Season 5 - Episode 530
How can a chemistry lab be made accessible so that students with blindness can pursue their love of science and build a career? Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is asking these questions and providing answers. In this Baylor Connections, he takes listeners inside the specific approaches to inclusion science for chemistry labs and concepts, and shares how a significant grant from the National Institutes of Health is boosting these efforts.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith. Today we are talking with Bryan Shaw about an exciting new project, a series of projects, if you will, to make labs, chemistry labs, and concepts more accessible, particularly to people with blindness and visual impairment. Dr. Shaw serves as professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor. Recently was awarded a $1.3 million NIH grant to fund a first of its kind effort to provide tools to eliminate barriers that exclude students with blindness or visual impairment from pursuing chemistry education and lab experiences. Five-year grant, in partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, will use high-tech and low-tech hacks to make science education tactile. We'll talk about what that means. There's a major paper coming out a few weeks from now. This is a next step, if you will, in Dr. Shaw's research that serve families with blindness in other ways as well. Projects are personal as well as professional. His son, Noah, was diagnosed as an infant with retinoblastoma, a pediatric eye cancer. Now 14, Noah is thriving despite losing sight in one eye. Past research projects include the White Eye Detector app and gelatin models to improve visualization of molecules for students. Doctor Shaw, we've had you on the program before, but it's great to have you again to talk about this. Thanks for joining us.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah, it's great to be back, Derek.
Derek Smith:Well, obviously you're a busy man. We talk about the research projects you're doing. I don't know if there's a typical week, but if we were to eavesdrop, if we were just to sit in the back of your lab and watch what's going on these days, what would we see?
Bryan Shaw:Well, in science, it's tough to observe a system without perturbing it. So every time I go in the lab, it looks like things are going well. We're a biochemistry lab. We work on electron transfer and protein misfolding, but now we have these newer projects, science inclusion, I call it, or inclusion science. That involves a lot of 3D printing, robotics. You'd see several blind people in the lab. They're visiting a lot these days. Some are undergrads, some are PhD scientists. So you'd see a diverse group of people.
Derek Smith:Well, the picture of what we're going for through this, certainly. I gave a brief description of the NIH grant and the project that really goes very multifaceted. How would you describe it?
Bryan Shaw:Well, the grant, we're really tackling two issues here. One is data. How do you make the data, the imagery, the 3D imagery, the 2D imagery of chemistry and science in general? How do you make it accessible to people who are blind, who are completely blind? And then the second part is, how do you make the lab accessible to them so that they can come in and test hypotheses and do lab work and be part of a chemistry lab? So we're really going at both those topics. We're trying to solve both those problems.
Derek Smith:So it's in labs, but it could be in classrooms, in preparing for that. It could be any number of labs.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah, the labs, it could be research labs, it could be classroom labs, or it could be the classroom. How do we make all of these stunning images of science that not only teach us about science, but get us interested in the beginning? How do we make that accessible so that a blind person can visualize it? Because blind people don't have a problem visualizing things, the visual cortex is fine. They just have to visualize things differently than us, often by tactile sensing.
Derek Smith:Bryan, you were telling us about the grant itself. You put a series of images on the grant that the NIH funded. Could you tell us a... I think that paints a great picture of the vision, if you will, for this.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah, yeah. It's interesting to have a story on a grant, but there is something special here. This is different. Normally when you're writing a grant, the first figure is maybe some data or some molecular structures or some equations. But I went out on a limb here when I was writing this, this beast of a proposal. And the first figure was people. It was just a line of about 12 or 13 pictures of people from the 1600s up until now who have reached the top of their craft despite being totally blind from an early age. The first person was Nicholas Anderson, a mathematician who was born in the 1600s, died in the 1700s. He was at Cambridge. He was a famous mathematician, blind from the age of one.
Bryan Shaw:The last image was a football player, long snapper at USC who had both of his eyes removed when he was a kid because of retinoblastoma. His name's Jake Olson. He's a neat guy. I've talked to him. But I left one little box empty and I had a question mark in it. Under that box, I had experimental chemist written, because really, we haven't seen a world famous experimental chemist who's been blind since birth or very early on. We're starting to get more theoretical chemists and chemical educators who have been blind from early on, but we haven't seen the experimental chemistry cracked yet. And that was interesting to think about.
Derek Smith:What really paints a picture of the goal that you're going for through this project in a number of ways. When you think about that, help us understand maybe for people without a science background, why the barriers in experimental chemistry and how central is chemistry for anyone who wants to be a scientist, whether they're visually impaired or not.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah. I kind of think of chemistry as ground zero in terms of inclusion and accessibility. As educators, we're always trying to mop up the last remaining puddles of implicit bias we have towards groups. But in chemistry, it's an issue of explicit bias when we're talking about blind kids. I mean, they're purposely kept out of the lab often because of safety, or historically, they're kept out of the lab. It's too dangerous, it's too visual, et cetera, cetera. And that's a problem because chemistry is the central science. So if you keep people out of chemistry, you keep them out of a lot of other different fields, biology, molecular biology, biophysics, material science. You even keep them out of patent law maybe, medicine. So if we can crack chemistry, if we can make the chemistry lab totally accessible to people with blindness, I think that proves a lot about what we can do in other fields.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. You work with on this project a number of great scientists who are blind or visually imperative in some way. But I mean, are they the exception to the rule right now?
Bryan Shaw:Well, we work with three PhD scientists, Dr. Hoby Wedler, Dr. Mona Minkara and Dr. Cary Supalo, and they're amazing. I mean, they're totally amazing people. You would probably call them the exception. There are not many people who have earned PhDs in chemistry despite early blindness. I mean, I think you're talking about maybe 15 or 20 people.
Bryan Shaw:Certainly chemists lose vision later in life, after they've already received their training and everything. And if any chemists are listening to this, they may think to themselves, "Oh, that's a crazy idea to expect that a blind person can be an experimental chemist. Let's just have them do theoretical chemistry." But I tell my students, in the life of an experimental chemist, you actually only do the experiments for a short period of time: grad school, undergrad, grad school, and then post doc. After that, your students do all the experiments.
Bryan Shaw:So you were already getting all the assistance you need. So if we can make those years work more easily for people with blindness, then we can start seeing more experimental chemists who are blind. Another thing about chemistry is, we're dealing with molecules, and nobody can see molecules anyway. Their size is below the diffraction limit of visible light, so you literally cannot see them with your eyes. You can see a bacteria with your eyes if you look in a light microscope, not with a molecule or an atom. So that's all we do as chemists, is dream up complex assistive technology to help us, sighted people, visualized things, molecules that we can't see. So even though chemistry's kind of the worst defender when it comes to being exclusive for people with blindness, we're actually cut out and trained to really deal with it in a better way than anyone else, I think.
Derek Smith:I visited with Dr. Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. And Bryan, many people listening probably know your son Noah's story, or at least have seen it in some place. But what has been the impact of his journey and maybe the community, his experience with retinoblastoma and visual impairment has brought you into contact with?
Bryan Shaw:Well yeah, so the white eye detector was a direct result of living through that as a parent. But this project on accessibility and science, it came out of his friend actually. We were having a birthday party in my backyard for Noah, and one of his friends came from Dallas. This little boy, I think he was about four years old at the time. He had had both of his eyes removed from retinoblastoma. And it was the first bilaterally enucleated totally blind person I had ever interacted with. I was just on high alert. It was like, you had a celebrity in the house or something. You're just watching their every move. I was watching him crawl around in my backyard on the St. Augustine grass, and he'd stop every once in a while. He's crawling on all fours and he'd stop every once in a while. He'd pick something up, we have all sorts of stuff in the backyard, and he'd put it in his mouth and then he'd take it out. He'd crawl around, he'd put something else in his mouth. Now, kids put everything in their mouth all the time, but I just felt like he was using his mouth to look at this in a way. He would pause and it was like he was kind of thinking about it. And I thought, "Wow, that kid's using his mouth maybe to visualize what he can't see." And that's where the first light bulb came. We got into this sort of mouth model idea. This whole thing, the grant, everything, that was kind of the genesis moment. Yeah, my backyard at a birthday party.
Derek Smith:Wow. Great ideas can be sparked anywhere, I guess. That's interesting.
Bryan Shaw:Good thing I didn't go to work that day.
Derek Smith:That's true.
Bryan Shaw:Don't skip the birthday parties.
Derek Smith:Well, that's good. Well, it's going to pay off in a lot of ways. What have you learned? I think for most of us who have sight, we feel things probably without really thinking about it a lot. There's intentionality to what Noah's friend was doing, is what you're saying. How powerful is that tactile sense?
Bryan Shaw:Oh, it's tremendous. I can't talk too much about our paper that's coming out in a few weeks, but when we test blind people's ability to visualize complex data, graphs, electron micrographs versus sighted people, there's no difference.
Derek Smith:And it's just simply what they feel and visualize through their hands rather their eyes.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah. Yeah. I don't even like the word visually impaired because... And a lot of my friends don't either. They like blind. A lot of my blind friends like to be called blind because they're not visually impaired. They can visualize things just fine. The visual cortex is terrific. They're optically impaired. They have a problem detecting light, focusing light, processing light. But as far as visualizing things, 3D things, 2D things, whatever, they're great.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. We are visiting on Baylor Connections with Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor. So let's take listeners inside the lab now here. Whether it's Noah or his friend or students who are working in the lab, right now, dealing with blindness. So you got this lab, a lot of stuff in it, where do you begin? Where do you begin to make it accessible?
Bryan Shaw:Well, the data, the imagery, the things we use to learn about science, the data we produce in our experiments, that needs to be made accessible. And we have that down. We have some quick conventional ways of doing it. It's well-formed paper, which you print something on this special paper and you feed it through this heater. And wherever the black lines are, whether it's text or a structure or whatever, it shoots up out of the plane of the page and then you can feel it. We have our high resolution 3D printing operation going. We have all that down. The lab, making the lab accessible is, of course, much more difficult, but we have a new addition. We have this massive robot that our chairman, John Wood, the Welch chair here in chemistry, it's his robot and he lets us use it. It's sitting in our lab now. It's so big we had to take it apart to get it through the door. Not only is it a cool robot, but it's inside an airtight blast proof glove box so that if there's any dangerous experiments going on, nobody can get hurt. This robot will weigh out powders. It'll put the powders into a vial, it'll shoot in different liquids, it'll heat and stir. It'll do all the things that you often see a chemist doing, but it'll be able to do it automatically and safely. And so that completely takes away all of the danger and the risk of handling dangerous chemicals. That's a big part of what we're doing. And then we're just streaming up simple ways to make common tools in the lab accessible. Some of these we borrow from people and some we create on our own, for example, the touch screen on our pH meter. Touch screens are a problem, right? You don't want to put a braille label on any button on a touch screen because you'll kind of screw up the touch screen. So we found that we could just take parafilm, which is this just ubiquitous material in all labs. It's kind of stretchy Saran wrap, if you will. You can put that on the touch screen and it'll still work. And then you can put the braille labels on the parafilms. You don't mess up the touch screen. With the graduated cylinders, these are the super tall columns that we use to measure liquid accurately, you can put little foam buoys in them inside. And as the water's going up and up and up and up and up and up, you can feel how high up it goes and what the volume is. That's a hack we learned from Laura Hospital down at Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Hot glue, you can make anything tactile real quick with hot glue. So there are certain tools in lab like thin layer chromatography, these little plates with dots on them, the dots are basically the molecules, and you can dab glue on them and feel where the spot is if you can't see it. So yeah, we're going high tech, we're going low tech. We'll go wherever we need to.
Derek Smith:So everything from robots so big you had to take it through the door, to the bottle of glue that you can get at the grocery store, the art store, what have you, you're thinking all up and down the ladder here, I guess.
Bryan Shaw:Yep. And chemists, that's what we do anyway normally.
Derek Smith:Yeah. We talk about in the lab, and it makes sense if you can make it where they can maneuver around the lab and gain some sense of where they are on the machinery, a touch screen or what have you, that's important. But then there's also, like you said, the data visualization, being able to picture the structure, whether it is, you said, tactile, whether through the mouth or whether it's through touch. One area that you talk about is lithophane, which was term probably a lot of us have heard somewhere but maybe couldn't tell you exactly what it is. So what is lithophane?
Bryan Shaw:Yeah, this is interesting. So lithophanes were probably invented in the sixth or seventh century in China. They were definitely invented at least in 1820s, Europe, but they probably go back all the way to the Tang dynasty in China. It's basically a thin etching or a thin engraving. And when you hold it up to the light, it looks like a picture. The thicker regions scatter more light and appear darker, and the thinner regions appear lighter. And the Chinese and the Europeans would make these lithographs or lithophanes out of thin porcelain or even certain types of wax. So you would have kind of an engraving or an etching, a 3D graphic, if you will, that looks cool. You can look down at it, and you're like, "Oh wow, look at that little carving." But then you hold it up to the light and it looks just like a picture. So after we published that paper on the tiny mouth models, making 3D imagery accessible, I said, "Well, let's do 2D imagery too. It's a little boring, but let's do it. Okay, we'll do the graphs, the mass spectrum, the X, Y plots, electron micrographs, microscope images. Let's make the boring tactile graphics, 2D graphics." So Juan Lopez, an undergrad in the lab, he was basically Johnny-on-the-spot with the 3D printer. So we started making these graphics and I said, "Oh wow, that's cool." I said, "Can you make them thinner? If you make them thinner, we'll use less material and it'll be cheaper and quicker." And then he made them super thin. And I was like, "Wow, that's like potato chip thin," but you could feel the graphic coming up. And then I held it up to the light and I was like, "Oh, my gosh. It's like you're seeing it on a video screen." So for like a week, I thought I had invented the lithophane. I was like, "Oh, we've done it now. We're going to be everywhere." I didn't know what a lithophane was. After searching online, I found out, "Yeah, these were probably invented in the 600s by the Chinese." And it's what you might call prior art.
Bryan Shaw:And it's what the patent folks call prior art. But what's beautiful here is, this is universal visualization. We can sit in a meeting. I can look at the lithophane and hold it up to light. It looks exactly like the data I'd see on the computer screen, and the blind person can feel it and everything I can see, they can feel. So it's universal data visualization. We have a paper coming out on that, but I can't talk to you about it.
Derek Smith:Well, it'll be forthcoming. You'll see it.
Bryan Shaw:It's forthcoming.
Bryan Shaw:But I think I can say that much because I didn't invent lithophanes.
Bryan Shaw:So I can talk about them.
Derek Smith:It can be data, it can be basic concepts. I mean, we're talking about the lab, but I think most of us are picturing a collegiate lab, but this could go into classrooms in theory, across America.
Bryan Shaw:And not even science, the humanities, anything. Any picture you see, we can make it tactile and we can do it in a way to where it just looks beautiful to the sighted person and is perfectly functional for the person with blindness.
Derek Smith:What role did lithophane, or what parts of this do you think had the biggest impact with the NIH saying, "Hey, we want to make a significant investment in this"?
Bryan Shaw:So when I was writing the NIH grant, when I was writing that NIH grant last year, we hadn't really cracked into lithophanes yet. It actually happened kind of after I submitted it, it really took off. So I actually described lithophanes in a supplemental report. After you submit the grant, they asked you, "You've got anything else?" a few months later. And so we put it in there. And then the money came in very quickly. And when we were working on the paper during the revision process, we needed to do some more experiments. So we started using the money right away to do those extra experiments. So yeah, this grant started in April and the first paper is going to be out in two weeks.
Derek Smith:That's fast.
Bryan Shaw:Nice. NSF helped too.
Derek Smith:That's good. That's good. We're visiting with the Bryan Shaw. We're headed to the final couple of minutes. And I want to ask, you mentioned partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Paired. How are students there going to participate in this, make this even more accessible to other people?
Bryan Shaw:Yeah. So TSBVI, there's two types of students at TSBVI. There's the students that live there, about 150, and then there's the students who come there on the short-term programs from all around the state to learn tricks and stuff about being blind. Some of these children maybe lost vision later in life, maybe high school or junior high. Some maybe were born blind. So we get the resident and the non-resident students the program is designed for. Right now, it's looking like we're going to bring them here during what's called college week for TSBVI, where kids from around the state come in on a short-term program and then they get to go visit a college, high schoolers get to go visit a college to see what college is like. So they're going to be getting on the Wildcat bus and coming up to Waco.
Bryan Shaw:Ninth through 12th grade.
Derek Smith:That's great. And then you-
Bryan Shaw:That's the plan. The first pilot program's going to be in October, and we're going to see how well this works.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm. Now you can iterate from there and I'm sure you'll figure out some things. Yeah.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, that's exciting that they can be here and be a part of that. And as we wind down, just to close, I want to ask you, this is a project that still seems like it's growing, there's more that can come from it, what are you most excited about as you sort of look ahead to where this could lead?
Bryan Shaw:Well, this is just the beginning. What we really want to do is... I mean, I want to create like a Justice League of science, where it's instead of special powers, maybe it's special needs, I don't know. And not just blindness, but autism, downs, mobility issues. I want to make a lab, a universal lab that works for everyone because I think science is a great place for all people, the lab. I think there's a place for everyone in lab. This past semester I was being the assistant for a blind student during his analytical chemistry lab every Thursday from 2:00 to 6:00. So I would help him, we'd go to lab, help him weigh stuff out, read instruments. And I thought, "Well, lots of people could do this." I mean, him combined with somebody else, maybe somebody with down syndrome or a mobility issue, maybe a tetraplegic person. We can combine everybody and then work in a team. And there's a place and a project and science for everyone. So, I kind of want to do that. I want to grow it and get it bigger. But I hope our work inspires a young person with blindness to get into experimental chemistry, get an academic job, and make huge contributions and win big awards.
Derek Smith:Maybe someday when you retire, they'll take over your spot here at Baylor.
Bryan Shaw:Yeah. That'd be great.
Derek Smith:Well, that's really a powerful and compelling vision, and we appreciate that. Look forward to seeing more. And Bryan, I'll say, as someone, my dad's been blind since I was three years old, this really resonates with me. It's amazing to see what you're doing. So I appreciate you doing that and coming on to share with us today.
Bryan Shaw:Thanks, Derek.
Derek Smith:Thank you very much. Dr. Bryan Shaw, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this in other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.