American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)       STEM

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To Become a Scientist

by Mona Minkara

Mona MinkaraFrom the Editor: For the past ten years the NFB Jernigan Institute has created opportunities for blind middle-school and high-school students to get hands-on experience in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A growing number of blind people are entering the STEM professions, and their success can inspire the next generation. Mona Minkara, who received an NFB National Scholarship in 2013, is earning a postdoctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Minnesota. In this article she shares her story.

My interest in science began when I was young, watching The Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye. My favorite episode of The Magic Schoolbus was the one in which the class took a field trip into the digestive system of one of the students. This episode showed me a world of science to discover beyond the things we can see with the naked eye. It exposed me for the first time to a unique perspective on science.

When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy. I quickly realized that a different perspective on my research would be inevitable. Not only did my visual impairment shift the way I viewed the physical world; it also affected how I perceived plots, figures, and opinions. The physicians did not have a positive prognosis for me, and they conveyed the impression that I would never become a scientist. Nevertheless, I felt driven to defy this prognosis. I was determined to become the scientist I hoped to be, despite whatever obstacles might be in my path.

I learned quickly that the standard methods of scientific education would not meet my needs as a student. In order to succeed I would have to find a way of learning course material that would keep me on par with my sighted classmates. Not until I expressed my desire to go beyond what was expected of me was I finally able to pursue my interests.

When I was in tenth grade, I grew bored with the special education program to which I was assigned in school. I did not want my academic ability to be defined by my blindness. Naturally I was drawn toward another track, one that involved more demanding academic study. Despite the disbelief of my instructors, I dominated the advanced science classes in my high school and fueled my passion to push forward. All of a sudden my dream of pursuing science became a reality.

As an undergraduate I attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. I had been assured that my future was no longer limited by my eyesight but open to the extent of my capabilities as a scholar. My peers at Wellesley extended their support beyond anything I ever could have hoped for. Friends, classmates, and professors read me notes, books, and exams. I had never been taught Braille, and of necessity I depended on auditory access to my materials. I convinced the disability services office on campus that I did not need a tutor but a reader.

During my years at Wellesley I gained confidence in my own capability. I learned that in order to be competitive, I needed additional determination and devotion to my academic studies. Time and patience became my greatest commodities. At the end of my four years at Wellesley, I had received two bachelor’s degrees, one in Middle Eastern studies and one in chemistry.

Graduate school at the University of Florida truly refined my interest in chemistry and laid the foundation for my professional career. With the support and assistance of my advisors and colleagues, I began to distinguish myself as a professional with a unique perspective. Instead of following the track of my sighted peers, I analyzed information in ways that best fit my aptitudes.

I used my alternative methods in my study of urease, an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. My classmates would watch a moving picture of the enzyme in its habitat. Obviously I needed to find another way to analyze the enzyme. I marked each residue, or small group of amino acids, and then tracked the distance each would move over the length of time in the video. Yes, plotting this information is another form of visual representation. But to think differently and to use a less visual method for understanding a chemical process was a large step in the right direction in my journey as a blind chemist.

Through my graduate experience I learned that a view from each lens can contribute to a larger picture that is often missed by those who have accumulated ideas from the same field of thought. My current advisor, Dr. J. Ilja Siepmann of the University of Minnesota, shared my understanding of this viewpoint. He encouraged me to conduct research as his postdoc under the Siepmann Group, where I am currently a fellow.

My research is almost entirely simulated, and my lab may not conform to what most people imagine when they think of chemistry. Instead of a wet lab with chemicals and flasks, I use computer equipment. I emulate experimental procedures using advanced simulation techniques. I still adhere to the rules and laws of the field of chemistry, but in computational chemistry I am limited only by computer power and my ability to discern the information.

In some ways being blind has been a hindrance to me in this work, but my distinctive lens into the field of chemistry has also been a benefit. One of the largest difficulties I still face is not being able to visualize my data on plots or figures. Unfortunately, blind-accessible technology is not yet advanced enough to depict the required minutiae. For this information I still rely on other people. For simpler tasks assistive technology can still be very useful. I send email by using the VoiceOver program that is available on all of my Apple products, ranging from my mobile devices, which I use quite frequently, to the computers that I use to run simulations related to my research. When I use a Windows computer, I use JAWS (Job Access with Speech). Although we have only just begun to tap into the potential of these technologies, I am quite satisfied with both programs.

When I was growing up I was told that Braille would not be any use to me, due to the advancements in audio technology. Though I find VoiceOver very valuable and think it is one of the most user-intuitive applications, I highly recommend that any blind student learn Braille. In fact, I can attest that a person can begin to learn Braille at any age.

In my workplace MagnaLink has a fixed position among the tools on my desk. The MagnaLink is set up in such a way that if I need to read a scientific journal, I can access it with ease while knowing where to line up the paper. Reading abstracts becomes much easier with this technology, as it uses the computer to produce an audio translation. With that said, however, MagnaLink can be a bother when it attempts more difficult tasks.

Orcam is another device at my disposal. The cool facet to this device is that I can read what is in front of me. For everyday reading, the Orcam is useful. For scientific articles, however, the technology cannot read the little details of the figures, plots, captions, and pictures.

On my website I have a tab called "Blind Scientist Tools." Here you may see all of the tools and techniques I have used throughout my career for reading, note-taking, attending lectures and workshops, and more.

Aside from the screen reader programs that I use, I have a team of access assistants who have been immensely helpful in communicating visual information. I can then interpret and manipulate this information for my research. The greatest obstacle I have faced is properly assessing the visual information before I begin to utilize what is being displayed. Access assistants are helpful because they have the ability to record visual information in a clear and concise manner. Their descriptions allow me to think freely about what is being said or what is being portrayed. When I am frustrated or when I simply cannot connect the visual dots inside my head, I ask an access assistant to take my hand and trace a plot or trace the plot with her own finger as I follow. By using this method my research becomes much more dynamic, and the environment of my lab is more collective.

Through the wisdom I have gained from my own experience, I hope to empower blind students who are interested in the sciences and may have encountered similar obstacles. With the proper drive, dreams are possible. The tools are available for blind individuals to find success. I want to give a voice to other blind scientists without diluting my own. The desire to succeed feeds my drive and strengthens my capacity to push beyond—to become more than what is expected of me.

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