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Students inspired to champion their disabilities and pursue STEM careers

This year’s STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities was uplifting and engaging. For the third year in a row, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences hosted the event where student attendees had the opportunity to meet role models with disabilities in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

The museum welcomed 200 6th–12th grade students with disabilities from across the state for a panel discussion, breakout sessions with each panelist, and an opportunity fair.

Dr. Emlyn Koster, the director of the museum, welcomed the crowd and spoke about museums’ roles in building bridges between people and innovating for the future. “Museums are fundamentally places for inspiration and reflection to make us think about our place in the world,” he said.

Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC
Credit: Alisa Herr / EdNC

Astrophysicist Dr. Dean C. Hines shared his inspiring story about overcoming adversity and his path to STEM. As a child with cerebral palsy in the 1960s, he was inspired by the moon landing and Star Trek to learn more about our solar system and beyond. Now he is working with a team of other scientists to create a telescope that will be used to research how stars and planetary systems form and to search for life on other planets.

The highlight of the event was a panel of successful professionals in STEM fields, each of whom have disabilities:

  • David Hamrick is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service with autism.
  • Sarah Pruteanu-Malinici is a research technician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with fibromyalgia.
  • Cary Supalo is a chemist at Purdue University with a visual disability.
  • Ben Thompson is a medical student at UNC Chapel Hill with hemifacial microsomia.
  • David Tseng is a software engineer at Google with a visual disability.
  • The moderator, Sina Bahram, is a computer scientist, founder and president of Prime Access Consulting, and a recipient of the 2012 White House Champions of Change award.

A fun lightning round kicked off the panel. Luke Skywalker versus Harry Potter? Favorite childhood game? Star Wars or Star Trek? Favorite subject in school?

This last question made my heart sing. As each panelist answered with their favorite subject, the audience erupted into cheers and applause.

“Biology.” WOO!!! “Physics.” YEAH!!! “Math.” WOO!!! “Biology.” YEAH!!! “Español.” WOO!!!

The panelists all shared personal stories about how they felt when they first found out about their disabilities and how they have adapted their lives to succeed. Hearing these stories was inspiring and shows how similar we all are. The stories particularly resonated with the students in the audience with disabilities. They shared their paths to their careers in STEM and offered advice to the audience:

“Learn how to communicate about accommodations you need.” –David Tseng

“Don’t be limited by commercially available solutions. Create your own if you need it.” –Cary Supalo

“Don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot do something. If you have the will and determination to do something, do it and don’t look back. Pursue your dreams.” –David Hamrick

“Stay positive. You can’t change your disability. You can’t change your circumstances. But you can control your reaction to them.” –Sarah Pruteanu-Malinici

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” –Ben Thompson

The group then split up into breakout sessions where students had the chance to speak one-on-one with each of the panelists. The lobby was packed with an opportunity fair showcasing companies and organizations representing different STEM careers including RTI, IBM, SAS, NetApp, Ret Hat, NCSU, and the Museum of Natural Sciences.

The museum live-streamed the event, and you can watch the video below:

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.