2023 Alumni Awards
Anna Voelker ’18 – Diversity Champion Award
What is the Diversity Champion Award?
Presented to alumni who have made a significant and sustained contribution that fosters diversity and inclusion in their broader community and/or organization. Their efforts must recognize and respect the value of individual differences such as race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran or military service status, gender identity, economic status, political belief, marital status or social background.
Anna Voelker (they/them) is working to advance disability inclusion in STEM, on earth and beyond it. Voelker ’18, envisions a future where astronauts with disabilities are common on space missions and people with disabilities hold more leadership positions in STEM fields.
Voelker is working to make that happen through SciAccess, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing disability inclusion in STEM. As the founder and executive director of SciAccess, Voelker runs an annual conference for scientists, educators and disability advocates — a conference they started with a $100,000 grant from Ohio State supporting initiatives for social change. Voelker also leads an international research program in which researchers with disabilities conduct demonstrations aboard zero gravity flights to expand accessibility in space.
What fuels your desire to expand STEM opportunities for people with disabilities?
I've always had a passion to break down barriers and push toward equity and inclusion. When it comes to disability, my passion was sparked when I took a theater class called Shakespeare and Autism. We worked with students on the autism spectrum who were able to step outside their comfort zones through theater and imaginative play. I loved the way we were able to reach people through inclusive education and design. I felt this was missing from the STEM community.
Five years from now, what changes do you hope will happen in your field?
I hope to see a transformation of the public’s understanding and the industry’s understanding of who gets to go to space. First, I’d like to see numerous disabled astronauts flying and working in space and see how that impacts the public perception of disability. Second, I’d like to see a reinvention of the definition of an astronaut. And third, I’d love to see more individuals with disabilities holding leadership positions in STEM to shape policy and open doors for future generations. With 15% of the world’s population having a disability, we cannot afford to continue excluding this talent.
“Anna’s leadership in broadening access in science to people with disabilities has international impact. Their work benefits not only people with disabilities, but everyone. Greater access for all makes for a better, more just society.” John Beacom, Ohio State Distinguished Professor of Physics and of Astronomy
Tell us about the AstroAccess program and a highlight for you.
I’ve had the privilege of co-founding the program with George Whitesides, former CEO of Virgin Galactic. We conduct zero gravity flights where Disability Ambassadors from all over the world are selected to fly with us and conduct research about accessibility in space and have done five zero gravity missions to date. Our inaugural flight in 2021 was a highlight for me, just watching the hard work of countless volunteers come to fruition and turn an idea into a reality. I also love that AstroAccess connects people, bringing together leaders from the disability community and the aerospace industry so that we can advocate for systemic, long-term change in the industry. Right now, AstroAccess is pushing for accessible design decisions to be made in the next generation of space vehicles and space stations.