Queer/Crip Life Review: The Biomedical Research Mountain Retreat

Over Halloween weekend I went on an all-expenses paid biomedical research retreat to the mountains of Colorado. My academic advisor had organized the event and signed me up to do a presentation on my research: putting sensors in car seats to monitor vital signs of the driver. I’ve given the presentation a few times, and to be honest, I'm still nervous every time. I have a fear of public speaking that does not help me.

I love Halloween, and I was disappointed to miss all of my plans for the weekend. But I had thought ahead and packed a costume, so I could still give my presentation as a clown.

My main concerns were health related. I travel with intravenous meds and get tired very easily-flying is very strenuous for me. The retreat itself was also chock full of events I would have trouble participating in.

When I arrived, I was already exhausted because it’s arduous and stressful to fly with all my medical equipment. Then it turned out we were staying in Breckenridge, not Denver, which is 10,000 feet above sea level. No one had warned me the location was so high altitude, and I worried that I would get altitude sickness. In the end, it turned out that everyone was adversely affected by the altitude, and everyone got headaches from it. In general, it’s not a good idea to invite two entire research groups who live at sea level to fly 10,000 ft above sea level with no time to acclimatize. In fact, my advisor told me, “Amelie, you’re managing this better than the rest of us.” I was like “…not really, it’s just that I’m used to being in pain.” 

Everyone stayed in the same house and most of the plans stayed in the house – doing research, giving talks, and various social things ­­– so we were able to keep plans fairly flexible, which I really appreciated. It made it much easier for me to rest when I needed to. The folks who put together the retreat also organized hikes and other activities I was unable to participate in without providing any alternative options so everyone pretty much was funneled into the one set schedule that I wasn't capable of. There was yoga at 7am on Sunday, a three hour hike on Saturday, and another two or three hours of outdoor and athletic activities. I knew the other participants would respect it if I refused or couldn't do these things, but it felt bad that my needs weren’t considered and I would have to skip out on so many of these things meant to bring us all together. My advisor joked about being a terrible hiker and said he would stay behind with me, but he ended up going on the hike. If a fellow grad student from Pittsburgh hadn’t wanted to miss the hike and asked me to hang out with him instead, I would have been totally excluded.                

The accommodations weren’t accessible at all. There was a big set of stairs just to get into the lodge, which was difficult to manage with my joint problems. I was staying on the main floor, which helped a lot because I could go back to my room to rest easily. I originally chose a room in the basement because it had easy access to a refrigerator where I could keep my medication, but it was right next to a big lounge with a pool table where things were very loud, so my friend and I moved upstairs to a quieter room. It was frustrating, though, to have to keep my meds in the downstairs fridge. I had to walk by all the other grad students to get them, so there was a lot of interest in my treatments. Not everyone realized it was rude to ask questions about my IV meds and my cane.

There was one saving grace about the experience: the food was excellent. The woman who organized it is a super outdoorsy, down to earth pediatrician who had gotten all organic, no nitrate bacon and whole-grain bread and vegetables. The meals she organized for everyone were very healthy and very considerate of eating restrictions, which they asked about before the event. Her dedication to feeding us all quality healthy food was incredibly thoughtful and helpful.

The assumption that everyone is able-bodied is very common in my field. I actually expected the retreat to be even less accommodating than it was. Nowadays, it’s standard to ask about eating restrictions before a conference but not to ask about ability. There were numerous issues with this retreat that would have made it impossible for several people I know to attend, and made it much harder for me.

Final Grade:  C


Amelie Bonde is a queer disabled PhD student in Electrical Computer Engineering. She works to create sensor systems and machine learning algorithms that improve quality of life for people with chronic illnesses. 

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