by Ed Fletcher
Even the most adept chemistry student will spend an evening hopelessly staring at models of double helixes, polypeptides, and ribonucleic acids. Not Henry Wedler. Blind from birth, Wedler, who is working on his doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of California, Davis, sees these complex structures in his mind and occasionally with his hands.
You might think Wedler faces a significant disadvantage in learning a complex subject that leans heavily on visual representations of things too small for the human eye to see. But Wedler, twenty-four, says his lifelong reliance on using his mind to visualize street grids and campus layouts aids in this intellectual pursuit. "I feel like blind people have an advantage in organic chemistry over their sighted peers. I've been visualizing things my entire life," Wedler said.
Last week he received the latest of numerous awards honoring the Petaluma native's ability to overcome obstacles. Wedler, popularly known as "Hoby," is one of six students honored by Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization that makes specialized audio books for people with visual impairments or reading disabilities. The award offers a $6,000 cash prize and trip to Washington, D.C., where the winners will meet with lawmakers.
"People who are disabled need access--that may mean a ramp instead of stairs or an accessible audio book," said Doug Sprei, communications director for Learning Ally, which was formerly known as Recording for the Blind.
Using volunteer readers, the nonprofit gives a human voice to a library of textbooks that aren't available in Braille. In addition to reading the text, readers describe photos, graphics, and diagrams. The audio books open up materials that would otherwise require blind students to hire someone to read aloud. Sprei said Wedler exemplifies what blind students can do.
On a recent afternoon Wedler sat down at his desk to demonstrate how he uses audio books and an electronic Braille notetaker simultaneously to read and take notes. While audio books play a big role, Wedler is quick to point out that Braille is still an essential learning tool. "In my opinion we totally need Braille. You don't want to pull out a recorder to learn everything," Wedler said. Wedler said he can process more words per minute using an audio book, but Braille books allow users to process more details without having to constantly back up a recording.
While some parents of blind children question the value of learning Braille, there is no debate within the blind community, said Stuart Wittenstein, superintendent of California School for the Blind in Fremont. Wittenstein, who has known Wedler for years, called him a great role model for youngsters. Society has seen examples of blind people succeeding in rigorous careers for decades, but technology is making it easier, Wittenstein said. Wedler is also proving that blind people can follow their passion, even if it's a career path that hasn't already been plowed.
Concerned that he might not be able to work in science, in addition to his degree in chemistry Wedler also finished an undergraduate degree in history, as well as a minor in mathematics. He graduated in June with a 3.83 grade-point average. He found his interest in science early. He said a National Federation of the Blind summer camp solidified that passion and his belief that he could succeed in science. While there--with the help of blind NASA scientists--he and fellow campers launched a ten-foot-long rocket.
This summer he paid it forward, returning to the camp to teach chemistry. The lesson was carefully devised so that his blind students could smell the chemical reactions relating to naturally and artificially created compounds that make fruit smell. "Chemistry is cooking," Wedler said. He noted that cookie dough smells a lot like the final product, though a sensitive nose can tell the difference.The first classes in the five- to six-year PhD program at Davis start in a matter of weeks. Wedler's focus will be unlocking chemical secrets behind wine.