Advocating for Deaf Scientists: Spotlight on John Dennehy

John Dennehy, Ph.D.
John Dennehy, Ph.D.

For most of his life, John Dennehy, Ph.D., Professor of Biology at Queens College, City University of New York and Senior Editor of ASM’s Microbiology Resource Announcements tried to hide the fact that he was born deaf. “For the first 30-40 years I didn’t want people to know because I was afraid of being discriminated against,” he explained. When asked what changed, he gave a multifaceted answer. “Getting tenure and being secure in my position certainly helped,” he said. “But also, the realization that I’m in a position of influence, and I can change the way things are done.”

Today, Dennehy uses a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, and has become adept at reading lips, but he shared that being deaf has presented numerous challenges throughout his education and career-many of which were more prevalent when he was younger. “I was bullied a lot in school by my peers,” he recounted, and although he remembers having good teachers, their advice, when it came to Dennehy’s future ambitions, was far too often wrapped in the soft bigotry of low expectations.

At the time, Dennehy was considering the pursuit of a medical degree, but his advisors openly doubted his ability to succeed in this desired career path. “They would say, ‘what are you thinking? You’re not going to be a doctor; you’re not going to be able to survive in college or medical school,'” Dennehy recalled, adding that today, although the discrimination may not be quite 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 served me well, in some ways,” he smiled.

Although Dennehy attended college as a pre-med student, he elected not to attend medical school. Importantly, the change in career path was prompted not by his disability, but by a formative experience training as a phlebotomist at Lawrence General Hospital in Massachusetts during his junior year of undergrad. “It disabused me of any romantic notion to medicine,” he explained, sharing that, despite his passion for helping people, the unhappiness of sick patients and overworked staff, coupled with high-pressure scenarios, created a very stressful working environment. When Dennehy decided that he did not want to entertain that level of stress for the duration of his career, he began investigating other applications for his biology degree.

He worked a few different jobs-some biology-related and some not-in search of his next career move, but it was his time working “as a groundskeeper at a fancy resort” that crystallized his decision to pursue biology as an academic discipline. It turned out, Dennehy’s boss was the son of a famous ecologist at the University of Hawaii. The 2 shared a mutual interest in biology, talking about science on a regular basis, and it was that mentor who encouraged Dennehy to go back to school and pursue a career in academia.

Still, biology is a broad subject, and when it came time to decide what kind of research to pursue, Dennehy reconnected with another passion from his childhood. “I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” he said. “So, [I thought] maybe I should research big mammals.” He earned his master’s degree at the University of Idaho working with pronghorn, a species of mammal that is indigenous to interior western and central North America and is colloquially known as the American antelope. (This attribution is a misnomer, as the pronghorn is not, in fact, an antelope, but it does resemble and fill a similar ecological niche as the antelopes that live in Africa, parts of the Middle East and Asia).

Today Dennehy is a microbiologist studying viruses. Although he enjoyed large mammal research and found it incredibly fascinating, he explained that watching his boss struggle to get funding motivated him to pivot to a new research focus. In search of broader funding, Dennehy targeted projects with clear public health implications.

He accepted a research assistant position as part of a Ph.D. program at Clark University studying delayed egg hatching in mosquitoes. After graduate school, Dennehy completed a postdoc with Paul Turner, Ph.D. at Yale University, studying bacteriophages and investigating how viruses can jump from one host to another. He continued this work when he obtained his faculty position at Queens College.

Then, in late 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and like many microbiology labs around the world, Dennehy and colleagues shifted gears to lend their skillsets to the study of SARS-CoV-2. Along with his collaborators, Monica Trujillo, Ph.D, at Queensborough Community College and Mark Johnson, Ph.D., at University of Missouri, Dennehy began monitoring SARS-CoV-2 evolution through wastewater surveillance. Dennehy’s team collected wastewater from all 14 sewersheds in New York City and isolated SARS-CoV-2 RNA from the samples. On a weekly basis, they sequenced the receptor binding domain of the spike protein from the collected isolates.

John Dennehy, Ph.D., monitors SARS-CoV-2 evolution through wastewater surveillance.
John Dennehy, Ph.D., monitors SARS-CoV-2 evolution through wastewater surveillance.

Source: John Dennehy, Ph.D.

The most notable thing that we found was that there were sequences in wastewater that did not match anything coming 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 overtook whatever SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern was circulating most dominantly at the time.

The team has investigated a few possible explanations for the observed sequence variation and is currently operating under the working hypothesis that the cryptic variants are coming from immunocompromised patients and other COVID-19 long-haulers who remain infected and unable to clear the virus for extended periods of time (from months to over a year).

“Over that period of time, the virus would continue to evolve,” Dennehy explained. “And interestingly, [patients] were picking up many of the same mutations that we were seeing in wastewater sequencing.”

When asked about the functional consequences of the 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 to be more similar. “There are a couple of theories about the origin of Omicron,” said Dennehy. “One is that it came from mice; the other that it came from immunocompromised patients.” The latter postulates that while those patients remained persistently infected, the virus was able to accumulate mutations.

According to Dennehy, his research wasn’t the only professional modality affected by the pandemic. He explained that he has found online meetings and seminars, when closed captioning is available, to be beneficial. In fact, many communities have reported increased accessibility due to remote learning and conference options. However, Dennehy stressed the importance of forethought when it comes to the organization of virtual or in-person events and initiatives.

“I think organizers and people who are in charge need to be thinking about the consequences of everything they do, and too often we just make these knee jerk decisions and don’t worry about who’s affected by it,” he pointed out. In support of this statement, Dennehy shared examples from his own life and those of his students and acquaintances where a particular institutional action had significant consequences (i.e., exclusion of a wheelchair accessible ramp to the graduation stage, lack of captioning at a particular summer seminar session and locking of a university gate that was located on the daily path of a blind individual).

Dennehy said that by and large, he does not think these actions, or lack thereof, are coming from a place of malintent. “There is a huge amount of disability that I was never aware even existed,” he shared. “And you would not know by looking at a person that they were disabled. But unless you’re able to make accommodations for [people with disabilities] proactively, in batch, you’re de facto discriminating against them.”

When asked what advice he would give to students from historically underrepresented communities, Dennehy said, “If you need something, you need 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 am giving, because I know people are reluctant to advocate for themselves. Particularly the disabled. Because you feel like, ‘oh, I don’t want to be a burden.'” But he emphasized that sometimes it is the most efficient pathway to success. “I feel a responsibility to raise awareness of the issues that people face, for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves,” he added. “I appreciate, very much, the opportunity to speak up.”

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