Interesting Careers

Research and Special Projects Assistant at a Non-Profit Organization

At Envision I serve as Director of Research and Special Projects Assistant. What that means is that my duties vary tremendously, but everything I do takes advantage of my educational training in psychological science.

By James B. Nolan, PhD

My career in psychology can be summed up as a series of epiphanies, a lot of work, and a lot of good fortune. The first of these epiphanies came in the summer of 1992 while I was taking 3 weeks to recover from a bicycle racing accident that had resulted in a broken ankle and leg. Before this incident I was utilizing my bachelor's degree in business management by working as a supply manager at the local military base. This type of a position was not exactly what I had in mind-having come of age in the "Reagan 80's," it certainly didn't match up with the outcome that Michael J. Fox exemplified in the "Secret of My Success." However, my recovery time allowed me to step back and re-evaluate my career, and I decided it was time for a change.

I decided to return to my undergraduate institution (Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas) to finish a degree in psychology. I always had found psychology very interesting and the thought of being involved in ever changing research projects was very exciting. With the help of a few good mentors, I completed an undergraduate research project, began the process of applying to graduate programs across the country, and graduated with a degree in the spring of 1994. By the time of my graduation, I had decided to accept an offer to be part of the graduate program in Experimental Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. I had developed a strong interest in research, and to be more specific, in the area of cognitive neuroscience. So my wife and I loaded our car and a moving truck, and headed west.

I went to UNR in order to work in the lab of the late Robert (Bob) Solso. However, shortly after my arrival, Dr. Solso began to scale back his lab effort as he was spending his primary efforts on writing books at his residence in Lake Tahoe. Instead, I decided to work in the lab of Dr. Michael Webster, who was doing research in the area of visual perception and psychophysics. This was a difficult decision for me because I was born legally blind and had spent my entire life trying to deny it, doing whatever I could to avoid and compensate for my visual condition. Though my vision is 20/200, I do things quite "normally" and even have a driver's license (a necessity living in the Midwest indeed.) But this didn't make the decision to start building my research career on something I had tried so hard to avoid any easier. Nevertheless, I soon began to really enjoy the area of vision research and I quickly developed an appreciation for how important that area of research was to many people. Eventually, I completed my master's thesis and my dissertation in the area of color vision, with myself serving as the subject in question-as they were both case studies. My graduate training allowed me to learn as much about myself as it did the area of experimental psychology and neuroscience. For that, I am very thankful.

In the spring of 1999 I accepted a one-year visiting assistant professorship position at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. This was followed by a one-year stop at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, Iowa. In the spring of 2001 I finally accepted a tenure track position in the Department of Psychology at Southwestern College in my native Kansas. I remained in this position teaching classes, serving on committees, and directing a very productive research group until October 2004, when I accepted an offer to join Envision Inc. in Wichita, Kansas. Again, I was faced with a difficult decision because Envision is a full service non-profit corporation that focuses on the employment and rehabilitation of individuals who are blind or low vision. So I was faced with trying to decide if I wanted to make my everyday life surrounding the area of vision and vision related research. This decision was somewhat easier now as my consultations with vision researchers such as Dr. Gordan Legge of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Eli Peli of Harvard University, caused me to realize the kind of contributions I could make to the low vision community with both my research background and my being an individual with low vision myself. I decided to go for it!

At Envision I serve as Director of Research and Special Projects Assistant. What that means is that my duties vary tremendously, but everything I do takes advantage of my educational training in psychological science. My regular duties include analyzing corporate data, advocating for the visually impaired, and assisting with clinical based research projects that involve doctors in our on-site clinic (this includes everything from fund generating to project design, data collection, statistical results analysis, project write up, conference presentation, and publication). I also am responsible for whatever projects our company president decides need acting on-both in the short term and the long term. So my day is fast-paced and very exciting; plus I feel like I am contributing a direct benefit to the population my company serves-a group I can relate to very easily indeed.

The current clinical vision research projects that I am working on include topics that relate to low vision, treatments, driving, retinal and cortical imagery, and even survey research addressing treatment effectiveness and utilization of services. Some of the other projects I am involved with include helping to establish our rehabilitation clinic as a testing center for visual aid devices, contributing to a forthcoming professional medical newsletter, overseeing a college student intern program, contributing to a parents support group for low vision and blind children and adolescents, volunteering at "Heather's Camp" (a summer camp for low vision and blind children), and serving as educational coordinator for a planned annual multi-disciplinary vision conference that will begin in 2006.

I have not disappeared from academics. I am still working in a research capacity with several students and I adjunct a night class in both cognitive and biopsychology. My educational and academic training in psychology has been invaluable. I address issues regarding research methodology, statistical analysis, and general science concepts daily. However, the most important contribution my training has made to me is my understanding of advanced concepts, my ability to make presentations, my ability to continue learning (even if I don't understand something that is presented to me at first) and, most importantly, my ability to deal with people and have an understanding of them and their communication patterns.

There is absolutely no way that I would be where I am without the good luck of having worked with so many influential people who have had a direct impact on my life. Those include my mentors Dr. Mike Webster, Dr. Mike Crognale, Dr. Robert Solso, Dr. Allen Gardner and Dr. Beatrice Gardner. Most importantly the efforts of my best friend and wife, Dana, have allowed me to realize all of my endeavors.

So I guess you could say my journey in the field of psychology has provided me with an understanding of science, behavior, communication, and an understanding of myself. I am glad that by studying psychology I can make a contribution to many others lives and, I hope, my educational and personal experiences will continue to allow that to happen.