by Gia Alexander
(Editor's Note: Some of you may remember Gynger Ingram, a scholarship winner in 1986. In 1995, she legally changed her name to facilitate her writing career.)
In 1986, the American Council of the Blind generously awarded me the $1,500 Floyd Qualls Memorial Scholarship. Subsequently, the Louisiana Council of the Blind provided an additional $300 to sponsor my trip to the ACB national convention in Knoxville, Tenn. to accept the scholarship in person. That was 21 years ago, yet I remain most thankful for the award and the experiences it brought me. I used the funds for tuition, textbooks and a large-print thermal typewriter, an indispensable tool for a visually impaired student in the days before laptop computers. As a measure of gratitude, I would like to let ACB members know what they got for their investment in my future.
I went on to graduate summa cum laude from Northwestern State University of Louisiana in May 1989, earning a bachelor of arts in English. I then proceeded to graduate school at Texas A&M University at College Station, earning a master of arts in English in August 1991. During my master's program, I developed an interest in scientific and technical writing that augmented my original goal of being an author and university administrator. In the second year of my graduate program, I earned a split assistantship, continuing to teach one class of freshman composition while also working as a technical writer in the university's Supercomputer Center. This role defined the future course of my career. Better Communicators
In today's global work force, one cannot underestimate the value of clear, precise communication. In the fall of 1991, I took a teaching position at the College Station, Texas branch of Blinn College, the oldest community college in Texas, which regularly prepares students for advancement to Texas A&M and other four-year institutions throughout the state. I taught courses in freshman composition, introductory literature and technical writing. My department head quickly discovered that I possessed an unusual gift for working with international students, who often began their course work at the community college level to improve their language skills before moving on to their advanced degree programs. Between 1989 and 1995, I taught over 1,000 American and international students to be better writers. Over the years, I have heard from many of my former students who have taken what they learned and successfully applied it to their own careers.
Interestingly, throughout six years of teaching, I had only one student who blatantly took advantage of my low vision. His own peers called his treachery to my attention and made him apologize to me. Ironically, the culprit was a physical therapy major studying to work with disabled people. I took him privately into the hallway and encouraged him to evaluate more closely his career choice. The rest of the semester passed uneventfully.
A Safer World
In the summer of 1994, the head of Texas A&M's Department of Nuclear Engineering spotted me teaching a technical writing class and remembered me from the Supercomputer Center. He was considering adding a technical writer to his staff pending an upcoming large-scale research project. I took the position in December 1994, although I continued to teach in the evenings for another year. That research project turned out to be the Amarillo National Resource Center for Plutonium (ANRCP), a program established by the U.S. Department of Energy to look into options for disposing of excess weapons- grade plutonium from the Cold War era. For the next three and a half years, I worked with scientists from around the world as they investigated the best options for dealing with the excess plutonium. My role involved everything from sending e-mail reminders about technical meetings to preparing abstracts and progress reports to serving as the technical editor of a full- length book containing the proceedings of a NATO conference on nuclear waste management.
I also assisted professors in the department with their technical publications by typesetting their equations, correcting their English and checking galley proofs of their articles prior to final publication. I felt particularly honored when one of the department's lead professors invited me to serve with him on the university's Council of Principal Investigators. In fact, he had made it clear that he would not accept the CPI's nomination of him as secretary unless he had my help. In this capacity, I worked with researchers throughout the Texas A&M University system by helping coordinate the meetings, taking the extensive minutes, and streamlining the dissemination of electronic information throughout the membership.
The most rewarding aspect of my position, though, involved helping nuclear engineering graduate students prepare their theses and dissertations. Again, I strove to impart principles of good writing and clear communication to these young professionals who would go on to work at nuclear power plants and serve as stewards of nuclear arsenals. After all, I reminded them again and again, the Chernobyl accident was a direct result of miscommunication.
By April 1998, the ANRCP investigators had identified vitrification and deep burial as the best methods for disposing of excess plutonium. Vitrification involves combining the plutonium with a glass-like medium from which extraction is extremely difficult. The plutonium/glass material is then encapsulated in safe containers and buried deep in the earth at a secret location. These processes deter future recovery and destructive use of the plutonium. With the project at an end, it was time for me to move on with my career.
A More Sustainable Rio Grande Valley
During my time with the Department of Nuclear Engineering, I worked on a number of proposals, including the original proposal for the ANRCP project. I marketed this skill across campus, and in May 1998 I joined the Center for Housing and Urban Development in the College of Architecture, also at Texas A&M. There, I worked as a proposal development specialist for the center's nationally recognized Colonias Program. Colonias are unincorporated settlements along the Texas/Mexico border that lack even the most basic infrastructure such as paved streets, municipal sewers, telephone service, health care facilities and so forth. To help the colonias become more sustainable communities, the Colonias Program established a series of local community centers to provide housing, education, health care, senior care, employment and other essential services and information to residents. Beneficial as these programs are, they require money, and lots of it. While with the center, I helped other Colonias Program team members develop proposals to institute helpful programs in these needy communities.
Of course, I found the outcomes of my efforts rewarding, but the intensely collaborative environment proved quite stressful. The Colonias Program is, by its nature, a very social entity, whereas I find myself to be a very scientific entity, much more effective and productive as an individualist. Call me odd if you will, but I missed editing technical conference proceedings and typesetting equations. Hence, I requested and received a departmental transfer that brought me full circle back to my days with computers, technical abstracts and lots and lots of equations.
A Cleaner Environment
After a year with the Colonias Program, I transferred to the Institute for Scientific Computation. As a communications specialist, I primarily assisted the Institute's director, who was and is by far the most versatile scientific professional I have ever had the honor to serve. A mathematician at heart, he worked extensively within the petroleum industry developing computer models to simulate fluid flow through porous media. In plain English, that means he studied how oil and other petroleum byproducts or contaminants might behave if they leak into the soil or groundwater. From this knowledge, he developed recommendations for preventative measures and contingency plans to mitigate contamination incidents. His work necessitated frequent travel to conferences to give presentations on his work, presentations which I often prepared for him. I also maintained his numerous publications, edited articles for him and his colleagues and assisted with scientific grant proposals.
More To Come
By late 2000, I was in trouble. Despite my reliance on a CCTV and a catalog case full of magnifying glasses, I suppose all that technical editing had taken its toll. Or perhaps it was just because I had officially reached middle age. Either way, my residual vision was going, and I knew it. I started making too many typos of my own and failed to catch those of others. My time as a technical writer and editor was ending, so I started to investigate my other options, such as medical transcription. Then, a secondary near-fatal illness sidelined me completely in early 2001.
The illness is improved now, and I am becoming accustomed to living with the lowest visual acuity I have ever had. I worked in supportive roles during my first career, and I hope you find that I attached myself to worthy coattails. I am currently researching options for a second career with a leadership role this time, perhaps as the proprietor of my own business. Whatever the outcome, I will always remember the generosity of the American Council of the Blind and other sponsors who contributed to making me a productive individual. Thank you.