Focus Award winners support disability inclusion in science

March 12, 2012

Perry Kirkham, project coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Research, and Willie Burgess (center), managing director of the Discovery Learning Research Center, receive the 2012 staff Focus Award from Alysa Rollock, vice president for ethics and compliance. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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Purdue presented four Focus Awards on March 1 for outstanding contributions to furthering the University's commitment to disability accessibility and diversity. Today, Purdue Today is featuring the staff co-recipients, Willie Burgess, managing director of the Discovery Learning Research Center, and Perry Kirkham, project coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Burgess and Kirkham assisted Brad Duerstock, associate professor of engineering practice, and Susan Mendrysa, assistant professor of basic medical sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine, in establishing the Institute for Accessible Science at Purdue. Together, the team built and defended a grant proposal that resulted in a $2 million National Institute of Health (NIH) Pathfinder Award, which funded the institute's founding at Purdue in 2010.

"The IAS is truly Brad's passion, to make sure that he is able to give to others what he got. In my mind it's much more than research-- it's enabling people in a very other centered way," Kirkham says. "Willie and I were here to define how this passion would be communicated and put into a proposal."

Burgess and Kirkham's tireless advocacy for IAS, and continuing work to promote the inclusion and retention of persons with disabilities in biomedical careers, earned them the 2012 staff Focus Award.

IAS focuses on promoting the inclusion and retention of persons with disabilities in biomedical science careers through practical laboratory experiences, assistive technology development, research, and student and educator support services. The institute uses these different avenues to break down the physical, situational and attitudinal barriers facing people with disabilities in STEM careers, Burgess says.

"Brad talks about a wide range of barriers that people face that go beyond the physical barrier of having inaccessible lab equipment," Burgess says. "Attitudinal barriers can be just as crippling for people with disabilities. If people tell you long enough you can't do something, you start to believe it. IAS is developing ways to encourage as many people as are interested and intellectually capable to go on to graduate study in STEM fields."

In the summer of 2010, Kirkham began work on the proposal that eventually would fund the IAS by networking with Purdue faculty and administrators to identify a course of action. He soon realized that in order to meet the idealistic goals of the NIH Pathfinder Award, they would need to outline clear, quantifiable steps.

"The conceptual nature of the end goals made it very different than normal proposals. The NIH Pathfinder Award challenged us to find a way to break paradigms, and Brad had a very good idea about where to go for this," Kirkham says. "With such lofty goals, there had to be someone at the other end to make sure that we had the quantifiable steps and logistics to make things happen. The real strength of this project is having Willie to make sure that this thing is successful. Willie is great at allowing Brad to dream and then taking those dreams and making them happen."

After Kirkham brought Burgess into the process, the team began to plan and develop the proposal.

"Perry's background in NIH gave him insight as far as what they were looking for and what makes them excited," Burgess says. "He was essential in forming the team that led to the award and ultimately the establishment of the IAS. He was really a catalyst for this project and I enjoyed the opportunity to help him, Brad and Susan promote STEM education in students with disabilities."

After Duerstock and Mendrysa received the $2 million award in 2010, Burgess stayed on as an unpaid advisory board member for IAS. Since then, she has helped with the early stages of establishing the institute's structure and the planning and external evaluation of its activities. For her, diversity in STEM careers is essential to identifying and creating new avenues for innovation.

"Every person that you work with brings something different to the table. It's always amazing to me to see the richness you get when you have people with different perspectives," Burgess says. "When you're talking about STEM fields in particular, you lose a lot of perspective if only one kind of person is designing something. Work that the IAS is doing is only going to make science better."

Kirkham shares Burgess' views on the importance of diversity in innovation.

"People with visual or physical disabilities may require different accommodations, but they have the same dreams and aspirations," Kirkham says. "It's very important for this population to realize that they aren't limited by something that's outside of their control, only by their own visions and aspirations."