Jesse Leaman: Summer

PhDgrad500

A dream realized. Jesse graduates from Cal, accompanied by his Ph.D. advisor, astrophysicist Alexei Filippenko.
/ Leaman Collection

Writing By Brad Rassler

Say you were to drive out of East Stroudsburg High and hook a right onto South Courtland Street, and then merge onto the westbound lanes of Interstate 80. In about 2600 miles, you’d pass two miles from Reno’s Fleischmann Planetarium. Another 300 miles, and you’d cross the Bay Bridge to the highway’s end in San Francisco.

But you will stop just short of the Bay Bridge, and cruise up Berkeley’s University Avenue until it abuts the eponymous University of California campus. You’ll skirt the central campus on Hearst, and wend your way up Centennial Drive, to find the Space Science Laboratory, where you will spend the better part of the next eight years, culminating in a Ph.D. in astrophysics. It would prove a long, strange trip — from East Stroudsburg to the town referred to affectionately as “Berzerkeley.”

Jesse Leaman recalls being immediately taken with place – especially Telegraph Avenue.

“It was colorful, diverse; you could wear a hoodie and no one gave you a hard time.”

Meanwhile, he conducted research at the Bay Area’s Lick Observatory, and teamed with his graduate chair, Alexei Filippenko, a renowned astrophysicist, and a team of colleagues to create an alogrithm for predicting the rate of supernovae in the local galaxy. The team’s research was groundbreaking, and Jesse used the data for the basis of his dissertation and his insights earned him a doctorate. He was accepted as a post-doctoral student at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and for the first time in his life, he was making a decent salary; not grandiose by Silicon Valley standards, but sufficient to purchase a wheelchair-accessible van and maintain his residency in the pricey Bay Area. Perhaps inspired by the proximity of Sand Hill Road, with its vaunted venture capital firms, Jesse exercised his creativity and entrepreneurial muscles by inventing his own version of assistive technology which he hoped to share with the world: a wheelchair-workstation hybrid.

During his time at Goddard, his colleagues devised a rear-view monitor for his wheelchair, to help him maneuver in the tight spaces of the office building. In Berkeley, Leaman improved on the design by creating a mobile office, complete with computer workstation, an enhanced rear-view monitor, air conditioning, and even headlights. He named it the Gryphon Shield, and he appealed for and received venture capital to develop the technology. The invention won an honorable mention in the Invent Now Challenge, co-sponsored by the History Channel and Invent Now, Inc.

LeamanHawking

Jesse demonstrating the Gryphon Shield to famed astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking. / Leaman Collection

Jesse had hoped NASA would offer him a full-time job when his postdoc ended in 2010, but it was not to be. Jesse’s academic career came to an end.

And what an incredible career it had been. That he had overcome his physical limitations to earn a bachelor’s degree was cause for celebration. Many quadriplegics don’t make it even that far, such are the travails of attending classes and completing demanding schoolwork, compounded by the challenges of waking, grooming, dressing, and eating. That he earned a doctorate from Cal — in astrophysics, no less — literally made him a 1-percenter, since  in science, technology, engineering and math fields only 1 percent of Ph.D.’s are earned by disabled students, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.

But now school, which had sustained Jesse for nearly half of his life, was out of session. And that Ph.D. path, for all its rigors, had provided Jesse with structure; the rules for success were clear. No so with a job search. That looming mountain has no one route. And even if it did, the trek to its base in this day and age is dodgy at best: an anemic economy, a dearth of astrophysics jobs, and as even Jesse admits, employers incapable of or unwilling to accomodate his special needs, or reticent to hire him due to their doubts about his ability to excel. Meanwhile, members of his able-bodied Ph.D. cohort have gone on to teaching positions at the Ivy League schools and the like.

In 2011, Jesse was profiled in the science journal Nature, in a piece examining the job-finding challenges of scientists with disabilities. The author cited unemployment rates among the disabled in the U.S., as well as a handful of countries in Europe; the statistics cited by the U.S.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010 indicated 60 precent higher rate of unemployment for the disabled than those without physical disabilities; results were similar in Europe.

Jesse, for all of his statistical savvy, isn’t totally buying it.

“Yes, I have a disability,” he says, and laughs. “But I’m on the same playing field as my peers. They have certain advantages in some areas. They may be able to trek up to the top of the mountain to look at the observatory. But when it comes to the data analysis, the teaching of the results, the presenting, and the communication of results, I’m on a level playing field with them.”

“All I’m asking for is a little confidence,” he says. “A little faith. I’ve come this far. I can do a lot.”

. . .

Jesse Leaman at home.

Jesse Leaman
/ by Regina Revazova

“Here’s what we’re going to do” Jesse says, and proceeds to tell us where to set up the cameras. R.R. and I are in Jesse’s 700-square foot apartment, which he shares with his father, Rick, and his sister, Diana. We’ve arrived late, and Jesse seems slightly peeved as he instructs us how to best capture a shot of Diana hoisting him from his bed to his wheelchair. I notice he’s clipped his hair short, and trimmed his sideburns. He’s meticulously groomed, as always.

We didn’t solicit video-shooting advice from Jesse; he’s just exercising his leadership, albeit somewhat presumptively. Besides, he knows what he wants, and it’s his house. Who are we to argue?

Jesse didn’t choose a life in Reno because of its superior infrastructure for the disabled, or because of Nevada’s brilliant public assistance programs. No, Jesse lives here because he simply cannot afford to live in the one town in the country that is arguably best suited to provide him with a high quality of life: Berkeley.  In 2011, with no job, he was forced to cut costs, so he and his father moved to Reno. Today his only income is from social security, and even with Reno’s low rents, not much is left over after fixed expenses. Jesse sold the van he used in the Bay Area, and he must rely on the RTC’s paratransit service, which is limited in scope and service due to budget cutbacks at the agency.

While I unpack and assemble the camera and lights, I notice Jesse flirting with R.R.. His laid-back facade and chill disposition belie the fact that Leaman is a powerful and self-assured man who has accomplished nearly everything he’s set out to achieve. The fall broke his neck, not his spine.

But three uncharacteristically fallow years have passed since Jesse’s stint at Ames — call it another “Neutral Zone — although this one has, in some ways, been more arduous than his fall; there is no clear-cut path out of the woods. Jesse is having to reinvent himself yet again: Jesse 3.0. In the meantime, he contributes to research on gamma ray bursts, and he uses Dragon Dictate to design new assistive devices in SketchUp. He’s interested in creating a crowdsourcing website, a la Yelp, to allow the disabled to rate the access-friendliness of retail stores and the like. His website, LeamanPotential.org, promises astronomy lessons.

Though a real job, with its benefits and likely six-figure salary would see him clear of these hardships, settling for a lesser job than befits a researcher from one of the world’s foremost universities would be a difficult pill for Jesse to swallow.

“You know, I’m looking for a real career – high level, with lots of responsibility” he tells me in a recent conversation. “A major impact job. And those aren’t easy to come by.”

When I ask him what a “major impact job” might look like, I’m surprised he doesn’t single out astrophysics.

“Active research, where I can analyze the latest data, where I can have exposure to engineers to develop new technology – that would be perfect. And to have students to teach at the same time. Yeah. That would be ideal.”

When asked whether he’s availed himself of local job-hunting resources, such as those facilitated by NCED’s Scott Harrington, Jesse demurs.

“The problem with those agencies – those services — is that most often they’re intended for people who don’t have the training I already have,” he says. “Many times they are for basic, easy jobs where people need a little bit of training, a little bit of accommodation to get there. They’re wonderful people, they do what they can, but it’s hard for them to even imagine what I do. Like I said, this is kind of a unique situation, where I have a lot of training, a lot of potential, and I need an organization that has a lot of resources.”

When it comes to whatever job assistance Nevada offers, Jesse is running out of time. He’s currently 16 months into a two-year arrangement by which the state will subsidize assistive technology related to a job search: the iPad he badly wants, for example. He’s well aware that the clock is running. In fact, when asked about the time remaining, he nods his head in acceptance, and grows pensive — but retains the optimism, and his omnipresent smile.

“He never lets himself get down, or display that to anyone else,” says Diana, 26, of her brother. “Ask anyone – if you enter a room and talk to him for a while, you leave feeling inspired. You leave feeling, like Wow! I can do anything…because I have no disability, and  there’s no reason to be upset. If somebody like Jesse can have a positive attitude every day, that is what motivates other people to do it, because they can.”

Diana’s precisely right. Even from that first meeting at the Fleischmann Planetarium, I’ve felt good in Jesse’s presence. When we first met, I asked his opinion about sustainability. Have we done ourselves in by overpopulating the planet? What are our long-term survival prospects?

“Life is very resilient,” Jesse had said. “I’m pretty optimistic about the future of life on the planet earth.”

Then Jesse smiled. And so did I.