Story by Sherry DiBari

To say that Bernadette Ferraro is persistent is an understatement.

This year, Ferraro, who started her doctoral path in the 1990s and tackled cancer three times, successfully defended her dissertation between chemotherapy treatments from a rehabilitation center.

Ferraro's dissertation, "Olfactory Behavioral Responses of Mosquito Vectors to Select Attractants and Floral Scents as Related to Circadian Rhythms and Photoperiod Regimes," will finally complete her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at Old Dominion University.

It has been a long road.

Her interest in science and medicine began in grammar school in her hometown of Nutley, N.J.

"When I was in fourth grade, I bought my first book on the life of Madame Curie, and based upon the events of her life, I was inspired to pursue a career in science and medicine," she said.

From that point, her interest in science and research never faltered.

Ferraro was also inspired by her uncle, Dr. Frank Ferraro Sr., a well-known primary-care physician in Bergen County, N.J.

Ferraro received her bachelor's degree in zoology from Rutgers University in 1974 and her master's degree in medical laboratory sciences from ODU in 1996.

Ferraro chose ODU because she wanted a change in scenery and to challenge herself academically.

"I have a physical disadvantage, so living independently was a special challenge to overcome," she said, "and I succeeded."

Ferraro went on to work in the pathology department of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). As the education program coordinator in cytopathology, a branch of pathology that studies diseases on the cellular level, she taught cytopreparatory techniques, devised curriculum planning and utilized light microscopy involving cancer diagnostics. She decided, with the encouragement of her colleagues, to pursue graduate studies.

"The pursuit of advanced degrees was a learning experience for me, not just for the acquisition of knowledge, but for the measurements of my own strengths and determination," Ferraro said.

She began doctoral studies at Old Dominion University in the late 1990s and was forced to put them on hold due to health concerns.

Ferraro was diagnosed with pneumonia four times, necessitating the insertion of a tracheostomy tube. She subsequently was diagnosed and treated for cancer three times.

Years later, when the opportunity came to finish her degree, Ferraro took on the challenge while battling another round of cancer.

Ferraro credits mentor Deborah Waller, as well as professors Lesley Greene, Kneeland Nesius and Robert Wojtowicz, dean of the Graduate School, for the opportunity.

"Their encouragement came when I was in the throes of chemotherapy for cancer. Their interest in my research, and compilation of my dissertation, gave me all the incentive to continue my work," Ferraro said.

"I will never forget these special people."

Ferraro's dissertation committee members think highly of her as well.

"Bernadette's positive outlook, dedication to science and indefatigable spirit have supported her through many challenges, including completing and defending her dissertation while undergoing chemotherapy," said Waller, an associate professor of biological sciences.

Persistence and a belief in the future drove Ferraro toward completion of her dissertation.

"When one is actively fighting cancer, one must find a reason to go on. One must believe there is a future, or as they say, a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Her long-term plans involve continuing her work as a disability advocate. Ferraro notes that people with disabilities often feel compelled to prove themselves and are often "judged by their covers instead of their substantive values," she said.

"To overcome the negative stereotypes, I have often tried to be an 'ambassador' for the physically challenged, projecting a positive outlook in terms of personality, intelligence, the ability to articulate, and style and poise," Ferraro said.

She also created the Ferraro Foundation for Science and the Disabled, an organization that assists college and university students with disabilities to pursue careers in the sciences. The nonprofit also helps recently disabled physicians and scientists as well as providing assistive devices and equipment at the university level.

Academically, she is hopeful for a future administrative position, as well as a teaching job near her home.

"I have always believed that teaching is more than just reading notes off a piece of paper," Ferraro said. "I wish to create enthusiasm for the study of science and medicine, for I do believe that when a professor gives of himself or herself, they are facilitating the scientific method, and opening the minds of their students."

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