Cary Supalo, Chemistry Doctoral Student

When you lost your sight, what was your school experience?

Cary Supalo(When I lost my sight), my schoolteachers didn't know what to do with me. They didn't know how to provide accommodations or that it was even possible, so I was more or less given the option of staying home and hoping that the vision would come back. That happened in May of 1982 and I sat home for the rest of the school year and through the summer. I went to the doctor on a bi-weekly basis, but nothing changed. There really wasn't much available at the time. Fall came and I was still out of school and my parents still didn't know what was possible. In early October, there was an open house at my school and I went to it with the rest of my siblings. At that event, one of the teachers mentioned the local co-op group to provide services for students with visual impairments and how to contact that group to get me serviced. So within a week we had an appointment and we did a visual evaluation. I was eligible to receive services. At the time I could read large print so, I was eligible to receive large print materials and things like that. I would receive itinerant services while being mainstreamed. So by the time October was over I was back in the classroom. Up to that point, I took learning for granted and didn't enjoy it. Having it taken away from me for that extended period of time made me not take it for granted and made me want to learn as much as I can. That's where my true love for learning began and carried through.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue the sciences?

I started to develop a real interest in science in seventh grade when I entered life sciences and got to do dissections. My teacher encouraged me to be very hands on. (And) I always had a strong proficiency in math and trained myself to do math in my head. Then I went on to high school and took regular science curriculum. I was given a lot of raised line drawings made with hot glue guns and puff paints to represent tree cross-sections and animal parts and the circulatory system and things like that. I was also given hands on with touching plants and spores, etc. Then I went on to chemistry where I was partnered with some classmates during lab experiments. They would tell me what was going on and I was trying to understand the colors and the mixing and matching of the chemicals. By this point, I was totally blind (but) I understood the concept of the relationships of the colors, which is helpful, but not a requirement to work out the experiments. I (also) did the calculations and dimensional analysis of crossing out and cancelling units and just making atoms do things that they normally didn't do. It was a fascinating time.

Then I went into senior year where I took a physics/mechanics course and the coolest thing I learned that year was I was able to use trigonometry to calculate where projectiles should land and what angles of trajectory were optimal for maximum distance and things like that. So my classmates did the labs but I calculated everything as to what they should be and whenever they didn't match, we'd make them match. By this point, I had established a very strong love for math and science and knew I wanted to do something in a science or engineering field, but I wasn't sure what it was.

When did you determine that you could have a career in science?

(The) summer between high school and college is when I found the National Federation of the Blind and learned that blind people could be successful mathematicians and scientists and engineers; up to that point I had always questioned the possibilities that were there for blind people in those fields.

So how did you decide that chemistry was your calling?

I went through my undergraduate experience with the mentality of trying to do as much as I can and learn as much as I can in as short a length of time as possible. I tried engineering and didn't like that so much because of the tediousness of the math and calculus involved. I tried a number of other fields: computer science, communications, education, and things like that. I settled on chemistry because I discovered I had a love for organic chemistry. It was fascinating to me and I learned that I was able to interact with professors in the chemistry department at Purdue University. I would talk to them about their research and ask questions and it was fascinating when they would tell me that they hadn't thought of a suggestion I made and thought it was an interesting idea. It made me realize that I could contribute in the chemical sciences. I felt motivated by that and wanted to stay involved in it. Hence, (I) went on to change my major to chemistry and proceed through the rest of the curriculum. I went on to graduate school at Penn State University, where I am now, working for my research advisor who was very open minded to having a blind chemist working in his research lab.

What were the attitudes of your teachers and fellow students in your early education?

As far as classmates are concerned, (in grade school) I really felt isolated. Because I had to leave class for itinerant services, I felt like I was in a different category of student and wasn't allowed to go out for recess because they weren't sure what a head impact would do to my residual vision but they were pretty certain that I would lose it. So they kept me out of recess. So I was inside studying or playing by myself during recess. That further isolated me.

In middle school, the attitudes were supportive. I learned Braille in middle school -- prior to that, I used a CCTV, which was slow -- I spent a lot of time doing homework. I never really watched TV or went to the mall or anything; and I didn't like that very much. I knew there had to be another mechanism that I could use to learn. I was introduced to books on tape and introduced to Braille and that helped a fair amount.

What were the attitudes of teachers in high school?

In high school, teachers were open to me being in their classes until I got to my senior year and wanted to take my calculus course. I was told that no blind person had ever done calculus before and that if I wanted to do it I could, but if I wanted to proceed down that path that my itinerant teacher and my school district couldn't support my wishes at that level -- it was just too complex. Hence, I took that as my first real barrier to wanting to be a mathematician or scientist. At that moment I didn't know what I was going to do and it was very hard for me to accept this perceived barrier in my life. I didn't know any other blind people who could help me get around that type of ordeal. So I accepted it and finished out high school under the mindset that I was not going to be a scientist or engineer, even though I wanted to be one.

Then I found the National Federation of the Blind and met blind scientists and engineers and the rest is history.

What types of adaptations did you use throughout your schooling?

I used the raised line drawing made with hot glue and puff paint for much of my science and math courses. There were Braille labels on the figures to tell me what was what. Books on tape and in Braille. Those materials were very helpful. My itinerant teacher provided lab procedures in Braille to allow me to read them as we were doing the experiments in the classroom with the other students. Asking teachers to read what was written on the board was also helpful.

How important were the tactile materials?

Tactile maps were very important in geography and Braille tables with geographic information. It carried over into sequence courses. Being able to feel a cell wall in a plant was very interesting. Those figures appeared on quizzes and tests and I had to be able to distinguish between the parts of a plant cell and the components of a cross section of a tree stump and things like that. So, tactile graphics were very helpful.

You have obviously done a good deal of group work in labs. What advice would you have for blind students working in a lab group or partnership?

When working on a team in high school, most students are open to an education on what you as a blind student feel your needs are in order to more fully participate as an integral part of that group. They will let you be a passive participant if you wish to fill that role. They'll rationalize that your blindness is a reason not to participate. Or they would likely be open to you actively participating with key components of the procedure. There may be some question by them of you as far as how you can handle an open flame or pour solutions and that's where you need to be the educator to show them how you work with those things. Once you prove to them in that twenty-second window of opportunity to do something, they say, -- Wow, that's cool, OK, -- and let you participate as a key component of the group for the rest of the semester or class.

What advice would you have for students going into science, technology, engineering, and math?

I would encourage them to be open-minded and to be prepared to use (their) sense of creativity and ingenuity to determine what it is that you feel you are going to need to be successful. We are all different. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when networking with mentors and other blind students in the field. Learn from their experiences; set up a smorgasbord of ideas and techniques, and then you can pick and choose and try them out at your school. You'll discover that some things will be worse and some will not. You are molding your strategy for achieving success in science by trying other techniques that people have tried and were successful with. You will find what is the best fit for you.