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Diversity in STEM Includes Scientists with Disabilities

Kelly Gilkey at NASA
Gilkey demonstrates a cycle ergometer that could generate battery power and provide exercise for astronauts. | NASA Glenn Research Center/ Michelle M. Murphy

When Kelly Gilkey was in high school, she sent an email to astronaut Pamela Melroy, asking if it might be possible for a person with a hearing loss like Gilkey to become a NASA astronaut.

"Amazingly, she responded and said the sky was the limit," Gilkey recalled. "If NASA could fly astronauts who needed glasses to see clearly, who was to say what might be possible some day?"

Gilkey got her first chance to work for NASA as a participant in Entry Point!, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's internship program for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science. As an Entry Point! intern, she worked at NASA Glenn Research Center and NASA contractor Wyle Laboratories.

Today, Gilkey is a biomedical engineer and manager at Glenn and credits her internship with introducing her to a network of "highly capable and intelligent peers with various forms of disabilities," she said. "Being aware that there were others like me who were passionate about working in a STEM career and who had overcome the unique challenges of being other-abled was very empowering."

The goal of the program has always been to discover and develop scientific talent among people with disabilities and increase their representation in the scientific workforce. Highly qualified STEM majors with outstanding academic records are placed in companies, agencies, and universities that partner with Entry Point! Eighty-five percent of the program's alumni have been or are current working scientists and engineers.

Expanding the STEM Community

Participants contribute more than technical expertise during their 10-week summer internships, according to Laureen Summers, project director for Entry Point!. "They represent a great opportunity to expand the science and engineering community, and the students are bringing their unique experiences and coping skills that can have a great effect on the research they do," she said.

Entry Point! debuted in 1996 with a grant from NASA to conduct a nationwide recruitment effort and to refer qualified students with disabilities for placement in a NASA summer program. It became the signature program of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology, and Disability, as a broker for talented STEM students with disabilities seeking opportunities to showcase their skills and interest to prospective employers. NASA is one of Entry Point!'s first and most consistent partners. Other companies and institutions have come and gone during the project's life span, said Summers. Last year, interns worked at Mayo Clinic College, Cornell University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Arkansas, the University of Virginia Medical School and The Ohio State University.

There are fewer partners now than in past years, Summers said, because companies are no longer able to pay the annual administrative fee of $5000 when other organizations offer free recruitment and referrals of student candidates. As Entry Point! looks for more partners and funding, Summers is ramping up her efforts to encourage AAAS programs to consider more people with disabilities as part of the association-wide effort to increase and support diversity.

For the AAAS Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Summers wrote and performed a skit about disability for the organization, while reaching out to individual programs at AAAS such as the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowships, and the Human Rights, Law & Ethics program and awards such as the L'Oréal USA Fellowships for Women in Science "to encourage them to think about reaching out to people with disabilities."

Laureen Summers

"It does take time and an extra effort to reach people with disabilities, and people are busy," she said. "I think they don't always know where to go to find talent."

One program with strong outreach and significant inclusion of people with disabilities has been the Emerging Researchers National Conference, Summers said, noting that the conference regularly features workshops for students and keynote speakers with disabilities. Last year, conference lead and AAAS STEM Program Director Iris Wagstaff added a Students in STEM with Disabilities Working Group to the conference.

"Entry Point! students have been an invaluable component of the ERN Conference, as they provide a lens and perspective to aid us in viewing the world from a broader perspective, which is critical for innovation," said Wagstaff.

New Adventures and Opportunities

The Entry Point! interns have gained more than job experience and networking opportunities from their time in the program, according to responses from a survey Summers sent to alumni last summer. Participants said the experience helped them succeed in interviews and negotiations and encouraged them in new adventures.

The internship helped convince Jeremy Johansen that he could still pursue his dream of becoming an engineer after he lost his sight, he said, "boosting my confidence in living and working independently."

"A year after my first successful internship on the opposite end of the country, I participated in an international research exchange in Japan, an opportunity I only took because Entry Point! showed me that I could survive living far from home," said Johansen, who now works as a software engineer at OSIsoft.

The program maintains Facebook and LinkedIn pages for alumni, but one of Summers's goals is to find funding for more alumni connections. For some, the pandemic has exacerbated the sense of isolation that many scientists with disabilities already experience, she said. At a recent conference, Summers overheard company representatives say, "'Okay, we know about accommodations [for disabilities], we know it's the right thing to do. But how do you act around a person with a disability?'"

"For people who are hesitant to be with disabled people or employ them, I think it comes from their own experiences," she said. "Relationships are key to understanding who a person with a disability really is, and the creativity, skills, and life experiences that contribute to innovation and new advances within the STEM enterprise."

Through Entry Point!, numerous companies have learned how to build these relationships, providing more opportunities and diminishing bias against scientists with disabilities.

[A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the Jan. 29 2021 issue of Science.]