Laureen Summers: Helping Innovative and Creative Students Beat Expectations

Laureen Summers

Summer is coming, and college students across the country are looking for a chance to show off their talents to a potential employer.

For students with disabilities, Laureen Summers is there to help some of them get that chance.

Summers joined AAAS in 1992, originally working to study the recruitment and retention of engineering students with disabilities. Her research showed that many outstanding students had trouble getting jobs. That led to the establishment of the summer internship program now known as Entry Point!, which matches STEM students with internships at a variety of participating companies and NSF-funded university research experiences (REUs).

Entry Point! grew out of an earlier effort by NASA to support students with disabilities in computer and space sciences. NASA was Entry Point!’s consistent partner for 20 years, placing over 400 students with disabilities in 10 NASA locations. IBM, Merck, Lockheed Martin, and other government agencies and industry became Entry Point! partners and helped to financially sustain the program. This year, the program is expected to help secure internships for up to 20 students. And of more than 600 people who’ve gone through it so far, Summers estimates about 85 percent stuck with a STEM career.

Summers, who lives with cerebral palsy, has run the program for the past four years.

Entry Point! is now more than 20 years old. What do you consider its strengths?

The caliber of students that we recruit. Our partners require excellence in major fields, high GPAs, and, often, some research or experience in working with a team. We try to know and build a support system around every student. Another strength is the follow-up and tracking. We follow them through degree completion and into careers. Many come back to us in later years to share their accomplishments, career changes, and family life. I do think it’s a program that really gets involved with all kinds of relationship-building, including assisting potential employers to better understand issues around providing appropriate assistive technology and other accommodations, and realizing the talent and creativity that students bring to a job.

How was it received at first, and how has that changed over the years?

Because my director, Virginia Stern, had such good relationships with companies like IBM and Merck and Lockheed Martin, some were eager to join. Interestingly enough, there was a bit of hesitation with other companies. Some people really have to understand you don’t take a disabled person and expect them to make coffee and do filing. We always required our interns to participate in real work. Most of it has been research, and students have done very well.

The most pressing issue now is funding. Many former Entry Point! partners can no longer contribute to the program. Others contribute small fees. I continually seek more funding venues; my dream is to secure corporate funds so I can place students anywhere without requiring a fee for our services of nationwide recruiting, screening, referring, and tracking. We are expected to produce students who are competitive and who know how to do research, and who are eager to contribute to real-world work. With other internship programs apart from AAAS, I think some are very similar to what we’re doing, and I think some are heavy on, you know, “Give them a job, any job, and get them working.” I think it’s mixed. There’s still that relationship engagement that I think gets overlooked, and it’s something I think is critical to understanding disability and being willing to include disability in diversity efforts.

What are the biggest remaining obstacles to fully integrating people with disabilities into STEM fields?

Disability is still not included in many conversations around STEM diversity. I think there are many awareness programs, many webinars on how to treat disabled people, how to do accommodations, or what financial requirements, if any, there should be for what disabled students need. But more and more, I think there’s a lack of engagement with the employer or the non-disabled person. I think people—employers, educators, even the disability experts—need an opportunity to talk about what experiences they have had, what they learned about disabled people growing up, what stereotypes are still in play, and what they think are the solutions for overcoming bias. If you’re scared of me because I talk funny, what can counteract that fear and make you risk building a relationship? There’s an implicit bias we carry about every minority, but somehow disability is a little stronger.

How does inclusion go beyond simply diversity?

It’s expecting people with disabilities to not just sit in a meeting, but to contribute, to be innovative and creative, to really add something to a meeting or a conference or a job or a team. There are still low expectations about what even scientists with disabilities can do and so they are not challenged in the same way as other people are.

What are some of the most popular fields among the people who have gone through the program?

I specifically try to recruit in the majors that people are looking for, and I try to go to the top schools where those majors are. Computer science is always a big one. All kinds of engineering. Biology is another big one along with biomedical engineering and chemistry.

Do your students tend to gravitate toward fields with applications in their own lives?

Most people just want to make a difference. They want to make things better for people who are dealing with all kinds of conditions, or they have their own experience, as a person with a disability, and want to give back to what was done for them and make technology and drugs even better.  And others just find a science they love and go with one that challenges their hearts and minds.

How did you view these sorts of issues growing up?

I was born not breathing and was not diagnosed with cerebral palsy until about a year later. Services were just beginning for children with similar conditions, but they focused on more severe cases. I remember a few times when “retarded” was synonymous with my name. Fortunately, I proved them wrong. When I was 10 years old, we moved to Puerto Rico, and I just don’t remember experiencing the bullying that people often talk about. I always had friends, I participated in school. My parents didn’t talk a lot about disability. They kind of just expected me to make my way.

The hardest part, and I didn’t know this until recently, was my daughter—who is now a grown woman with her own children—told me that when she was in elementary school, she did get bullied about me. That was really heartbreaking. There are still those hard places where people will look at me funny.

And as someone with a longstanding disability yourself, how have you seen society—and the sciences—change since you entered the workforce?

People are making more of an effort to make people with disabilities welcome. Certainly at AAAS, disability makes a constant presence. At the Annual Meetings, many scientists with disabilities are visible and contribute largely to every scientific theme. But many are still reluctant to include disability in their diversity efforts. I was at an anti-bias meeting the other night. They asked people what they thought about disability, and some of the answers were like, “I know people can’t participate in as much of society, and they need more help.” It kind of disappointed me that people who don’t have reasons to have connections with disabled people still hang onto that bias of who we are. But in other ways, the more visible we are—the more we show up at meetings, at conferences, at seminars—the more we contribute. The more we speak out—and speaking out doesn’t necessarily have to be about disability, it could be about a scientific theory—but the more people with disabilities are visibly involved, I think the easier it will get.