Community Spotlight: Sarah Boggess, Research Coordinator, Ornamental Plant Pathology

October has been National Disability Employment Awareness Month, with an official theme of Increasing Access and Opportunity. Throughout the month, we have been posting stories about adults with SMA in the workforce and are pleased to close out the month with this story about Sarah Boggess, 31, of Knoxville, TN.

Sarah Boggess, of Knoxville, Tenn., is incredibly active. She plays power soccer, swims regularly, loves to travel, explores semi-accessible trails with her dog, and enjoys checking out local microbreweries with her friends. Sarah also has been the president of the Tennessee Chapter for Cure SMA for more than eight years. She was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) at the age of 2 years and uses a power wheelchair to get around. For her day job, however, Sarah is a lab manager in the Entomology & Plant Pathology department at the University of Tennessee. Her focus is on plant pathogens and conservation genetics of endangered species.

“SMA has shaped my life. Not in a bad way or a good way, but it is part of who I am. It has opened my eyes, and the eyes of my friends, to the inequality we all still face in this world. We still have to fight for equal access and to be treated as an equal.”

Sarah’s interest in plant pathology began in college. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Plant Sciences and Biotechnology from the University of Tennessee. She later earned her Master’s of Science in Plant Pathology from the same school. Sarah’s current job title is Research Coordinator in an Ornamental Plant Pathology laboratory. In this role, Sarah manages everything related to the laboratory—from ordering supplies to ensuring the lab stays organized and follows all safety requirements.

“I train graduate students and visiting scholars, as well as train and supervise undergraduate researchers. I also help to keep all lab projects on track and assist with the publication and grant writing, when needed,” shared Sarah. Since COVID-19, Sarah has been working remote full-time. “Zoom has become my friend. I am teaching graduate students in the lab through Zoom. Many projects have had to be put on hold until I can return to work, and that is very frustrating. But we are all working together in our lab and have figured out how to make things work,” said Sarah.

Finding and securing a job in your field is difficult for many, especially those with disabilities. Networking was key for Sarah. “I was incredibly lucky and I got my job through connections. I started in my lab as an undergraduate assistant after being recommended by our college dean. I clicked with the (PI). I worked there during undergrad, he later offered me the chance to get my Master’s under his supervision, and after that he offered me a job as his research coordinator.“

Despite their accessibility efforts, there are still times where Sarah has to ask for help reaching necessary items or machines. Nonetheless, Sarah loves getting to work with different visiting scholars and graduate students from all around the word. “I am able to share my love for science, while sharing my unique perspective of living in a wheelchair. They share with me different cultures and perspectives from around the world. I must say, we have had some amazing chefs too and always try to have lots of pot lucks! That might be my favorite part.”

Sarah’s advice to students

Start joining organizations to allow you to explore different options. Do not let SMA define what you think you can do. If you love the field, you will find a way to get involved. Take as many internships, opportunities, or classes to explore different career options as you can when you are young. You might be surprised what you find interesting and where that can take you.



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