The Challenge of inclusivity - MCAA Magazine News January 2021
What are the challenges faced by researchers with disabilities? Yahaya Yabo of the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) Editorial Team interviewed Carlo Antonini, a member of the MCAA Genders, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (GEDI) Working Group (WG), who shared his story, point of view and current work.
Carlo is a researcher with disability and a member of the MCAA GEDI WG. He is actively involved in the WG’s ResearchAbility task force, which focuses on researchers with disabilities. Currently, he is a Rita Levi Montalcini tenuretrack researcher and the coordinator of a recently funded MSCA Innovative Training Network (ITN), SURFICE1.
Carlo Antonini in his own words
I am concentrically Lombard, Italian and European. I am an aerospace engineer by training and, since a few years, I am working in the field of Materials Science and Technology, more specifically on non-wetting and anti-icing surfaces. I have been an MSCA fellow at ETH Zurich at the Laboratory of Thermodynamics in Emerging Technologies, in Prof. Dimos Poulikakos’ group (2012-2014). I recently started coordinating an MSCA-ITN project called SURFICE.
Carlo is currently a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca, and a scientific advisor for the start-up ApiTech2 , which supports innovation in SMEs. He had faced the well-known difficulties of finding a balance between mobility and family, with the need to find a long-term position. Talking about his disability, Carlo says: “I was born with a below-elbow amputation which has generally not restricted my career as an experimental scientist working in the lab. Certainly, I was fortunate to find colleagues and supervisors who supported my being different, without making me feel different.”
DISCRIMINATION AND LACK OF POSSIBILITIES FOR RESEARCHERS WITH DISABILITIES
While discussing with a colleague about a student, who was using crutches after a surgery and was not allowed to come to the chemistry lab, Carlo realised “that a person with permanent limited mobility, e.g. using a wheelchair, may be prevented from becoming a chemist: if he/she cannot do the lab activities, how can he/she get the degree?” After this discussion, Carlo felt that “so much still needs to be done to level barriers.”
In order to make research/academia inclusive, Carlo believes that, by educating ourselves and the people around us, solutions can and must be found, if there is a specific need. He emphasises that “supporting people with specific needs does not mean favouring them, but rather creating the right conditions for everyone to succeed. Eyeglasses are a simple and perfect example: giving glasses to shortsighted people does not favour them; it simply brings them at the same condition as the others.”
The University of Milano-Bicocca, where Carlo works, took some steps to address the problems of discrimination in academia by making inclusion one of its core pillars. Carlo recounts his initial reaction to this: “I must confess the expression struck me at first: shouldn’t a university aim at being ‘exclusive’? Usually ‘exclusive’ is a synonym associated with being top ranking and cool, rather than ‘inclusive’. However, inclusivity is a key factor with extremely positive practical consequences.”
“At my university, once a year we have the B.inclusion days3 to promote awareness on diversity,” says Carlo. “The university has a team of people with diverse competences, from psychology to IT, to help students find solutions for their specific needs. We, as teachers, are provided training to help successfully interact with students with specific needs. In case a student needs help, I know what to do and there is a whole team that can support me.”
DIVERSITY AS A STRENGTH IN THE WORK ENVIRONMENT
Carlo’s definition of diversity is straightforward: “We are all differently equal.” Although he works and collaborates with people in a diverse research community, he feels that “the Italian academy certainly needs a generational turnover to develop a more diverse environment.” Having different needs and experiences, including a diverse education background, is a strength: “Over the past few years, in my university, having an international MSc has certainly become beneficial, because it means exposing everyone, from professors to students, to different languages and cultures.”
According to Carlo, diversity can be a driver for inclusion: “Belonging to a minority, or having specific needs, helps people to develop awareness about diversity, as well as to understand that others may see things differently and may have different needs.” As a scientist, Carlo had the opportunity to live in different countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada): “Although I did it in a privileged position as an exchange student first or as a highly qualified professional later, I have learnt what it means to be far from home and a foreigner. This increases my empathy for people with a different background than mine, even now that I am back home, in Italy.”
FROM AN MSCA FELLOW TO AN MSCA COORDINATOR
Carlo is currently coordinating the MSCA-ITN SURFICE project, about which he has this to say: “As a proud MSCA Alumnus, I am enthusiastic to lead a consortium in which we will train 13 PhD students to become the next generation of EU scientists and possibly innovative entrepreneurs. Together with a couple of colleagues, we started to plan the proposal in late 2017. Such a long time to write it and then have it granted. But patiently working on it was well worth it.”
WHAT CAN WE DO TO SUPPORT RESEARCHERS WITH SPECIFIC NEEDS?
“I think mentoring and advice from peers is a key element within the association,” says Carlo while referring to how MCAA members support each other within the Association. At the EU level, he believes that we should all advocate for a uniform regulation on health support. This is because “national health systems are so different, and some disabilities and specific needs may not be recognised, when moving from one country to another. This can be a tremendous barrier for researchers’ mobility within the EU. We need to have a more uniform and recognised disability scheme at the European level.” A quick way to render some support in the meantime would be “providing support through a specific insurance scheme. Some specific financial support, like the MSC Lump Sum, may help the transition too.”
The MCAA can play a key role in promoting the value of diversity and inclusion in research: “The MCAA represents the current and the next generation of leaders in science. It is important to educate all of us to promote diversity and inclusion, through events, meetings and panel discussions. We must create awareness on the unconscious biases we all have, so that we can go back to our institutions and promote a bottom-up change in our daily business.”
Interview by Yahaya A. Yabo