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Visually impaired biology graduate leaves lasting impression

Ella Bowles is one of only a handful of legally blind students in Canada to earn a science PhD
November 8, 2016
Ready to sample stickleback in Meshik Lake, Aniakchak National Preserve, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ella Bowles

Ready to sample stickleback in Meshik Lake, Aniakchak National Preserve, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ella Bowles

For the last six years, you could find new PhD graduate Ella Bowles plumbing the icy depths of lakes in Alaska’s grizzly-dense Katmai National Park, mapping fish genetics in the lab, and persuasively advocating for reasonable accommodations for students like her with disabilities.

The one place the legally blind and very determined Bowles seems never to have been is on the path of least resistance.

Bowles — who was diagnosed with retinoblastoma as a child — is one of only a handful of Canadians with a visual impairment ever to have earned a PhD in science. “I know of one applied molecular oncology graduate, a physics graduate, and someone in actuarial sciences,” Bowles says. “But, yes, it’s very unusual.”

It’s rare, because it’s tough. It’s hard enough to earn a PhD, but to overcome the challenges of a visual impairment takes incredible dedication, time, and some additional resources. “It’s really difficult. In fact there were several times I just really wanted to quit,” Bowles says.

Instead, she recruited a support team drawn together by her positive outlook and clarity of purpose. Among others, that team included her adviser Sean Rogers, an associate professor in biological sciences; Lawrence Harder, PhD committee member; Lisa Young, dean and vice-provost of Graduate Studies; and Student Accessibility Services.

Rewriting the rules

Bowles knew she’d need some specialized equipment like magnifying lamps, a monitor, and some software to read PDF files. The trick was to find the funding.

Not content to find one-off solutions that merely met her own needs — which would have been relatively straight forward — Bowles set about addressing the system of accommodations for all graduate students so that others could benefit down the road.

“There was no real precedent, and it took 19 months going around in circles and circles and circles,” Bowles says. Once she brought her requests forward to Young, Bowles says everything fell in to place.

“To graduate from a program after six years and be filled with gratitude is a win-win, and definitely a credit to Dr. Young, to Sean, and to everyone at the University of Calgary who stood behind me,” Bowles says.

Accustomed to rationalizing the extra time and money it can require to accommodate students with disabilities, Bowles’ response is: why not? “Most accommodations don’t cost a lot of money,” she says. “Give us the equivalent of a pen, a desk and a computer, and we can be equally capable. Why not let people with a disability reach their potential, and along the way create contributing members of society?”

Flying in for fish field work

An NSERC recipient and a Garfield Weston Doctoral award winner, Bowles’ PhD research involved studying the distribution of threespine stickleback fish in Katmai National Park in Alaska to learn more about adaptation in aquatic environments using conservation genetics.

The fact that Bowles headed out to the field clearly impresses those she worked most closely with.

“You might think someone facing vision issues like Ella’s would choose to do a lab study,” says Harder, professor in the Department of Biology. “Instead, she goes out and collects fish in Alaska! Not for the faint of heart, even if you’re fully visually capable.”

The field work meant hiring a part-time assistant and taking float planes to relatively remote locations over three summers. It meant venturing into grizzly country. And it even resulted in Bowles learning how to shoot a gun — though she wasn’t allowed to use it.

“Ella is the kind of ecologist we hope we are training here: one that can go out in the field, and also come back in the lab,” Rogers says. “The challenge from my perspective, as her supervisor, was to figure out how to accommodate Ella and at the same time ensure she remains competitive with others in her field. And I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Now a postdoc at Concordia, Bowles is continuing to blaze a trail and apply her knowledge.

As Rogers says: “That’s Ella. She’ll make a difference wherever she goes.”

Advice to students

Cultivate your network: Sounds cheesy, Bowles says, but it’s true. It’s the friendships and support system that will allow you to do meaningful, enjoyable work into the future.

Use the time in graduate school to develop the skills that are critical long term. For example, Bowles says bioinformatics is critical in her work, skills that would be hard to develop after graduate school.

It’s never too early to think about the kind of work you want eventually to do: having a long term goal helps keep you motivated day-to-day in your PhD program.