Rafael San Miguel, a senior flavor chemist and sweetener scientist at The Coca-Cola Company, was honored recently by the White House as a "Champion of Change" for providing education and employment opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for people with disabilities.

San Miguel, who has been profoundly deaf since infancy, has dedicated much of his life to inspiring young people to pursue careers in science and math.

A Long Road to the White House

Due to a wrong dose of antibiotics, San Miguel lost his hearing when he was only a few days old. At the St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, he learned to speak by feeling vibrations on someone's throat.

After graduating from the all-hearing Chaminade Prep School in St. Louis, he attended Texas A&M.

 "I got through college without the use of an interpreter primarily because I was surrounded by a community of people eager to step up and lend a hand by taking lecture notes for me in class," he says.

He began his career as a scientist at NASA. Like many kids, he’d always wanted to be an astronaut, but soon realized he couldn't because of his disability. What he could do, however, was join the Space Shuttle program as a scientist. His work developing food for astronauts, interestingly, involved a project to send the first can of Coca-Cola into outer space.

"This was ironic," he says, "since I would soon find myself working for The Coca-Cola Company — now for more than 23 years."

Rafael San Miguel

San Miguel began his career as a scientist at NASA, where he worked on a project to send the first can of Coca-Cola into outer space.

Making Science Fun

A meeting with the Labor Department in 2008 encouraged San Miguel to share his knowledge with kids. He was told how rare it was for someone with a major disability to achieve mainstream corporate success, especially in science. Armed with that insight, and inspired to make a difference, he developed a series of science experiments that were fun, interactive and educational.

He presented them to Drew Charter School in Atlanta's East Lake community, which had gone from one of the worst in the state to one of the best as a direct result of building a community that supported education. 
San Miguel continues to visit elementary and middle schools — both in Atlanta and in other cities during his business travels — to teach, excite and inspire kids.

Points of Light, a volunteer network, connects him with underserved schools.

 He takes pride in opening young people’s eyes, and minds, to science. He recalled visiting one middle school in Washington, D.C., where the library had fewer books than he had in his office and where most students had landed after being largely unsuccessful at other schools.
 "When I began to speak to them, the kindest thing I can say is they were rude," he says. "They couldn’t figure out why my voice sounded a little different, and I could tell it was all they could do not to ridicule my disability.

Rafael San Miguel Portrait

San Miguel has worked for Coca-Cola for 23 years as a flavor chemist and sweetener scientist.

"But as I began to teach them about science, they gradually became more and more engaged. I quickly realized by their answers to my questions that many of them were really smart."
Students who were the most disinterested at first ended up approaching him after class to ask how they could learn more about science. 

After finishing his experiments, San Miguel asked the students whether they thought science was cool. Every hand quickly shot up. He then asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. "A scientist for Coke!" was the big response.

Limitless Ability Rather Than a Limiting Disability

San Miguel was recognized as a Champion of Change during a ceremony at the White House in May. He said he was humbled by, and extremely proud of, the honor. "I'm fortunate to work for a company led by a CEO who has for decades in his personal life devoted himself to causes empowering those with disability, such as Special Olympics," he says. "And I'm lucky to work for two great bosses who support me in my science work and have chosen to see me as someone with limitless ability rather than a limiting disability."
San Miguel has dedicated his time to creating awareness about disability by focusing on "ability."

In 2004 he and his wife worked with then Mayor Shirley Franklin to bring the concept of inclusive playgrounds to Atlanta. “I became passionate about this need, not only to allow kids of all abilities to be able to be active and enjoy but also because of the profound and positive impact the experience could have on kids without disability,” he says. “I saw how it could shape their future perception of disability.” 

He continues, "I realized for the first time that if people who have trouble working alongside someone with a disability had grown up alongside someone with a disability in this way, then they would certainly have a different perspective.”

Volunteer Service Is Key

For seven years, San Miguel has served as an active board member of the Bobby Dodd Institute in Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that trains individuals with a wide range of disabilities, from intellectual challenges to mobility impairments, and creates job opportunities for them. Today, he also serves on the board of the Atlanta Speech School, which focuses on meeting the needs of students with speech- and language-based disabilities. And he's designing the U.S. Science Project, which connects scientists with schools through existing volunteer networks to inspire young people to pursue educational and employment opportunities in STEM.

"Volunteer service has always been the driving force behind solving the world’s most challenging problems," he says. "I believe every person is a champion with the courage and optimism to think they can do something to make a difference and change the status quo in their community."