Women Who Helped Me Stay the Course

Collage of three blind women portraits, background of chemistry presentation of a graph on a laptop

Women Who Helped Me Stay the Course

By Ashley Neybert 

I went blind in the middle of my freshman year in college as a chemistry major. It was scary but, thankfully, I had a professor who helped me get in touch with Independence Science, so that I could learn how to do chemistry as a blind person. Independence Science is a company that helped me so much that I work with them today. I truly believe in all the work that we do to make STEM more accessible for blind people. 

Chemistry can be quite hard, and it’s not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still make a difference in the life of a future scientist. I have always been inspired by how things work and interact; that chemistry is present in everything, from food to medicine, to you and me. This didn’t change simply because I went blind. 

I want to take a moment to highlight a few huge role models in my life. I have to start with the woman who has been there for me since before I went blind. While not a scientist, she has been a shoulder to cry on, to cheer me on to success, and to celebrate or commiserate through it all. JJ Aragon is a strong, beautiful person inside and out—my “sister” in blindness. 

She was the first blind person I ever met and lives every moment to the fullest. JJ’s example is the reason I knew I wouldn’t have to be scared of losing my vision; she is confident and adventurous in a way that makes you want to be more like her. Without JJ, I wouldn’t have known about the NFB, or the Free White Cane program that got me started. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start learning Braille as soon as possible. JJ was there to explain that there is no shame in being able to read some print and be fluent in Braille. That I didn’t have to choose a medium forever, but what worked best for me. I’m sure that none of you will be too surprised to learn how valuable a skill Braille is. Learning to read it while I could still read a good majority of print ensured that I would never lose my love of reading.

JJ introducing me to the NFB led to another strong mentor: Carla McQuillan. Everyone who knows her knows that Carla is an absolute rockstar. She was the banquet speaker at my first NFB state convention in Kansas. I first came to the NFB with a canned speech about how I still had residual vision, but I didn’t know if I would lose it. I thought everyone would ask me about my visual acuity. I thought that I’d be judged for being “not blind enough to be blind, but not sighted enough to be sighted.” If you know Carla, you know she smashed that misconception to the ground! I cannot begin to explain how helpful it was for me to hear from a strong blind woman, who happened to have some residual vision. 

When the banquet speech was over, and the afterparty had begun, I went as quickly as I could to meet Carla. She taught me tricks to work with the negative impacts of having some vision (i.e., falling off curbs and taking 500 years to fill a white cup with water.) The latter was something I never would have thought of; I was much closer to deciding all my water needed food coloring for contrast than to thinking I could simply use my finger. While not scientists for their careers, these women taught me so many things I know about science adaptations today. Without them, I wouldn’t have graduated with my chemistry degree. I’m proud to now live in Oregon for my Ph.D., with Carla as my state president.

There are other brilliant blind women in my life who are career scientists: Dr. Mona Minkara and Emily Schlenker to name two. Without Emily, I wouldn’t have been able to get my master’s degree at Wichita State University. Without Mona, I wouldn’t have known the power blindness can bring to unique insights into protein analysis. I could go on and on about the friends and mentors who have helped me get to where I am today: a Ph.D. student on two funded National Science Foundation Grants, a Diversity Fellow at Oregon State University, a Vice President of the NFB Science and Engineering Division, and a former American Chemical Society Overcoming Challenges Winner. These women and countless others have supported me all the way, and have paved the way for me.  

Next time you feel small and like your contributions are not worth it, know that you are helping to write others’ stories – every contribution counts. I would have never achieved my dream of furthering the understanding of the world around us through chemistry without these people. I owe a debt to those before who helped me, and plan to go on to meet my goal in chemistry – to make science a more accessible field for all.