Living with pain
Diagnosed with Systemic Onset Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis aged two, Jazmin Scarlett’s childhood and adolescence were disrupted by agonising flare-ups.
"On the worst days I wouldn’t be able to get up. I was in severe pain and needed help to do anything, like eat or go to the bathroom. My joints would be swollen and hot, hard to move."
When the pain was too much to manage at home, Jazmin would be admitted to hospital – sometimes for months on end. Missing so much school at such an early age, she became disengaged in most subjects, with two exceptions:
"I was just exhausted and frustrated all the time, but I really did enjoy geography and the sciences. My family and my teachers recognised that, and encouraged me to pursue those subjects."
Passion and heritage
Coping with her condition as best she could – helped by weekly immunosuppressant injections and hydrotherapy, and twice daily physio – Jazmin completed her schooling and gained an A Level in geography and BTEC in industrial science. Her dream was to go on to do geography at university, but she was concerned that her arthritis might hold her back.
"Geography involves fieldwork, so would I actually be able to keep up with it? Since I like all science, I could just go and do a chemistry degree that’s mostly sitting down. But arthritis is a condition I live with, and I just had to find ways around it, to do what I want to do."
Jazmin completed a Geography and Natural Hazards BSc at Coventry University, and chose to continue on to a Masters in Volcanology and Geological Hazards at Lancaster University. She had no idea that her family had close links with the subject.
"My mum said 'you should talk to your grandad, he's from a volcanic island and he has stories about the volcano.' I was 21 and I didn’t know! My grandad told me all these fascinating stories about where he grew up on St Vincent and the Grenadines. I was captivated to hear about the volcano – La Soufrière – and its last eruption in 1979.
"It made me want to find ways to help people who live with the volcano, particularly as we still have family living over there."
The family connection set Jazmin on a path of research that she's continued ever since. She combines volcanology with social sciences – to understand how people feel and think about living with a volcano, and inform disaster preparedness and response.
Managing with arthritis
In adulthood, Jazmin's arthritis has become less aggressive. Her flare-ups ceased when she was an undergraduate, but chronic pain and fatigue worsened.
"As a student, writing lots of notes could be painful. Disability Services made me aware of the things I could do, for example I could ask lecturers for their notes. I had a disability allowance so I could buy a printer, so I didn't have to go to the library for all my printing if I was having a bad day.
"Throughout my academic journey, field trips have been the biggest challenge, with all the walking. Sometimes in the evenings I could persevere with work, but other times I just had to pass out."
Today, as a lecturer and researcher, Jazmin has to be careful not to overstretch herself – not working beyond 5pm and being mindful of how much she attempts each day. The arthritis is most advanced in Jazmin’s right wrist, so it can hurt a lot to write. She uses a mat to support her wrists when typing on a keyboard, and tends to sit down when lecturing.
Fieldwork is still tough, but Jazmin uses it as an opportunity to encourage students with other health issues.
"If I'm made aware of a student who has a condition, I’ll find them at the beginning and tell them about my arthritis, so they know we can walk together and take our time."
In fact, it's taking your time and working with your body’s limits that Jazmin says is key for anyone with a chronic condition who wants to work in STEM.
"My advice is to get to know your body and know the signs of when you've reached your limit, then you can adapt what you want to do to your own situation. Make sure you have support around you, but I think if you have a chronic illness you are very independent, so if you want to do something, you'll do your best to achieve it."