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Oral history interview with Judith Summers-Gates

  • 2017-Jan-20
  • 2017-Feb-06

Judith Summers-Gates was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania in 1958 and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother was a registered nurse. Her father was a hardwood floor installer. She had a younger sister and brother. She was born premature and was the only survivor of the ten premature babies in her nursery. The excessive oxygen in the incubator caused her retinopathy of prematurity, and she became low vision. Due to a bleeding disorder, she was not allowed to engage in physical activities. She went to a mainstream public school with no accommodation. Nonetheless, she was an active child who was engrossed in science-related activities. She enjoyed reading encyclopedia entries, growing hydroponic lettuce, building rockets, collecting rocks, earning a bird-watching badge during a Girl Scout activity, and using a chemistry set. Her mother died of cancer when she was seventeen, and she experienced her first episode of depression. After graduating high school, she first went to nearby Holy Family College with a scholarship. Later, she enrolled at Drexel University, earning a BS in Unified Science (a combination of Chemistry, Biology, and Physics) in 1990. During Drexel’s co-op program, she occasionally experienced double discrimination of being a woman and having a disability, but she learned to push back. During her co-op program at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), she acquired assistive tools and technologies through the Blindness and Visual Services (BVS). Also, she mentored other blind scientists. During her undergraduate education, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) hired her as a full-time physical science technician, and she tested textiles used in the military. Because she did not hesitate to be upfront with contractors with unsatisfactory products, she gained the moniker of “The contract killer.” Due to undiagnosed multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms, she needed to leave the DOD. While finishing her degree, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hired her, and she became a physical science technician, primarily analyzing color additives. She also worked on making X-rays and similar types of tests, such as mammography, accessible for disabled people by creating a national database. She also promoted the rights of people with disabilities through her service work. For example, she worked with Virginia Stern at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to create a directory of disabled people in STEM. After completing the FDA’s Leadership Management Development Program, she trained new hires, mentoring scientists with diverse backgrounds who otherwise would have been discouraged from pursuing science. She retired from the FDA in 2014.

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