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Environmental Factor, November 2012

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NIH-funded program opens new doors for scientists with disabilities

By Ian Thomas

Susan Mendrysa Ph.D.

Mendrysa’s program has led to the development of assistive technology to ease the transition for people with handicaps into a lab space that does not contain unnecessary barriers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Gerard Roman

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., left, was one of several in the audience with questions for Mendrysa. Seated in front of her was NIH Hispanic Employment Manager and NIEHS Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist Gerard Roman. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Staff and scientists from across NIEHS gathered in Rodbell Auditorium Oct. 15 for a unique presentation titled “Enhancing Access to Biomedical Laboratories for People with Disabilities: More Than Widening a Door.” Held in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the talk was led by Susan Mendrysa Ph.D., assistant director of the Institute for Accessible Science (IAS) at Purdue University, and offered attendees a brief glimpse of life behind the bench for aspiring scientists with disabilities.

“Research has shown that grade school students with disabilities have just as much interest in science as those without disabilities, yet very few of them ever make it through the educational pipeline to the field,” explained Mendrysa, an assistant professor in the Purdue University Department of Basic Medical Sciences. “At present, fewer than 2 percent of employed scientists and engineers under the age of 35 are people with disabilities.”

Funded by an NIH Director’s Pathfinder Award, the IAS mission is to promote the inclusion and retention of persons with disabilities in biomedical science careers, through practical laboratory experiences, assistive technology development, student and educator support services, and research.

Experiencing science

At present, IAS has two major initiatives to promote the involvement of persons with disabilities in science. The first is the Accessible Biomedical Immersion Laboratory (ABIL), a flexible wet-lab space, featuring ergonomically customized benches, movable work stations for wheelchairs, and an array of assistive computer technology, all designed to foster student independence in a laboratory setting.

“As scientists, we know how important it is to experience that aha moment of discovery in a lab,” said Mendrysa. “ABIL gives us the ability to put our students into an actual laboratory, with the tools they need to experience that moment for themselves.”

The second initiative is IAShub, a cyberinfrastructure for global connectivity and information exchange, offering its users a wide range of interactive resources, ranging from computational and database services, to an ever-growing list of contacts in the field.

“One of the biggest problems that our students encounter when trying to break into the biomedical field is a lack of qualified role models,” Mendrysa noted. “The beauty of the IAShub is that it gives our students access to scientists and educators around the world, disabled and not, for everything from data to career advice.”

Changing the perception

While Mendrysa and her colleagues agree that student accommodations are a crucial component to leveling the career playing field for people with disabilities, they also agree that addressing the stigma of inequality surrounding them is every bit as important.

“Often times, it isn’t the disability itself that burdens someone, but rather the unnecessary sense of isolation that they feel as the result of that disability,” said Joellen Austin, NIEHS associate director for management, who welcomed several members of the NIEHS Bethesda, Md., campus to Mendrysa’s talk via webcast. “Today’s program is about ending that sense of isolation and opening the doors of the biomedical research field for everyone, including people with disabilities.”

Held each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues, and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities. This year's theme is "A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?"

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Susan Mendrysa Ph.D., Joellen Austin, Bill Schrader, Ph.D., Brad Collins, Dona McNeill, and Gerard Roman

Following the talk, Mendrysa joined NIEHS leaders. Shown, left to right, are Birnbaum, Mendrysa, Austin, Deputy Scientific Director Bill Schrader, Ph.D., Collins, Employee Services Manager Dona McNeill, and Roman. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Brad Collins and Joellen Austin

NIEHS Diversity Council chair Brad Collins, left, sat by Austin during the presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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