Traversing STEM With Disabilities: Spotlight on Kyle Card

Dec. 2, 2021

Dr. Kyle Card
Dr. Kyle Card
“Microbes are just amazing, and life as we know it would not exist without them,” said Kyle Card, Ph.D., evolutionary biologist and HHMI Hanna H. Gray Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute. His passion for microbiology is contagious. Card was born with Moebius syndrome, a rare neurological condition resulting from underdeveloped 6th and 7th cranial nerves. Together, these nerves innervate the musculature of the eyes and face, and the underdevelopment results in functional restriction of left-to-right eye movement, along with impaired facial expression. Card also has a congenital condition called Hanhart syndrome, which is characterized by an incompletely developed tongue and absent or partially missing fingers and limbs. “I compensate by wearing a prosthetic leg,” he explained.

“I became interested in microbiology when I was in my sophomore year of community college,” Card shared. He was on a pre-med track at the time and interested in transferring to Michigan State, but he needed 1 more elective class before he could do so. On what Card called “a whim,” he signed up for a microbiology course. Little did he know that decision would change the entire trajectory of his career. “I fell in love with the subject,” he explained, adding that it was a particular laboratory exercise—in which students were asked to use a variety of staining techniques, differential media and biochemical tests to identify unknown bacteria—that hooked him. He was intrigued by the detective work and knew that he had found his niche.

Upon acceptance to Michigan State, Card promptly declared microbiology as his major and began looking for research opportunities. According to Card, this was where his identity as a person with disabilities coalesced with his story. He knew he wanted to join a lab, but he was apprehensive about reaching out to professors to ask about research opportunities for several reasons. “Chief among my concerns was the possibility that, due to my physical abilities, PIs would assume I wasn’t capable of performing required tasks in the lab, or that I would be a safety liability with potentially dangerous pathogens and chemicals. And because of these issues, I would need accommodations that they might be unwilling or unable to provide.” Card said that these reservations prevented him from pursuing research during his junior year. However, he was eventually inspired to put his apprehensions aside after engaging in enthusiastic discussions with a couple of friends who were actively involved in research labs on campus.

He took a microbial physiology class with Dr. Frank Dazzo during his senior year and did well in the course. At the end of the semester, Card asked if Dazzo had space in his lab for an undergrad student, and the answer was a resounding, “yes.” There he used specialized software to parse out important information about microbial communities from microscopy images. Over the next year and a half Card taught himself evolution in order to better contextualize his research. “Just like I fell in love with microbiology, I quickly became enamored with the elegance and beauty of evolution,” he explained.

As he prepared to enter graduate school, Card knew exactly where his research interests lay, and he decided to transition from computational research to laboratory benchwork to pursue them. Wet-lab research would however present new experiences, new demands and possibly new challenges. Card said that’s when the same apprehensions, which had taken lease in the back of his mind since college, began to resurface. “I not only had to combat general feelings of impostor syndrome, but I also had these additional concerns that stemmed from my disabilities and others’ perception of them... and just as critical, my own perception of my abilities."

According to Card, natural stubbornness, a trait he believes he inherited from his parents, was what drove him forward. “I knew that evolution research was the thing I was meant to do, so I had to put myself out there,” he explained, adding that he was unwilling to let doubts about his abilities influence his decision to pursue this path because he knew that would only cause regret.

He therefore returned to Michigan State as a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Richard Lenski, an evolutionary biologist who Card said made him feel welcome and included immediately. While Card was still a rotation student, and thus had not yet committed to joining the lab permanently, Lenski offered to hire an undergraduate student to assist him. “I had never before experienced that level of inclusion,” Card shared. “Dr. Lenski was willing to invest in both me and another student before knowing whether I was even going to stay."

Card did stay. In fact, he enthusiastically joined the lab and spent his graduate career studying the evolutionary processes that drive antibiotic resistance in E. coli, with a particular focus on how genetic background affects phenotypic and genotypic patterns, and the fitness costs associated with resistance mutations. Today, as a postdoc in Dr. Jacob Scott's lab at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute, he has expanded his research to investigate how population size, mutation rate and other factors combine with genetic background to impact drug resistance in bacterial and cancer populations.

When asked how his disabilities impact his day-to-day life, Card immediately emphasized communication. “As someone who can’t express themselves through facial expressions, communication is more difficult,” he explained. One of his primary concerns is that a lack of expression will be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm, or that he will appear unfriendly. He also explained that his tongue size causes speech difficulties, which sometimes makes it difficult for others to understand him. He pointed out that science needs to be communicated clearly, not only through publications, but also through presentations. “That has been, and still is, one of my concerns. When I am communicating my science to other people, is that message being translated effectively between us?”

But he also shared that he will find a workaround if he can’t do something in the conventional way. “Plus, at this point in my career, I’m not afraid to ask for accommodations if I need them,” he said. To that point, Card stressed the importance of increasing institutional awareness about accessibility and accommodations for persons with disabilities, and promoting education with respect to implicit and explicit biases against members of this community.

When asked what advice he would give to future scientists with disabilities, he stressed the value of sharing one’s thoughts and apprehensions with those whom one trusts. He said that such conversations help break negative thought cycles. “Oftentimes we need validation. If we don’t share our perspectives with those we trust – friends, mentors, and family – we won’t necessarily get those validating statements. We also might miss opportunities to learn about others’ experiences and perspectives in turn.” Finally, he recommended reaching out to other disabled persons in STEM for both resources and community. “We are traversing this space, and therefore we know what resources are available at various institutions. We are very willing to help future undergrads, graduate students and postdocs."

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Ashley Hagen, M.S. is the Scientific and Digital Editor for the American Society for Microbiology and host of ASM's Microbial Minutes.