This Computer Scientist Overcame Brain Damage; Now She’s Helping Others Do the Same
When it comes to inspiring alumnae, we have our fair share. 2005–06 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow Jeanie Schwenk is one of our distinguished fellows in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. What makes her story unique, however, are the kinds of challenges she’s overcome along the way to becoming a pioneering computer scientist and CEO.
After Schwenk graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2006, an AAUW fellowship gave her the opportunity to pursue an in-depth understanding of computer science databases, networking, and systems, an unusually extensive educational grounding for most computer scientists. She became founder and CEO of VocoTek, an organization that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) systems to help companies track and display information in a useful way for their clients.
Three years ago, all of that momentum stalled. Schwenk suffered a head-on car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury and severely damaged vision. Though Schwenk was lucky to be alive, the accident left her unable to read, watch television, do puzzles, work on the computer, cross the street alone, or drive for long distances, among other impairments that had been second nature to her lifestyle.
Nine months of standard vision therapy and rehabilitation restored much, though not all, of Schwenk’s vision. For those nine months, her full-time job became repairing what the accident had taken from her.
It is hard to describe how hard it was. It changes how you view everything. It changes how you view yourself. I was used to walking into a room and being one of the smartest people in the room. After the injury, it was hard to string two words together, as a result of the swelling. It changed my perspective on people who are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. Those nine months were really hard work.
But the accident left her with something else, too. Through a slightly altered lens on life, Schwenk discovered that her professional passions extended beyond her work with RFID. Her new company is deeply personal and close to her heart: Magno Processing Systems will use visual imaging software in individuals with traumatic brain injuries (similar to the one Schwenk suffered) to stimulate healing in the brain and vision systems.
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You may be familiar with similar treatment methods; Jane McGonigal’s research examined how gaming can stimulate healing. But people with serious vision loss are often too visually impaired even for simple games. Schwenk’s interests lie in treating the people who need smaller stimuli to make progress. She tells the story of a man whose gradual improvements with this kind of technology now enable him to text message his daughter. “Even small steps have a big impact,” Schwenk says.
Magno Processing Systems has applied for a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health. If awarded, Schwenk plans to enroll in a doctorate program to continue the research. Her passion for the project is unrelenting, and in a strange way, it was the accident that brought her to it all. A truly inspiring scientist and alumna, she offers advice to those who face challenges along their own paths to recognizing their passions:
You are going to hit hard things. Sometimes those hard things are placed there not to stop you, but to give you something to climb over. Whether it’s a really tough class in school or a bad thing going on in your personal life, it is not there to stop you. You have to change your mind and say, “This is not a showstopper. This is a challenge.”
We are proud to call her an alumna.
Jeanie Schwenk’s 2005–06 Selected Professions Fellowship was sponsored by two endowments: the Meta Glass American Fellowship and the Betty Gallups/Corona-Norco (CA) Branch American Fellowship.
This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily Carroll.