Seeing undergraduate research for students with disabilities in a whole new light

In this episode of the CURChem blog, Dr. Chris Hamann shares how working with an undergraduate student research with a disability resulted in an unexepcted yet profound professional transformation in his own teaching and thinking.


In the spring semester of 2008 I was granted a sabbatical to study modern computational chemistry techniques in the laboratory of Professor Dean Tantillo at the University of California – Davis. This opportunity represented a departure from my career-long focus on wet-chemistry techniques. I hadn’t done computational (“dry”) chemistry since the days when using double 5-¼” floppy drives was considered real desktop firepower, so I was excited by the prospect of learning the state-of-the-art software and hardware necessary to address a vexing theoretical question: I sought to model the conformational changes of a macrocyclic anti-cancer molecule that inverts on itself, transforming from one enantiomer to another. We and others had experimental data supporting the inversion of configuration; I sought a computational model. In summary, all went well, and now all I need to do is set aside the time to finish the manuscript.

I hadn’t done computational (“dry”) chemistry since the days when using double 5-¼” floppy drives was considered real desktop firepower, so I was excited by the prospect of learning the state-of-the-art software and hardware necessary to address a vexing theoretical question…

The following year I approached Dean with the idea of returning to Davis for the summer of 2009 to continue my sabbatical research that had blossomed into a more general study of conformational transformations in a variety of molecules. He welcomed the idea and offered me the possibility of mentoring an undergraduate who also wanted a summer research experience. I accepted the charge and committed to working with Hoby Wedler, at that time a junior chemistry and history major at Davis. “One more thing,” Dean added. “Hoby is blind.”

“Well, OK,” I responded. “But how is his chemistry?” “Excellent,” Dean replied without hesitation. Well, OK, I thought … but what exactly had I just committed to do?

Eight years, three publications, about a dozen poster presentations, and two summer camps for blind teenagers later, I realize I committed to a professional transformation in my approach to research and teaching.

Hoby and I met with Dean to establish Hoby’s project, using computational methods to predict the physiologically relevant structure of a chemical motif prevalent in commercially available drugs. Concurrently we would be assembling or developing the accommodations necessary for Hoby to work as independently as possible. With the support of the Tantillo research group and other faculty at UC-Davis and elsewhere we created a set of systems that allow Hoby to explore hypotheses by developing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and discussing and presenting the results of nfbhome_logohis research. Eight years, three publications, about a dozen poster presentations, and two summer camps for blind teenagers later, I realize I committed to a professional transformation in my approach to research and teaching. In addition I am engaged with a community underrepresented in the workforce (up to 70% of blind and visually impaired (BVI) adults are unemployed) and in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines. Did I ever think I would be doing this type of work? If you had asked me during graduate school … or during my post-doctoral fellowship … or during my pre-tenure years … no, no, and no. And yet, here I am. Chalk it up to an interest in chemistry, a devotion to teaching, and an awareness of professional development opportunities (see 10-habits-of-highly-effective-pui-researchers, especially #7 and #10).

2016 ACS San Diego Hoby Chris at AKA poster 02 (1)
Hoby and Chris at the ACS meeting in San Diego

Hoby had a terrific head start studying science as he participated in several youth camps that focused on the STEM disciplines. He hopes one day to be a college chemistry professor so our conversations naturally turned toward the education of the next generation of chemistry students. With the Tantillo group and others we developed a series of experiments designed to introduce BVI high school students to the world of experimental chemistry, both wet and dry. With the support from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Hoby and I along with then Davis graduate student now Dr. Jason Harrison led the chemistry module for the biennial NFB Youth Slam. Over the course of five days we connected BVI students to their abilities as they explored chemical synthesis (converting a chemical that smell like dirty sneakers into a chemical with the odor of bananas), volumetric analysis (determining the concentration of acid in lemon juice using olfactory detection) and the biochemical

geodesic-dome
Students at an NFB Youth Slam event

synthesis of biofuels (fermentation of sugar into ethanol purified by distillation and used to power a fuel cell). Students once relegated to recording data for their lab partners were now active participants in their own discovery process. In most cases their theoretical knowledge was quite strong. They connected opportunity with accessibility in the same way that practicing scientists connect theory and experiment, emphasizing the power of both wet and dry chemistry and the inextricable link between these fundamental aspects of the scientific process.

Students once relegated to recording data for their lab partners were now active participants in their own discovery process.

Faculty members play an essential role in helping students strive to achieve the best of their potential. Many of us focus on connecting students to their abilities, regardless of preparation, background, advantage or disadvantage. Applying the same approach to address special needs (which in some cases began with blindness and included attention deficit and hyperactivity, autism spectrum conditions, and cerebral palsy) allowed me and my fellow Youth Slam instructors to tap into a creativity that we are only beginning to appreciate. I am grateful to my Youth Slam students for teaching me more about teaching, the craft to which I’ve devoted my professional life. Their bravery and willingness to learn new material inspires me to discover new techniques to teach, to connect students to their abilities. This work has led to my participation as a committee associate on the Committee on Chemists with Disabilities of the American Chemical Society. This intrepid group (of whom ~60% self-identify with a disability) works toward fulfilling its mission: “The committee will promote educational and professional opportunities in the chemical sciences and in fields requiring knowledge of chemistry for persons with disabilities. The committee will champion the capabilities of those persons to educators, employers, and peers.” I hope this blog post will encourage you to seek out professional development opportunities, to plan for those you can foresee and to be open to those you might least expect.

I am grateful to my Youth Slam students for teaching me more about teaching, the craft to which I’ve devoted my professional life. Their bravery and willingness to learn new material inspires me to discover new techniques to teach, to connect students to their abilities.

 


Christian Hamann is currently pursuing a professional development opportunity by serving as a visiting associate professor in the chemistry department at Smith College. In his “regular gig” he is a tenured associate professor in the chemistry & biochemistry department at Albright College. Chris was recently elected to serve a 3-year term as councilor in the chemistry division of CUR.

 

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