When Traci Powell (pictured left) was 19 years old, she was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia, an inherited neurological disorder that weakened her muscles. Because of her condition, she was unable to participate fully in many of her college laboratory courses. Weak muscles in her eyes, head, and neck made using even a microscope laborious. Yet, Powell found ways to learn concepts she missed in her laboratory courses by relying on professors, study groups, and regular coursework. Despite the limitations her body imposed, her mind was sharp enough to propel her through the Ph.D. program at Stanford University.
Making the transition to graduate school is tough for anyone, but Powell's disability made the challenges much greater. Being an African-American woman made things harder still. Yet, Powell, who is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE) Program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, did not allow herself to be short-changed. With a measure of determination and strong preparation, Powell managed to make graduate school a rewarding time in her life.
A Change of Plans
Powell had wanted to become a doctor after finishing her B.S. degree in biology from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in 1992, until her diminishing coordination forced her into a wheel chair. She talked slower than before and could no longer write well with her hand. She tired easily. It became apparent to her that her condition would not allow her to meet the demands of becoming a physician. "I was forced to find another way to contribute to science," she says.
After college, Powell worked for two years as a genetics research assistant at the Salk Institute, an experience that gave her career a new direction. The experience of being mentored by scientists and graduate students convinced her that her future vocation had to involve teaching and mentoring college students and that meant going graduate school. Her research and personal experience fostered an interest in genetics, so she decided to pursue genetics research.
Powell applied to 16 Ph.D. programs and although she can't be sure why she wasn't accepted to these programs, some were not interested in taking her on. "One [school] came right out and told me that they had concerns because of my disability. Would I be able to handle graduate school, especially living far away from my family?" Nevertheless, two schools offered her admission and Powell chose the one that impressed her more and was closer to home: Stanford University in California.
Powell started preparing for a new city and institution months before she moved. Following her Stanford interview, she got familiar with nearby housing, markets, Christian churches, and other important resources. When she was accepted into the genetics program, she consulted the school's Disability Resources Center, her department, and other people in the Stanford community about accommodations for her condition including financial help.
Powell was one of few minority women in her department, and there were no obvious role models. So she was forced to rely on other local support systems: Christian organizations, other minority science graduate students, and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). Powell also took a few years to fully adjust to her new academic load. Her grades suffered at times, but by making good use of study groups she was eventually able to improve her grades.
Making Science Accessible
During Powell's schooling, Stanford granted many of her requests for accommodations, including giving her more time to complete tests and helping her find funds for personal care. But accommodations that required changes to buildings took longer to perform. "[They] sometimes weren't necessarily prepared to deal with issues like this, but ultimately they were supportive ... It did, however, take a lot of persistence and finding the right people to talk with," she says. Stanford eventually made bathrooms, walkways, buildings, and Powell's lab more wheelchair-accessible.
Moreover, Powell's academic mentors provided a great deal of support. Her advisor took the time to understand her disease, and Powell's department didn't put her under a great deal of pressure to publish right away. Thanks to the support she received and her active approach to meeting her needs, Powell obtained her Ph.D. in genetics in 2001 and is currently in the process of writing up her Stanford research for publication. Her advice? "Have confidence in what you have already accomplished. If you've been admitted into graduate school, the admissions committee believes you have what it takes to graduate."
Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at eofrancisco.nasw.org.