Most psychology graduate students in the 1980s ran their dissertation data analyses using computer programs. Maria Dolores Cimini didn't have that luxury. Blind in one eye and visually impaired in the other from glaucoma at age 16, Cimini was painstakingly cranking out t tests and other analyses with a marker, paper and calculator. Speech-recognition statistical programs hadn't been invented yet.
Cimini also struggled to find a mentor. Despite her honor student status, Cimini's high school guidance counselor didn't think she'd make it in college.
"She said, ‘there are schools for you,' and I thought, ‘Great! I want to go to an Ivy,'" remembers Cimini. "But she didn't mean that. She meant special schools — not necessarily even colleges and universities."
Her training director in graduate school also doubted her abilities, telling her she could never do all that her peers without a visual impairment could.
Nevertheless, Cimini excelled as an undergraduate at Barnard College and as a doctoral student in the University at Albany's, State University of New York clinical psychology program. She earned her PhD in 1986 and landed a job in the university's counseling center, where today she directs programs to prevent substance abuse, suicide, sexual assault, eating disorders and other high-risk behaviors among college students.
And since 2004 alone, she has brought in more than $6 million in federal grants from funders including the National Institutes of Health, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women and the U.S. Department of Education, mostly to support the development, implementation and evaluation of such programs.
Now, Cimini is working to ensure that other students who have disabilities and are in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines get the support they need, when they need it. Last year, the White House named her a "Champion of Change" for her research, mentorship and advocacy efforts — something that came as no surprise to Edelgard Wulfert, PhD, dean of Albany College of Arts and Sciences.
"Dr. Cimini has developed a remarkable scientific career and is eager both to learn new things every day and to share her knowledge with students and collaborators," he says. "She is an outstanding role model for students and colleagues alike."
A mentor and a mentee
When Cimini is on her home campus, she can be found facilitating a supervision group for predoctoral psychology interns, leading a training seminar on disability issues or substance abuse and prevention, or supervising any one of the 180 undergraduates who run a peer-to-peer hotline. The 24-7 service, which connects student callers to peers who are trained to listen and refer them for issues such as substance abuse, eating disorders and relationship problems, has served more than 83,000 students since its launch in 1970. Cimini has overseen the aversion of such crises as school violence and suicide.
"The first line of defense is the psychology interns — they have good judgment overall," says Cimini. "When it gets to me, it's really serious."
Cimini owes her rise into leadership roles on campus to her own persistence and the support of mentors who saw past her disability. The director of Albany's counseling center, Estela Rivero, PhD, for example, hired Cimini shortly after graduate school. "She really believed I could do whatever I set my mind to, so I was able to spread my wings beyond doing clinical work," Cimini says.
In 2004, Mary Larimer, PhD, a psychologist and director of the University of Washington's Center for Health and Risk Behaviors, worked alongside Cimini on a major research project supported by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. Larimer inspired Cimini to pursue further training to advance her goal of becoming an independent researcher.
So in 2010 Cimini applied for — and won — a career development grant to do just that. Now in its third year, the five-year NIAAA grant gives her access to leading researchers as mentors as well as advanced coursework in research methodology. The grant is also supporting Cimini's first large-scale research project on alcohol abuse interventions for college students. She is exploring how her on-campus screening and brief intervention program can help prevent college students from engaging in risky drinking.
"Things are very different now as compared to the 80s," says Cimini, who turns 55 in April. "Computer programs are now speech accessible and attitudes. They're not perfect, but they're better. There's more opportunity for me to move forward."
The future of STEM education
While some of the barriers that delayed Cimini's start in large-scale research have diminished since she was a graduate student, many remain. That's why she's dedicated to helping today's students with disabilities get the same access to STEM education as those without disabilities.
"I would like to see more funding support for equipment and other technology that would help young women with disabilities access education and careers in the sciences," she says.
She has made significant strides in making that happen through her work with APA. As a member of APA's Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology, for example, she helped to develop an updated resource guide for graduate students in psychology with disabilities, and also worked to shape the accreditation process so that it encourages doctoral and internship psychology programs to be more accommodating to students with disabilities. As a new member of the APA Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, she is well-equipped to support its mission to use psychology to advance equality among underrepresented and underserved populations.
And, she is promoting research on women with disabilities in STEM education through her work with APA's Women with Disabilities in STEM Education Research Agenda Development Project. As co-chair of the organization committee, she and an interdisciplinary group of scientists are helping to implement the one-year, National Science Foundation-funded project that aims to identify what works and what doesn't when it comes to advancing STEM education among young women with disabilities. Cimini and colleagues will use their findings to set a research agenda for funding agencies and investigators to build an empirical base for the study of women with disabilities in STEM. The program held its inaugural workshop in October (see sidebar).
Cimini hopes the project will eventually inform the training of high school educators, who can make or break a career in STEM for young women with disabilities.
"Adolescence is one of the most difficult and vulnerable times in one's life," she says. "It's so important for a project like this to occur, focusing on secondary education because how people intervene with young people at this age can really impact the rest of their lives."