American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      WORKING IN REAL TIME

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Science From a Fresh Perspective

An Interview with Mona Minkara

Mona Minkara examines tactile images at a desk in her office. From the Editor: On March 7, 2023, Mona Minkara delivered a speech to the United Nations, entitled "We Need More Blind Scientists." The speech encapsulates a major theme in Mona's work, the conviction that blind people bring a unique perspective to the study of science, a perspective that can benefit everyone.

In 2013, as a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Mona Minkara received an NFB National Scholarship. Since that time she has won many distinctions in the scientific community and in the realm of accessibility. Today she holds an affiliated appointment in chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University in Boston. Her laboratory implements computational methods to probe molecular interactions and biological interfaces. She has given guest lectures at universities and scientific conferences throughout the United States. In addition, she is dedicated to promoting accessibility in the sciences for people who are blind or have low vision.

In the midst of her busy schedule, Mona graciously made time for an interview with Future Reflections. Here is the story she shared.

DEBORAH KENT STEIN: Tell me a bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and what was your early education like?

MONA MINKARA: I was born in Maryland, and my family is Lebanese. When I was quite young, we moved to Massachusetts, which is where I grew up. Science fascinated me from the time I was little. I used to watch The Magic School Bus on TV, and I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up.

When I was seven years old I was diagnosed with macular degeneration and cone-rod dystrophy. No one told my parents about the resources that would have helped me at school. In fact, one doctor actually warned them not to waste one penny on my education!

DKS: What was your experience like at school as you lost vision?

MM: The teachers told my parents that I didn't need to learn Braille. They said I could use audio materials and enlarged print. By the time I was eleven I couldn't read print at all, no matter how big the letters were, so I depended entirely on listening. I developed a prodigious memory, and I got to be a whiz at doing mental math. 

DKS: Were you still interested in science?

MM: Oh yes! That never changed! Science was my passion. In high school I took all the science classes I could schedule. One teacher made it clear that she didn’t want me in her advanced class. She said I would fail, so there was no point in my taking the course. I took the class in spite of her, and in the end I got one of the highest grades. That teacher actually apologized to me for everything she put me through!

My challenges in school taught me a lesson about failure. I realized I would rather learn something new, even if failure was the price I might have to pay. When I finished that class, I thought to myself, if I can do this, what else might I be able to do?

DKS: Where did you go to college?

MM: In high school my family was very supportive. They pretty much followed my lead. They let me do whatever I wanted to do in terms of my classes.

When I decided I wanted to go away to college, to go somewhere and live on campus, that was different! They really weren't happy to have me living off on my own. I ended up doing my undergrad at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. It was pretty close to home, but I got the chance to live on campus.

DKS: What was your college experience like?

MM: At college my learning was still strictly auditory. I used human notetakers in my classes and for taking exams. Early on I found out that not every notetaker could do a good job. I'd have to train people to capture the right information—they had to get what I needed and not bother with the information I didn't need. Training people was a slow process, but I learned a lot through doing it. I learned about teaching and about sorting priorities, communicating what was going to be most important to me.

DKS: Did you get much help from your school's office for disabled students?

MM: Wellesley had a disabled students' office, but they acted as though they'd never had a blind student before. During my first two years on campus, I had to self-advocate for everything. At one point I took a summer course, and I couldn't get them to pay for a reader at all. We had a Muslim Students Association (MSA) on campus. The MSA pitched in and provided the readers I needed.

Eventually the DSS office got the picture, and things improved a lot during my last two years. My younger sister, who also is blind, went to Wellesley, too. She didn't have anywhere near the problems I had.
DKS: What did you do after you graduated?

MM: I graduated from Wellesley with a double degree in chemistry and Middle Eastern studies. From there I went to the University of Florida to earn my Ph.D. in chemistry. My graduate work involved studying urease, which is an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into CO 2 and ammonia. I couldn't learn by watching videos of chemical reactions, so I found a different way to work. I marked each residue, or small group, of amino acids and tracked the distance each would move over the length of time in the video. It was a very different way of working, but I got the information I needed.

DKS: What was your experience looking for a job after you got your degree?

MM: It was rugged! I literally applied for seventy different positions. Granted, it's very competitive for everybody, but I know my blindness was a factor in a lot of those rejections.

Finally I was invited to interview for a postdoc position at a lab at the University of Minnesota. When the professor said he wanted me to work there, I was really startled. I asked him, "Why do you want me?" He said, "Because you are blind, you are going to solve problems no one else on my team has solved." He actually saw my blindness as an asset. He understood that I would bring something unique to his lab, a whole new perspective. I thought, Okay, it looks like I'm moving to Minnesota!

DKS: What did he mean about solving problems no one else on his team had solved?

MM: Okay, here's an example. When we're studying the activity of a protein, usually everybody watches a video. Because I can't see the video I have to come up with a different way to observe that protein. I came up with a computational model, using a computer, and I discovered whole new movement patterns. We need scientists with all kinds of different perspectives to find solutions no one has found before.

DKS: What is the nature of your work at Northeastern?

MM: I use computational methods to probe molecular interactions and biological interfaces such as the pulmonary surfactant system (PS) and its components. PS is a critical mixture in the lungs that helps regulate breathing. It also helps in the sequestration of pathogens that attempt to enter the body through the airways. One of the main components of the PS system, surfactant protein (SP-D), has been the subject of a lot of experimental studies because of its immunological response against glycan-containing pathogens. Those include things like SARS-COV-2 and influenza. Before the COVID pandemic, I never thought studying lung surfactant would become so relevant to everyday life!

DKS: Do you still see yourself as a strictly auditory learner?

MM: A few years ago I finally started to learn Braille. I highly recommend that blind students learn Braille as early as possible. I haven't built up a lot of speed yet, but I use Braille now to label just about everything, from my kitchen to the lab. The more I use Braille, the easier it gets. Steady wins the race!

DKS: I know you're involved in a lot of initiatives to open the sciences to blind people and people with other disabilities. Tell me more about all that.

MM: A couple of years ago I was among a group of people with disabilities who took part in a simulated space flight. We wanted to learn how blind people, deaf people, and people with other disabilities would react to zero gravity and other aspects of space flight. There are some ways that having a disability might be an advantage, and disabled astronauts might discover things that nondisabled astronauts don't notice.
A lot still needs to be done to open science education and careers to more blind people. I belong to the Chemists with Disabilities Committee that meets at the American Chemical Society Conference. We're developing an accessible Periodic Table and a manual for teaching chemists with disabilities.

I still work very collaboratively with access assistants in my laboratory. Their descriptions allow me to think freely about what is being portrayed in images on the screen. Sometimes an assistant uses my hand to plot a line on a graph. My assistants learn from me, and I learn from them. Our work is a very collaborative process.

More and more tools are available to help blind scientists gain success. My desire to see others succeed feeds my drive and strengthens my capacity to push the boundaries. I've achieved far more than was expected of me when I was growing up. I can hardly wait to see what other blind scientists will accomplish in the years ahead.

You can find extensive information about Mona Minkara and her work by visiting her website, https://monaminkara.com.

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