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Students (from left) Savannah Stark, Dana Reigner, Elliott Purdie and Bryce Lipinski review research in Prof. John Koh's organic chemistry lab, where Lipinski is working this summer.
For Casey Kneale, being part of an
undergraduate research program at the University of Delaware for
students with disabilities last summer was a pivotal experience, leading
him to redirect both the focus of his studies in chemistry and his
goals for a future career.
This summer, hes back on campus as an incoming UD graduate student,
hoping to help others find the same kind of direction and support he
received from the Science and Engineering Leadership Initiative.
The three-year-old initiative, designed and led by Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
faculty members Karl Booksh and Sharon Rozovsky, is supported by the
National Science Foundation through its REU (Research Experiences for
I came here last year looking for community with other students who
have disabilities and for experience doing research, and I got so much
out of it, said Kneale, who plans to earn a doctorate in analytical
chemistry and to work in academia. I was on the fence about graduate
school before, but the program made me realize that if I ran into
problems, there would be support for me here.
Being part of the eight-week summer program with other students who
had a range of disabilities opened my eyes, he said, to the fact that
they all faced different types of obstacles but also shared many similar
experiences, particularly in dealing with others stereotypes. Were
all different, but in some ways were all in the same boat, Kneale
Those kinds of obstacles and stereotypes and the ways in which they
have limited the number of students with disabilities who pursue
advanced degrees, especially in the STEM (science, technology,
engineering and math) fields are the reason that Booksh and Rozovsky
first proposed the summer program.
The two colleagues had worked together on other projects and began
discussing the issue in which they both had a personal as well as
professional interest; Booksh uses a wheelchair, and Rozovsky was
inspired by an undergraduate co-worker who used crutches.
Our program offers mentoring and research opportunities to students
who are outstanding scholars who happen to have a disability, Booksh
said. They need to be recognized for their unique abilities and
encouraged to pursue STEM fields.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Savannah Stark, who is conducting undergraduate research this summer at Delaware Biotechnology Institute, visits the NMR spectroscopy facility in Brown Laboratory.
This summers 10 participants came to UD from 10 institutions of
higher education. All are studying chemistry or a related discipline,
and many said they applied to the program as much for the supportive
community as for the research opportunities. They also said they had
experienced the social stigma of having a disability and the perception
from some people that they were limited academically.
I need some assistance in the lab at times, but I didnt want to
give up chemistry, and I thought it would be a good experience to meet
other students with disabilities, said Dana Reigner of Arcadia
University, who had a brain injury three years ago that left the right
side of her body weaker than the left. Ive loved chemistry since
sophomore year of high school, and I want to continue to study it.
For Bryce Lipinski, a senior majoring in chemistry at Siena College
and preparing to apply to graduate schools, the opportunity to get
laboratory research experience at a larger institution was key to his
decision to attend the UD summer program.
Lipinski has a decoding issue, a derivative of dyslexia, which makes
practices such as reading textbooks a more difficult and time-consuming
process. However, he said, focusing in organic chemistry where the
structure and functions of molecules are often best described using
graphics instead of words fits his skills exceptionally well. But
standardized exams, for example, are unlikely to give a true picture of
his knowledge and academic strengths.
Thats where research programs like this are extremely important,
he said. Having this experience in the lab shows what I can do beyond a
grade on an exam.
In addition to the hands-on research experience with faculty mentors,
students in the program also receive information and guidance on such
subjects as the graduate school application process, how much to
disclose about their disability and how to negotiate for accommodations.
And, participants said, theyve also learned more about themselves and
others by working and socializing with one another.
We hang out together, and its made me realize the different
challenges that we all face, said Savannah Stark of Warren Wilson
College. I think weve all experienced the stigma of having a
disability and the constant pressure of feeling like you have to prove
yourself the feeling that if you make a mistake, people think it
reflects on everybody with a disability.
More programs that focus on inclusion for students with disabilities
will go a long way to address the problems of stigma and stereotypes,
It can be a vicious cycle, where people with disabilities are
underrepresented [in academic programs and especially in STEM], and so
theres lack of role models and mentors for younger students, he said.
This individualized program is great for the participants, but more
needs to be done.