Dumb? Dyslexic? Dropout? La­bels don’t stop real ge­nius

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion - Paul R. San­berg is Univer­sity of South Florida’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent for Re­search, In­no­va­tion & Knowl­edge En­ter­prise and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence for Ag­ing and Brain Re­pair, and pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Academy of In­ven­tors.

At this year’s in­duc­tion cer­e­mony for the Florida In­ven­tors Hall of Fame, Tor­rey Pines In­sti­tute for Molec­u­lar Stud­ies founder Richard Houghten and op­tom­e­try pi­o­neer Her­bert Wertheim — two in­di­vid­u­als of un­ques­tion­able ge­nius — shared a sur­pris­ing fact about them­selves: Grow­ing up, they each strug­gled with se­vere learn­ing chal­lenges that eas­ily could have sent them on a dif­fer­ent path.

Both men, who have each played sig­nif­i­cant roles in shap­ing mod­ern sci­ence in their fields, could have been dis­suaded from pur­su­ing such ca­reers given their strug­gles with At­ten­tion Deficit Dis­or­der and dys­lexia. Wertheim, who was the first to dis­cover ul­tra­vi­o­let light dye ab­sorbers for eye­glass lenses, re­counted in his ac­cep­tance speech how most of the adults in his life had sim­ply dis­missed him.

“You are look­ing at a ninth-grade high school dropout,” he re­counted. “I wasn’t very good at school. I sat in the corner many times on a stool wear­ing a dunce cap.”

“In those days, there were no such words as ADD, dys­lexia. The word they used was ‘dumb.’ ”

A ru­n­away from a tough home who fre­quently dis­ap­peared into the Ever­glades, Wertheim’s ge­nius was first rec­og­nized by a ju­ve­nile court judge who gave him the choice to ei­ther go back to school or join the Navy. He chose the Navy, en­list­ing at 17. Af­ter ac­ing the Navy’s many tech­ni­cal schools, he went on to en­roll at com­mu­nity col­lege and then the Univer­sity of Florida, while jug­gling a ris­ing ca­reer at Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics and later in NASA’s manned space­flight pro­gram. He earned a doc­tor of op­tom­e­try de­gree from the South­ern Col­lege of Op­tom­e­try in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee Med­i­cal School be­fore found­ing Brain Power Inc., the world’s largest man­u­fac­turer of oph­thalmic in­stru­ments and chem­i­cals.

Houghten, who holds 81 U.S. patents for his pi­o­neer­ing work in molec­u­lar phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal re­search, told of not be­ing able to read un­til he was 10 years old. As the son and grand­son of ac­com­plished sci­en­tists, his aca­demic strug­gles couldn’t have been easy. “Be­ing ADHD, I have a hard time get­ting things into my head, but once they are in there — they are in there,” he told the Florida In­ven­tors Hall of Fame gala crowd.

Yet, Houghten earned a Ph.D. in or­ganic chem­istry from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and founded the Tor­rey Pines In­sti­tute for Molec­u­lar Stud­ies in 1988. The in­sti­tute is now in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized for its sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions in fields rang­ing from mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis to di­a­betes to in­fec­tious dis­ease and pain man­age­ment.

The sto­ries of these ac­com­plished sci­en­tists and phi­lan­thropists came to mind this week as the Univer­sity of South Florida wrapped up its fall se­mes­ter. At each com­mence­ment, USF stu­dents who grad­u­ate with a per­fect 4.0 grade point av­er­age are rec­og­nized as King O’Neal Schol­ars, one of the high­est recog­ni­tions the univer­sity has for its stu­dents. To­day, Col­lege of Pub­lic Health stu­dent Shari Za­mani will take her place on the com­mence­ment stage, with wellde­served recog­ni­tion as a King O’Neal Scholar.

Just a few weeks ago, she was the fea­tured stu­dent speaker at USF’s Women in Lead­er­ship & Phi­lan­thropy an­nual lun­cheon and the story she told about her jour­ney cap­ti­vated the au­di­ence of more than 1,000 peo­ple. Za­mani talked about her strug­gles as a high school stu­dent with dys­lexia, and how aca­demic fail­ure beat her down un­til the day she got up from her desk, walked out of the school and didn’t come back.

She went to work — with lim­ited op­por­tu­nity as a high school dropout — un­til she was con­vinced to take a test that al­lowed her to en­ter Hills­bor­ough Com­mu­nity Col­lege with­out a diploma. There she found sup­port and en­cour­age­ment, and a cam­pus visit to USF gave her a win­dow into a fu­ture she had never imag­ined for her­self. She has since be­come a suc­cess­ful scholar, a re­searcher and an in­cred­i­ble role model for her peers.

Her dys­lexia didn’t go away, but it has not stopped her from reach­ing her goals. With ap­pro­pri­ate aca­demic sup­port and her ad­mirable work ethic and en­thu­si­asm, her in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity was brought to the fore­front.

Col­lege ac­cep­tance sea­son is upon us and it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that for ev­ery stu­dent whose achieve­ment seems ef­fort­less, there are thou­sands more cu­ri­ous and in­tel­li­gent stu­dents with learn­ing chal­lenges who may think of them­selves as “dumb” when they are any­thing but. As a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, I can tell you that we’re only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how ge­nius-level think­ing man­i­fests.

These three in­di­vid­u­als — two whose achieve­ments touch the lives of mil­lions ev­ery day and one whose jour­ney is just be­gin­ning — are good re­minders that “ge­nius” does not come in any con­ven­tional shape, size, form or ex­pres­sion. We should sup­port and cel­e­brate those whose brains work dif­fer­ently, but nonethe­less bril­liantly.

Shari Za­mani pushed through her dys­lexia and is grad­u­at­ing to­day from the Univer­sity of South Florida.

Tor­rey Pines In­sti­tute for Molec­u­lar Stud­ies founder Richard Houghten

Op­tom­e­try pi­o­neer Her­bert Wertheim


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