Neurodiverse Perspectives in Paleontology: An example of collaborative museum exhibit design and self-advocacy, crafted for and by neurodiverse people

Please welcome guest bloggers, Taormina (Tara) and Katrina Lepore. Tara, a paleontologist, writes about the work she and her sister did to develop an exhibit for neurodiverse folks at Katrina’s life skills workplace. 

My sister and I have always been different. What does ‘being different’ mean, in a big world with endless types of people? Sometimes, our differences are really apparent; other times, they’re much more subtle. Identifying as members of both the disabled and neurodiverse communities brings an awareness to how difference is ‘embodied’ in our societies. And, we think, the perspective that difference can bring makes for better science, and a better world all around. Disabled and neurodiverse people aren’t always under the spotlight in science, but my sister and I decided to work together and make our own museum space with the perspective and ingenuity of these communities.

We began this project in summer 2020, and collaborated with my sister, Katrina’s, life skills workplace, Communitas, Inc. in Woburn, Massachusetts. I’m also affiliated with the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) at UC Berkeley. Several of Katrina’s coworkers and colleagues participated in a hands-on paleontology day, with the opportunity to make plaster fossil molds, construct a model T. rex skeleton, and identify fossil trading cards with their definitions. The highlight of our paleontology day was the creation of a small fossil museum exhibit in a lobby jewelry case, where all visitors and employees could experience an exhibit crafted with neurodiverse perspectives. It was so fun and a valuable experience to work together on what works, and what doesn’t work, in museum exhibit design for disabled and/or neurodiverse people.

Some of the things we implemented included touchable fossil items, large print labels, and fossil organization by time period and by environment (ocean vs. land, etc.). We also created some augmented reality (AR) prompts where visitors could hold up their phone to a fossil in a specific app, Adobe Aero. The Aero app would recognize the fossil and pop up with a video narrating what the label said, as a way of providing accessibility to non-readers or non-verbal people. The exhibit designers shared that some of the things that are helpful at museums include touchable objects, quiet spaces to interact with exhibits, and more than one way of interacting — for example, videos plus text panels. Things that were challenging for the designers included loud and busy museum spaces, being unable to read or interact with the text panels, and the brightness of the overhead lights in some museum spaces. After the summer museum exhibit design project was completed, Katrina sat down for an interview on the design process and how her experience with museum paleontology felt.

A few online paleontology events also happened over the next year or so, and in summer 2021 we had another in-person paleontology day, focusing on touch tables and bringing museum topics to the same cohort of museum exhibit designers from summer 2020. We’re planning on presenting some of this collaborative work together at a symposium for community connections to natural history collections, this upcoming summer! It’s our hope that my sister and I can continue to learn about paleontology together, and inspire other life skills workplaces and museums to collaborate in including neurodiverse and disabled perspectives in exhibit design.

The Path to Becoming a Paleontologist: Hidden Struggles

This post is part of a series on Time Scavengers about Hidden Disabilities and how these affect scientists and researchers during graduate school, throughout our careers, and in the field and lab.  We welcome contributions from our community, friends, and colleagues to this impactful series.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Domestic abuse, self harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders

I’ve always known I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was the dinosaur kid and I (kind of) stayed the dinosaur kid. I knew I didn’t look like a paleontologist – all the paleontologists I had seen on TV were white men living their cowboy fantasy, but that didn’t stop me. 

My childhood was spent watching VHS tapes of Walking with…  and Jurassic Park. I would drag my grandfather into the backyard of our tiny apartment complex to look for fossils – often just chunks of limestone with a few bivalves embedded in them. I spent hours at local book sales, looking for old paleontology tomes that I would parse for any bit of knowledge. I began volunteering in our local museum as early as possible and ended up tallying over 300+ hours by the time I finished high school. There was nothing I wanted more than being around the fossils I loved so much.

However, this is not to say there weren’t discouraging moments. During this time at the museum, I learned that museum guests didn’t take me as seriously with my hair down, or that wearing a skirt somehow meant that the facts I was sharing weren’t true. I watched parents shush their daughters and encourage their sons to get excited about the same thing. I heard my mom start repeating their words at home. 

“Stop it. They’ll think you’re weird.”

I started to hate myself, little by little. I couldn’t give up paleontology – it was the one thing I was sure of more than anything – but I hated myself for loving it. This was compounded by the fact that my mother, trying her best to protect me from society’s harsh expectations of women, told me that “boys won’t like [me]” if I kept up this “dinosaur thing”. I’d like to say that this didn’t stop me. I mean, it didn’t stop the paleontology, but I did develop an eating disorder.

There is a common misconception that eating disorders occur because of a desire to be conventionally attractive. That is often not the case. I just wanted to be smaller and have some semblance of control over my life. If you fade into the background, no one notices how you dress like a boy or that your nose is too big or that you can’t shut up about Dilophosaurus. I ended up being significantly smaller – dropping from 140 lbs to 85 lbs in approximately 3 months. Of course, this isn’t normal or healthy for most human bodies. My heart stopped working right. I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa – a particular type of anorexia that develops in response to anxiety disorders – and missed the last quarter of 7th grade.

The weird thing about being eating-disorder-sick is that people actively encourage you to stay sick. Despite the fact that I couldn’t shower with the lights on or even run without having a heart attack, other students and parents alike told me I was finally “beautiful”. Suddenly, all these boys were paying attention to me. Girls that had bullied me were nice to me. I had my first boyfriend. He told me that when we first met, in 6th grade, he thought I was “fat and ugly” but now I was “gorgeous”. He constantly compared me to my friends. I broke up with him after 5 months. 

It is also important to mention that I was a band kid. Band kids, as the reputation goes, constantly date each other. One of my friends had an obsessive crush on this kid, C. C was quiet. In fact, I had never heard him say a single word during our entire 3 years in middle school band together. I didn’t even know what his last name was. Honestly, he didn’t even seem to have friends – he was always reading and avoiding people whenever we saw him.

Of course, due to middle school peer pressure, we ended up dating.

At first, things were really wonderful. I like to think of him as my first love; we ended up bonding over our mutual love of books and video games. He was the first boy that ever seemed to love me for who I was, and not what I looked like. Due to the large hit to my self-esteem I experienced during my eating disorder and a tumultuous home life, I became increasingly dependent on this relationship. He slowly began isolating me from my friends, insisting that they weren’t good for me or that he absolutely could not stand them. Clinging to him, I cut my friends out with no issue, hoping that it would quell the depression that I had been struggling with. Eventually, he would have anger flare-ups, pounding his hands on the dashboard of the car or throwing things. He began telling me things like, “Oh, I only love you sometimes – you’re not worth it other times.” Things began getting physical, like when he grabbed me hard enough to leave purple-yellow bruises on my shoulders or tried choking me when we got in an argument.

I didn’t leave, though. Not for 5 years. We stayed together through high school and into college, despite numerous suicide attempts on my part, which he encouraged. Somehow, I stuck through. Nothing changed my love of paleontology either; that was the only thing I kept clinging to through all of it. I funneled all that was left of my energy into volunteering at the museum or schoolwork. I knew that if I managed to get into an earth sciences program, I might finally find some sort of peace.

When I was accepted into university, the first thing I did was reach out to our collections manager and begin volunteering in the paleontology lab, months before my freshman year even started. I think I cried actually, when I first walked into the collections. Part of this was joy: it was the first light in a very, very long darkness. The other half was sadness: I had already resigned myself to being killed in a domestic dispute and had mentally given up on my future as my partner became more and more aggressive.

C began using drugs and drinking heavily; during this time, he also got much more erratic and violent. He began making threats towards me and my classmates.

During this time, though, I had managed to build a small, supportive friend group of other geoscience students. As I began opening up to them, I began to see how truly toxic my partner was. These were the first close friends I was allowed to have in years, as C didn’t go to the same college as me and thus, I could experience small tastes of freedom.

Bit by bit, I finally got the courage (and was forced by a mandated reporter) to go to the university police. This was ultimately a very dangerous decision. They notified him that someone at my university had reported him; he got kicked out of his program at his college for substance abuse. Additionally, considering that he was a loner and I was one of his only contacts, he immediately knew that it was me that had reported him. I was also told that none of his texts were immediate threats, so their hands were tied. I stayed with him another 4 months as he became even more erratic. I ended up losing my research position because I had to spend so many hours on the phone convincing him to not do something harmful and scary. I ended up with a reputation for being flaky, despite the fact that I would spend nights scanning fossils while crying into the phone. I couldn’t walk on campus alone anymore and refused to see him, even though we were still technically in a relationship. 

I was terrified that he would kill everyone I knew if I broke it off.

Eventually, I was so exhausted from living in fear that I just… never responded to another text. He responded by calling every member of my family and driving by my house. I ignored him. My family encouraged me to repair the relationship and keep the peace; I didn’t. 

He found new ways, year after year, to contact me and drag me back into his circle of influence. He kept driving by my house. He found new relatives to contact. He sent me letters. 

I found my solace in the museum. I poured every ounce of my soul into paleontology – it was my safe place. I made more friends with similar interests to mine. I became stronger and stronger. He never stopped bothering me, but he became more of a looming background presence than a main presence in my life. I had a home and a family outside of my biological family. I had research that I was immensely passionate about. No one was there to hold me back anymore; yes, C would sometimes send me threatening texts or appear around my house, but this was rare. I finally had freedom and it was amazing.

Eventually, I found my real way out: graduate school. I was able to change my location, and thus, he could no longer find my real position. I have never felt such peace of mind and I have never loved paleontology more. 

Thank you for reading.

Note: Leaving isn’t really an answer, for many people, as not everyone can uproot themselves and escape abusive situations. I urge everyone to find their own way out – my sway is not necessarily the best way to respond to a situation like this; as I said, this is *my* story, and how I managed to find (possibly momental) safety. There are also many details I left out to protect my safety.

If you or someone you love is in a domestic violence situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of resources to begin getting help:

You can also call them via:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

If you would like to learn more about eating disorders, Anorexia nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD; and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA; have resources.

Hidden Disabilities: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

This post is part of a series on Time Scavengers about Hidden Disabilities and how these affect scientists and researchers during graduate school, throughout our careers, and in the field and lab.  We welcome contributions from our community, friends, and colleagues to this impactful series.

Please welcome Ranjeev, a guest blogger here at Time Scavengers (click here to read more about Ranjeev and his research on our Meet the Scientist blog)!

What is it really like to be me

Imagine you are perfectly “normal” (a term that is used by “society” to refer to people that conform to the accepted morphological, physiological and/or behavioral norms) on the outside but on the inside, it is a whole different story, a complete nightmare where you are trapped inside a body constantly working under a “battery saving mode”: unable to stick to a schedule; living constantly stressed and anxious unsure of how the day is going to be or at work in pain and in mental distress so much so that you are unable to concentrate on anything but you make a conscious effort to keep a “poker face” so that you don’t worry your peers. Can you imagine? If so, welcome to my world. Hi! My name is Ranjeev, I am a PhD student and I suffer from several hidden disabilities including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a complicated chronic illness of the gut, which troubles me the most and is the basis of this writing. I should send out an early warning to the readers as this post is ironically written from the gut. Thus, if bowel movements are not your cup of tea, this is definitely not something you should proceed reading.

I have had IBS probably all my life, but recently, flare-ups have been more frequent and prolonged making my life interesting and challenging. Having said that, life is not always going downhill. There are good times and times that we are able to persevere through pain and discomfort. With IBS and several other hidden illnesses, I have accomplished a fair bit in my professional and personal life. I have been employed as a Probationary Lecturer (Junior Faculty), a teaching assistant and research assistant; completed a Bachelors and a Master’s degree, topping the batch in both; published and presented research, and I am about to start the third year of my PhD program. This post is not meant to provide any medical advice or by no means a success story. The content provided below are purely based on my own experiences and I’m well-aware that my methods of coping are not perfect. The objective of this post is to share my journey in the hopes that there will be bits and pieces that are relatable and helpful, and to create awareness about hidden disabilities within academia.

A hidden disability is basically a disability that is not visible on the outside. IBS, in my opinion, is indeed not apparent to the outside world at first, but there are many indications that clearly suggest that there is something wrong. With IBS, there are many possible symptoms which vary from person to person. Commonly there will be food intolerances, altered bowel habits, nausea, cramping, stomach pain, etc. The part that would be most apparent to the outside are behavioral changes like being always late or taking excessive leave from work, lack of energy, not participating in social gatherings, isolating yourself, and periodic weight loss. What triggers IBS flare-ups? Well, it could be anything from stress to what we eat and drink or in my case, trivial variables like what toothpaste I use or changes in the weather. Basically, I recognize the controllables (i.e. eating the right food in appropriate portions), moderate controllables (i.e. minor stress levels) and the uncontrollables (severe stress, weather, etc.). These are indeed interrelated and typically follow a cyclic pattern.

IBS and Grad School

The first point I would like to highlight is that success in grad school, in my opinion, is not maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA or publishing like a printing press. Rather, it’s doing your best and enjoying what you do. Grad school can often be a challenging if we mix up these two, and thus provide the easiest source of triggers for IBS and associated mental health woes.  As a graduate student, IBS offers some unique challenges to me. When I first stated grad school in 2015, I would always be late for the morning classes. It is no secret that people with IBS have a hard time getting out of their homes, because our bowels have a mind of their own and the phrase “trust your gut” does not work with us. Although I had already discussed with my advisor about my issues, I was initially reluctant to say why I was late for my classes. Obviously, no one likes to talk about the things that leave your body, nor would anyone want to listen to something like that. This is, in a way, a result of how most of us are brought up by society where we elaborate on all its glory on the food we eat but not on the excretory processes, which makes it so much harder for people having health issues to communicate or seek support. Subsequently, it came to a point where my professors thought I was being disrespectful, and I then let everything out. My professors were very understanding and supportive.  Since then, even after moving to a new college, I have communicated with all my professors about my IBS and the possibility of me missing, showing up late or leaving class early. I assured them that my absence does not mean that I will be taking things easy. Actually, it meant more work on my part because I would have to go through material on my own and possibly end up reading a lot more reference articles.

However, by communicating with my professors, what happened was almost a miracle. My anxiety and stress levels dropped, and my GI was more manageable. I performed well in classes, got my teaching and grading done efficiently and my research was going well. But there are always potholes on the road. For me, flare-ups tend to occur close to finals and when I get work piled up. The best way I would address these is have a regular schedule and place deadlines on myself, making sure I am on top of things. In doing so, my week is pre-structured, and I would get things done more effectively. Additionally, one piece of medical advice I got was to stick to a daily behavioral pattern, i.e. waking up, ablutions, eating and going to bed consistently at the same time each day. However, we all know that this is not always possible.  At an extreme end, we have all pulled all-nighters. They are indeed helpful but there should be limit where the benefit of getting work done is offset by the lack of awareness, the inability to concentrate and your bodily functions thrown out of whack.

Maintaining this balance is highly subjective and you should never compare your peers’ functional patterns and capabilities with yours. When I feel that my anxiety is getting out of hand because of exams or any other college related issue, I often have a pep talk with my GI and my head because they have a tendency to plot things together. Remember, your best is all you can do, so don’t over think, just do it, do it in the best possible way under the given circumstances! We often spend a lot more time (over)thinking about a task rather than the time we spend on actually doing it. This is more prevalent among people with hidden chronic illnesses because (A) our illness is not visible, and (B) we have to always be prepared and have alternatives ready just in case things go pear shaped. But in reality, “doing” is the easy part and thinking too much is what over-complicates things leading to panic attacks and flare-ups, but anxiety is part and parcel of chronic illnesses and needs to be managed with or without help.

Grad school is undoubtedly an eventful period in our lives. Professional gatherings like conferences provide excellent opportunities to learn and talk cool science, meet your favorite researchers, present your work and get insights on improvements, share your ideas with the community and, importantly, de-stress. Personally, I find such meetings and networking challenging.  For me the thought of leaving my comfort zone brings in a lot of anxiety which can turn into a bad flare-up. So, what do I do? I prepare myself in several ways.

Taking Care of the Controllables

  1. If this is my first time going to a specific meeting, the first thing I do is talk with my advisor and discuss our expectations and ask for any advice. This I find to be very important because my advisor obviously has been to similar conferences and has great insight and tips for successful participation, which in turn can reduce a lot of the anxiety caused by the unknowns. Once you have been to one such meeting, your confidence is often boosted, and you will experience less anxiety in the future.
  2. Preparing your meals and medication: If I am traveling outside, I would make sure to have my “safe foods” packed and ready. But this is not always feasible. You really can’t carry one weeks’ worth of food to a conference in a different state. Thus, I would do a thorough web search on restaurants that would cater food that agrees with me. Most professional meetings also provide food and inquire about food restrictions from their participants. I would also have medication sorted in a travel friendly arrangement because you never know when they can come in handy.
  3. It’s no secret that IBS sufferers frequent restrooms more regularly. Thus, I would have a good idea about locations of restrooms. There are a number of apps now available to find the nearest restroom (check out a list of a few of these apps here).
  4. One of the biggest mistakes that I do is eat less prior to travel or presentations. Believe me it’s a bad idea. I recommend having your regular meals and patterns rather than confusing the already sensitive digestive tract.
  5. Anyone in academia, however senior they might be, have had butterflies in their stomach at some point in their professional career. However, in IBS sufferers this benign and innocent form can change into fire breathing dragons simply by hitting the panic attack button. The method I follow to avoid panic attacks is trying to focus my attention on something totally different. If by any chance, you hit the button, I try to be mindful that what I’m imagining, often the worst-case scenario imaginable, was created in my head and communicated to the stomach. In reality, it’s just a false alarm because you have followed all necessary dietary precautions and there is no real reason for you to become sick. If this fails, I would calm myself by talking with a friend, getting some fresh air or by just going to the restroom. The interesting thing is that once you get into your presentation or meeting, your butterflies and dragons calm down and go back to sleep like magic.

Moderate Controllables and Uncontrollables

The best comforts you have as an academic who suffers from a hidden disability is your family, advisor, and peers. I am blessed with a wonderful and caring family, advisor and friends who understands my limitations and needs and help me in every way possible.  The fact that I don’t have to hide anything about my disability reduces the anxiety and gives me assurance and comfort that I have support  I can rely on.

Often times however, the anxiety and IBS are at levels that you cannot deal with yourself. This is a good time to make use of the mental health resources offered by your university, which in most cases are actually free of charge or part of your school fee. I have had several appointments and had excellent results from my sessions. You should freely talk about your concerns however crazy you may think they are. In all honesty, you are not the only one imagining such scenarios and in my experience the professionals have heard almost every story possible. I cannot stress this enough, there is no shame in getting help for mental health. It does not by any means make you inferior nor should be subject to be ridiculed or be judged. Actually, once you have had some good sessions, you are more likely to be mentally capable to face challenges better under stressful situations than others.

Fieldwork and IBS

Can someone with IBS become a paleontologist? Yes! Paleontology is often seen as a highly field based discipline. This is not exactly accurate. There are many aspects of paleontology that you can do “indoors”. Some examples include database associated analytical work and research on museum samples. I started out as a field-based paleontologist but at present my research is mainly lab-based due to my IBS. However, one should remember that one type is not inferior over the other. When doing field work, I would follow the same procedures mentioned earlier. It is always a good idea to be prepared well in advance and one thing that I experienced is that once I’m in the field, I forget my gut completely. But sometimes, you come to the realization of your limits. This should not be seen as a blow, but rather an opportunity to prospect for novel opportunities brought up as a result of your health. Quoting my advisor “you can do more to your field of research by taking good care of yourself”. Thus, self-care is good for both you and your field of research.

Supporting People with IBS

I do agree that it is hard at first, to understand how the minds and bodies of people with hidden disabilities work. And inadvertently, through no malicious intent at all, you are bound to say something that will make us uncomfortable. In such an instance, we are never angry but are put into a place where we are unable to provide a “sane” response. In a nutshell for most IBS sufferers, almost all conscious decisions we make, how trivial they might be, goes across our guts before it’s put into action. So the productivity or simply the ability to do something often rely on the stability of our guts. The best way to help someone with IBS or any other hidden disability is to be knowledgeable about the condition, know the limitations and remember that you are not there to cure but to give support.

De-stressing and managing anxiety are important components of managing IBS. However, people often mistake and sometimes irritate us by saying “oh! it’s all in your head”. There is a definite connection with your head, but it is never the sole reason. The only way that can happen is doodled below.

For Others with IBS

There are number of ways I de-stress. Taking frequent short breaks; talking with my friends; walking around campus; listening to music, etc. In the new age of technology, we can be connected to people with IBS on the other side of the globe with a simple click of a key or a swipe. Social media I find to be a very comforting source to vent and to seek support from fellow “warriors”. I use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to share my story, provide support to anyone in need and doodle funny memes about my condition. The latter not only to de-stress but also can be used to create awareness among the general audience and within academia. However, this should be done in a conscientious way such that you are laughing together than laughing at someone! The online community in my experience has been extremely supportive because they understand and can relate to what you are feeling. Not only do you get a chance to meet people, you can have the chance to inspire and be inspired by the struggles shared. However, NEVER compare your health condition with that of another. This is a big NO NO because you will inadvertently neglect self-care because someone else has it much worse!

Another point I would like to remind my fellow “warriors” is not to indulge and always be mindful about your food intake. Often times, I would CONSCIOUSLY consume a trigger food (e.g. ice cream) well aware of its consequences. This is often the case when either I’m stressed to a point that I don’t care and/or to celebrate a personal achievement (treating yourself) or in lieu of a long holiday. The justification of the latter two is I will enjoy this now and suffer later. But when you suffer, you not only go down into a mental low but also lose a lot of productivity because you may need a substantial recovery time. So my advice is not to let your five senses override your mental calmness and misdirect you to indulge in trigger foods/drinks. Having a lot of food intolerances, it is important to check with your healthcare team if you require supplements and/or figure out a good diet plan. Without the proper nutrition, it is obvious your productivity will be low.

In this post, I intentionally avoided discussing how our personal lives and interactions (with spouse/partner/family etc.) are affected by hidden disabilities. Your close family is definitely the best source of comfort, help and support in your academic life. But this would be a whole different topic. But I do want to highlight an important point which is often not talked about at all. Typically, we the hidden disability bearers receive the most care and support from the outside world. But our immediate families also go through almost the same level of trauma and we should be mindful to do our best to limit the stress and provide them with as much comfort and support as possible. Typically, mental health and other forms of support available to you are also available to your spouse and /or immediate family members. Be aware of them and make use of these resources.

In sum, I would like to conclude by suggesting you all to share your story to inspire, to let others know that they are not alone, share tips and tricks that worked for you and share your story to create awareness and de-stigmatize! Personally, as someone with a hidden disability, there is no greater pleasure than reading someone else’s story about how they overcame their adversities.