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Budding Engineer Gets Technical Experience through Internship for Students with Disabilities
Engineering student Kathryn Sullivan is a huge fan of video games. She lists Freekstyle—for its "cool motorcycle tricks"—Legend of Zelda and Boom Blox among her favorite games, and finds the computer programming behind the games nearly as entertaining as the games themselves. "Ever since I took my first programming language class, I always try to think about what's going on behind the scenes as I play a video game or use software," said Sullivan, a sophomore at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.
Her interest for the technical details of gaming is part of her natural, enthusiastic curiosity. And now, as a AAAS ENTRY POINT! intern at IBM, Sullivan is about to finish a summer filled with doing what she loves.
At IBM, Sullivan works in a surface mount technology lab at Central Scientific Services Electronics, a company within IBM based at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. There she is helping to create circuit boards and data files. Since Sullivan's internship began 2 June, she has learned to use about five different machines that contribute to making circuit boards. For instance, the pick-and-place tools grabs small chips and components and places them on a printed circuit board and the KISS machine is used for soldering special computer parts.
"We are often working on many projects at once, so there's always something that needs to be done," Sullivan said. "It's so much fun!"
Sullivan, who was born deaf, has overcome considerable challenges along her path to become an engineer. People have told her that a deaf kid couldn't be in gifted programs or take on an intellectually-demanding career. But her supportive parents, nurturing mentors, and easy-going friends knew better. Sullivan has found great success even this early in her career. Her most recent success is the ENTRY POINT! internship, a AAAS program that places students with disabilities—including physical, sensory and cognitive disabilities—in technical internships.
"A program like ENTRY POINT! is important because there are some students who are really super-smart, but who might hesitate when it comes to applying for internships in such advanced fields," Sullivan said. "Since the interns often have a lot of success, ENTRY POINT! then helps to make the rest of the world aware that having a disability has nothing to do with intelligence or diligence."
This summer, 45 undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities have ENTRY POINT! internships all over the country at such organizations as NASA, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin and—new this summer—the pharmacy CVS, one of the biggest U.S. drug store chains. Since it began in 1994, ENTRY POINT! has placed 540 interns and more than 90% of the interns have gone on to careers in technical fields, making ENTRY POINT! a premier program for expanding the technical workforce to include people with disabilities. AAAS screens students who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, and some fields of business, and matches them with paid summer internships.
IBM has supported ENTRY POINT! since 1997. "More than 100 talented students with disabilities majoring in STEM fields have had ENTRY POINT! internships at IBM sites, and many have converted to full-time employment after they receive undergraduate or graduate degrees," said Virginia Stern, AAAS program director for ENTRY POINT!. The success of the IBM program, Stern said, is due to Millie DesBiens, IBM program manager for people with disabilities programs.
"IBM has been working with AAAS for more than 11 years on the Entry Point program," DesBiens said. "AAAS has provided consistently skilled and talented candidates in technical disciplines. They understand IT requirements and are able to respond with qualified people."
Sullivan finds "almost everything" in science and engineering exciting, and she's enjoyed math and physics since she started studying the subjects in high school. "When I began to discover how everything could be applied to the real world through engineering, to create new technologies and solutions, I thought it was amazing," she said.
Her accomplishments have not come easily. Some teachers along the way have questioned her abilities, but Sullivan's determined parents fought hard to make sure she wasn't missing out on anything. In an e-mail to AAAS, she described how when she was in fourth grade her parents argued with the school board when the board insisted that Sullivan take a listening component to the English language arts test. Her parents asked the board if Sullivan could take a written test instead. "It would have been so unfair if I had to take that orally," Sullivan recalled. "The turning point was when my dad emailed the board a story and blanked out 40% of the words—since my audiogram showed that that was how much I missed—and asked them to write an essay about the story," she said.
Such parental support has made all the difference for Sullivan. When she was applying to the gifted program in elementary school, therapists and school officials told her parents that they were being cruel, risking her self-esteem, and setting her up for failure. They even said that Sullivan would never be able to read past the third-grade level. "My mom and dad paid no attention," she recalled, "and I got into the program easily and did extremely well."
Now 18, Sullivan has bilateral sensorineural hearing loss that is categorized as severe to profound. When not wearing hearing aids, she can't hear any sound. With hearing aids, she can hear what people are saying, but it's muddled. So, Sullivan relies on lip-reading during conversations.
Sullivan's younger brother was also born deaf, but they are the only deaf members of their family. The siblings sometimes stand across the room from each other and secretly mouth words back and forth, causing their mother to scold them for being rude.
"My mom and dad raised us for the most part as hearing children, so we don't know sign language," said Sullivan, who grew up on Long Island in New York. The Sullivan parents sought many deaf-friendly technologies—like a vibrating alarm clock—and captioned plays, operas and movie videos for their children. Once the family even drove to Connecticut to see a captioned version of Spy Kids when captioned movie theatres were less common.
Most of the time, Sullivan doesn't feel like she's missing out by being deaf, but group conversations can be particularly difficult because it's hard for her to hear many people at once. "It's always the small jokes that someone says randomly that I miss," she said. "People will always repeat things for me, but I wish I could laugh with everybody the first time!"
In the fall, Sullivan will be a sophomore at the newly-established Olin College, a highly competitive engineering college that graduated its first class in 2006. Sullivan knew early on that she wanted to do something in math; in high school she was known as "Crazy Math Girl." Engineering seemed to be a perfect fit, she says, because she also enjoys science, design and art. Another good fit: choosing Olin College. "I could talk about it forever," she said. "The students and professors are just so amazing—they are brilliant and unique." Sullivan has not yet declared a major, but she says it will be engineering, possibly with a software design emphasis.
"I was hoping the internship would help me decide on a major, but it's just making me want to do everything," she said. "However, give me almost anything in engineering and I will probably find it fascinating!" An avid runner who takes lunchtime runs with her IBM colleagues and is training for this fall's New York City marathon, Sullivan has previously considered a career in mechanical engineering and materials science so she could design fitness equipment and athletic apparel, everything from "treadmills to running sneakers."
Sullivan says that being deaf has not been a major obstacle during her IBM internship. She wears hearing aids to allow her to hear some sound and relies heavily on lip-reading. Her inability to talk on the phone, listen to the radio or watch non-captioned videos can be burdensome. Fortunately, at her internship, she hasn't needed to talk on the phone. "All the workers who would want to call me know that I am deaf, so they just come visit me in the lab," she said. "Still, the CaptionFirst technology is available for when I need to make a call so I have never been held back from anything."
Supportive coworkers have made a huge difference during Sullivan's internship, especially when she takes off her hearing aids during their lunchtime runs. "My lip-reading is pretty good so I can usually make out what they are saying," she said of their conversations while they exercise. "But it takes a bit more time and creates a lot of funny misunderstandings that crack us all up."
ENTRY POINT! interns mingle at a 29 July reception at AAAS.
Sullivan and about 10 other ENTRY POINT! interns from the DC area met 29 July in Washington, D.C., to visit congressional offices, tour the Capitol Hill area and go to lunch. The event was intended to introduce ENTRY POINT! to members of Congress and to show how people with disabilities are gaining real-life technical experiences. Sullivan had a 15-minute meeting with a legislative aide, during which they discussed ENTRY POINT!
Another ENTRY POINT! intern, Joaquin Ortiz, during the congressional visit described his experiences growing up deaf. Ortiz, a computer engineering major at the University Polytechnic in Puerto Rico, is interning at NASA Goddard where his mentor also happens to be deaf. "It's a big coincidence," Oritz said through a sign language interpreter. "We've had easy communication."
After the Capitol Hill visits, the interns attended a reception at the AAAS headquarters. The event brought together past and present ENTRY POINT! interns, representatives from the internship sites—including CVS and NASA—and various other ENTRY POINT! supporters. About 65 people attended the reception, which also provided networking opportunities for the interns.
4 August 2008