When Genesis Contreras ’24 transferred to Cornell earlier this year, she wanted to gain research experience in a lab, but there was a challenge: Contreras relies on a service dog to warn her of sudden and debilitating headaches and fainting spells – and, due to potential hazards, even service dogs are often prohibited in a lab setting.
In other words, Contreras needed her dog to keep her safe in the lab, but the dog, a 4-year-old beagle named Nugget, needed to be safe in the lab as well.
Multiple faculty and staff at Cornell worked collaboratively with Contreras, an animal science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to find a solution. Now Nugget works in the lab in full personal protective equipment (PPE), including “doggles” or dog goggles, booties and a custom lab jacket.
Nugget sits on a designated mat alongside Contreras as she studies the threatened eastern hellbender salamander in the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, co-directed by Krysten Schuler, assistant research professor in the department of public and ecosystem health in the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) – an experience that Contreras says has opened her eyes to new career paths and provided valuable mentorship and connection.
“It’s not something I ever saw myself doing,” Contreras said. “I’m interested in conservation, but I always thought that meant working more directly with animals. I’ve learned that you can work on conservation in the lab, and it’s just as much fun – and it fulfills you just as much, too.”
When Nugget leaves his mat to lean on Contreras, or even sometimes on postdoctoral researcher Alyssa Kaganer ’13, Ph.D. ’21, they both know it’s time to assess how Contreras is feeling and to take a break if needed. With Nugget’s warning, Contreras can often take steps – like resting, eating or drinking, or taking medicine – to lessen or even prevent an attack.
“Genesis has helped me learn enough of Nugget’s signals to know that if he’s left his place, it’s because he’s trying to alert us – that we need to have a conversation about how she’s feeling and whether we need to make modifications to keep her safe,” Kaganer said. “It’s extremely impressive. In all of this, we’ve been the lucky ones – Genesis has been incredibly patient with us and has allowed us to push the bounds of what we can do.”
Cornell programs – and people – committed to inclusion and access helped make Nugget’s entry to the lab possible. Contreras first expressed interest in research while participating in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Cornell University Research Transfer (HHMI-CURT) program, which helps life sciences students transferring from two-year institutions build community and connect with research opportunities at Cornell.
It’s one of two programs – also including the Cornell Initiative to Maximize Student Development – overseen by Melanie Ragin, assistant dean for inclusion and academic excellence in CVM. The programs aim to increase access and inclusion for underrepresented groups, which explicitly includes students with disabilities. According to Erin Sember-Chase, a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) learning consultant with Cornell’s Department of Inclusion and Belonging, former assistant director for Student Disability Services, and someone who identifies as living with a disability, the inclusion of people with disabilities in DEI-focused programs has not always been a given.
“What has really changed over the 20 years I’ve been at Cornell is that more people are appreciating that individuals with disabilities are part of a diverse population and are embracing that – and seeing the creation of an accessible and inclusive campus as a collective responsibility,” Sember-Chase said. “I've seen more campus community members wanting to know what individuals with disabilities are experiencing here, and they want to be more proactive about truly considering and including us, disability identity and all.”
Case in point: Support for Contreras was swift, enthusiastic and widespread – Ragin and Avery August, professor of immunology (CVM) and deputy provost for the university, helped connect Contreras with Schuler, and approvals from many others came readily. Kaganer, who has volunteered with Guiding Eyes for the Blind for over a decade, immediately began researching options for making the lab safe for Nugget, passing information to Contreras, who made final decisions about what would work best and how to train Nugget with the PPE – a process of acclimating him to and encouraging him with each new piece of equipment.
“I didn’t want the research to be a burden on Genesis, and I wanted to make sure she was empowered to make those choices for herself,” Kaganer said. “Our laboratory co-directors [Schuler and Elizabeth Bunting, associate professor of practice] have brought such creativity and flexibility to making a diverse group of people feel at home, and personally for me, they’ve been so generous with their time and mentorship. I feel as a scientist and a conservationist, I have an obligation to try to pay it forward, to make it as easy as possible for as many different people as possible to have access to this field.”
In addition to gaining valuable skills, Contreras said her experience in the lab also makes her feel connected and encouraged, providing one-on-one mentorship and a sense of what science looks like beyond the more immediate stress of her academic courses.
“The work we’re doing is important but it gives me so much relief, too – it doesn’t feel like I’m running a race with an end, which is how classes can sometimes feel: the work is really heavy and then you get a grade,” she said. “The research is more ongoing, and I can make mistakes and correct them as I go.”
Contreras said the community of support for her and Nugget at Cornell has extended beyond her lab placement and has involved staff from Housing and Residential Life, Student Disability Services, Cornell Health, all part of Student and Campus Life; as well as her co-workers at Cornell Cinema, her professors and her peers.
“My main takeaway from this is that none of this is a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Kaganer. “Every service animal is unique, every service animal user is unique, and having that open dialogue is key to developing a successful outcome. Genesis is an awesome scientist – she’s going to do incredibly well in whatever she chooses to do. We’ve been really lucky to be a part of that growth and journey for her.”