Meet the Creator of #DisabledandSTEM

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Jesse Shanahan, a graduate student in astrophysics, an accessibility coordinator, and a science communicator. She created the hashtag #disabledandSTEM and has recently joined the leadership team of 500 Women Scientists to make sure we're honoring our mission to make science inclusive and accessible. We're thrilled to have her on board and excited to share some of her work with you all!

When did you first identify as a scientist? What sort of research are you working on now?

I think this is a really difficult question because there are so many times when I still don't identify as a scientist. It probably has more to do with impostor syndrome or feeling as if the culture of STEM isn't always welcoming to people like me. I feel most like a scientist when I'm able to communicate my research to peers or to the public or when I'm actively working on a project. Right now, I'm working with the Galaxy Zoo team, and I'm doing research on galaxy morphology!


You're super active in the world of outreach, with a lot of activities geared towards young students. How did you find your way into this space and what advice do you have for people looking to get involved?

I've always had a foot in the field of education, starting from when I was in high school. I strongly believe that scientists have an obligation to communicate with and engage the public. My own style of communication has been best suited towards younger students (I'm pretty silly!). The best way to get involved is to volunteer for existing programs. Once you get some experience under your belt, consider starting a program of your own, especially if you notice needs not being met or a population of people not being effectively reached.

You're also a big advocate for disability justice and accessibility in STEM, which is an area that is often overlooked in conversations around equity and inclusion. What are some advocacy achievements you're most proud of and what are you currently pushing for?

I'm most proud of co-founding the Working Group for Accessibility and Disability in the American Astronomical Society. Our whole group is absolutely incredible and filled with such driven, knowledgeable people. It's really quite inspiring to see all that we've accomplished! Right now, we're working on a bunch of projects ranging from conference best practices to publishing guidelines. In the future, I'd love to see collaboration with disability groups in other STEM fields.


You recently joined the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists at a time when we're shaping the future of the organization. What are your hopes for us as a group moving forward? What are some gaps in the advocacy landscape that we can fill?

I'm really hoping to see 500 Women Scientists expand to include women scientists with disabilities. The barriers we face are a bit different from non-disabled women scientists, and I think that has to be kept in mind in any kind of advocacy work. That's the biggest gap that I'm hoping to fill as well. The organization has a lot of potential and already has accomplished incredible things, so I'd like to do my part to make sure disabled scientists are advocated for as well.

Between your science and your advocacy work, what do you do to relax and unwind?

There isn't much downtime, to be honest! I do have a weakness for video games, and I enjoy streaming on Twitch for fun. I also have the world's cutest dog, Hubble, and playing with him is the highlight of my day. 


Jesse Shanahan is a graduate student in astrophysics and a science communicator who began her career as an Echols Scholar studying North African linguistics at the University of Virginia. At present, she works with Galaxy Zoo, researching galaxy morphology and supermassive black holes. While she currently writes for Forbes, her articles have previously been featured in publications such as Astronomy Magazine and Science. She is the co-founder and current Coordinating Committee member of the Working Group for Accessibility and Disability (WGAD) in the American Astronomical Society in which she also served on the Society's Early Career Advisory Board. Jesse is also staunchly involved in disability advocacy, having launched the #disabledandSTEM Twitter campaign and actively works to make STEM accessible for disabled students. Outside of work, she volunteers as an EMT and is currently working on acquiring her firefighter certifications. Her passions include spectroscopy, the social model of disability, accessible video games, and her service dog, Hubble.