Adolescence can be tough – cloaked with pressure to fit in with peers and excel academically. For some children, like Temple Grandin, that pressure is amplified by personal challenges. Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old. In high school, she was teased and bullied because her peers considered her weird. She was not weird; she was autistic – a diagnosis that did not formally come about until adulthood.

A self-professed “bottom-up” thinker, Grandin is a visual learner. As such, she developed an interest in sciences – horses and cattle, electronics and model rockets. Fortunately, a science teacher took notice of this, quickly becoming a mentor and encouraging her interest in science. Now, Grandin is an accomplished professor of animal science and one of the first individuals on the autism spectrum to so publicly share insights from her personal experience with autism.

The fifth annual STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences gave young students with disabilities (grade 6-12) the opportunity to meet Temple Grandin and hear how she overcame challenges to become a world-renowned animal science expert, one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world and the subject of an award-winning, semi-biographical HBO film. At the event, a capacity crowd of students, parents and teachers were entertained and inspired by her quirky personal anecdotes and directive for children to get their hands dirty.

“Kids get interested in things they get exposed to. Get them out there – volunteering or interning – on a schedule, outside the home. Kids – learn how to do the task that someone else wants done. Your future is limitless!” Grandin asserted.

Panelists: Be fearless in your aspirations

Together with analytics company SAS, the museum created this annual event to let students network with role models who are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, building innovative products, and creating the technologies of the future. This included a panel discussion from accomplished professionals with a variety of personal challenges who have forged successful career paths in STEM fields.

Moderated by Ed Summers, a visually impaired software developer and accessibility specialist at SAS, and a driving force behind the event, the panel included Dr. Amy Bower from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Mike Claes from Cisco, Patrick Williams from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, and Ryan Benson from the Centers for Disease Control.

Fielding questions submitted by the students themselves, the panelists gave sound personal, educational and career advice shrouded in hope and humor. And, like Grandin, many of the panelists thanked influential teachers for inspiring them to embrace their unique abilities and pursue promising STEM careers.

When asked what advice they’d give to their 15-year-old selves, the clear takeaway from all panelists was not to consider disabilities an impediment to success.

Ryan Benson advised, “Have more than one plan.”

“Don’t compromise. Don’t settle for less than what you can achieve,” said Mike Claes.

Patrick Williams concluded by challenging the students to “…be fearless. Go for it. You’ll see that time is limited – and you’ll never regret just doing it.”

“Approximately one out of every nine students in the United States has a disability. Yet, in spite of recent advances in the accessibility of information technology and other tools used by working professionals, people with disabilities remain underrepresented in STEM fields. Our goal is to develop technology to increase accessibility for disabled students and professionals, and inspire them to follow their dreams to pursue STEM-related careers,” said Summers.

Summers has trained more than 500 teachers how to use an Apple® iPad® to improve instruction for their visually impaired students. Last year, he led a team that created sonification software that enables visually impaired users to “see” visual graphs through sound. Summers also supports efforts to improve the accessibility of many SAS educational and commercial offerings.

The event’s messages of empowerment and perseverance inspired students and professionals alike, and provided a glimpse into those “limitless futures.”

About the author: Shannon Heath is a member of the External Corporate Communications team at Cary-based SAS. Coverage of this event was provided at the request of WRAL TechWire.