Making Chemistry More Accessible To Blind And Low-Vision People

16:15 minutes

A man holding a small rectangular pane up to a window with a detailed texture etched into it. The texture resembles small patches of horizontal lines, each forming a group that overlaps over another group of lines.
Baylor University chemist Bryan F. Shaw shows a tactile lithophane codex of a butterfly, which high-school students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired used as the base image, allowing them to go deeper into the innerworkings of the insect. Students were tested for their understanding of the layers of scales and cells on each lithophane, with students demonstrating mastery of the images through touch. Credit: Matthew Minard, Baylor University

The field of chemistry is filled with visual experiences, from molecular diagrams to color-changing reactions to data displayed as peaks and waves on a spectrograph. Those experiences and representations are not very accessible to blind and low-vision people. In a recent article in the journal Science Advances, a group of researchers describes using 3D printing to create translucent raised images known as lithophanes that can represent high-resolution chemical data in a tactile and visual form simultaneously.

Left: A texturally complex translucent object passing through a person's mouth. Right: A hand holds up an index card with 8 popcorn kermel-sized red objects shrink wrapped on its surface.
D) A small model of a molecule meant to be felt with a tongue. E) Smaller models can be coded with flavor and shrink wrapped. Credit: Baumer et al., 2021.

Biochemist Dr. Bryan Shaw joins Ira Flatow to discuss the approach, and other techniques and tools his lab group at Baylor University is developing to make the lab more accessible to blind and low-vision researchers—from specialized devices that assist in the loading of gels for protein electrophoresis, to tiny molecular models that are best experienced by putting them on the tongue.

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Bryan Shaw

Dr. Bryan Shaw is a professor of Biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I want you to think back to chemistry class, not a good thought for me but maybe for you. You recall you’ve got those diagrams of molecules, maybe some of those ball-and-stick models, like Tinkertoys. And in the lab, you see rows of bottles and vials. Perhaps you look at peaks on a graph.

Well, those experiences all rely in large part on vision, making them less accessible to blind and low-vision people. Scientists, though, are now working to make chemistry more accessible using techniques that include 3D printing that let students feel the data. Joining me now is Dr. Bryan Shaw. He’s a professor of biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and one of the authors describing the touchy techniques in the journal Science Advances. Welcome to Science Friday.

BRYAN SHAW: Hey, Ira. Great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, can you describe these tactile prints for me? What are they like?

BRYAN SHAW: Well, tactile graphics have been around for a while, but the ones we’re developing, yes, they’re tactile. But they’re also visual. So they’re universal. They’re what artists call lithophanes.

So it is a tactile graphic that will project whatever you see on the video screen as a tactile readout. But the material we make them of, it’s a translucent, not transparent but translucent, polymer. So if you hold them up to the light, like a room light, they’ll start glowing in this picture-perfect fashion that looks like just what you see on the video screen.

So as a sighted person, I can see the data. And then my colleagues with blindness can feel the data. And we can basically sit around a table and talk about the exact same piece of high-resolution data on the same level.

IRA FLATOW: And you say high resolution. It has to be high resolution.

BRYAN SHAW: Well, a lot of the data that we’ve been printing are, for example, polyacrylamide gels, or NMR spectra, or mass spectra. So we want the noise in the data. The noise is a very important part of data. We don’t want sort of idealized schematic graphs of NMR, or mass spectra or anything, we want the real stuff. And so yeah, this high resolution allows us to get the data to everyone in its pure raw form.

IRA FLATOW: So when they feel it, they can feel the tiny little parts there.

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget. One of our collaborators, he’s had blindness since he was born. Hoby Wedler, he has a PhD in physical organic chemistry from UC Davis. And the first time he felt noise, he freaked out. He was like, I’ve been hearing about noise forever. And it was really cool.

So he actually was the one who pointed that out to us, how important that is. Of course, we know it as scientists, but we take it for granted sometimes.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. Tell me how you actually make them. They are 3D printed, correct?

BRYAN SHAW: Yeah. We are not gurus of 3D printing. We’re experimental protein biochemists, and we make them with the regular forms lab 3D printer, commercially available. They’re about $3,500, $5,000. And we made them accidentally, actually.

We started out with 3D imagery, making tiny little models. Some of them were edible. Some of them were made of dental resin. You could put them in your mouth.

And we were doing 3D models. And then we got to the 2D graphics and 2D data, like in a book. And we thought that was going to be kind of boring, and so we started making these graphs. And the student, the undergraduate at Baylor, Juan Lopez, made the graphics so thin so they would print out quick and use less resin that they started glowing when we held them up to the light. And so we thought we had invented the lithophane, but it turns out the Chinese probably invented them in 600 or 700 AD using a thin porcelain. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: I want to pick up on something interesting that you said. You said you put them in your mouth or some people put them in their mouths. Why would you do that?

BRYAN SHAW: Well, so we have 2D images. We make these little 2D tactile graphics. But we also have small little 3D tactile graphics.

And it turns out your tongue, it’s a muscular hydrostat, sort of like an octopus arm, and it’s your finest tactile sensor. The spatial acuity of your tongue is about half a millimeter. Your fingertips are about 1 millimeter. And your lips are really good, too.

And it’s a hydrostat, so it’s squishy. You can squish it into little binding pockets on a 3D model of a tiny protein or something. And so you can sense things a little bit better than you can with your fingers, or at least some people can.

So we use all the tactile sensors– the fingers, the lips, the mouth. And of course, the mouth gives you the ability to encode information about the model with flavor and stuff like that. So we don’t want to leave any tactile sensor behind. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool because I know you can eat something and feel a little grain of sand, even, there. That’s how sensitive your mouth is.

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, yeah. Think about a blackberry. That has the same bulbar topology as a protein model. And yeah, you can feel that with your fingers, but when you pop that thing into your mouth, it’s just a whole new world. And we’ve watched little kids with total blindness putting things in their mouth, and pausing, and thinking about it a lot, so that’s kind of how we got the idea, watching kids with blindness play around. My son’s legally blind, so that’s kind of how we got into this.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

BRYAN SHAW: Yeah. My son was born with tumors in both of his eyes, so we’ve always lived in this world of visual impairment. And even though we’re regular biochemists, our work has just shadowed his development and his needs.

IRA FLATOW: And I know your lab does other sorts of accessibility work, too. What are some of the other techniques you’re experimenting with?

BRYAN SHAW: So the first part was, yeah, to make the data accessible, 2D and 3D data, and we feel like we’ve got that nailed down. We can make any data accessible to a person with blindness. So now, we’re moving into the lab to make all the experimental tools accessible.

And we’re doing it one piece at a time. And we’ve started out with the most common analytical tool in the life sciences, gel electrophoresis. So we’ve created this cool little device that clamps onto a gel electrophoresis box for proteins, and it allows people with blindness to load gels, which, if you’re in biochemistry, you can do that all day.

So it’s cool. We brought in a bunch of kids from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and we had them try to load the gels, inject their samples in with the tiny little pipettes. And of course, it was impossible to do. But once we gave them this device– we call it a zampoña because it looks like a pan flute.

Once we gave it to them, they were able to load gels like total rock stars. They got beautiful data. And it was pretty cool to see.

IRA FLATOW: Did you actually have to make a device for them?

BRYAN SHAW: Yeah, we did. A graduate student in the lab, Levi Garza, spent about four months designing it, 3D printing prototypes, tinkering with it. And he’s got something that works beautifully, so we’ll be publishing that probably next year.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. What about labels and things? Do they have Braille on them or some kind of touchy-feely stuff?

BRYAN SHAW: Yep, you can use Braille. One of our undergraduate students in the lab, Noah Cook, he has total blindness. He likes to use these shape labels– triangles, circles, squares, hexagons– and he has his own little code in his notebook with a more descriptive explanation in Braille. But he likes simple explicit graphics for his test tubes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, how do the blind people in the lab help you make these better? Do they come up with suggestions? You know, if you did this a little differently, I could feel it a little better.

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, they totally do. We work with a bunch of people with blindness. Some of them have PhDs and were born with blindness. Some of them developed blindness later. Some of them are undergrads.

And from the beginning, the design, to the prototypes, to the testing, they’re always telling us what they want. And what’s really cool is the end product ends up helping everyone. I have 47-year-old eyes, so it’s kind of hard for me to load gels now, even though I’m not technically visually impaired. But once we put this device on, it’s super easy. So that’s kind of one of the cool things about universal design, when you build something that can work for everyone.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. I mentioned Braille before, but I know a little bit about Braille. And I think it could be a little bit confusing, those little dots, when you’re talking about reading versus chemical nomenclature.

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, you’re exactly right. So first of all, only about 10% of people with blindness read Braille, so there is a Braille literacy challenge there. But you’re right. A lone pair of electrons looks like– I think, it’s b in Braille. And Lewis dot structures have some overlap with Braille, so it can get a little confusing.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me a little bit about the phrase “assistive technologies”. You say that many of the instruments we see in the lab are actually assistive technologies. What does that connote?

BRYAN SHAW: Yeah. So a really famous chemist with blindness, Hoby Wedler, always liked to point out, nobody can see atoms. Nobody can see individual molecules below the diffraction limit of visible light. So as chemists, were always making assistive technology to help us visualize or see things that we are never going to see with our eyes.

So a synchrotron, or an electron microscope, or even an NMR machine, or a mass spectrometer, these are really all forms of assistive technology, things we make to help us overcome our limitations in perceiving our world. So as chemists, we’re kind of used to flying blind, I guess you’d say, thinking about things we’re never going to be able to see.

And so yeah, we’re making assistive technology in the lab, like this little device that helps people with blindness load gels. But we’re also surrounded by assistive technology, and we just don’t always think of it that way. But that’s really what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think it’s necessary to be completely independent in a lab?

BRYAN SHAW: No, I don’t think so. When we’re training these students with blindness to be researchers, to be able to test hypotheses experimentally, I don’t think they need to be totally independent. I’m not totally independent in the lab.

I’m a tenured professor of biochemistry. I don’t really do the experiments anymore. [LAUGHS] The graduate students do. I analyze the data. I walk through the lab every day.

IRA FLATOW: I’m shocked. I’m shocked. [LAUGHS]

BRYAN SHAW: Yeah, I’m a scientist, but I’m not. And so we want to be able to train these students to be able to play their part to be able to contribute and to be able to test hypotheses, analyze data, and be part of a scientific team because that’s what science is now. We’re all dependent on each other.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Now, you’re experimenting, and creating, and pioneering these techniques. Does any of this, so to speak, leak out of your lab into other people’s labs so they can do the same thing?

BRYAN SHAW: It’s starting to. I have a collaborator– her name is Mona Minkara– and she’s been on some of our lithophanes papers as a contributor, as a co-author. But I met her after we did the mouth models, these tiny little models that go in your mouth.

And one day, I was Zooming with her, and I saw some tiny little models with dental floss attached to them. And they were clearly mouth models. And I said, Mona, are you actually putting the models in your mouth? She’s like, yes, Bryan. I love it. It’s awesome. So we haven’t assessed how many people are using these tools, but we think it’s leaking into other labs. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And because you’re publishing research on this, other people are, obviously, paying attention.

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, they’re paying attention. I actually just got an email this morning from a scientist from China who wants to collaborate. So you’re right. We’re publishing this work in the top journals, and it’s really cool that the scientific community is supportive.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Shaw, is chemistry better or worse suited to accessible research than other fields of science?

BRYAN SHAW: Well, it’s both. It’s better, and it’s worse. Historically, it’s been probably the most exclusive field and where people with disabilities or blindness are warned, stay out of the lab. It’s too dangerous. And that’s changing now.

But it’s also the best field for people with blindness because nobody can see atoms. Nobody can really see molecules. Biochemistry, chemistry, a whole chunk of this field of science is creating assistive technology to help you, me see things we can’t see, whether it’s a synchrotron or a x-ray crystal diffractor. So it’s historically one of the worst offenders, but it’s got a lot of potential to be more inclusive.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that there’s any way that AI, which is getting into everything, AI could make chemistry or science more inclusive?

BRYAN SHAW: Oh, sure. AI with machine vision, being able to wave your camera in front of something and basically identify it, whether it’s text, or structure, or some object, it’s totally going to help out in the lab. A cool app now is Be My AI, which is allowing people with blindness to basically identify things around them using their phone and AI.

So it’s going to play a huge role, AI and robotics. So the future’s bright. If you’re a kid out there, or a young person, or an adult with blindness and you want to get in the lab, the future’s a lot brighter than the past.

IRA FLATOW: Let me give you my blank-check question. If you had a blank check and you wanted to spend it on something that you really needed or to change the paradigm that you’re working in, how would you use that money?

BRYAN SHAW: You had a blank check, I would spend it growing what we’re doing, scaling it up to include people with other disabilities or other diverse abilities, whether they be intellectual, psychological, physical, developmental. Our world is becoming more science based. The economy is becoming more science based.

And I just don’t want to see anyone left out. And people with different abilities, from people with blindness to people with mobility disorders to people who are just slow learners, people with level 2 autism, level 3 autism, I don’t want them left out. And we have to remake the lab from the tools in it to the way it’s even designed to the way we behave in the lab. We have to rebuild it to make it accessible to all these different types of people because it’s not working for them right now. And so that’s what I’d do with the money.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that would be money well spent, Dr. Shaw. I hope you get it, and I want to thank you for your work and for taking time to be with us today.

BRYAN SHAW: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Bryan Shaw, professor of biochemistry at Baylor in Waco, Texas.

Copyright © 2023 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More