Standing in his Waco backyard a little more than a decade ago, Bryan Shaw had a revelation. The lawn was filled with kids and their parents, there to celebrate the fourth birthday of Shaw’s oldest son, Noah. Among them was a preschooler whom Shaw watched happily crawl all around, occasionally picking up one of many toys that littered the grass and popping it into his mouth.

The boy had been born with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, that resulted in the removal of both of his eyes. Shaw remembers watching as an “intense expression of concentration” spread across his face as he examined each toy. “I just thought, he’s kind of visualizing that with his mouth.”  

The realization that this blind boy could picture the toys, maybe in even greater detail than his sighted peers could, eventually struck Shaw, a chemistry professor at Baylor University, as an important insight for making science more accessible. Including for his own son.

Noah was born in 2008, and like many doting parents, Shaw’s wife Elizabeth couldn’t stop taking pictures of the newborn. She became troubled by a white reflection visible at the center of Noah’s eyes in the photos. An ophthalmologist confirmed their worst fears, diagnosing their son with retinoblastoma. The white reflection was caused by tumors. After Noah underwent radiation and chemotherapy, his right eye had to be removed to prevent the cancer from spreading.

The Shaws caught Noah’s condition several months after he was born, but there’s a chance his eye could have been preserved had his condition been diagnosed sooner. A couple of years into Noah’s treatment, hoping to help other parents detect signs of retinoblastoma earlier, Shaw created software to compare a photo of a child’s eye with a vast database of images of retinoblastoma patients to identify “white eye,” the condition that led to Noah’s eventual diagnosis. The program is now widely available as a smartphone app.

And since that backyard birthday party in 2012, Shaw has led the development of tools for the visually impaired. Among these were three-dimensional representations of protein molecules, each model the size of a piece of candy, designed for students to place in their mouths to help them picture the molecules much as the preschooler did with the toys in Shaw’s backyard. Mona Minkara, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Boston’s Northeastern University who has been blind since childhood, says such models are effective because our tongues have much greater tactile sensitivity than our fingers.

Minkara was among the collaborators Shaw invited to help design and test his latest innovation. By 3D printing thin sheets of resin with elevated details, the Baylor lab created a book of “lithophanes” depicting data and images from a scientific textbook—in one case, an image of a butterfly at increasing levels of magnification—that students with blindness could examine with their hands. A study published in the January issue of the journal Science Advances demonstrated that the lithophanes helped level the playing field of science education for the visually impaired—but Shaw’s team isn’t content to stop there.

Growing up legally blind, Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer knew that science courses—particularly those in chemistry—were especially challenging for students like him. Even with the assistance of braille textbooks, certain material seemed beyond his reach because chemistry instruction relies heavily on visual representations and demonstrations. When he enrolled in a college chemistry course, “a bunch of professors from the chemistry department sat down with me and the disability coordinator at the university and said there is no way Matthew can learn chemistry because of his visual impairment,” Guberman-Pfeffer remembers.

Rather than dissuade him from taking the class, these admonitions challenged him to pursue a latent passion. He went on to ace that course and change his major from political science to chemistry. While it was true that he couldn’t, for example, see diagrams of the structures of molecules the same way that sighted students could, Guberman-Pfeffer came to understand that diagrams of atoms and molecules are just one means of representing things that no one can actually see.

In that sense, Guberman-Pfeffer considered chemistry a perfect field of study for students with blindness because they’re already experts at making sense of an invisible reality. Though he had to overcome numerous obstacles along the way—often spending untold hours poring over material that sighted students, aided by visual representations, could grasp much more quickly—and needed to rely on a sighted assistant to help complete work in the lab, Guberman-Pfeffer earned a doctorate in theoretical chemistry at the University of Connecticut. He numbered among those whom Shaw asked to test the effectiveness of the lithophanes. That eventually led to his joining the team at Baylor as a post-doctoral research associate.

The study in Science Advances, for which Guberman-Pfeffer and Minkara were coauthors, showed that the lithophanes enabled blind students to visualize the images at the same resolution as their sighted peers. When Hoby Wedler—a blind chemist and entrepreneur who has collaborated with Shaw on numerous projects, including the lithophane study—first ran his fingers along the elevated graphs and gel sequences printed on the paper-thin resin cards, he was “blown away.” Wedler had completed a doctorate in theoretical chemistry at the University of California, Davis, without ever getting the opportunity to visualize test results in real time with his colleagues. With the aid of lithophanes, that’s now possible blind and sighted students to do together.

Having made scientific data significantly more accessible, Shaw and his team are now focused on doing the same for laboratory work, in which blind scientists such as Wedler often must rely on sighted assistants. “I just want to try to make little, small parts of the world better for people like my son,” Shaw says.

On a recent Friday morning, throngs of undergrads flowed in and out of Baylor’s science building, a massive red-brick and columned structure near the center of the university’s campus. Through a series of heavy doors and down a wide corridor on the building’s first floor resides the Shaw lab.

Shaw walks casually down the lab’s narrow aisles while joking with graduate students and apologizing for the overwhelming smell of yeast emanating from large beakers in which undergraduates are conducting experiments. He shows off a large robotic station, the size of small pickup, that can be programmed to use its animatronic arms to combine materials and test reactions in a sealed enclosure. Though this device still needs tweaking, Shaw says, with the technology advancing rapidly, it’s easy to imagine a day when a blind chemist can type the tests they want to run into a computer and have the robot do the work for them.

It’s notable that Guberman-Pfeffer, Minkara, and Wedler each earned doctorates in theoretical chemistry, a subfield that requires less laboratory work. Shaw would love to see a day when a blind student completes a PhD in the lab-intensive field of experimental chemistry. Blind climbers have summited the tallest mountains in the world, and a blind college student played Division I football for USC, he notes. Why should the chemistry lab be more exclusive than that?

At the back of Shaw’s lab, near a row of 3D printers, a sighted student sits before a large window, with a long narrow pipette device in hand. She carefully loads gels into the tiny wells of an SDS-PAGE device, which separates molecules by weight and is ubiquitous in college chemistry labs. This student endures a lighthearted ribbing from Shaw for not using a tool designed in the lab to make the process easier for blind and sighted students alike.

By way of demonstration, Shaw has me sit down before the SDS-PAGE device and carefully insert the tiny pipette tip into its appointed slot. It’s challenging work for a novice. He then tells me to close my eyes and try to do it again. It’s seemingly impossible. But then Shaw clips on a device he calls the Zampoña (for its resemblance to the South American pan-flute). It was designed by graduate student Levi Garza to create narrow runways that guide the tip of the pipette into exactly the right position. The Zampoña doesn’t turn me into an expert but, even with my eyes closed, I can slowly move the pipette into the proper position before injecting the gel into the appropriate well.   

Soon after the demonstration, Garza walks into the lab and explains the trial-and-error process involved in creating the device. A doctoral student in biochemistry, Garza had mastered the 3-D printer as an undergraduate. Shaw tasked him with making the SDS-PAGE system more accessible for students with visual impairments. Shaw offered input, and undergraduate Noah Cook, who lost his sight in high school after having been born with glaucoma that made him more susceptible to eye injuries, helped test and perfect the Zampoña. They plan to submit a paper on Garza’s invention to science journals later this year.

Cook, who plays music and rides a unicycle in his spare time, grew up in San Antonio and wasn’t much interested in schoolwork until after his vision loss. He enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2020, but it wasn’t a good fit. In addition to the challenges of adjusting to college as a student with blindness, he had to navigate pandemic restrictions that required remote classes, further exacerbating an already difficult experience. That’s when Cook connected with Shaw, who, despite his interest in making the chemistry lab accessible to students with blindness, had never had a blind chemistry major in his class. In fact, Cook is the first fully blind student to major in chemistry in Baylor’s 179-year history.

Cook has his own workspace in Shaw’s lab equipped with specialized tools, including a tactile printer that churns out documents with elevated lines so that Cook can feel with his hands the visual representations used in class, such as one depicting the structure of a molecule. Similarly, using a specialized notepad resembling a Magna Doodle, Shaw can draw the same illustration he’d draw on a whiteboard, apply heat to elevate the lines, then hand it to Cook to follow along just like his sighted classmates. Shaw says Cook has the potential to become—as far as he knows—the first chemist with total blindness to complete a doctorate in experimental chemistry, but he’s careful not to put unwanted expectations on the undergraduate. Cook isn’t sure what he wants to do after college, but he feels that a career in experimental chemistry is open to him, thanks in large part to the innovations from Shaw and his team. “If it’s not me, it’ll happen soon,” he says. “I don’t need to be the first person to do it. I’m just glad that the option’s open to anybody who wants to take it.”

Some of the work that excites Cook the most involves the lab’s recent collaborations with high school students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Austin. Shaw and his team secured funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop an educational program aimed at making the chemistry lab more accessible to students with blindness. In October of each of the past two years, students from TBVI visited the Shaw lab for two days of instruction and experimentation.

For Cook it was one thing to test and retest the Zampoña as Garza was refining the design. But it was an entirely different thrill to watch high school students with blindness use the device to independently run an SDS-PAGE experiment in the lab. Counseling and advocating for these students is a growing passion for Cook. “I don’t need to tell them that it’s going to be hard,” he says of a career in chemistry. “They already know that. I think what they’re looking for is like, Is this even possible?” When they get to use these tools in the lab, he says, they begin to grasp that it is.

Guberman-Pfeffer is similarly invested in the next generation of chemists with blindness. He says it’s impossible to know what future contributions blind chemists will make, but it’s inevitable that their unique perspectives will advance the discipline. “The tenacity and ingenuity that a blind person has learned from problem solving their way to make it into the door of a chemistry lab,” he says, “is a great asset thereafter.”