Adapting as a Disabled Scientist: Spotlight on Chris Rensing

April 26, 2022

Chris Rensing, Ph.D.
Chris Rensing, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Dr. Chris Rensing, Distinguished Professor at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University in Fuzhou, China, is an accomplished scientist, American Academy of Microbiology fellow and world traveler, who has hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP)—a general term for a rare group of progressive, inherited neurologic disorders that are characterized by muscle weakness and tightness (or spasticity) in the legs. The condition leads to gait impairment and walking difficulties, and it currently has no known cure. 

Practically speaking, Rensing uses a motorized scooter to get around campus, and he has a driver, who knows how to fold his scooter very quickly, to help him get around town. “Dealing with a disability is a personal story,” shared Rensing, who was unaware of his disorder until his mid-30s. He acknowledged that the personal nature of disability can restrict open dialogue surrounding his condition, and the conditions of other disabled scientists. Lack of understanding can cause hesitation when it comes to talking about difficult topics. “We don’t want to offend one another,” he elaborated, adding that pushing into these conversations is supremely valuable and necessary to build support systems that encourage representation and address accessibility needs in STEM.

Rensing grew up in an academic family in Germany and was drafted into the German army after high school, in accordance with the German Compulsory Military Service Act, which required all male citizens to serve in the military during the Cold War. At that time, Germany (demilitarized and disarmed by Allied Forces after World War II) was seeking to build a new military for defensive purposes. After 1.5 years of military service, Rensing went on to pursue his education. He began his Ph.D. at the Freie Universit├Ąt in Berlin, studying heavy metal resistance in microbes. Partway through his graduate career, the German Democratic Republic became part of the Federal Republic of Germany—forming a reunited German nation. Rensing moved, along with his lab, to Martin-Luther Universit├Ąt Halle-Wittenberg, in east Germany, when reunification was complete.

However, it wasn’t until he was a postdoc at Wayne State Medical University in Detroit, characterizing P-type ATPases (ZntA and CopA) involved in the transport of heavy metals across microbial membranes, that Rensing began to notice abnormalities with his gate. “I was tripping when walking,” he explained.

Rensing sought answers from Wayne State Medical School, and visited various medical specialists, including the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to try to obtain a proper diagnosis and inquire about treatment options. He learned that HSP causes neurodegeneration in the upper motor neurons, impairing signal delivery from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles of the lower extremities. “Unfortunately, there are no known treatment options, so I’m left with regular physical therapy and acupuncture to maintain, and perhaps improve, my current status,” he explained.

When reflecting upon that period of time, Rensing candidly shared that it was very difficult. “Obviously, when you get the diagnosis and see what’s happening, you’re worried, and it’s upsetting,” he stated, explaining that he had concerns about his future, both personally and professionally.

Rensing credits counseling, physical therapy and his wife with helping him deal with the depression that stemmed from becoming disabled. “Over time, you need to develop some resistance,” he said. “At some point you’ve got to live your life,” which is exactly what he did. Rensing went from his postdoc in Detroit to a series of faculty positions in Arizona, Copenhagen and now Fuzhou, China. “I have also had a number of visiting and part-time professorships, including at King Saud University in Riyadh and at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xiamen."

Today, Rensing leads a research team at the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, where he continues to investigate how microbes utilize heavy metals and compensate for metal toxicity. He explained that his research is interdisciplinary and has both medical and environmental applications. One of the ways that the innate immune system kills pathogens is by poisoning them with metals such as zinc, copper and arsenic. Rensing and colleagues isolate and sequence pathogens, especially those responsible for causing lung infections, often after having had SARS-CoV-2, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella pneumonia, and screen them for heavy metal resistance or tolerance. “I look at heavy metal resistance as a virulence factor,” he stated. He and his team have identified and characterized the key enzymes in the organic metabolism of arsenic in prokaryotes and recently discovered a novel subfamily of an arsenic responsive regulator.

They also study environmental applications of heavy-metal tolerance in microbes. The Zijin gold-copper mine in Fujian province extracts over 18 tons of gold per year, making it the largest gold mine in China. Rensing’s lab evaluates how microbes protect themselves from heavy-metal stress and generate gold nanoparticles. They also study electromicrobiology and are elucidating how multiheme cytochrome-dependent nanowires facilitate long-distance electron transfer in G. sulfurreducens biofilms.
Dr. Chris Rensing and his students.
Dr. Chris Rensing and his students.
Source: Chris Rensing, Ph.D.

He says that his career as a scientist, as well as his history participating in martial arts, judo, wrestling and boxing, have taught him a lot about resilience. “Science is a competitive endeavor, grants and promotions will be denied, papers rejected. There will be disappointments and losses, and having a disability does not make things easier. But I have learned how to get up after being knocked down and how to continue with a bruised rib,” he shared. He went on to explain that this resilience is not a matter of super-human strength, but rather a byproduct of adaptation. “People adapt. That’s a part of the human life story,” and it is what prompted him to move forward in pursuit of his dream to “head a world-class laboratory."

Rensing’s assessment, when it comes to accessibility, is that the U.S. has come a long way. “The fact that I can go to almost any building in the U.S. now, that’s much better than it used to be,” he said. In China, it is a cultural norm for disabled individuals to stay home and be cared for by family members; therefore, accessible buildings are much harder to come by. Still, Rensing’s university has installed an accessible bathroom and (with Rensing’s help) scooter/wheelchair accessible ramps so that he can get into the building. He also shared that he’s in contact with a Japanese researcher who wants to create a fully accessible, inclusive laboratory space, and he has begun similar discussions with local Chinese colleagues. He said he would like to see more people with disabilities in science-related careers, but he also acknowledged that there are a number of factors that need to be addressed to make STEM more welcoming to disabled individuals.

Accessibility is only part of the equation. Representation and robust support systems are just as critical. “It's important that people get validation so that they believe, ‘Yes, I can succeed in that field,” said Rensing, stressing that this requires confidence and a bit of imagination. He went on to explain that having a good network of fellow scientists is important, not only for doing cutting-edge research, but also for talking about personal issues and preventing feelings of isolation.

Dr. Chris Rensing teaching.
Dr. Chris Rensing teaching.
Source: Chris Rensing, Ph.D.
“You have to do something for yourself. But you shouldn’t do it all by yourself,” he pointed out, adding that there are obvious disadvantages of being disabled, such as needing medical care, requiring more time to get ready in the morning and worrying about the presence of accessible bathrooms, just to name a few. He also acknowledged that there are legitimate reasons for people to worry about the competitiveness of a disabled scientist, and that tension makes honest conversation around the topic extra challenging.

“I hope I can reach more people in other venues to help them see, yes, you can! I might take a little bit longer than you getting dressed,” he said, “But that doesn’t stop me from reaching my dream."


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.