Future Reflections Convention Issue 2013
by Lindsay Yazallino
Introduction by Carlton Walker: Our next speaker on the topic of no limits, Lindsay Yazallino, is a neuroscience researcher at a little place you might have heard of called MIT.
Thank you to everyone here from the NFB and the NOPBC. I'm excited to share with everyone about my career and my experiences getting to where I am now. I work in a cognitive neuroscience lab. That means that we study how the brain functions. Specifically, we're interested in mental processes. We're looking at how blind people use parts of the brain that ordinarily handle vision. We want to learn what those areas typically devoted to vision are doing instead in people who are blind.
I want to give you some background on how I got to this position. I've been a science geek for as long as I can remember. We talk about there being no limits. Although I grew up blind, the idea was never planted in my head that there could be limits in the first place. My parents simply expected that if all the sighted kids were doing something, I'd be doing it, too. One of the myths out there is that blind people can't do science, that you need sight to pursue a scientific career. I can't think of anything that is less true! I never thought, “I'm blind, but I can do science.” I just thought, “okay, I want to do science, and that's what I'm going to do.”
I took a lot of science in middle school and high school, and I loved it. I knew I was going to pursue a career in the sciences, and so did my parents. They were very supportive of that choice. I earned my undergraduate degree at Brown University, majoring in cognitive science, the study of mental processes. Like many undergrads, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my major. It was a fascinating field, but I didn't have career connections. I didn't know people in the field.
One of the best things I did after college was to take a risk and move to Boston. I wouldn't necessarily suggest jumping into a new city with no job, but as things turned out, that's what I did. I got involved doing research at a lab at MIT, not the lab where I'm involved now. I was working on how blind people use the visual parts of the brain for language. I was working in that lab, getting all kinds of experience--and the next thing you know, I was contacted by my current boss. He knew the researcher I was working for at the time, and he asked me if I wanted to know more about what his lab was doing. I went to visit, and he asked me all kinds of questions. Pretty soon it sounded like a job interview. His questions started to sound like interview questions. I thought, “Wait a minute! What's going on here?” At the end of my visit he offered me a job.
My job is a two-year research position working on a project to design a videogame that will help with navigation. It involves looking at how the brain responds in blind people using a cane and navigating new environments. We're trying to use that knowledge to design a system that will help supplement the O&M curriculum and help blind people learn problem-solving strategies. Ultimately it may increase confidence and independence.
I've been working there since last July, and I couldn't think of a better job to have! We're in a small lab with a very close-knit group of people. We do a lot of functional MRI (fMRI) studies. A person lies in an MRI scanner, and we look at the brain when it's in action. We're not just looking at the structure of the brain, but at what it does when people are in action--reading Braille or navigating in a virtual game or looking at tactile graphics. We can actually see what the brain is doing. With these studies we hope to get a scientific understanding of the brain and to use that knowledge to help with the development of educational methods and technologies so that blind people can be more independent. The people in the lab are operating under the assumption that blind people are fully capable.
We're working on several studies. At this point I'm in charge of two of them. Various members of the lab handle different tasks. I'm in charge of recruiting and training participants and designing the software that presents scripts to be used in the scanner. I'll be doing some data analysis and writing up the findings. When we have our findings assembled and written up, our goal is to publish them in some of the leading scientific journals. I just got my first publication out a few months ago. It was totally awesome! There's nothing like searching the scientific databases and having your own name come up!
I want to leave you with an understanding that "no limits" means, from the outset, not even planting the idea that limits exist. For me it was just assumed that there were no limits in academics. There were no limits in traveling on my own. I love going to airports and exploring. To me going to new places is a normal thing. I don't think, “I'm blind, but I can do these things.” It's just part of who I am. Growing up, blindness was treated as a normal and okay part of who I am. Even though the process of how I did things was different sometimes, ultimately the outcomes were the same. It's so important to have the gut level confidence that blind kids can do the things they want to do and that blindness need not be any kind of influence whatsoever.
I know that raising a blind child isn't easy. I'm very thankful for what my parents have done. They made it seem easy to me, but I'm sure it wasn't always easy for them.
You're going to meet lots of new people at this convention, and I encourage you to enjoy this experience. Thank you so much.