Embracing Physical Disability in STEM

by Marina Nakhla

Nakhla presenting findings from the Summer Training Academy for Research Success (STARS) at University of California, San Diego summer research conference.

When I apply to PhD programs next fall, I must be careful about how I describe myself in my statement of purpose. I’m a first-year master’s student in the clinical psychology program at California State University (CSU), Northridge. I’m a member of RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement), an NIH-funded program. I work hard, I’m diligent, I’m dedicated, and since I was fourteen months old I have been wearing prosthetic legs.

My mentors know I am a good student, and they don’t judge me for my physical appearance, but they have warned me to be cautious about how I present this part of me to my future PhD program. They know others may judge me for my disability. I’ve been told “You don’t want them to misjudge you or think that you aren’t capable.”

Unfortunately, this is the world we live in.

Explicit or not, intentional or not, people are often judged based on their disabilities and their appearance.

They are deemed incapable or unfit, but nobody knows the potential of a person until you put aside your misconceptions and get to know them. Some of the most common misconceptions I have encountered are described below.

Misconception #1: Physically disabled people are also intellectually disabled.

People are often surprised when I tell them I’m pursuing a master’s degree. They’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m working in a research laboratory or I’ll be applying to PhD programs next year. They’re surprised because of my prosthetic legs.

When I was born, each of my legs was missing its tibia. As a result, my ankles and feet were unable to bear any weight. Doctors told my parents there were only two options: keep my legs and sit in a wheelchair my entire life or amputate both my legs. My parents chose surgery, which gave me the chance to walk. I underwent bilateral, above-the-knee amputation before I was two years old. I also have four fingers on my left hand and three on my right hand, but both hands function normally.

My physical disability has impacted me in all aspects of my life, starting from the moment I entered school. When I was in preschool, I was placed in a special education class. After an entire year, my teachers finally realized their mistake.

My physical disability has nothing to do with my intellectual abilities. I was eventually moved into a regular class but it didn’t end there.

Misconception #2: Physically disabled people get special privileges.

As I progressed in school, people would continue to make indirect comments or be hostile toward me because they thought I was receiving special privileges. They would assume I got extra test time or I benefited from special education services.

As a member of RISE, I have heard people comment that acceptance to such a rigorous program is easy for people like me who have minority status. In other words, I was accepted into RISE because, aside from my physical disability, I am also of Egyptian Christian background.

I absolutely disagree with that. Acceptance to rigorous programs like RISE is a result of hard work, diligence, and dedication: all qualities I feel I possess and display daily.

My disability doesn’t give me extra help. The color of my skin doesn’t give me special privileges. The way I look does not affect the way I think or how hard I work.
Nakhla and friends at the University of California, San Diego summer research conference.

Misconception #3: Physically disabled people are very different from everyone else.

People are often surprised I can drive. Many people are unaware that technology can make driving very easy for those with disabilities. For example, I drive with a hand control for gas and brakes and a spinner knob to make turns with one hand.

Although I may walk differently, encounter more difficulties daily, or need physical assistance, in all that matters, I am just like everyone else. I attend school, I drive, and I work hard. I use what I was given to be a successful person and scientist.

For any young scientist who feels misunderstood or judged as they pursue a STEM career, my advice is to keep chasing your dream.

Through my experiences pursuing a clinical psychology career as a minority woman, I have the following recommendations to help you thrive in your field.

Recommendation #1: Use your unique experiences to motivate you.

Every day is a different struggle for me. Whether it is big or small, it leaves a mark on me. For example, my struggles have taught me time management skills, resilience, and appreciation for the little things. It takes extra energy and time to get ready in the morning. When I have an appointment or a meeting, I must schedule extra time because I walk more slowly. I also have numerous prosthetic appointments, physical therapy, and other medical routines outside the classroom or lab.

Nakhla and her research partner presenting their poster at CSU Northridge Student Research and Creative Works Symposium.

It would be easy to let all my struggles be an excuse not to work hard. But instead, the experiences I have had are my motivation. They have molded me. They have taught me to take the initiative. They have given me the strength to work twice as hard as my peers, to develop a sense of determination, and to respect hard work. Because of my disability, I’m pushed to chase my dreams, to seize opportunities available to me, and not to be afraid to ask for help. My experience wearing prosthetic legs and being from a minority background have pushed me to thrive in school, in the lab, and ultimately to be a better scientist.

Recommendation #2: Seize the power of your support system.

Never shy away from asking for help. Join in the programs and opportunities that are available to you. Welcome the support of your family, friends, mentors, and peers. They are there to guide you through the challenging path of a career in STEM.

I would never be where I am today without my family, friends, and mentors.

My family and friends have always provided me with endless love and support. They attend all my school-related events and are always willing to help with anything I need. My family’s and friends’ persistence and faith in me are the primary reason for my strong will and motivation. My mentors have always believed in me and guided me along my path. They’re always willing to accommodate my needs, inform me about wonderful opportunities in research, and attend to my concerns.

Because of my incredible support system, I have no doubts I will reach my goal to be a clinical neuropsychologist. Along the way, I aspire to be a leader to my peers and make a difference in people’s lives with my research, practice, and advocacy for underrepresented individuals.

Nakhla with family and friends at her graduation from California State University, Northridge.

Recommendation #3: Know that you are capable.

People often seem surprised when I tell them I’m pursuing my master’s degree or that I can drive. They’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m working in a research laboratory or I’m pursuing a PhD because they think I’m incapable of being involved in extracurricular activities due to my disability. Even when people are understanding, I still worry about being deemed incapable.

Well, I am capable.

My name is Marina Nakhla. I am a first-year master’s student at CSU Northridge and an aspiring clinical neuropsychologist. My career goal is to be practicing and conducting research at a hospital such as Kaiser Permanente or Cedars Sinai as well as advocating for individuals with disabilities or those who have faced great adversities. I am an NIH RISE program scholar, Western Psychological Association student representative, and Psi Chi Honors Society member. I am a daughter, sister, and friend. I’ve been judged and misunderstood, but I work hard anyway. I am capable, and you are capable too.

Nakhla at her graduation from CSU Northridge, where she graduated with a BA in Psychology with honors.

Special thanks to my family, best friends, and mentors — Dr. Jill Razani, Dr. Maria Elena Zavala, Dr. Gary Katz, Dr. Luciana Lagana, Dr. Jill Quilici, and Dr. Elisa Maldonado.

About the Author: Marina Nakhla

Marina Nakhla is a first-year master’s student at California State University at Northridge, pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology. Ms. Nakhla also works as a research assistant in the Neuropsychology Dementia and Multicultural Research Laboratory at CSU Northridge.