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Some Good Advice from ENTRY POINT! Alumni
SAN FRANCISCO--Seven successful young scientists and engineers met with a room full of parents, students, and educators at the AAAS Annual Meeting Friday and gave them some advice based on life experience: Don't let personal challenges--especially disabilities--stand in the way of achievement.
The young scientists were alumni of ENTRY POINT!, and by sharing their experiences, they were trying to help younger students follow a similar path to success.
"Everyone has obstacles in life that they need to overcome," said Steven Phan, a computer engineer who is quadriplegic. "Just set your goals and take one step at a time."
Currently in its 11th year, ENTRY POINT! provides competitive internships for STEM students with disabilities at leading companies and government research agencies around the country including Google, IBM, Merck, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Through the AAAS ENTRY POINT! program, Phan secured an internship at NASA Ames Research Center in 2001. He interned at IBM in 2003, and after completing his master's degree from Santa Clara University in California's Silicon Valley in science and computer engineering, he was immediately offered a job at the computing giant.
Phan credits ENTRY POINT! not only with securing his first internship, but also giving him advice on how to prepare for interviews and advising him on companies that better accommodate scientists with disabilities. And, he added, the program gave him a major confidence boost.
"With my condition, I realized that I had to prepare way ahead of time," Phan said at the lunchtime event sponsored by IBM and Merck. "I used to go into interviews at small companies, but was turned down or realized that they could not accommodate me. It's harder for smaller companies to provide accessibility."
After he was recruited into the NASA internship by Anne Swanson, a biochemist, former college dean, and current consultant to ENTRY POINT!, he realized that with hard work he could pursue his dreams.
"If I can be up here, anyone can," said Phan.
"ENTRY POINT! has made it possible for more than 400 STEM students with disabilities to have real-world internships leading to careers in science and technology," said Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability and ENTRY POINT!. "These students become 'existence proofs' that STEM careers in a full range of disciplines are possible for individuals with any kind of disability."
The ENTRY POINT! program is open to any full-time undergraduate or graduate STEM student with a disability. The program offers accepted scientists a paid, 10-week summer internship at a top research company or government research agency to match the scientist's desire for engaging work with the employer's need for an expanded pool of technical talent.
The internships are also helpful because the employers are able to meet the students' needs for assistive technology and other accommodations. Mentors ands students involved in the program serve as ambassadors to the wider community.
All of the participants at the Annual Meeting event cited ENTRY POINT! as one of the most important factors in their education and careers.
"Without ENTRY POINT!, I would not have been able to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University," said Nichole O'Connell, a graduate student with attention deficit disorder. "AAAS and ENTRY POINT! clearly helped shape me and mold my career into what I want it to be."
Many panelists agreed that all students, especially those with disabilities, need to form support systems. Either through co-workers, friends, or family, these networks serve an essential role.
Melodi King, a chemical engineering student with cerebral palsy, noted that she has several different layers of support that are constantly growing and changing. "It is important that your support is able to evolve as you evolve," said King, who recently accepted a position at Merck after completing two internships.
Besides her family members, co-workers, and friends, she noted that she also relies on alternative sources of support--her cat, whose name is Sushi, and green tea.
"If I am sad, I can always rely on a good cup of tea to cheer me up," King said.
Many of the speakers commented on the unique challenges of having a non-apparent disability.
Megan Nix, an electrical and computer engineering student with fibromyalgia, a disability that often leaves her feeling tired, said that she used to not mention her disability and the need for accommodations allowing her to work when she felt most comfortable. But, while interning at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she asked her superior about accommodations.
"Because my disability is not apparent, I used to not say anything," Nix recounted. "Then it would pop out, and I would get mixed responses. But now I alert my co-workers and mentors, so they are better able to understand the situation."
When asked what drove the scientists to succeed, Chad Cheetham, a former Merck intern and now a graduate student in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Alabama, said he is "working to find solutions so that other people do not have to experience the same issues."
Cheetham, said he heard a speech Thursday night by AAAS President John P. Holdren, and he took it to heart. "I think [AAAS] President Holdren has it right: We need to step up to the plate in science and technology," said Cheetham, who has visual and memory disabilities. "Instead of saying, 'We have no options,' we need to say, 'Here are the solutions.'"
19 February 2007