Interview by Gaoyuan Liu
Dennis A. Dean, Ph.D., attended the University of Massachusetts at Lowell where he received an MS in Computer Science. Following graduation, he received his doctorate from UMass in Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology. Dr. Dean worked as a Computational Research Associate while attending graduate school, later transitioning to a postdoctoral research fellow position at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is a Harvard Medical School-Affiliated Hospital. Currently, he works as a Research and Development Scientist at Seven Bridges where he manages a collaborative research program aimed at developing genomic data analyses methods that process and analyze upwards of a million patients.
Dr. Dean is an active mentor with mentees graduating from medical school and doctoral programs. He is on the Biomedical Sciences Career Program Board of Directors (BSCP), after years of participating in BSCP programs geared at training scientist. Joining NRMN made sense given his long-term commitment to mentoring and his close collegial relationship with the executive director.
Dr. Dean joined NRMN seeking to engage in conversation regarding disabilities in the sciences.
NRMN: Would you kindly share what your medical disability is?
DD: I have a learning disability. In short, I have difficulty processing text. However, the condition does not fit into any one category of disabilities. I know for certain that I am three standard deviations from normal ability. Yet, I am strong with other things; for instance, I present well orally.
NRMN: How did you find out about your disability?
DD: I was in a Ph.D. program in computer science, studying algorithms and theory of computation. For one class, I had to work in a group and I consistently found that I was among the first to achieve the solution—however, we would go home to write the homework and I would realize that it took two to three times longer than others for me to write it down. Of course, I never felt like I was slower, but I eventually realized that it would be difficult for me to compete during written qualifying exams, which are timed.
After getting tested at Northeastern University, I found out that I have a focal (really specific) disability. The psychologist classified the disability in the category of “ADHD, other” since the result did not fit well in any one category. In particular, I struggle with encoding text.
NRMN: How did you adapt and handle your disability? Was it difficult to progress professionally?
DD: I worked with a disability expert at UMass as well, and she was surprised that I was able to advance well, that I had already passed through higher education. The disability expert commented that most people would have had a lot of difficulties, and I would have as well had I not figured out many strategies on my own that other people with the disability would normally use. For example, I color-coded everything which is something that is recommended to people with disabilities similar to mine.
Also, I almost always have three monitors open. I realized two monitors were better than one, so I figured, why don’t try three? The IT guy was not happy with me when I first installed the third monitor.
My success in the biomedical sciences is not different than any other scientist. I had great mentors who taught me the tools of the trade; not all my mentors knew about my disability. I consider having a disability as a private matter. I have had very supportive mentors that considered the disability as another variable to optimize for my success; others may be… not as supportive. We need mentors who approach individuals from their potential to succeed, not relative to a standard template of past success.
My experience with a disability shapes how I mentor. I tell all my mentees that I want to know who they are, where they want to go and how I can help them. I do my best to not compare them to other students or my personal vision of success. I need to understand where they struggle and when they fail. When there is a problem, almost everything is fixable if you are brought in early enough.
NRMN: What would you say are the main difficulties that have come with having a disability in the field of biomedical research?
DD: Because my ability is text based, it’s easy for an onlooker to think poorly of your skills or intellect. Be on the lookout for people who quickly judge you adversely. For that reason, I always intentionally set up my work teams.
I always had a feeling something was not quite right. In high school, people would kid me. People used to say, if you give Dean your phone number, make sure he repeats it back to you.
It’s important to find environments where people value you for your contributions. If people value you, you’ll find that your biomedical research will be far more enjoyable. In any environment, people will have weaknesses. It’s all the more important with a disability to be comfortable communicating your strengths and weaknesses to your mentors, peer mentors and colleagues.
Although I have received a lot of support, there are those that voiced doubt in my abilities. I’ve had people explicitly tell me to not pursue science based on my disability. But I was born to be a scientist. I learn fast, I’m clever, and I want to make a difference.
NRMN: What words of advice would you give to any others with disabilities in the biomedical field?
DD: Pick the things you love and that you have high success with. I made a decision early on to move from computer science to biomedical engineering, and I haven’t looked back.
Make sure that when you look for places to work, know that there is a culture of support. Secondly, know exactly what day to day support you will require.
Biomedical research is really simple. It’s excellence and then the communication of that excellence—that is your only goal, doing whatever you need to do to demonstrate excellence. For people with disabilities, that might mean spending many more hours. But the only output that counts is excellence and productivity.
Many scientists really only discuss their disabilities through really close relationships. We’re trained to not admit when we make mistakes, since we’re in competition with one another for so long. There is definitely an incentive to not discuss your disabilities. But at the end of the day, you need to know what will enable you to succeed.
It is great that NIH realizes the importance of diversity for URM and individuals with disabilities. In so doing, NIH may allow individuals with disabilities to tell their story and become an active part of the biomedical research workforce in the United States.