Thursday, May 9, 2013

Diary of a Gimpy Kid: The story of Dawn Allenbach



Deciding on a career path is a daunting choice for many college students. There are so many options, and at eighteen years old, it’s hard to know what path will be most fulfilling. Sometimes, finding a direction is straight-forward, and other times, inspiration comes from unexpected places. For Dawn Allenbach, currently a PhD candidate at the University of New Orleans (UNO), the inspiration for pursuing a degree in biology came from her required public speaking course at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“It was the poaching speech I gave that really sealed the deal for me,” says Dawn. “I think that was actually where mentally I went, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a biologist’. But I think growing up in the country where everything that we had around us was somehow tied to nature is what made me sympathetic to the whole anti-poaching cause.”
Dawn’s childhood setting with hay fields, livestock and the howling of coyotes at night may not be that unfamiliar to many in the western United States. Her life, however, hasn’t been like most. At three years old, Dawn was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), as were her younger sister and brother. SMA is a genetic disorder which causes skeletal muscle strength to diminish over time, necessitating the use of a wheelchair. Despite the barriers others have put up because of her disability, Dawn has followed success after success from high school through her PhD work in conservation biology. On April 25 and 26, Dawn came to the University of Wyoming to share her experiences as a scientist and to offer suggestions on how to make science more accessible in the classroom and the field.
Adaptability, Dawn says, is the key to inclusion. Unfortunately, thinking outside the box when it comes to disabilities isn’t always easy for others.
During her interview at UNO, her future advisor asked, “How can you do research when you can’t do the most basic of physical actions?”
Dawn replied with her characteristic well-grounded logic and dry wit. “Have you ever heard of something called a lab assistant?”
This type of question is one Dawn has faced time and time again. It illuminates the limits that others see people like Dawn facing, but Dawn dismisses them time and time again.
“The mental is there,” she says. “I may not be able to clean the fish tank, but I can help direct an undergraduate assistant in how to do it, because I have a brain and I can speak. Do what my parents do: don’t treat people with disabilities like they are broken. Don’t treat them like there is something wrong with them, because there isn’t.”
Dawn advises all students, regardless of disability, to overcome any barriers and pursue degrees of interest, because finding happiness in what you do with your life is what matters.
“Do something that you care about, because if you are stuck doing genetics and you don’t want to do genetics, you’re going to be miserable,” she says.
Finding the thing you care about in science fields may not happen during an undergraduate career. Rather, it takes having hands-on experience, Dawn says, to really know that the area you are studying is right for you.
“I feel like the master’s degree, where you’re in the lab more than in the classroom, is where you’re really learning what it is about to be a scientist,” Dawn says. “I feel like it is easier to change gears either during the master’s or after, than it is with a PhD.”
While the trend is moving towards going straight from undergraduate work to a PhD, Dawn maintains that the master’s in an important step. A PhD requires a lot of dedication and students have to be mentally ready for that commitment.
“I feel like people shouldn’t be rushed, especially when you’re twenty-three,” Dawn says. “You have to be in a place in your life where you are ready to handle that amount of work. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. There is no time limit at all, I think.”  
For Dawn, her master’s degree really helped her focus on what she wanted to do, which has made her more successful in her PhD work. As her PhD defense grows nearer, Dawn is looking towards the future and what options are available.
“I’d like to do a post-doc first, if I can find something that is related to what I’m doing, but that will teach me something new,” Dawn says.
Eventually, she would like to work at a university. As with all of her pursuits, Dawn is looking at the future with a healthy mix of energy, optimism and realism.
“I don’t think I’m going into it with any illusions that things are great,” she says. “I definitely don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a ride and I just have to see where it takes me.”
With her energy and enthusiasm, her intellect and work ethic, Dawn is sure to reach her goals and inspire others as she has inspired us with her research and outlook on life. 

By Kali S. McCrackin

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