Bioengineering student earns Strauss Scholarship

May 13, 2021--UC San Diego bioengineering undergraduate Zina Patel was selected to receive the $15,000 Strauss Scholarship, awarded to outstanding students developing social change or public service projects. Patel is one of only 14 students to receive the scholarship, which aims to prepare future leaders by encouraging them to undertake a high-impact venture and providing the funds to get started.

Patel’s project, called This Able, is a free online platform that connects college students with disabilities interested in joining the workforce, to mentors with disabilities already in the workforce. The goal is to not only provide mentorship, but to also provide these students with tailored expertise to bolster their job applications by assisting with resumes, interview preparation and more.

“The goal of this effort is to guide the next generation of those with disabilities and empower them by providing mentorship and networking opportunities,” said Patel. “I hope that This Able will serve as an avenue to increase employment rates for the special needs community and help cultivate a diverse and inclusive workforce, setting a precedent for the post-COVID world. My long-term and ultimate goal is to hand This Able off to web developers with disabilities who can run the platform, making it uniquely for those with disabilities by those with disabilities.”

Patel was inspired to create This Able as a volunteer at TRACE Alternative School in San Diego, where she witnessed talented job applicants being passed over for jobs they seemed to be qualified for. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, only 18 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2020. 

“As a volunteer at TRACE, I have heard countless stories from students about unsuccessful job applications,” Patel said. “ More often than not, it’s because of their disability and stigmas/stereotypes surrounding that. They are often seen as a liability rather than an asset, who will bring a fresh perspective to the table. And I wanted to do something about this because I personally knew those students who were the faces behind the rejection letters. I knew their potential that many companies didn’t recognize. That’s my motivation for This Able — to help the students I’ve worked with and others like them secure a job and secure their independence.”

Patel said her engineering courses have prepared her well for not only the technical skills required to build out a platform like This Able, but also in the critical thinking and problem solving skills necessary for undertaking a project of this scale. 

“Another key component that I really love about engineering and entrepreneurship is customer development — going out in the community to talk to the people who will be using the technologies I create and getting their perspectives to drive the development of my projects,” she said.

Patel is doing that now for This Able, working with the UC San Diego Office for Students with Disabilities to conduct user testing. She hopes to launch the platform in the fall. 

On campus, Patel has been active in the Student-run Intercommunicative and Vocational Education (StRIVE) group, which aims to assist adults with disabilities in the critical age range of 18-22 with their transition to independent living; that’s how she taught and interacted with young adults with disabilities at TRACE, and is also part of the reason she’s studying engineering. Patel entered UC San Diego as a molecular and cellular biology student, but an experience during her freshman year convinced her that bioengineering was a better fit. 

“While volunteering at an autism center in India during my freshman year, I noticed that many of the students had no access to or could not afford assistive technology,” she said. “In fact, the school itself did not have an elevator for those in wheelchairs. Back in the US, I was a volunteer for an alternative school where all students had at least one form of assistive technology. Seeing the gap between students with disabilities and assistive technology in the country my ancestors come from, I decided to pursue a career in bioengineering to better understand the creation of medical devices so that I could one day give back to those students in need.”

Media Contacts

Katherine Connor
Jacobs School of Engineering
858-534-8374
khconnor@eng.ucsd.edu

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