When we talk about STEM diversity, we mostly talk about race and gender—but what about students with disabilities? Bella Sobah, an African American woman, entered the sciences as someone who is coping with spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disease that affects her arms and legs to the point where she needs a wheelchair. She chose to major in genetics partly in order to gain some insight into her disabilities.
“Right now I am in two upper-level genetics capstone courses, and I’ve learned a lot about genetics techniques,” says Sobah, a senior. “The courses have also taught me a lot about how to research online databases and how we interpret that information.” Her genetics coursework has taught her a lot of about critical thinking and the scientific process as well, she notes.
Although Sobah is majoring in a STEM field, she plans to go to law school after graduating. She wants to find a way to blend and balance her skills from genetics with legal and social issues, including human and civil rights.
“While I’ve had great experiences, some days I’ll look around the lecture hall and see that I’m one of a few black students, or that I’m the only person with a visible disability,” says Sobah. “I want to change the systematic racism that exists. Even though I know I cannot do it alone, I want to use my skills to make changes.”
Being a STEM student with a disability, Sobah has had to develop ways to cope not only with everyday life but also with challenges associated with science classwork—including people’s low expectations. When people see her physical appearance, they often assume that she is also not mentally capable, she says.
“There have been instances where people would doubt me academically. But my disease is just physical,” Sobah explains. “The toughest part was learning how to advocate for my needs—which is easier said than done, because a lot of people either don’t understand, or are hesitant to understand.”
Having spinal muscular atrophy hasn’t stopped Sobah from being as active and engaged with her education and social life as any other STEM major. She can often be found in the organic chemistry offices, in lecture halls talking to professors, and simply conversing with her friends and classmates in a bioinformatics lab.
In her sophomore year she worked in the lab of botany professor David Baum, where she had a chance to collaborate with graduate students in building phylogenetic trees using bioinformatics techniques in order to better understand biological data.
“Even though I couldn’t physically do much, his lab and the research was a great experience!” Sobah says.
“A lot of physical limitations that arise in science labs consist of lab benches being too tall or not accommodating for wheelchairs,” notes Sobah. Her disability limits her movement, so activities like pipetting and looking into microscopes are difficult. An accommodation for the later involves connecting a microscope to a computer screen, so the field of view is easy to see.
In addition to her passion for science, Sobah hosts her own radio show called “Shut up and Listen,” a title she borrowed from the movie The Princess Diaries. The show, which airs on WSUM (Channel 91.7FM) on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., features music ranging from oldies to new hip-hop music. The excitement in her voice transmits not only her passion for music but a good deal of humor.
“I’ve always been very loud,” Sobah says, regarding her vibrant presence on air.