Swinging in trees with a spinal cord injury is usually not a wise idea—unless it’s the only way to accomplish your dream job.
Rebecca Tripp does research as a laboratory assistant for California Academy of Sciences ecologist Meg Lowman. The two gather specimens and analyze the life cycle and behavior of tiny, eight-legged creatures called tardigrades, which Rebecca collects from the tops of trees. Tardigrades are fascinating as extremophiles that can live anywhere, from a leaf of lettuce to the extreme conditions in outer space.
Rebecca has had many adventures traveling through the California treetops, and loves to talk about them. And for Rebecca, these sojourns are even more of a challenge than they would be for most people. She uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury.
What allows Rebecca to do what she loves is a program, launched by Lowman, designed specifically for people with limited mobility to allow them to get into the fieldwork that they love. Says Rebecca, “I was looking at going back to school to study conservation biology, and I was talking to one of the professors at the University of Maine. She happened to be looking at the National Science Foundation website, and that’s the organization that funded this research [on tardigrades]. She noticed this project that was actively recruiting participants with ambulatory disabilities. They were looking for students in wheelchairs, basically, which is kind of unheard of. And she encouraged me to apply, and I did.”
Using a specialized harness system that is reminiscent of those used by rock climbers, Rebecca is able to scale trees to collect the tardigrades for her research. But she says that the challenge she had to overcome was not one of her disability. “I would say the biggest challenge doesn’t have to do with tardigrades at all. The biggest challenge for me going into this, it’s really I think a challenge that most of us face—it was overcoming a fear of failure. I was really intimidated going in. And I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome that fear, but I don’t allow it to debilitate me and keep me from moving forward with my life.”
She has some advice for other people with disabilities about following their dreams. “Just to go for it. If you have a goal, and you have a dream, just go for it. No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, or how difficult. There’s a great quote by E.O. Wilson, a great biologist. I’m just paraphrasing here but basically he said, ‘you are more capable than you know.'”
The video below shows how treetop research is conducted. What do you think is the best way to overcome fear of failure?