By Mitch Emmons, Auburn University

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking didn’t let Lou Gehrig’s disease—which left him in a wheelchair for most of his life—slow him down. Future scientists with disabilities will have a better chance to contribute to the world’s body of knowledge thanks to a $10 million grant awarded to Sullivan Foundation partner school Auburn University by the National Science Foundation.

The grant will allow Auburn to lead a national research effort to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education among students with disabilities. It will support a five-year program that will grow as it progresses, says Overtoun Jenda, assistant provost for special projects and initiatives at Auburn, whose office will be administering the initiative.

“We are starting out as a 27-institution alliance,” said Jenda, a professor of mathematics in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics. “The award was made official on Aug. 1, and the first 90 days involves the development of a strategic plan that will guide the alliance.”

Related: George Mason University grad student advocates for those with “invisible disabilities”

The funding will be used to conduct research related to enhancing workforce development opportunities for persons with disabilities. The collaborative research effort is a national project aimed at increasing the number of disabled students entering college and completing a degree in a STEM-related field of study.

Students will receive benefits such as peer and faculty mentoring, research opportunities and financial support. The program has three primary goals: 1) increasing the quantity of students with disabilities completing associate, undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM; 2) facilitating the transitions of students with disabilities from STEM degree completion into the STEM workforce; and 3) enhancing communication and collaboration among institutions of higher education, industry, government, national labs and local communities in addressing the education needs of students with disabilities in STEM disciplines.

“Persons with disabilities are one of the most significantly underrepresented groups in STEM education and employment,” Jenda said. “And they comprise a disproportionately smaller percentage of STEM degrees and jobs compared to their percentages in the U.S. population. This alliance is designed to help shrink that gap. Students will participate through stipends, internships conferences and mentoring.”

Auburn is leading this initiative, which is subdivided into six regional hubs, according to Jenda. “Auburn is overseeing the complete alliance, while at the same time leading the Southeastern Hub,” Jenda said.

Other hub-leading institutions include Northern Arizona University (Mountain Hub), Ohio State University (Northeastern Hub), the University of Hawaii at Manoa (Islands Hub), the University of Missouri-Kansas City (Midwest Hub) and the University of Washington (West Coast Hub).

This article has been edited and condensed from the original version appearing on the Auburn University website.

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