After battling stereotypes to get the support she needed at school, Jessica Boland is proactive in confronting the challenges her hearing impairment presents, and in making STEMM more accessible for all.
A last-minute choice
Jessica Boland was born with moderate to severe hearing loss. She was bullied at school because she was different, yet had to battle for her disability to be taken seriously by some teachers and doctors.
"It was a hard fight for my parents. I wasn't given hearing aids until I was 14. I could speak well and was doing OK in school, and that caused issues in getting treatment. Doctors would say 'she's coping well'. As I got older, I was able to explain that I was completely relying on lip-reading."
With the help of hearing aids, and adjustments in place at school and sixth form, Jessica excelled. She took A levels in Latin, French, German, maths, further maths and physics, and it was the languages and classics that she intended to pursue at university.
"It was my maths teacher that suggested physics, because I was always asking how to apply maths. I decided on a physics degree about five minutes before the UCAS deadline."
Her exam results were so good that her first choice, the University of Exeter, awarded her an academic scholarship to take the subject.
Early career success
A PhD in Oxford, and a postdoctoral position in Germany followed, during which she established herself in the field of using terahertz spectroscopy to analyse nanostructures. The research – and her commitment to outreach – won her the Institute of Physics' coveted Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal. In 2018, Jessica took up her position as Lecturer in Functional Materials and Devices at the University of Manchester.
"It's amazing to be at Manchester right now, to have my own group and get to mentor students. We use terahertz radiation – like the kind used in airport scanners – to analyse current nanomaterials, and to test new materials that could make better, faster, more energy efficient devices in future."
Asking for help
Meeting Jessica, you might not realise that she is hard of hearing; her speech is excellent and her lip reading is precise. This meant that, when she wanted to hide her deafness, she could often get away with it.
"At university I was a little bit in denial that I needed adjustments, and I didn't like being referred to as disabled. Now I’ve realised you need to get on board with the term to access support and I feel I need to be open about it in my position as a lecturer. I would love it if my adjustments were standard, and this could be easily achieved. For example, automatically having live subtitling and microphones at conferences and public events. I think it is about raising awareness of these issues, and once you do, people are usually super onboard and can make these changes."
Jessica has funding through the government's Access to Work scheme for a remote captioner at meetings – someone who types everything that's being said, in real time. She has radio aids that go with her hearing aids, such as a clip-on microphone. And her department have provided her with additional support, including a throwable microphone passed between students when they ask questions in Jessica's lectures.
A new language
Even with equipment and adjustments, networking, conferences and lab situations remain difficult.
"My ears are often too sore for hearing aids, and they don't work well when there is a lot of background noise. Lip reading is tiring, so thinking about STEMM problems at the same time is really hard, and a lot of time our labs have to be dark, so it’s not appropriate."
So, having never learned sign language as a child, Jessica recently took it up. She intends to apply for funding for an interpreter to accompany her in labs. As for many highly specialised subjects, no signs exist for some terms Jessica uses in her research – such as terahertz radiation – and she’s working with the scientific signing community to develop them. She also promotes scientific signs on Twitter using #signscience.
Activism and advice
Jessica is passionate about improving accessibility. She is co-chair of the university's Disabled Staff Network and, on behalf of Tigers in STEMM, wrote a report about barriers facing disabled people in research funding processes. To anyone with a disability who's considering a career in research, she has this advice:
"Go for it. Don't think you can't do it because you can. Things are changing, getting more inclusive. You might need some things in place but nothing should hold you back. Find a mentor who's faced the challenges before, and go for it."