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AAAS Celebrates 30 Years of Advancing Scientists and Engineers with Disabilities
ST. LOUIS — Melodi King glides to the podium to present the PowerPoint slides that she’s prepared for a sea of hungry luncheon guests. She speaks effortlessly, warms the audience with a little humor, and then confesses: She’s afraid of public speaking.
The University of Arizona junior boasts an impressive resume. “I enjoy challenging myself both mentally and physically,” says Melodi, a 100-mile bike race trainee and academic superstar. In 2004, she received an undergraduate research fellowship at Stanford’s “Center on Polymer Interfaces & Macromolecular Assemblies.” And as an intern at Merck last summer, a position she secured through the AAAS ENTRY POINT! program, she conducted biomedical research, enjoyed living in San Francisco for the first time, and overcame nerves to polish her public speaking skills. She hardly mentions the challenges posed by her cerebral palsy.
Melodi has joined the ranks of more than 300 students with disabilities who have successfully secured more than four hundred internships in the ENTRY POINT! Program. A panel of the program’s alumni spoke at an ENTRY POINT! luncheon Friday 17 February during the AAAS Annual Meeting.
ENTRY POINT!, the 10-year-old version of a growing and ever-evolving
AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability, is one of the
project’s best-known efforts. The project, which began in its
more rudimentary form in 1975, was designed to encourage ambitious
students with disabilities to study and work in science, technology,
engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Program Director Virginia Stern, who founded the Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Sciences program (ACCESS) in 1996, had noticed that budding scientists and engineers with disabilities found the transition from school the workplace to be difficult. Many students with disabilities were drawn to engineering colleges, but those students weren’t securing jobs in technical fields after graduation.
Inspired by the successes of Stern’s first effort, IBM contacted Stern to help them establish an internship program of their own. ENTRY POINT! was borne of Stern’s conviction that successful internship participation would lead to employment or to graduate school for disabled students who had long been excluded from the sciences.
The highly competitive, paid internships are awarded to students with disabilities who are pursuing degrees in STEM or other quantitative-based fields like finance and economics. Students benefit from accommodations, mentors, new skills and work experience — and increased self-confidence as participants realize their potential in professions that haven’t always been welcoming.
Since its inception, ENTRY POINT! has expanded its corporate sponsorship to 10 major companies, including Merck, JP Morgan Chase and Google. NASA and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration also provide strong government agency support. Friday's event was underwritten by IBM and Merck.
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“The whole project has matured so nicely now, compared to 15 or 20 years ago,” said John Modi, Lockheed Martin deputy chief scientist and ENTRY POINT! alum. “It has corporate sponsorship now. It’s really getting the heavyweight support that it needs.”
Still, Stern isn’t complacent. “Each ENTRY POINT! student represents an opportunity in STEM for him or her and for us at AAAS to expand our view of what is possible,” she says. “We have been expanding for 30 years and we’ll continue to expand.”
The project isn’t just growing with sponsorship. Since its early years, it has expanded to include students with physical, learning, and non-apparent disabilities as well. Panelists at the ENTRY POINT! luncheon had a broad range of disabilities. There were commonalities, though: All were high-achieving scientists, all had faced adversity, all wore a smile.
Panelist Vasana Maneeratana, an ENTRY POINT! Intern at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center last summer, shared her academic and internship experiences with the audience. Today Maneeratana is a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida. “Finding ENTRY POINT! reinvigorated me,” she said. “In my desert, I found ENTRY POINT as my oasis.”
Pamela Siebert, who grew up in a deaf family in Minnesota, is a former intern at IBM in Rochester, Minn. Today she for the company’s division in Lenexa, Kan. Now that she’s so far from home and a family to sign with, she’s found that meeting other deaf people in small-town Kansas isn’t easy. At the same time, she’s facing another challenge that shows her confidence: She’s trying to become Miss Deaf America.
Siebert, recently elected “Miss Deaf Kansas,” is prepared for the new test. She signs: “Now I have to practice my platform speech.”
18 February 2006