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Sigrid Phyllis Stearner, better known as Phyllis Stearner, had always been interested in science, especially biology. In fact, for the majority of her childhood, she would spend much of her free time collecting insects, observing the animals in her yard, and taking frequent trips to the zoo with her mother. However, because Stearner was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affected her mobility, her father and teachers decided it was best to homeschool her, as they worried she might get hurt while interacting with the other kids. Unfortunately, one consequence of this decision was that Stearner wasn’t able to get much exposure to science beyond what she read in the textbooks provided by her tutors. It wasn’t until high school when she was able to step foot into a laboratory. Even then, her teachers refused to allow her to perform any of the lab experiments. She was only permitted to observe from afar.
That didn’t deter her, however. She was committed to becoming a scientist. After all, not only was it a career she would enjoy, but it was one that would allow her to be self-sufficient and live independently--two things that were difficult for disabled people to do at the time. Therefore, when it came time to apply for college, she demanded that the Illinois Division of Vocational Rehabilitation fund her education at the University of Chicago. They reluctantly provided financial support for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but refused to pay for her PhD. But, with a “stubborn determination” Stearner continued her education thanks to a partial scholarship and family support. She obtained her PhD in Zoology in 1946 and was offered a job at Argonne National Laboratory soon after graduation.
At Argonne, Stearner worked in the field of radiation biology and was a pioneer in the field. She was one of the first to determine how different doses, exposure lengths, and types of radiation affected the bodies of vertebrates and provide a detailed assessment on how radiation causes structural, and functional changes to tissues in the heart and blood vessels. By the end of her career, Stearner became internationally known, having authored more than 90 scientific papers on her research findings. Because of her success, she was frequently invited to present at scientific conferences located all around the world.
It’s clear that Stearner was committed to pursuing science regardless of the societal barriers she faced as a disabled woman. However, she also wanted to even the playing field so that other disabled people could pursue STEM careers, too. As such, she was known to frequently mentor disabled students, and often advocated for increased accommodations around the Argonne campus. She was also one of three disabled scientists that was responsible for founding the Foundation for the Science and the Handicapped (now renamed to the Foundation for Science and Disability), which is a program affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The foundation, which is still around today, aims to remove barriers that prevent disabled people from pursuing scientific careers. Within the AAAS, Stearner also helped establish the Project on the Handicapped in Science (now renamed to the Project on Science, Technology, and Disability), where she helped create a directory that was made up of over a thousand disabled scientists and engineers who were willing to act as advisers, consultants, and mentors to the scientific community at large.
Her advocacy for increased representation of disabled scientists continued even after she retired from Argonne. Upon her retirement, Stearner wrote a book which included the biographies of twenty-seven disabled scientists entitled “Able Scientists--Disabled Persons: Careers in the Sciences.” Since she believed that the underrepresentation of disability in STEM was due “barriers to quality education in science and mathematics beginning in the early grades,” she hoped this book would not only inspire young disabled people to pursue science careers, but also change the negative perception that nondisabled parents, teachers, and counselors often had of disabled children.
Overall, it is clear that Phyllis Stearner had a very decorated career as both a scientist and a disability advocate. Yet, a Google search of her name hardly brings up any results. It was only thanks to the obituaries written by her friends and colleagues that I was even able to find any mention of her disability or activism work. Though disheartening, I’m honestly not that surprised. History has repeatedly shown us that the stories of the marginalized rarely get told. But I want to stress that the erasure of Stearner, and other disabled scientists, is absolutely detrimental to young disabled students looking to pursue a scientific career. After all, the lack of disabled role models is often cited as a key reason as to why these students end up leaving STEM.
The Foundation for Science and Disability, which was founded, in part, by Phyllis Stearner, has established a Science Graduate Student Grant Fund with the aim of “increas[ing] opportunities in science, engineering, mathematics, technology, and pre‑medical/dental areas for graduate or professional students with disabilities.” This grant is available to fourth year disabled undergraduates who have been accepted to a graduate or professional school, as well as disabled graduate students in STEM. Recipients of this award receive $1000 to support their research projects. For more information go to stemd.org.
Furthermore, the Project of Science, Technology and Disability, also established, in part, thanks to Phyllis Stearner, runs Entry Point!, a program which “recruits [disabled students] who are majoring in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and some fields of business for internships and co-op opportunities.” For more information on the program, eligibility and how to apply, go to www.aaas.org/programs/entry-point.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1978) AAAS Project on the Handicapped in Science Seeking Names for Directory. Science, 199(4332), 1005-1005.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2020) Records of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability. AAAS Archives. [Link].
Davis, C. A. & Redden, M. R. (1978) Achievement in Biology: An Introduction to Handicapped Biologists. The American Biology Teacher, 40(3), 175-190.
Heise, K. (1997) Dr. Sigrid Stearner, A Radiation Pioneer. The Chicago Tribune. [Link].
Rosenthal, M. W. (1998) In Memoriam: Sigrid Phyllis Stearner (1919-1997). Radiation Research, 194(5), 521-522
Stearner, S. P. (1981) Opportunities for the Handicapped. Science, 241(4526).
Verheyden-Hilliard, M. E. (1988) Scientist and Activist, Phyllis Stearner. The Equity Institute.
Mankin, R. (2020) Vision and History of FSD. Foundation for Science and Disability [Link].