Neurodiversity Celebration Week: Darya Chernikhova

Posted on March 23, 2023   by Microbiology Society

Neurodiversity Celebration Week takes place 13–19 March 2023; it aims to transform how neurodivergent individuals are perceived and supported by organisations, while creating a more inclusive and equitable culture.

We spoke with Society Champion, Darya Chernikhova, about their experiences of working in microbiology as a neurodivergent person.

You will contribute to the world. It might take longer, or it might not, but it’ll be awesome.”  Darya Chernikhova

Darya Chernikhova
© Darya Chernikhova

Could you tell us about yourself?

I'm a masters student and I am working towards cryopreserving biodiversity-related microbiomes. Just like humans have gut microbiomes, everything from wild animals to butterflies to plants and soils has microbiomes. Each microbial situation can have tens of thousands of individual species of bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, etc. We can't protect or restore biodiversity without paying attention to the microbiomes that go with it. Right now, most microbiome work is limited to sequencing or to isolating select bacterial species.

I'd like to create frozen living archives of whole microbiome samples. Currently, I'm on an internship in Hawaii, learning cryopreservation techniques.

It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week 13–19 March 2023; will you be doing anything to raise awareness?

I feel like my very person creates awareness the moment I walk into a room!

I'm an oddball and an acquired taste. I've started telling people I'm neurodivergent as early as reasonably possible in a professional relationship. It doesn't help me succeed, but it does help me feel better about the process. I feel that announcing myself helps to normalise difference and makes the world a better place. I tend not to do special things for specific occasions, but I do appreciate those occasions refreshing awareness and strength in my person. 

As a neurodivergent person studying science, are there any challenges you have faced?

I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. Back then, you had to choose a path and walk it. Maybe you became a cancer researcher, or maybe a field biologist, and you needed mentors to get you started. People grew and switched jobs, but it was difficult and not celebrated in society. I couldn't find a mentor or a path. So I became a software developer and now I've gone back to school.

In some ways it's easier. Career changes are normalised and, after two decades of trying, I finally got the right diagnosis and medication. In other ways it's still hard and sometimes harder. How do you ask for mentorship when people don't see you as a mentee? You've spent a lifetime studying people and having diverse hobbies so you know how to help the people around you and how to contribute to multiple projects. However, you're still prone to burnout, and your colleagues aren't always excited about you trying to do too much. 

There are pressures to ‘get it done’ within a shortened career span, whatever you decide ‘it’ is. You have the life experience to know where the right balances are and that helps, but you're still human enough to not be able to reach them.   

There are also special challenges: I can be on time and I can work in the morning, but it takes a toll. Over the long term, going against natural circadian rhythms has been shown to carry health and longevity consequences. I have good days, when I’m a productivity superhero and bad days, when executive dysfunction reigns. I'm very sensitive to others' feelings, but I can't always react appropriately in real-time, and I definitely can't represent myself in ways that generally get people accepted and promoted. Every professional field has its own social relationships and politics and I don't fit. You kind of just have to be strong and find your personal path, even when you know you're not likely to hit expected milestones.

The hardest part is knowing when to quit. I've internalised that walking away is shameful. However, when you clutch at something, giving it your all, you're wasting your potential. Don't be exhausted and dejected, life's short, and you are enough. Find the place that makes you 5% happier and the next, and the next. You will contribute to the world. It might take longer, or it might not, but it'll be awesome. 

Do you think more needs to be done to support neurodivergent people working in (or hoping to work in) science?

Gosh yes! There is so much intersectionality too; I try to build up understanding that accommodations aren't handouts to ‘special’ people. Rather, they are things that you can do to make your own environment function better.

Take the example of ageism: neurodivergent people; women; people of colour and those from working class backgrounds are all groups more likely to enter academia later in life. Many grants and scholarships for early career microbiologists carry a maximum age requirement. Trust me, I'm just as broke and enthusiastic. When your organisation sees an announcement of funding that carries an age limit, please respond to the granter to gently let them know that you understand they're a programme manager and don't set the rules, but could they pass it up the chain to eliminate age requirements. There are groups that define early career as ‘X number of years of work in this field or after graduation, excluding the years taken off for family or personal obligations’. With enough supporting voices, things will change.

Let's talk advice. Try not to give unsolicited common sense advice. We've tried it. But it's wonderful to offer mentorship. Give all accommodation requests that you're able to give and don't compare individuals' accommodations or disabilities. Ask community-run support groups for advice. They have the context to suggest productive solutions. Implement diversity consultants' suggestions. When you step back and reassess how a person might work better in your environment, what you're actually doing is figuring out how your environment could work better. Be flexible and innovative – you'll be getting the best from all of your colleagues.

Communication: in a homogenous culture, people sometimes struggle to communicate with ‘outsiders’. This can lead to neurodivergent people, or those from other cultures or classes, being pushed away and the creation of ‘in’ groups. Neurodivergent people are used to code-switching; we adapt and translate. Trust us to show you how to share.

Be uncomfortable. Every day. Get a calendar and put checkmarks on the days when you've made yourself uncomfortable on behalf of a minority. Don't wait until you're secure enough in your position to really make a difference – you'll never get there. By the time you get to Principal Investigator level, you'll have leapfrogged all of the people you didn't speak up for. We don't have that choice of distancing, or stopping to rest, available to us. We are fighting hard for our place in the world every single day. To be an ally, be active in deed, as well as words.

Darya C pic.png
© Darya Chernikhova

Do you have any role models, if so, who?

I don't have heroes, but I do admire aspects of certain people. If I see someone being inventive or kind, I'll want to be like them in that regard. I met Glenn Seaborg once (a physicist who discovered many new elements and isotopes, and has element 106 named after him). He gave a talk to our student group, and he was so kind. It postponed my undergraduate burnout by a year. I also met Eartha Kitt after a concert (a brilliant performer and US Civil Rights activist). She was powerful and magnetic. Dr David Vaughan got me into corals and is a force of nature and can-do action. My friend, Carrie Hawks, makes animated short films that talk so well about difficult topics. My friend, Sky, develops software for good causes. People in citizen science; people who do wonderful things without institutional support – I'd like to be like them.

Could you tell us why you decided to join the Society and become a Champion?

I was looking for mentors, and I wanted to contribute to diversity initiatives. The Society accepts people from all over the world, and everyone is so kind in emails and chat; I've been made to feel welcome. I'm glad it exists, and I'm glad to be hanging out with the Champions.

If you would like to get involved with Society activities, or become a Champion, you can find out more via our Get Involved webpage.