Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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Making Chemistry Accessible to the Blind One Atom at a Time

by Henry Wedler

Hoby WedlerIntroduction by Dr. Marc Maurer: Henry Wedler, sometimes known as Hoby, participated in the first Rocket On! science academy in 2004. He has established a chemistry camp in California, where he teaches blind high school students from around the country. He works in our science programs at our national headquarters. He is a PhD candidate at the University of California/Davis in computational chemistry. Here is Henry Wedler.

Blindness does not hold people back. On the contrary, society's low expectations with regard to blind people are what hold us back. As blind people who want to make a difference, the first thing we need to do is work hard to raise those expectations and change what society as a whole thinks of blind people. This is very important regarding the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM fields. Society often thinks these fields are too visual for blind people to understand. In order to achieve success in these fields, we have to have high expectations of ourselves. We need to show other people around us, both blind and sighted, what we are capable of doing.

I learned that I loved chemistry when I was in eleventh grade. I had a chemistry instructor who really motivated us to understand that chemistry is the most fundamental science. It determines, on a molecular level, how the world and the solar system work. I was fascinated! I loved thinking about chemistry, about how atoms and molecules reacted spatially.

But the instructor believed that it was impractical for a blind person to study chemistry seriously. She didn't understand what blind people could do, and I was just a kid, so I didn't know, either. She thought that I would need to have an assistant help me in chemistry lab, all the time, fourteen hours a day. That just wouldn't be practical.

I really wanted to pursue chemistry, so I went to her at the beginning of second semester. I said, "You've really inspired me to study chemistry. I love it. And nobody can see atoms. Chemistry is a cerebral subject. All the chemistry we study is in our minds. The only thing we use vision for is to see when changes take place."

After that she became my most trusted ally. She was my number one supporter when I said that I wanted to study chemistry in college. [Applause]

As Dr. Maurer said, I first became acquainted with the National Federation of the Blind in 2004, when I was invited to participate in the first ever Rocket On! science academy. I'm from the small town of Petaluma, California. I learned a great deal there, but I didn't meet any blind scientists. I knew a few blind professionals, but honestly, I didn't know if a blind person could study chemistry seriously. Then I went to the national headquarters of the NFB and worked for a week with instructors and mentors, blind people who were studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Seeing blind professionals who were scientists, mathematicians, and engineers convinced me to pursue a college degree in chemistry. If that's not inspiration, I don't know what is!

Lab Work

I entered UC/Davis in the fall of 2005. Ironically, the branch of chemistry I liked the most was the most visual--that is, organic chemistry. Organic chemistry deals with how atoms and molecules fit together in space. I didn't know whether science was going to fail me, so I also studied United States history, and earned a degree in that. (If you haven't been able to tell already, I'm a total nerd!) I liked the math classes associated with chemistry so much that I picked up a minor in mathematics as well.

When I started thinking about graduate school, I almost decided to get a graduate degree in history, even though chemistry is my true passion. I didn't want to have a sighted assistant working with me all the time in the organic chemistry lab. I knew I would do all the chemistry in my mind, but mixing chemicals, looking to see when things happened, I'd need a full-time assistant. I wasn't willing to do that.

Then I met Professor Dean Tantillo at the University of California/Davis. He studies computational organic chemistry, and he believed that a blind student could pursue that field. He convinced me of the possibility when I did summer research with him. He and our group members made the whole laboratory accessible, including the computer interface. By the end of the summer I was doing advanced research in computational organic chemistry with minimal sighted assistance, at the same level as my sighted peers.

This experience persuaded me to apply to the PhD program in computational organic chemistry at Davis. I am now working in the field under Professor Tantillo. I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without the support of the National Federation of the Blind.

In Dean Tantillo's group we have been working on three-dimensional printing so I can feel the geometries of my optimized structures, completely without assistance. We use an innovative approach where we three-dimensionally print files that include completed calculations. I can examine them and use my chemical intuition to make changes necessary for the calculations to work better or differently. Inputting molecules into the computer system is hard without a graphical user interface, so right now I'm heavily involved with a project to develop a three-dimensional scanning process. Through this process we print parts of molecules. It's basically a model-building kit, using a three-dimensional printer. We attach ID tags to each piece. I use three three-dimensional scanners to triangulate and scan these structures that I build by hand, completely unassisted, into the program we use. We can create job files that I can do research on, completing a project from start to finish.

Chemistry Camp

What I learned through this process is that one doesn't have to be sighted to study a very visual subject such as organic chemistry. [Applause] When I discovered this myself, I was so elated that I dreamed of showing other blind kids that they could pursue their dreams, no matter how visual the field seemed to be. With the help of the National Federation of the Blind of California and the California Association of Blind Students, and with the generous support of the Lighthouse for the Blind of San Francisco, I founded and teach at an annual chemistry camp. At the camp we show blind students that they can do whatever they want to do in science. We accept ten blind students from around the country. They conduct hands-on chemistry experiments over a two-day period.

When students come to us, they are very timid about studying organic chemistry, about mixing chemicals. A lot of students ask me, "Where are the sighted assistants? How are we going to do this?" I explain that we're using pipets with tactile markings. These pipets are very inexpensive, and a blind person can use them independently. The students are amazed and a bit terrified to do the work. But after half an hour using these pipets, the students get the idea. Every student left camp wanting to be a scientist! They said, "We can do this!"

One of the programs I did at camp was a cooking unit. Students boiled eggs and talked about the chemistry of cooking an egg. They baked cookies and talked about the flavor chemistry of different cookies. Remarkably to me, more than 50 percent of the students had never set foot in a kitchen when the oven was on; their parents were worried about them burning themselves! At camp students worked in the kitchen, using potholders. They left saying, "Wow! Cooking is a lot of fun! We're going to get our parents to let us cook in their kitchens. We might even be the cooks of the family." [Applause]

One of the students here at convention is Newton Nguyen. Newton is a College Leadership Scholarship grant recipient from California. He graduated with high honors from our first chemistry camp. Like most of the other students, he came in feeling like he wasn't going to be able to do science. He wasn't too sure about himself, but he loved science and he loved thinking about chemistry. He left with a newfound passion and a belief that he could study science. I am very proud to say that Newton is currently an incoming freshman at the University of California/Berkeley, pursuing a degree in physics! His goal is to earn a PhD and become a professor of condensed matter physics.

We were extremely honored back in May when we received one of President Obama's Champions of Change Awards for enhancing employment and education for students with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and math. The award affirmed that the work we do in the National Federation of the Blind day in and day out is being recognized by the federal government. The work that each and every one of us does is so important! It was music to my heart to know that the federal government realized, understood, and was passionate about our work.

Mental Mapping

At one point I questioned why I like organic chemistry so much. After I joined Professor Tantillo's research group, I realized that I like it so much because it's a spatial science. When I think about organic chemistry, I use the same skills I use as a blind traveler, skills I've used since the beginning. As I walk from my college chemistry building to the student union, I use a map that I have in my head. Why not make the images and the distances between things much smaller and use the exact same mapping skills to think about atoms and molecules, to do organic chemistry in our minds? The mental process I use to walk from here to the atrium of this hotel (not always an easy task!) is the same process I use to imagine how the electrons move when attaching a chlorine or benzene ring.

My point is that blind people may have an advantage when studying sciences such as chemistry and physics. We can imagine things spatially in a way that we have done throughout our lives. Why not make those distances into light years, tens of thousands of light years, and study cosmology?

Recently I got a job hosting a Tasting in the Dark event at San Francisco Winery. I designed the tasting myself. We show people that you do not have to see to enjoy wine, to enjoy the arts, to enjoy life. Every month we blindfold sighted people for about an hour and a half and demonstrate to them that they don't have to see to enjoy what they're doing. They leave with higher expectations and an understanding that blind people can do a heck of a lot more than they thought. Afterwards one of the future winemakers told me, "We're going to taste all our wines under blindfold now. Without the distraction of vision, we can obtain much more information about the flavor and the chemistry." The winemakers learned that they could use other senses that were enhanced when their vision was not there.

As I close, I will say that we need to dream big. That's what the National Federation of the Blind does. I never could have turned my dreams into reality without the NFB. Ray Kurzweil is someone who knows how to dream. The reading machine that he developed just thirty-seven years ago was the size of a washer and dryer. Now many of you carry it in your pockets today, working just as well as ever.

I challenge all of you to go home and work hard. Know that your hard work and your high expectations for yourselves and the blind people around you can change what it means to be blind. Thank you, and a very good convention to all of you!

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