Students and Scientists Share Extraordinary Tales on the Road to Discovery
Marco Midon is living his dream. As the lead radio frequency design engineer for the Solar Dynamic Observatory Ground System at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, he's building a 200 ft. antennae to read acoustical energy-like an ultrasound device-and paint a picture of the inside of the sun.
Midon is blind and joined part of a panel of scientists and engineers who on Friday shared their successes pursuing technical careers with high school students from the greater Washington, D.C., area. The 25th Annual Luncheon for Scientists and Students with Disabilities was held during the 2005 AAAS Annual Meeting.
The event was organized by AAAS's ENTRY POINT! Program, and hosted by IBM, a key sponsor of the program.
During the luncheon and panel discussion, there were several recurring themes: technology, internships and mentoring.
"Internships are critical for students with disabilities," said Millie DesBiens, IBM's program manager of global work force diversity. "It's an important component to build into your college plan."
Imke Durre, a physical scientist at the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), analyzes weather observations. Legally blind without light perception, she got hooked on climate conditions as a girl when her mom would read to her the variations in temperature from the Weather Channel.
Growing up in Germany, accessibility was an issue. Durre's mother would enter all the text from her schoolbooks into an old Apple IIE. Now, she simply scans text into her computer. Sometimes a student helper will edit the math for refreshable Braille display, a tactile device consisting of a row of special soft cells placed next to each other to form a Braille line. The student helpers need only know how to best represent the math so the device can read it.
"It was necessary for me to have a goal to work towards. The answers weren't always apparent from the outset and sometimes there was a lot to figure out along the way," Durre said. "But it was important to have a goal to pursue."
In 2000, Durre graduated from the University of Washington with a Ph.D. in atmospheric science. She credits mentoring, in large part, for the decision to earn an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics from Yale University.
"Sometimes getting advice from people in the field is really helpful," she said. "And the internship was valuable for establishing connections. It facilitates the process to have someone who can advocate for you with letters of recommendation and advice."
And sometimes, students need to be flexible and creative to adapt to situations. When images don't translate into Braille, vision-impaired students will often ask a colleague or an instructor to describe the picture. In many cases, the verbal description is sufficient.
Or, students studying sins in calculus might use a tactile graphics printer. The technology allows the individual to feel what the curve of the sin might look like. (In calculus, sin is the ordinate of the endpoint of an arc of a unit circle centered at the origin of a Cartesian coordinate system, the arc being of length x and measured counterclockwise from the point (1, 0) if x is positive or clockwise if x is negative.)
Mark Stern, vice president of product management at GoAmerica, focuses on accessible communication services.
"When I look back, I see the role that science and technology has had on my life. It would be hard to imagine life without it," said Stern. "Email alone made a huge difference for me, but now I have even more flexibility with wireless pagers and communication devices that are accessible to people who are deaf and hard of hearing."
Accessible communication has seen significant improvements in the 25 years since the first luncheon was held-from the introduction of personal computers to the increasing prevalence of TTY technology to assist people with hearing loss in telephone communication, and from cochlear implants to dawn of the Internet and real-time captioning. These advances have made marked improvements in the experiences of students with disabilities.
"Who knows what technology will develop in the next 25 years?" Stern asked. "The future will probably include vast improvements in voice recognition software, speech synthesis, wearable computers, no keyboards and holographic projection."
"Technology is awesome," agreed Laureen Summers, program associate for the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at AAAS.
Andy Martin is a student at the University of Washington working on human-computer interaction research projects. "It's a challenge because you use these funky tools and people wonder what's going on with you," said Martin, who has low vision.
Martin's internship at the NASA Ames Research Center in California was one of the biggest learning experiences of his life. He hated it-but still, he says, there were benefits.
"I didn't like my work at Ames. And it was in the middle of nowhere. It was really hard to get around and taught me the value of location," Martin said. "Real life experiences are so important. It's important to see what it's like to go out and work."
AAAS has long been an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, providing full accessibility to its annual meetings since 1976. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 now requires the removal of barriers that have historically kept people with disabilities from fully integrating into society.
The EntryPoint! and ACCESS internship programs teach valuable lessons on balancing life with work. They provide a community and introduce the interns to colleagues that may assist them with their career goals.
Since 1996, ENTRY POINT! has provided internships to hundreds of students with strong academic records in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. After internships ranging from IBM, JPMorganChase and Texas Instruments to NOAA, NASA and the National Institutes for Health, many have gone on to flourish in careers that might have been closed to them in decades past.
Students from high schools in Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland, and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf [link: http://clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/mssd/ ] attended Friday's event.
Speaking to the students, ENTRY POINT! Director Virgina Stern said: " I hope the speakers have convinced you that in 2005, students with any kind of disability can overcome every barrier to persist in any field of science, engineering or technology."
19 February 2005