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Leading the Way for Scientists with Disabilities

Angela Lee Foreman

Angela Lee Foreman

Courtesy of Craig Sherod Photography

When I was a child, only two magazine subscriptions ever came to my house: Scientific American and Forbes. My father’s passions were the sciences, business, and his family, and every month I watched his eyes widen with raw enthusiasm as he immersed himself in his periodicals. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I’d pick up a magazine from the stack and read, trying my best to absorb and comprehend the new concepts until the next issue arrived.

While it is clear that my father ignited my interest in science and innovation, the key to my success was the enduring support I received from my family and teachers. They guided me toward a career at the crossroads of science and business. They gave me the skills and confidence I needed so that my scientific curiosity was not hampered by my deafness. I was born deaf and, as a child, mainstreamed in hearing environments, so I accepted my deafness and remained focused on my goals.

"It is up to each of us to decide which compromises and sacrifices we are willing to make to achieve our professional and personal goals."—Angela Lee Foreman

But my professional journey wasn’t without difficulty. It was necessary to find a career path that suited all of my interests and limits. This took hard work and resilience. I believe that everyone encounters unique sets of limits along their way. Today I am trying to share this resilience with others.

A narrowing road

Starting in 1990, I studied biological sciences at the University of California (UC), Davis, investigating the glycoproteins of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. During the final 2 years of my undergraduate work, I immersed myself in research, working in the lab of Jose V. Torres. Upon graduation, I decided to enter the business world. I worked at several biotech and financial companies in the Davis area. Then, in 1997, at age 25, I became the regulatory affairs officer at Antibodies Incorporated.

Seven years after receiving my B.A., I realized that I would need further training to grow in the worlds of business and science. In 2002, I was accepted onto the graduate program in immunology at UC Davis. There, I investigated the antibody response in primary biliary cirrhosis in the lab of M. Eric Gershwin. Judy Van de Water was my direct supervisor. I was fortunate to have a professor who supported me financially during my first year as a Ph.D. student as I waited for the result of my application for an F31 grant from the National Institutes of Health, which was successfully funded.

I was thrilled when, upon graduating in 2007, I was recruited to teach biology as an assistant professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. I enjoyed having the opportunity to inspire deaf science students, using sign language in the classroom, and mentoring undergraduates. On occasions, other professors at RIT asked me to fill in for them and I taught classes with hearing students. In situations like this, I taught using only my voice, which boosted my self-confidence.

However, during this time I missed feeling close to science and innovation. I had not given up research entirely; in fact, I routinely had as many as five undergraduate students working with me on genetics and antibody responses. But, due to their academic constraints, only summer research was feasible, and even then it was necessary to share a lab bench with several other faculty members.

Due to the long hours, I also found that I did not have any spare time to spend outside the academic environment. I was exhausted and felt a bit frustrated in my attempts to establish a work-life balance.

New opportunities

A new opportunity came my way in the spring of 2011 when I was invited to join RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering as a research professor for a 3-year appointment. It wasn't easy to give up tenure, but I enjoyed this new position because I could return to pure research, investigating the programming of assistive listening devices.

Another opportunity came in the fall of the same year when a family emergency brought me back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Upon my return I got in touch with my former biotech contacts, several of whom wanted me to act as a consultant for their companies. One side job led to another, and I learned that I enjoyed and could earn a living from consulting work.

It all happened extremely fast. Within a month of returning, I became a full-time managing partner at Sapphire Executives, LLC, where I still work. My job is to interact directly with industry CEOs and other members of executive management teams to offer advice on quality assurance, regulatory affairs, compliance, risk management, and scientific topics. I have maintained my appointment at RIT, working remotely and visiting occasionally.

As time went by, I found new avenues to make a difference in people's lives, something I had yearned for all along. In December 2008 I got involved with the Committee On Opportunities in Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers), where we address a variety of pressing issues facing minorities in science. It has been an honor to serve on this committee, and the experience has enabled me to flourish while remaining close to the sciences through networking and problem solving.

Also, since February 2010 I have served as treasurer for the Foundation for Science and Disability, a nonprofit organization, which advises AAAS and other scientific or educational institutions on removing barriers for scientists with disabilities and provides grants and scholarships that allow students with disabilities to do scientific research projects.

Professional lessons

For me, the most challenging aspect of professional development has been identifying reliable opinions and sources of information, since I can't always pick up what is being said around me. I have always relied on visual inputs—small meetings where I can lip-read, e-mail, text messages, and other forms of written communication. It has taken a while for me to build up a group of colleagues and professionals that I can rely on, but I have finally reached that point.

During my professional journey, I’ve learned that everyone experiences challenges— some visible and some invisible. It is up to each of us to decide which compromises and sacrifices we are willing to make to achieve our professional and personal goals. This requires making bold choices sometimes, and venturing outside our safety zones to explore the myriad of opportunities that life has to offer, and grow.

When I left my tenured position I had no idea what the future held. But today, I enjoy living and working in a progressive environment where I am surrounded by a close circle of friends. I don't have to worry about pay and job security, and I have the flexibility to pursue a range of professional activities and personal interests.

More than ever, the possibilities seem wide open. My networking opportunities seem endless. I am excited about the future. I love my job and enjoy working with my clients. These are all things that anyone, with or without disabilities, may want.