjoyed attending office hours to discuss science with my professors. I had one professor tell the class to meet in her office on the third floor of Smith Hall. Not only did this building not have an accessible entrance or elevator, it turns out the “third floor” was actually the attic of the building. Wanting to meet with the professor anyway, I ended up parking my scooter next to the bike rack, unhooked my crutches from the rear, and used them to climb up the stairs to get into the building. And then to climb up the set of stairs for the first two floors. And then to scramble up the narrow attic stairs, almost crawling so that the base of the crutches didn’t slip. If I had known, I would’ve brought my carabiner and pick ax.

But at least at the summit, I was able to get my homework problem solved. And it wasn’t just the academic buildings that felt unreachable. The height of the plates stacked in the dining hall; the steps up to our famous drinking fountain, the Old Well (where legend has it if you drink from it you get a 4.0–maybe that’s why my grades never quite got there); the tiered bleacher seats in the basketball arena. (Go, Tar Heels!) 

So I came to realize that I would need to find my own way to navigate the spaces I want to be a part of. But this requires some advanced planning—like when I was getting ready to come to [the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference]. I asked myself questions like: Am I going to bring my scooter on the trip and risk that the airline might mishandle and damage it? Will it be snowing and take me twice as long to get there on my crutches? Will there be steps leading up to the stage or a ramp? Will there be a podium or microphone that can be adjusted for my height? “What am I going to wear?"

With each of these climbs, there was always an opportunity to put down the two backpacks and say “I quit.” “I’m done with science.” And in some ways, I did. I didn’t keep pursuing bench science, I opted for STEM education. I took a step back so I can help others scoot forward. Because proclaiming “yes, science is for you” falls flat when the people historically excluded by the systems and structures of science keep finding that it isn’t.

Because of all of my ups and downs, my ins and outs, my back and forths, I now enter spaces aiming to be an advocate and an example. You cannot re-center people who have been living at the margins just by inviting them in. They won’t fit. You need to change the structures and systems so that they belong at the center when they first arrive.


Logan Gin, PhD, is assistant director for STEM in the Center for Teaching & Learning at Brown University.


He shared this story at the “Living Science: A Story Slamduring the 2023 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. The event was hosted by Jonathan Adler and Gillian Epstein, cofounders of The Story Lab at the Olin College of Engineering.


Read more “Living Science” stories here.


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