Our Campus: Haley Branch is trying to make disability visible in academia

Haley Branch’s passion for her research gives the Lorax a run for his money.

Branch, a fifth-year PhD student studying botany at UBC, hopes her research can further climate justice and show fellow students with disabilities they are capable of succeeding in academia.

But she didn’t always expect to become a scientist. Branch’s first love was ballet and she attended a specialized high school to train to become a professional ballerina. At the age of 16, Branch made the painful decision to leave ballet.

“I had suspicions that I was disabled but there wasn’t really any proper inquiry into what was going on with my body,” she said. “I took the initiative to say ‘No. I know something is wrong and I’m going to leave ballet.’”

Leaving ballet sent Branch into her first depressive episode. After spending years dedicating herself to ballet, she struggled to imagine a career path that would make her feel just as fulfilled.

But Branch had always been interested in science, so she decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science (BSc) from the University of Toronto (U of T). Branch, however, wasn’t able to take all of the admission prerequisites at her specialized high school, so she attended night and summer school to obtain all the prerequisites for the U of T BSc program.

By 2011, she had completed all the prerequisites and successfully enrolled at U of T, fully expecting to study animal physiology.

“I remember being a bit disappointed that the only biology class I could get into in my first term of second year was this plant biology class,” she said. “I thought, well, I don’t know if this is going to be really exciting.”

But after the first day of class, Branch’s perspective changed.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. “Once someone was finally properly explaining plants to me, I couldn’t get enough of them.”

But she still wasn’t exactly quite sure what she wanted to study. Her friends knew she had a passion for the climate, encouraging her to focus her studies on it but she wasn’t sure she could dedicate herself to something that made her so angry. It wasn’t until the second year of her degree she realized she could transform her anger into action.

By the end of Branch’s fourth year, she knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life studying plants and the climate crisis.

When climate change causes the weather to start becoming more erratic and more intense, animals are able to hide or escape to more tolerable conditions. Plants don’t have that option.

“What’s going to happen to [these plants],” she asked. “Who’s going to care about them?”

Branch decided that she would be the person who speaks for the trees.

Now, as a PhD student, Branch studies how extreme weather changes can affect the scarlet monkey flower's ability to adapt to drought.

Branch loves her research but navigating graduate school and academia as a scholar with a disability isn’t easy.

Branch said that most of the accommodations made for students with disabilities at UBC are targeted towards undergrads. Graduate students have a different set of needs, therefore, require a different set of accommodations.

Branch explained that graduate students with disabilities often need a longer amount of time to complete their research. This is because they might need to take more medical time-off than their able-bodied colleagues and may only be able to do their research a few days a week.

Graduate students are often expected to complete their research within a standard amount of time. This means that some graduate students with disabilities may not be able to complete all the research they wanted to do within that time frame.

This puts disabled scholars at a disadvantage because their able-bodied peers would look better on paper when applying for jobs post-graduation because the latter group might have had more time to dedicate to their research and develop a more cohesive or complete study.

“It's part of this funneling and filtering out of disable scholars in academia,” said Branch.

Many graduate students rely on research grants or awards to finance their studies. Often, these grants will only finance a research project for a set amount of time requiring graduate students to complete their research within that predetermined time frame. This puts graduate students with disabilities who need more time to complete their research at a disadvantage, Branch explained.

Some graduate students with disabilities also need research assistants and lab technicians to help them conduct their research. The compensation for these assistants is often not covered by research grants and awards.

Fighting this systemic ableism is an uphill battle, according to Branch. To cope, she emphasizes the importance of finding community.

“Find people who know what [you’re] going through,” she said. “At some point, you will have to advocate for yourself to your advisor or department and it becomes exhausting to go through that by yourself all the time.”

Last June, Branch started UBC’s Disabled Graduate Student Association in order to help create a community for disabled graduate students at UBC. She stressed the importance of having an official presence on campus as not only a symbol of resistance but as an act of solidarity.

“I think when there isn't visibility of disability on campus, it makes disability invisible and more isolating,” she said. “Having a presence on campus, I think, is important, so that the university knows that we exist and also that undergraduate students know that we exist and that there is a place for them in grad school.”

Branch hopes that this type of association will become common practice in academic institutions and also that there will be more community-building events for scholars with disabilities at academic events such as research conferences.

But Branch doesn’t reserve building community to campus or even to Canada. Through a STEM mentorship program, Branch has built a close friendship with a faculty member at an English university who not only shares her field but also her disability.

“I've been so fortunate to find someone who I can talk to about the disability aspect of research,” she said. “It’s just incredible that this happened and we found each other.”

Community-building is a crucial component for maintaining emotional health as a graduate student, according to Branch, but it cannot be your only coping strategy. Some of her strategies include having daily check-ins with herself, asking for help from her friends, walking her dog and going to the beach.

But when she does need to clock back in, she does so with a spirit of hope, ambition and resistance.

“I get worried [about] ... how [I will] be perceived,” she said. “Do I need to go above and beyond in order to roll up in my wheelchair and be accepted as a scientist?”

Branch hopes her work will contribute to making academia a more equitable and accessible space for scholars with disabilities.

And to the disabled undergraduate students reading this article who aren’t sure if graduate school is right for them, Branch wants you to know that “you can absolutely do this. It won't be easy, but you can absolutely do this.”