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  1. Opinion

Column: These Florida inventors struggled with learning disabilities to achieve their genius

At this year's induction ceremony for the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies founder Richard Houghten and optometry pioneer Herbert Wertheim — two individuals of unquestionable genius — shared a surprising fact about themselves: Growing up, they each struggled with severe learning challenges that easily could have sent them on a different path.

Both men, who have each played significant roles in shaping modern science in their fields, could have been dissuaded from pursuing such careers given their struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia. Wertheim, who was the first to discover ultraviolet light dye absorbers for eyeglass lenses, recounted in his acceptance speech how most of the adults in his life had simply dismissed him.

"You are looking at a ninth-grade high school dropout," he recounted. "I wasn't very good at school. I sat in the corner many times on a stool wearing a dunce cap."

"In those days, there were no such words as ADD, dyslexia. The word they used was 'dumb.' "

A runaway from a tough home who frequently disappeared into the Everglades, Wertheim's genius was first recognized by a juvenile court judge who gave him the choice to either go back to school or join the Navy. He chose the Navy, enlisting at 17. After acing the Navy's many technical schools, he went on to enroll at community college and then the University of Florida, while juggling a rising career at General Dynamics and later in NASA's manned spaceflight program. He earned a doctor of optometry degree from the Southern College of Optometry in association with the University of Tennessee Medical School before founding Brain Power Inc., the world's largest manufacturer of ophthalmic, instruments and chemicals.

Houghten, who holds 81 U.S. patents for his pioneering work in molecular pharmaceutical research, told of not being able to read until he was 10 years old. As the son and grandson of accomplished scientists, his academic struggles couldn't have been easy. "Being ADHD, I have a hard time getting things into my head, but once they are in there — they are in there," he told the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame gala crowd.

Yet, Houghten earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and founded the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in 1988. The institute is now internationally recognized for its scientific contributions in fields ranging from multiple sclerosis to diabetes to infectious disease and pain management.

The stories of these accomplished scientists and philanthropists came to mind this week as the University of South Florida wrapped up its fall semester. At each commencement, USF students who graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average are recognized as King O'Neal Scholars, one of the highest recognitions the university has for its students. On Saturday, College of Public Health student Shari Zamani will take her place on the commencement stage, with well-deserved recognition as a King O'Neal Scholar.

Just a few weeks ago, she was the featured student speaker at USF's Women in Leadership & Philanthropy annual luncheon and the story she told about her journey captivated the audience of more than 1,000 people. Zamani talked about her struggles as a high school student with dyslexia, and how academic failure beat her down until the day she got up from her desk, walked out of the school and didn't come back.

She went to work — with limited opportunity as a high school dropout — until she was convinced to take a test that allowed her to enter Hillsborough Community College without a diploma. There she found support and encouragement, and a campus visit to USF gave her a window into a future she had never imagined for herself. She has since become a successful scholar, a researcher and an incredible role model for her peers.

Her dyslexia didn't go away, but it has not stopped her from reaching her goals. With appropriate academic support and her admirable work ethic and enthusiasm, her intellectual ability was brought to the forefront.

College acceptance season is upon us and it's important to remember that for every student whose achievement seems effortless, there are thousands more curious and intelligent students with learning challenges who may think of themselves as "dumb" when they are anything but. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you that we're only beginning to understand how genius-level thinking manifests.

These three individuals — two whose achievements touch the lives of millions every day and one whose journey is just beginning — are good reminders that "genius" does not come in any conventional shape, size, form or expression. We should support and celebrate those whose brains work differently, but nonetheless brilliantly.

Paul R. Sanberg is University of South Florida's senior vice president for Research, Innovation & Knowledge Enterprise and executive director of the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, and president of the National Academy of Inventors.