We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Alyssa Paparella

Accessibility Subcommittee

Baylor College of Medicine

Research Interest

Growing up, I did not know that being a scientist was possible as a career. But when I walked into a laboratory at Sarah Lawrence College, I found my passion, illuminated under the microscope. Despite not having experience doing experiments in the laboratory like my peers, I wanted to learn more. When working with my own blood to visualize my chromosomes as part of a laboratory course, my career choice to be a scientist was solidified. I beamed with pride when my professor announced to the class that my chromosome isolation was the best out of the entire class, despite taking longer than anyone else and every other student having more experience working in a lab. It was then that I realized I can be a scientist, despite my disability, because my passion was enough to drive me to succeed.

When deciding on which path to take as a scientist, I reflected back on when a loved one was diagnosed with cancer early in my childhood. I remember hearing the word cancer uttered with such trepidation and only behind closed doors, but I did not understand why. This memory stayed with me and led me to take an undergraduate course entitled “Biology of Cancer,” where I was introduced to Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The pages of Mukherjee’s book confirmed my desire to pursue cancer research. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, I joined NIH PREP (National Institute of Health Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program) at UC Davis, which allowed me to delve into research and develop my skills as a scientist. Despite the pandemic cutting my experience short, the UC Davis PREP prepared me to pursue my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine in the Cancer and Cell Biology program.

For my current research, I am fortunate to work in two laboratories, one focusing on biology and the other on chemistry. This interdisciplinary approach allows me to combine both of my research interests to address my primary question of how oncohistones drive disease.

As discovered recently, an oncohistone refers to a mutation within a histone that drives cancer. Histones are important proteins that help regulate the accessibility of DNA, which ultimately determines which genes are transcribed or read. Since this is a recent development in the field, I am hoping to understand the mechanism behind the mutation driving various hallmarks of cancer.

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

One of the benefits of pursuing a PhD is that it opens many career options among various avenues. With that in mind, I am keeping my options open and letting my passion steer me in various directions.

One benefit of participating in GSA’s Early Career Leadership Program (ECLP) is that I took a course on science policy through FASEB, which was not offered at my institution and introduced me to a different career path. Due to my interest in advocacy, science policy is appealing. It makes a difference at the national level by influencing, for example, the teaching of science and access to such knowledge and experience. As a disability advocate, I strive to create more representation for disabled scientists to be included in diversity initiatives. This course allowed me to network and meet like-minded individuals at similar career stages, while opening doors to a new career path.

In addition to science policy, I am also passionate about teaching science to the next generation of scientists. I would not be in STEM today if not for the mentors who encouraged me, particularly during undergraduate, which is why I strive to serve the same role for others. At Sarah Lawrence College, I served as a teaching assistant (TA) for a general biology lecture, which ignited my interest in teaching others. In graduate school, I also had the opportunity to TA for a course entitled “Strategies for Success.” These opportunities have allowed me to interact with and serve as a role model for the next generation of scientists. Additionally, working with younger scientists has given me the opportunity to hone my science communication skills.

My goal, no matter what specific avenue I chose for my career, is to continue to make the path easier for those coming after me to pursue STEM careers. I struggled to belong in a field where disability was not well-represented or even discussed. I hope that, through my experiences, I can inspire others and will continue to work towards making representation possible for all. To help me accomplish these goals, I have been sought out as a disability advocate and have been honored to speak about my experiences being a disabled scientist at various venues, including the Annual Biomedical Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) and even to The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

My pursuit of STEM has been shaped by my experience as a first-generation and disabled scholar. When applying for graduate school, I did not see many established scientists in the field who looked like me or could relate to overcoming the obstacles of navigating academia as a disabled scholar. To rectify this, during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I launched the DisabledInSTEM platform, which is hosted primarily on Twitter but also encompasses Mastodon, Instagram, and its own website.

 Since the inauguration of my platform, I have reached a variety of audiences to discuss my own experiences and stress the importance of disability inclusion, along with accessibility. Each speaking opportunity is progress for the field, as it shows the audience’s interest in learning and making implementations for future scientists. I am honored to have had so many opportunities to share my experiences as only a graduate student and know that I am creating more acceptance within STEM by doing so.

Additionally, through my platform, I have launched a mentorship program. Currently, in its third year, it was launched thanks to the mentors who empowered me to pursue STEM. I recognize that not everyone is as fortunate as I was and hope that, by providing these opportunities, others will feel empowered to pursue STEM. Thus far, the mentorship program has reached over 200 people across nine different time zones with international reach!

My DisabledInSTEM platform has been more successful than I could have dreamed and has started to raise accessibility concerns to an international audience. I aim to continue to spark such discussions throughout my career and demonstrate what it looks like to be a successful disabled scientist.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

I was honored to initially be contacted by GSA to serve on a Career Development panel entitled “Building an Inclusive and Accessible Environment in STEM” (YouTube link). As a graduate student who at the time had not even completed my qualifying exam, I could not believe that the organization was interested in my perspective as a disabled scientist. This experience highlighted GSA’s commitment to empowering disabled scientists and making STEM more inclusive for all. Due to this, I sought the opportunity to become involved with GSA.

When considering joining GSA, I was thrilled to see the Presidential Membership Initiative, which grants free membership to the society and strives to include traditionally underrepresented populations, such as the disability community. Just seeing that the initiative existed reinforced my reasoning to become a member of GSA, my first national society membership.

Another benefit of joining GSA was the ECLP, which at the time was launching its inaugural Accessibility Subcommittee. As an already established advocate for disability representation, I was excited to meet like-minded individuals who shared similar goals of increasing accessibility.

Through my participation in the program, I hope to accomplish the following goals:

  • Increase representation of disabled scientists, with a particular emphasis on how disability intersects with all identities. This is conducted through various media associated with GSA, such as hosting panels.
  • Raise awareness about addressing accessibility at the initial stages of planning an event, whether virtual or in person. Asking individuals about their needs ahead of time allows proper preparation, but striving to implement as many universal design principles as possible is an achievable goal that would make a significant difference.
  • Build a solid foundation of an Accessibility Subcommittee with guidelines for future participants to learn from. Since this is a new subcommittee, there is a learning curve that will help build this foundation for future cohorts.

Previous Leadership Experience:

  • Founder of DisabledInSTEM
  • Executive team member and mentorship director of Disabled in Higher Education
  • Got Spoons? Disability club leader at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM)
  • BCM LIFE Ambassador
  • Disability:IN Advisory Council member
  • Program coordinator for GiGi’s Playhouse and Sarah Lawrence College
  • Leader of STEMming Women and American Chemical Society at Sarah Lawrence College

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

View all posts by Early Career Scientist Committees »