EntryPoint! Internships Place Students With Disabilities on STEM Tracks

In the ten weeks that Rose Buchmann worked at The Mayo Clinic this summer, the college junior got a chance to try out new lab techniques and learn more about what a full-time career in science looks like. The internship, arranged by AAAS' EntryPoint! program, also gave Buchmann a chance to make lasting connections with the people she hopes will be her future colleagues.

Rose Buchmann | Angela Moreau

"It was good to meet people in my field and people related to what I'll actually be doing in my career," said Buchmann, who is studying biomedical engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. "Having an opportunity to get an internship like this, it really gets your name out there and you get to network a little bit."

Buchmann is one of 27 students who worked as EntryPoint! interns in 2015, spending 10 to 12 weeks at places like NASA, Georgia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University. Launched in 1996, the historic AAAS program has recruited students with disabilities who are studying science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and some business fields to work in industry, universities, and government agencies.

As EntryPoint! approaches its 20th anniversary, it stands as a singularly successful career launching pad for these students. There are more than 580 alumni in the program, "and out of that number we know at over 80% are now working in STEM fields," said Laureen Summers, the program's coordinator.

Austin Vaday, a UCLA student studying computer science and engineering, is a two-time EntryPoint! intern. Vaday gradually became deaf after a childhood illness, and received a cochlear implant three years ago. He worked in 2014 for NASA at the Johnson Space Center and this summer at the Kennedy Space Center. This year, he said, "I was trained as a software developer for KSC's new firing room, where they will launch future manned and unmanned space vehicles, and spent most of my time developing code to test the various software displays for the liquid oxygen tank that is out at the launch pad."

"The most important thing I learned during my two internships was that you must not be reluctant or afraid to ask any questions," Vaday said. "I always reflect on the Mark Twain quotation, 'He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.'"

Austin Vaday (left) with Kennedy Space Center Director Robert D. Cabana | Austin Vaday

Vaday learned the display systems quickly and then used his own programming experience to "to establish utilities that enhanced the software development process," said Sean Hollis, a mechanical engineer at KSC. "His enthusiastic, can-do attitude enriched the work of the people around him."

Other programs such as the federal Workforce Recruitment Program and the American Association of People with Disabilities also help college students with disabilities enter the workforce, but EntryPoint! is the only such program to focus on jobs in STEM, Summers noted.

The program is planning a luncheon and panel at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting to celebrate its two decades' of work, coinciding with new efforts to bring together alumni who can act as mentors to the new cohorts of EntryPoint! applicants.

Summers would like to see the program expand to include more partnerships with the pharmaceutical and biomedical industry, for instance, and she thinks creating intern-alumni mentorships may make EntryPoint! interns more attractive to these companies. "It might be an incentive to corporations who would really like interns to understand and feel at home in the corporate culture, to get mentoring from someone who has already gone through that path," she said.

Buchmann has vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that weakens connective tissues and major blood vessels. She said the Mayo Clinic's Office of Diversity was very supportive of her throughout her internship. "It was great for me to meet everyone and do the research, but it wasn't just the work that I liked," she recalled. "Just getting out and having something productive to do with your summer is so much fun."

[A version of this story appeared in AAAS News & Notes in the 28 August 2015 issue of Science.]