UCF Physics Alum Highlights the Importance of Workplace Accessibility

By: Nicole Dudenhoefer

For many college graduates, finding a job within their field can seem just as daunting as earning a degree. But that task can be even more difficult for people with disabilities, considering last year’s unemployment rate for the group (9.2 percent) was more than twice the rate of those with no disabilities (4.2 percent), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The first step to bridging this gap often starts with providing accessibility in its many forms to those who need it. Physicist Michael Lodge ’18 Ph.D., who has used a wheelchair since he was 8 years old and is now a nanotechnology research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, is just one example of the difference that accessibility can make.

“Science is fundamental to the pursuit of knowledge. It is how we have advanced as a species,” Lodge says. “Why should someone be excluded from a tradition as old as humanity itself simply because they’re disabled?”

Lodge was left paraplegic as a child after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor embedded in his spine. Since then, the Sanford native has used a wheelchair to navigate the world. While Lodge says he has learned to adapt to the challenges he faces, he encountered a major obstacle as he began to do experimental research.

“It’s a blow to the ego when your disability curtails your options, however it’s downright devastating when your disability is the sole thing preventing you from seizing a great opportunity that has been handed to you,” Lodge says.

Gaining Experience

After coming to UCF in 2007, Lodge began working as a graduate student in Professor of Physics Masahiro Ishigami’s lab. In order to make sure Lodge could make use of the space, Ishigami worked with him to make the lab more accessible by moving things to a reachable distance and allow more room for the wheelchair’s movements. Improving accessibility for Lodge came naturally to Ishigami, as his father was a medical specialist who provides rehabilitation to patients who have been disabled by injuries, diseases, conditions or disorders.  The American Disability Act defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities.”

“I use to tell Mike my weakness is I can’t actually see that he’s different from anyone else,” Ishigami says. “For some people this is an insurmountable problem. For me, this is something we have to solve; it’s something I was familiar with. For me, he was just another person.”

Lodge immediately demonstrated tremendous talent, Ishigami says. Within a few months he was able to teach himself to create graphene, a single-atom layer of graphite that is very difficult to make. Ishigami then arranged for him to participate in other research projects, but the lack of accessibility in other labs prevented Lodge from gaining experience.

“We realized at that point if he’s going to have a career in [the scientific field], he’s going to have to engineer solutions so that he can improve accessibility himself,” Ishigami says.

Engineering Solutions

“[The wheelchair] is essentially the difference between me being an independent person in the lab and me having to shelve projects until someone can help me do something mundane, like reach a canister of glue on a high shelf or look at a sample through the slightly too-high window on a vacuum chamber,” Lodge says.

At UCF, Ishigami continued to support Lodge’s experimental-research efforts and eventually was able to get a custom-designed $14,000 wheelchair, with the cost covered entirely by the wheelchair company, a grant from the National Science Foundation and UCF’s College of Sciences. The motorized wheelchair allows Lodge to increase his elevation by 11 inches, which enables him to use special microscopes and other tools.

Expanding Opportunities

Eventually, Lodge was able to use the wheelchair abroad for the first time when he was selected from a group of 199 candidates for a two-month research project in Australia at the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes. There, he got to enjoy the beautiful sites of region, while building important connections.

“The people in and around the lab [in Australia] were very personable and knowledgeable, and they made it easy to really network with other scientists. In fact, I met my current boss while I was working there,” Lodge says.

After graduating in the summer, Lodge was able to keep the wheelchair Ishigami acquired for him.

“I think many of the issues that disabled people have with pursuing a career in science, and perhaps other aspects of life, is that they focus on the reasons why they would inconvenience or be rejected by a professor, a group, or their field of interest as a whole. The truth is that these perceived barriers are usually way less serious than they think,” Lodge says. “Masa [Ishigami] was not only able to look past my disability, he was considerate of it and actively made my life easier.”

Now working in his field, Lodge has become a researcher at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. There he uses the skills he learned in Ishigami’s lab and in Australia, to study the electronic properties of materials that conduct electricity in unusual ways. The science he is developing will be used for future electronics that will be created over the next 20 years.

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