by Cary Supalo
From the Editor: Cary Supalo has become well known to many Monitor readers as he has moved from young student to graduate student and now to research scientist at Purdue. He is the president and founder of Independence Science, a small business that promotes the development of access technologies to provide hands-on learning science experiences for blind students. Cary won two scholarships from the National Federation of the Blind, one in 1994 and as a tenBroek Fellow in 2001. Here is what he has to say about setting a goal, working to achieve it, and encouraging other blind people to follow their dreams in fields many consider off limits for the blind:
Have you ever wondered why ice melts, why food spoils, or why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west? These are all examples of scientific questions people have asked over the centuries. What is this thing we call science? Some would say it is the quest for knowledge. Others would say it is us trying to understand phenomena in the world around us. Still others would define science as the quest for understanding. Whatever your definition, the most important correlation here between these is a desire to want to know more than we do. This wanting to know more is simply our innate human nature.
With science comes the ability to make and test hypotheses. What is a hypothesis? Most of you know that this is simply the asking of a scientific question and offering a tentative answer. What can that scientific question be about? About anything: Why aren't more blind people employed? How can I make more money? What do I want to do for a career?
There is a typical format for a hypothesis. It comes in the form of an if/then statement. If I go to college and obtain my bachelor's degree in physics, then this will lead to full-time employment with a company like Northrop Grumman. Another example might be: If I don't take no for an answer, then I will succeed in my professional development as a blind person.
It is this last hypothesis that I wish to focus on for a moment. We blind people are told so often we can't do x, y, or z that we tend to believe it. Further, we start to make up excuses why we can't do something, so soon we conflate the outer pressure and our inner dialogue and therein deprive ourselves of some wonderful opportunities.
Often people ask me how I became a chemistry professor. The short answer is that I first set that as my vocational goal and then stuck to my guns as I talked with my rehabilitation counselor. Fortunately I was able to persuade him to believe in me and that this was a reasonable goal. After changing my major seven times while I was an undergraduate student at Purdue, I wasn't sure sometimes that this was truly the path for me. Eventually I committed to and stayed on my path, despite some faculty shunning the idea of my majoring in chemistry. Although I had my critics, others at Purdue were supportive and believed in my ability and my dream.
Upon successful graduation from Purdue, I went on to graduate school at Penn State University. One of the first things you must do as a graduate student is choose your research advisor. For those of you interested in pursuing advanced degrees that require this step, this is the most important decision you will make in your education. To that end I was required to interview with four chemistry faculty. The first two I met with were nice and happy to tell me what their research was about. The third guy, after avoiding me several times and not showing up for my scheduled appointments, eventually did. He told me about his research. It was interesting. We then got into the discussion of my joining his research group. He told me no; he would not support that. He forthrightly told me he viewed me as a financial liability and did not think I would be a productive student. This honest commentary really set me back on my heels. So taken aback was I that I was afraid I could not attend my last appointment of the afternoon. I was upset, thinking that perhaps he was right and that I wasn't good enough; maybe the truth was that I could not do it.
When I arrived at my next interview, I sat down and tried to display as much confidence as I could, hoping the fact that I was rattled didn't show. I was quite nervous. I explained how I would do my bench work, working with the undergraduate students I would supervise. We talked about how I would work with chemical literature and interpret spectroscopic data using raised-line drawings. Upon the conclusion of our discussion, Dr. Mallouk welcomed me into his research group. I was surprised by this. I asked him if he had any questions about my proposed research methods. He said no. "Cary, you have been problem-solving your entire life to overcome challenges, and that is the epitome of what a scientist does."
For me this was revolutionary. I am referring to the idea that blind people are all lifelong problem-solvers in one way or another. Thus it makes sense to tap into this population of problem-solvers and to incorporate them into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce.
This is what I spent the next several years working on. I completed my master's degree in inorganic chemistry with an emphasis in catalysis. I made materials that lowered the activation energies of various chemical reactions. I had varying levels of success in this endeavor. I then obtained a National Science Foundation grant to fund the Independent Laboratory Access for the Blind or ILAB project. This project was an educational research study that hypothesized that, if there was a suite of talking and audible lab tools to be used in the high school chemistry class, then blind students would develop a greater interest in STEM. My data indicated, after field-testing the ILAB tools in fifteen high schools across the United States, that this was true in fourteen cases. Therefore, hands-on science learning is valuable to the blind just as it is for the sighted. This equality for all parallels something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."
The path to a STEM career requires lots of persistence by the blind, and simply getting over the fear of not having all the answers along the way as you progress up that staircase is key. Depending on your problem-solving skills to figure out how to meet the challenges you will encounter is perfect on-the-job training for becoming a STEM professional. Dr. King was quite a visionary, as were Dr. tenBroek, Dr. Jernigan, and Dr. Maurer. These are examples of leaders in the blindness movement who have been visionaries in their own right, who have supported us, and who have demonstrated faith that we can do whatever we put our minds to. We can't take no for an answer; rather we must persevere and work hard to stay on the path to making our dream—whatever it is—a reality.
One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.
The National Federation of the Blind has special giving opportunities that will benefit the giver as well as the NFB. Of course the largest benefit to the donor is the satisfaction of knowing that the gift is leaving a legacy of opportunity. However, gifts may be structured to provide more:
NFB programs are dynamic: