Research and Development - Promoting Health and Quality of Life
Intro: After reading this success story you will be able to make the argument that good networking and assistive technology skills are helping to change the world of healthcare. See what Vincent Martin, Health Research Scientist & Bio-medical Engineer tells us about his job at the U.S. Veterans Administration, how he got it, and the technology he uses.
The Story: My name is Vincent Martin and I work for the U.S. Veterans Administration, Rehabilitation Research and Development Center for Aging Veterans with Low Vision and Blindness as a rehabilitation research engineer. I work directly under a principal investigator, whose primary work is in the area of wayfinding for blinded veterans.
To give you a description of what a typical work day is like for me I will start by saying that each day can be very different from the last since we have multiple projects in different stages of completion and also collaborate with other researchers and companies on a variety of devices. I could end up doing a myriad of things on any given day.
In the past six months, I have helped edit papers for submissions, attended the California State University Northridge (CSUN) conference on technology and disabilities where I presented part of our research, taught seminars for professors and their graduate students at Georgia Tech, helped design protocols for subject testing, recruited and screened potential research subjects, conducted research subject testing, did initial testing of prototype equipment, and statistically analyzed research data. As you can see there is a lot going on.
You may wonder what kind of people I work for. Actually, I am quite lucky because I have a lot of autonomy in my job. My supervisor has been doing research for twenty-seven years and he defers to me a lot of the work that he does not have the time to get done. Having this autonomy is quite nice because he knows that I will finish any project ahead of time and with a high level of quality. This kind of work ethic has won me his trust and respect; therefore, he does not have to spend valuable time making sure I do what he needs. And, it gives me the freedom to work without unnecessary additional pressure.
There are almost 20 Ph.D/MD level researchers on my floor and another twenty or so research assistants and support personnel as well. Since there are so many projects in different stages of completion, we do whatever we can to stay out of each other's way. And because the person who hired them did a good job of vetting, the people that work on my research team really get along very well.
The way I got my job is that I was recruited by someone who knew of and told me about the job. But, I believe I am quite unique in that each job that I have gotten since I have been out of high school has been through some person that I knew! This is the ultimate in networking and I really never go looking for a job. So far all the jobs have found me through my network of friends, associates, and colleagues proving that the best jobs are found in this manner.
One thing I would routinely do as a networking strategy was participate in research studies. After participating in the third study for the third researcher, I was noticed because of some of the comments I made about the testing before and after it had been completed. When they found out about my past technical background, athletic endeavors, and educational aspirations, I was asked to come in and just talk about their programs. My current supervisor and I talked for about two and a half hours and then he decided to create a position so that I could come and work for him. Since I am still pursuing my educational goals my work schedule is arranged around my school schedule each semester, because reaching this goal will benefit both my employer and me tremendously.
To show you how one job can lead to another, provide a certain set of skills and help establish a career, I'm going to tell you a little about some of my previous jobs. From 1989 to 1994, I was an independent AT Trainer and rehabilitation engineer. I was not affiliated with any agency and contracted with state and local government, Federal agencies, and any private person. All this started by accident, because I have the distinction of diagnosing my own eye disease and determining what I needed to make my life accessible.
Being a trained Industrial and Systems engineer that dealt with man and machine interface, it wasn't hard for me to determine what I needed. I found a CCTV, a magnification program, and speech synthesizer and took the unusual step of doing the rehabilitation engineering on myself! Shortly after graduation I was asked to teach people how to use their technology. This was a good job for me because I could easily explain and interpret technical data into plain English. I even volunteered at the Atlanta AFB office for a couple years for a few hours a week.
Not long after that, my former rehabilitation counselor asked me to leave an internship with the U.S. Army at Fort McPherson to come and teach at the state-run rehabilitation center. She had just been appointed the manager of the blindness unit for the Georgia Sensory Rehabilitation Center and remembered the volumes of suggestions I kept making at that time for improvements. I started to work as the Computer Literacy instructor and stayed there until late 1995.
The year 1995 brought a job in Alabama where I became the first blind engineer of any sort in that state. For one year I worked there before coming back to Georgia to start my own business. Then in 1997, I was offered a job as the head rehabilitation engineer for Human Development Services. Because I was still attempting to compete in the pentathlon on an international level I needed to work fewer hours, so I moved on to work as an Adaptive Instructor at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta until 2003. Then I left to attend graduate school and prepare for the 2004 Paralympics Games in Greece.
Upon my return from the Paralympics in 2004, I spent the next year and a half finishing graduate school and serving in Americorps. During this period, I retired from competitive sports, had surgery two times to repair old injuries, and then went to work as a Health Research Scientist at the Veterans Administration.
In 2007, I went back to graduate school again to start working on a PhD. with the support and blessing of my supervisor and the CDC. I am currently finishing up the second year of about a six and a half year program for a degree in Human Factors Engineering/Engineering Psychology.
I hope you see how every job I have had since I graduated from college has been through some form of networking. I still get offers to work in various capacities, because of my skill set and experience. I constantly network with people in a variety of fields around the country. I could readily go back to work as an Industrial Engineer or Logistician in the private or governmental sector or I could opt for rehabilitation in a number of roles. But for now, I still intend to pursue my doctoral degree and become a principal investigator and research issues related to blindness and low vision.
Since I only have a little light perception, I use a wide variety of assistive technology. I utilize two screen reading programs; Jaws for Windows, and System Access. System Access is primarily used because I need to access different computers on the floor during research data collection. It is also beneficial for me to use for keeping in touch with the blindness-related subject groups on the network.
In addition to the screen reading programs, I also have an Interpoint Braille embosser, the Kurzweil reading system, and two PDAs. One PDA is the Braille Sense note taker and the other is the Maestro/Trekker. The type of meeting we have or where I have to travel determines which device I use. I also use the Trekker GPS system to do navigation and wayfinding research.
The last piece of technology that I use at work is my 80-cell HumanWare Brailliant display. This might be the most useful device for me, because I have to read a lot of statistical data in spreadsheets and I like to have access to a full line of data at once.*
Although I use a lot of technology at work, I do have a lot at home as well. Being a Ph.D student requires me to do a lot of homework and I also have a tendency to do a lot of work for my job from home. I still own a 40-cell Pac-Mate and have three computers at home, on which I run Windows XP operating systems and also run Linux on another server.
The thing that I like the most about my job is that I am literally paid to think! You just can beat that; making a living from being a researcher and having it be something that personally benefits you as well. As great as this is, there is also an aspect of my work that I strongly dislike and that is simply the fact that we have to deal with Federal rules and that can lead to some major annoyances. A rule that is actually designed to help some people or departments can actually often hinder our ability to do our jobs effectively. This happens in all bureaucratic systems.
Finally, in order to decide if this sort of job would be good or bad for you, a person considering a career in my field really needs to know that you have to have your skill set polished, be determined, and have the confidence to think that you can do it alongside sighted people. I am currently the only visually impaired person that works on my floor, although my supervisor actually has hired two blind engineers and a blind research assistant within the past five years. The research assistant moved with her husband to another state and now contracts with us by telecommuting. The other blind engineer recently resigned and is going to be a stay-at-home mom for the next five years or so.
Hope you've enjoyed learning some about my work as a researcher and how it all came together for me!
The Contact: Vincent Martin
*For more information on some of the devices and products Vincent uses please see below.