For most of his life, John Dennehy, Ph.D., professor of biology at Queens College, City University of New York and editor of ASM’s Microbiology Resource Announcements tried to hide the fact that he was born deaf. “For the first 30 to 40 years, I didn’t want people to know because I was afraid of being discriminated against,” he explained. When asked what had changed, he gave a multi-faceted answer. “Getting tenure and being secure in my position has definitely helped me,” he said. “But also, the realization that I’m in a position of influence and can change the way things are done.”
Today, Dennehy uses a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, and has become adept at lip-reading, but he shared that being deaf has presented many challenges throughout his upbringing and career, including many were more prevalent when he was younger. “I was bullied a lot at school by my peers,” he said, and although he remembers having had good teachers, their advice, when it came to Dennehy’s future ambitions , were all too often shrouded in the soft bigotry of low expectations.
At the time, Dennehy was considering pursuing a medical degree, but his advisers openly doubted his ability to succeed in this desired career path. “They were like, ‘What are you thinking? You’re not going to be a doctor; you won’t be able to survive college or medical school,” Dennehy recalled, adding that today, while discrimination may not be as overt, students with disabilities are still regularly encouraged to “be more realistic about their goals”. .”
Of course you want to make accommodations,” Dennehy explained, “but not challenging the disabled and not expecting them to excel is demoralizing. Fortunately, Dennehy has an “independent and stubborn” personality. “I don’t listen to other people, which has served me well, in some ways,” he smiles.
Although Dennehy attended college as a medical student, he chose not to attend medical school. It is important to note that the career change was not prompted by her disability, but by a formative experience as a phlebotomist at Lawrence General Hospital in Massachusetts during her freshman year as an undergraduate. “It disillusioned me with any romantic notion of medicine,” he explained, sharing that despite his passion for helping people, the dissatisfaction of sick patients and overworked staff, coupled with high-pressure scenarios , created a very stressful work environment. When Dennehy decided he didn’t want to sustain that level of stress for the duration of his career, he began to investigate other applications for his biology degree.
He took on different jobs – some related to biology and some not – in search of his next career move, but it was his time working “as a gardener at a posh resort” that crystallized his decision to make biology an academic discipline. It turned out that Dennehy’s boss was the son of a famous University of Hawaii environmentalist. The 2 shared a common interest in biology, spoke regularly about science, and it was this mentor who encouraged Dennehy to return to school and pursue a career in academia.
Still, biology is a big subject, and when it came time to decide what kind of research to pursue, Dennehy reconnected with another childhood passion. “I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” he said. “So, [I thought] maybe I should do some research on large mammals. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Idaho working with the pronghorn, a species of mammal native to the interior of western and central North America and known colloquially as the antelope. American. (This attribution is a misnomer, as the pronghorn is not, in fact, an antelope, but it looks and fills a similar ecological niche to the antelopes that live in Africa, parts of the Middle East and ‘Asia).
Today, Dennehy is a microbiologist who studies viruses. While he enjoyed large mammal research and found it incredibly fascinating, he said watching his boss struggle for funding motivated him to pursue a new area of research. research. Seeking broader funding, Dennehy targeted projects with clear implications for public health.
He accepted a post of research assistant within the framework of a doctorate. Clark University program studying delayed egg hatch in mosquitoes. After grad school, Dennehy did a postdoc with Paul Turner, Ph.D. at Yale University, studying bacteriophages and studying how viruses can jump from one host to another. He continued this work when he obtained his professorship at Queens College.
Then, in late 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and like many microbiology labs around the world, Dennehy and his colleagues shifted gears to lend their skills to studying SARS-CoV-2. With his collaborators, Monica Trujillo, Ph.D, at Queensborough Community College and Mark Johnson, Ph.D., at the University of Missouri, Dennehy began monitoring the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 through surveillance of waste. Dennehy’s team collected wastewater from New York’s 14 sewage basins and isolated SARS-CoV-2 RNA from the samples. Each week, they sequenced the spike protein receptor-binding domain from the collected isolates.
The most remarkable thing we found was that there was footage in the sewage that didn’t match anything from any patient,” he shared. Often the sequences, which Dennehy’s team called cryptic variants, were represented at such high levels in the wastewater that they exceeded the concerning variant of SARS-CoV-2 circulating the most at the time.
The team investigated a few possible explanations for the observed sequence variation and is currently operating under the working hypothesis that the cryptic variants originate from immunocompromised patients and other COVID-19 long-haulers who remain infected and unable to eliminate the virus for long periods of time. time (from a few months to over a year).
“During this period, the virus would continue to evolve,” Dennehy explained. “And curiously, [patients] were picking up many of the same mutations that we were seeing in sewage sequencing. »
Asked about the functional consequences of cryptic mutations, he shared that there was initially little overlap in sequence similarity when Alpha, Beta, and Delta were the circulating variants of concern. But when Omicron came on the scene, the mutations suddenly appeared more similar. “There are several theories about the origin of Omicron,” Dennehy said. “The first is that it comes from mice; the other that it came from immunocompromised patients. The latter postulates that if these patients remained persistently infected, the virus could have accumulated mutations.
According to Dennehy, his research was not the only professional modality affected by the pandemic. He explained that he has found online meetings and seminars, when captioning is available, to be beneficial. In fact, many communities have reported increased accessibility through remote learning and conferencing options. However, Dennehy stressed the importance of foresight when it comes to hosting virtual or in-person events and initiatives.
“I think organizers and officials need to think about the consequences of everything they do, and too often we make these decisions on impulse and don’t care who is affected by them,” he said. In support of this claim, Dennehy shared examples from his own life and that of his students and acquaintances where a particular institutional action had significant consequences (i.e. session and closing of a university portal that was located on the daily journey of a blind person).
Dennehy said overall he doesn’t believe these actions, or lack thereof, came from a place of malice. “There’s a huge amount of disabilities that I didn’t even know existed,” he shared. “And you wouldn’t know by looking at a person that they are disabled. But unless you can make accommodations for [people with disabilities] proactively, in batches, you de facto discriminate them.”
When asked what advice he would give to students from historically underrepresented communities, Dennehy replied, “If you need something, you have to ask for it. Don’t expect others to do it for you. He went on to quickly acknowledge, “It’s very, very tricky, the kind of advice I give, because I know people are reluctant to stand up for themselves. Especially the disabled. ‘Cause you feel like, ‘oh, I don’t want to be a burden.’ But he pointed out that sometimes it’s the most efficient route to success. “I feel responsible for raising awareness of the issues people are facing, for those who may not be able to speak up for themselves,” he added. “I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak.”
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