Science and Tech is a field for everyone, even the Disabled

From blowing things up to listening to bugs, there’s a STEM career for everyone

This is the second in a two-part Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

As a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2011, Neil Altomare’s job was to detect unexploded home-made bombs known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Many were hidden throughout Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley, where he was deployed. Once he found an IED, Altomare would destroy it — often by blowing it up. This work helped keep his fellow Marines safe.

But neither his equipment nor visual scans could detect all hidden bombs. And one day, Altomare stepped on an IED. He survived. But the explosion destroyed his right leg below the knee. Shrapnel hit him almost everywhere else. Yet despite the pain and injuries, he was able to direct rescue troops to carry him along a safe path out of the field and to the helicopter that would airlift him to medical care.

Dozens of surgeries followed. More than a year later, Altomare was back home in Albuquerque, N.M. There he learned about the Wounded Warrior career program. And that led to a job in town at Sandia National Laboratories. Today, he’s part of its environmental safety and health team. And he works with explosives. “I had worked with explosives in the military,” he notes, “and I wanted to continue that.” Some of his work helps the military. Other work can protect civilians.

His job falls within a broad field known as STEM. Its short for science, technology, engineering and math. These research disciplines attract all types of women and men. They may be young or old, short or tall, come from any nation and sport skin of any color.

Some, like Altomare, also have to deal with a serious physical or mental challenge. They may have lost limbs or walk on crutches. They may be blind or deaf. Some may even be hobbled by “hidden” disabilities — challenging medical conditions that may not be outwardly visible. Yet any and all may perform important work in their fields.

Most people have heard about the achievements of British mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking, now 75 years old. At age 21, he developed a debilitating nerve-and-muscle disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Within another six or so years, he was wheelchair-bound. Hawking has long needed help from a voice synthesizer to speak. Yet over the past decades, none of this kept him from making major advances in cosmology — the study of our universe. He is an exceptional scientist.

But he’s not alone. Many more contribute mightily to their research fields. You may not know their names — yet. But that doesn’t diminish what they can and do contribute.

In the United States alone, more than half a million people in STEM fields have some form of disability.

But as with most researchers, these scientists, engineers and mathematicians tend to toil away largely outside the public eye. Their disabilities don’t define them. In many cases, their personal challenges may even spur them to tackle problems in a novel way — one that ups the chance they’ll find a solution.