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blind man hand holding cane

057: “I’m a scientist. And I’m blind.”

When we imagine what life is like for people who are blind, our first reaction might be paralysis. We consider just how difficult our lives would be without sight; preparing breakfast, dressing for work, and navigating from home to the lab sound like insurmountable obstacles.

And if those trivial tasks seem daunting, consider your work day.  Could you keep up with the pace of scientific research, running experiments and publishing papers with your eyes closed?

In our imaginary blindness, many of us would despair and find an alternative career path, but we’re missing a very important distinction between the thought experiment and reality.

The fact is, people who have been blind since birth have developed the skills to leap each and every hurdle we’ve listed. It’s a normal part of every day to commute to work or read a scientific paper.

Their biggest struggle may be overcoming the decidedly limited imaginations of their sighted peers.

Expect Success

This week on the show, we interview Kevin Currin, a second year grad student in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology who also happens to be legally blind.

Kevin’s passion for science started at a young age, and he spent time building his research skills prior to applying to graduate school. Importantly, he also used that time to build a network in the science community. As he got to know other students and faculty, they learned about his drive and perseverance, as well as some of the tools he uses to get his work done.

Taking a few minutes to understand how Kevin interacts with the artifacts of scientific research goes a long way toward helping his sighted colleagues understand why he’s so good at what he does.

  • Reading papers: Screen reader software recites the content on the computer line by line at whatever speed he chooses.  He’s trained his ear to listen at higher speeds, so he’ll read an entire paper in the time it takes most people to get through the introduction.
  • Programming: Similar answer, but the code he writes is echoed back to him as he types.
  • Data Analysis: Data visualization is out, but he argues that many scientists use graphs and summary statistics in a way that actually obscures data. Depending on the data set, he’ll either consume the raw table, or define the metrics that answer his questions.
  • Presentation: Giving scientific talks is no problem, but he will enlist outside opinions when making his slides.  He initially spent time considering whether a bar chart or scatter plot would appeal to his audience, but since this is not how he perceives the data, he leaves that choice up to others who have a vested interest.

Of course, Kevin’s road to success hasn’t been without bumps.  He’s encountered his share of misunderstanding and bias (one faculty interviewer completely dismissed the notion that Kevin could conduct research at all.)  Still, he’s found a community that supports his scientific aspirations, and he’s doing his part to make the path easier for other blind individuals.

Kevin is passionate about changing the expectations for the blind.  He says that our culture, and even parents of blind children, see career success as a happy anomaly, reserved for the few savants and geniuses of the blind community.  Mediocrity is the expected default.

But to change that, he calls for all of us to expect blind students and colleagues to perform as well as their sighted counterparts.  It reveals our own implicit bias when we say things like “I can’t believe how well you did on that test” or “It’s so impressive that you were able to get into graduate school.”  We certainly would not repeat those phrases to other minority groups!

In addition to resetting our expectations, Kevin calls for broader and better outreach efforts.  Members of the blind community can reach out to local schools to mentor younger students. Existing diversity programs can embrace those with disabilities, and new programs are needed to serve these underserved populations.

That increased engagement and diversity benefits the entire scientific community.

Kevin concludes, “When you have people who are approaching [a problem] from completely different sides, it increases the possibility that you’ll find better ways to do things.”

A Garden Party, with Giraffes

On a more inane subject, Josh brings us the news that giraffes are not one, but FOUR different species.

“That’s the most important thing I’ve heard all day!” said no one ever.

We also sample a free beer from Free State Brewing company sent by a listener in Kansas.  It’s the Garden Party Lager, with notes of cucumber, basil and juniper berry.  One reviewer describes it as “Grassy, in a good way.”

We describe it as “free, in the best way!”

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