NIH Champions and Allies of Disability Awardees
As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we also want to honor those who encourage others by their example and demonstrate unconditional commitment, compassion, and understanding toward the disability community, as well as those who bring more of themselves into the workplace to make it more inclusive.
Kathy Mann Koepke, Ph.D
Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke’s disability-related research interests and advocacy were sparked early in high school while befriending and assisting a classmate prenatally exposed to thalidomide. Learning became a means to change both experiences of disabilities and ableism. Armed with first a BA (psychology and theological philosophy, computer science minor) and then a doctorate and postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience, studying developmental cognitive conditions and cognitive dysfunction resulting from non-neurological medical disorders became her passion.
Prior to joining the NIH, she held faculty appointments in neurology and psychology. During this time, she extended her research and advocacy to include formal and informal caregivers and supportive allies of persons with cognitive disabilities. At that time, she began to create innovative strategies to provide education to professionals and laypersons aiding individuals with various cognitive disorders. These strategies were cited in multiple academic and lay books for innovative disease-based online support that was copied worldwide, and won multiple international online education and advocacy awards.
In 2001, Dr. Mann Koepke joined the NIH at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in the Behavior & Social Research (BSR) branch where she oversaw research on cognitive aging and Alzheimer caregiving. In 2003, she moved to the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR) as the Director of Neuroscience and the Center Grants Programs, supporting research in persons with a wide spectrum of neurological disorders and symptoms. She has served the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) as Program Director since 2008, building the nascent cognitive neuroscience research base on math and science cognition, reasoning, learning, and interventions for individuals with learning disabilities in these areas. Throughout her federal service, Dr. Mann Koepke has served as an active member on numerous federal-wide and NIH committees, many related to disability issues including the Interagency Committee on Medical Rehabilitation, the NIH Disability Engagement Committee (EDI-DEC), and the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on Diversity’s Subgroup on Individuals with Disabilities. She continues to provide expertise and speak on disability issues to other federal agencies. She received the first Yvonne Thompson Maddox Award for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in 2019 and has received one or more NIH Director or IC Director awards every year of her 20-year career at the NIH. She founded and chairs the NIH ABILITIES Employees Resource Group (ERG) and listserv with the mission to foster a welcoming, supportive, and respectful workplace that promotes success for all NIH staff, regardless of ability or disability, and to increase disability-related information exchange within the NIH community. Throughout her career, she has been an active member and served in leadership roles in numerous national and regional organizations that support persons with a wide range of disabilities and continues to create and lead innovative strategies to support persons challenged by illness and/or ableism.
From every aspect of her life (student, scientist, family caregiver, friend, colleague, employee, and employer), Dr. Mann Koepke has experienced first-hand the challenges of ableism and disability. These experiences have all taught her to highly value the strengths and uniquely rich perspectives each person brings to the communities where we work, live, and play.
Theresa Hayes Cruz, Ph.D.
Theresa Hayes Cruz, Ph.D., is the Director of the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR) at the NIH. Through basic, translational, and clinical research, NCMRR fosters the development of scientific knowledge needed to enhance the health, productivity, independence, and quality-of-life of people with physical disabilities. As Director of NCMRR, Dr. Cruz led the development of the 2021 NIH Research Plan on Rehabilitation and planned the 2020 trans-NIH Rehabilitation Research Conference, Envisioning a Functional Future. She represents the NIH on various federal committees, including the Interagency Committee on Disability Research. In addition to her duties at NCMRR, Dr. Cruz is a team lead in the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative where she co-manages a grant portfolio in the areas of neurotechnology development, validation, and translation. In 2015, Dr. Cruz performed a research detail at the Functional and Applied Biomechanics Laboratory in the Rehabilitation Medicine Department of the NIH Clinical Center. In late 2016, she returned full time to NCMRR. Dr. Cruz received her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering with highest honors from the School of Engineering at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University. Her previous research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago focused on motor control and gait impairments of the lower limb following stroke.
Alison Cernich, Ph.D
Dr. Alison Cernich is the Deputy Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As Deputy Director, Dr. Cernich assists the Director in work to support the Institute’s mission to lead research and training to understand human development, improve reproductive health, enhance the lives of children and adolescents, and optimize abilities for all. Prior to this position, Dr. Cernich was the Director of the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR) at NICHD. She served on multiple interagency strategic planning committees and government oversight committees for research initiatives in the federal government relevant to disability and rehabilitation research. She is a board-certified neuropsychologist by training and is the lead or contributing author on multiple peer-reviewed articles and conference presentations with an emphasis on traumatic brain injury and computerized neuropsychological assessment.
David Wasserman, J.D., M.A.
David Wasserman, J.D., M.A., has been on the Department of Bioethics faculty since January 2013. Over the past 25 years, he has worked for the inclusion of disability as a core topic in bioethics and for the inclusion of people with disabilities in bioethics. As an academic researcher, he has helped to bring disability into the mainstream of bioethics and philosophy, coauthoring or coediting three volumes integrating the fields: Disability, Difference, Discrimination (1998); Quality of Life and Human Difference: Genetic Testing, Health-Care, and Disability (2005); and The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Disability (2020). Much of his early research and writing in this area was supported by grants from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Research Program (ELSI), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He has made presentations on ethical issues in disability and health to the National Council on Disability and the National Academy of Medicine. Mr. Wasserman is currently Acting President of the Society for Philosophy and Disability, which he helped to found; he is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Philosophy of Disability and the American Philosophical Association Committee on the Status of Disabled People in the Profession.
Before he joined the Clinical Center Department of Bioethics, Mr. Wasserman worked for six years at the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University with Adrienne Asch, one of the pioneers of disability scholarship and advocacy. Their Center organized a major conference on disability, bioethics, and philosophy, and they wrote and spoke extensively on disability issues.
Mr. Wasserman came to the Clinical Center Department of Bioethics in 2013 with the goal of making disability one of its central areas of research. He has introduced sessions on disability in departmental courses, involved Fellows in normative and empirical disability research, brought in prominent disability scholars to discuss their research, published a dozen articles on disability-related issues with department Fellows and faculty, and helped recruit and mentor several Fellows who self-identity as disabled. He has worked with those Fellows to secure various forms of accommodation, such as more flexible schedules, modified office space, and note-taking assistance. Mr. Wasserman identifies as disabled.
Lori Stoller-Cruz has been profoundly deaf since birth. She learned to speak at around two-and-a-half years old, and with continued speech therapy, she attended mainstream public school through high school. Lori attended the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) before transferring to Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where she graduated with a degree in accounting in 1993. Lori began her work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) in April 2000 as a Grant Technical Assistant. She brought her passion for customer service to all her roles as Lead Extramural Support Assistant Task Leader and Program Analyst/Review Technology Assistant. Lori has worked closely with the CSR workforce and management to improve workplace dynamics for all Deaf colleagues at CSR and Deaf employees throughout the NIH. Her advocacy and education efforts with the Accessibility Advisory Committee include hosting creative events that foster collaboration and instruction about Deaf Culture and American Sign Language (ASL) such as coffee hours with staff and video presentations that teach frequently used signs throughout the CSR workplace. Lori continually works to improve communication among colleagues and is a trusted resource in her organization. She is the recipient of the Extramural Support Assistant Employee of the Year Award (2005), the Review Technology Assistant Employee of the Month Award (2008), the CSR Director’s Award for Review Technology Assistant/Program Analysts (2017 and 2018), and the CSR Director’s Award for Diversity (2020).
Ms. Maryann Sofranko is the Associate Director for Management/Executive Officer of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). In this capacity, she oversees the institute’s financial and management functions, including administrative services, information technology, ethics, budget, workforce development, administrative policy, and technology transfer. She is the executive sponsor of the NIH Project SEARCH, a decade-long initiative that hires transition-age youth with intellectual disabilities into the mainstream workforce, and has been championing the program since 2017 when NINDS became the hosting IC.
Ms. Sofranko started at NINDS in 2009 as the Deputy Executive Officer for NINDS. Prior to joining NINDS, Ms. Sofranko worked at the NIH Clinical Center where she served for 4 years as a Senior Administrative Officer overseeing the administrative management functions for the Department of Nursing and Patient Care Services, the Department of Clinical Research Informatics, and the Office of Procurement and Contracts. Ms. Sofranko has been at the NIH since 1991 working in the field of administrative management for the National Cancer Institute, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Ms. Sofranko holds a master’s degree in business administration and a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and secondary education from Hood College.