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Exterior shot of the Baylor Sciences Building
Exterior shot of the Baylor Sciences Building
Credit: Baylor University

Removing Barriers in a University Chemistry Lab

The Shaw Research Group at Baylor University receives NIH grant to improve accessibility to chemistry work

MaryBeth DiDonna

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Students and researchers in a chemistry lab must undertake a number of visual observations and record qualitative and quantitative explanations of these observations to complete their work. This research is difficult enough on its own, but for individuals with low or no sight, it presents a unique set of challenges and hazards. Students with blindness or low vision (BLV) who are interested in chemistry are often relegated to theoretical chemistry or education studies, having been told that experimental chemistry is too dangerous or just plain impossible for them. 

Bryan Shaw, PhD, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, TX, is working on ways to accommodate BLV students. The Shaw Research Group studies bio-inorganic chemistry and protein biophysics, with a focus on protein misfolding and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The lab’s work also covers medicinal chemistry and proteomics.

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Image of Bryan Shaw in his lab at Baylor University
Bryan Shaw in the Shaw Lab at Baylor University.
Credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

Baylor University announced in July 2022 that Shaw’s lab received a $1.3 million NIH grant for a first-of-its-kind early intervention project, which seeks to remove barriers to laboratory work for BLV students and offer tactile chemistry education materials and equipment. The grant is funded through the NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award program, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math projects for children in grades K-12. Shaw will use the grant to make his lab’s data and imagery accessible to BLV students, and to make the lab facility itself accessible to BLV students who want to study chemistry and work on experiments and research. 

How it started

The project is personal for Shaw, whose son, Noah, was diagnosed as an infant with retinoblastoma, an aggressive pediatric eye cancer. Noah’s diagnosis came while Shaw was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, and family photos showed a white reflection coming from Noah's eyes in flash pictures taken with the family's digital camera. It turns out that the camera flash was reflecting off tumors at the back of Noah's eyes, doctors later discovered. Noah underwent treatment and had his right eye removed to prevent the spread of the cancer.

Shaw holds up a lithophane to the camera.
Shaw shows a lithophane made with a 3D printer that is used to share scientific data with BLV students in his chemistry lab.
Credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

Noah, now 14 years old, is thriving. But the experience left an impression on Shaw, who says that the time he has spent with blind and low-sighted people has affected the way he runs his lab. “When you get into that world, you start interacting with a lot of blind people,” Shaw says, describing some individuals who had both eyes removed as very young children. “And I was wondering, will they be able to visualize all these cool things we get to see with our eyes? And so that's how I got into the accessibility issue. And then as my son got older and older, it first started with pictures and data, and making the data and the imagery accessible …  and then it evolved into making all of science accessible to them—the lab, the data, the classroom. So I spend a lot of time now doing that.

The five-year grant from the NIH will begin in October 2022, with a pilot project that will include students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin. The program will consist of 150 TSBVI students who will participate in science experiments both on the Baylor campus and in Shaw’s lab. A full program is expected to begin in spring 2023 and last through 2027. The project will also observe what’s needed to accommodate students with physical disabilities, such as mobility issues or wheelchair usage, to make the lab accessible to all. 

"It's really fun to help show people things that they otherwise wouldn't be able to see or help them accomplish something."

The lab already houses an advanced robot known as the Big Kahuna from Unchained Labs, which can conduct precise experiments in a safety-enclosed case. The robot has the capability to precisely weigh powder, dispense liquids, and heat and cool test tubes in a blast-proof, airtight glovebox. This will enable both sighted and BLV students to safely conduct experiments. 

The NIH grant will allow for more accommodations for BLV students in Shaw’s lab. Touchscreens around the lab will be covered with Braille-printed parafilm so that students who read Braille can learn how to operate the equipment. Multiple 3D printers will be able to make models of lab equipment so that students safely get a feel for the machinery before attempting to use the actual equipment. Lithophanes—tactile pictures made from translucent plastic materials that can be visualized by touch—will allow students to feel and become familiar with things such as microscope images, graphical data, textbook images, and molecules. Talking pH meters and thermometers will be installed so that students can collect data audibly rather than visually. Occupational therapists will be brought in to assist students. 

The work continues

Shaw’s involvement with the BLV community doesn’t end with the accessibility improvements to his lab facility. After Noah’s diagnosis, he worked with Baylor computer scientist Greg Hamerly to develop a free app, CRADLE White Eye Detector, which can help parents determine if they should seek a medical expert’s opinion by using the app to scan photos of their children’s eyes. “From pictures, [Noah] had white pupils … and we could have caught it a lot earlier. It was showing up in pictures about the second week of life. And that's why we made this phone app that would screen people’s pictures for the telltale signs of this and many other eye disorders.”

Shaw works with a graduate student to prep his lab for wheelchair accessibility.
Shaw works with graduate student Mayte Gonzalez to prep his Chemistry lab for wheelchair accessibility.
Credit: Matthew Minard/Baylor University

Shaw also co-authored a paper for Science Advances in May 2021, “Visualizing 3D imagery by mouth using candy-like models,” describing his study which created bite-size 3D models of protein molecules from “gummy bear” gelatin or nontoxic resin to allow for tactile learning. The models were coded with flavors and could be analyzed using the mouth, hands, and eyesight. The goal of this study is to make 3D imagery more accessible to students by using tiny, cheap, portable models such as these.

Another Science Advances paper in August 2022, “Data for all: Tactile graphics that light up with picture-perfect resolution,” details how the Shaw Research Group created and tested lithophanes of data found in chemistry to break down the explicit and systematic exclusion of students with blindness from the field. Their work allows graphical data to be 3D-printed into tactile graphics that glow with video-like resolution via the lithophane effect, to make data universally accessible.

Baylor Sciences Building, which houses Shaw’s laboratory, has its advantages for those with vision challenges, such as very wide corridors and elevators. It’s not perfect—for example, not all of the labs have electronic door openers, which is a problem that faces most labs, notes Shaw—but progress has to start somewhere, he says. 

“It's going to be never-ending, making the lab accessible,” Shaw says. “It's always going to be constant work to make it accessible, and then to make it more accessible as technology develops. It’s good enough now, though, for people to come in and start contributing and learning.”

Image of a powder weighing robot in Shaw's lab.
An advanced robot in Bryan Shaw’s lab can precisely weigh powder, dispense liquids, and heat and cool test tubes in a blast-proof, airtight glovebox. This will enable both sighted and BLV students to safely conduct their experiments.
Credit: Bryan Shaw

However, the most crucial component of the lab, according to Shaw, is the people. He often uses the phrase “family-style” to describe his team and their work—a place where creativity, questions, and enthusiasm are encouraged, and camaraderie is a key tool to helping others learn. 

“When a blind student comes in, they're welcomed with open arms, enthusiasm. And people, sighted people in this case, want to help with their organic chemistry homework, or 3D-print some high-resolution graphic, or help them out in the lab in some way. So, it's really the people that are the most important thing to make accessible,” Shaw says. “It's really fun to help show people things that they otherwise wouldn't be able to see or help them accomplish something.”