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Physical Chemistry

Legally Blind And Deaf, Graduate Student Nears Completion Of His Ph.D.

by Linda Wang
July 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 30

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Wells holds a model of potassium rhenium nonahydride, one of many molecules he has tested in his nanodevice research.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Wells holds a model of potassium rhenium nonahydride, one of many molecules he has tested in his nanodevice research.

Standing in the elevator of the chemistry building at the University of Albany, I'm not sure what to expect. Before I reach the third floor, the doors open and doctoral student Christopher C. Wells walks in; we look at each other knowingly and smile. When the doors open again on the third floor, Wells motions for me to follow him as he zips down the hall to his lab.

At 5 feet 3 inches tall, Wells's small frame belies the energy within. When we reach his computer, he turns on the terminal and types, "Hello, Linda. How are you today?" in 28-point font. "My interpreter couldn't find a parking spot right away but will be coming in soon." Wells, 28, is legally blind, deaf, and mute as a result of complications from being born prematurely. He says his disabilities made studying chemistry as an undergraduate "a considerable challenge," but he learned to maximize his strengths and graduated from Siena College, in Loudonville, N.Y., with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics.

Online Information For The Blind Or Visually Impaired

In his graduate work, he has found his niche in computational chemistry. While his colleagues run experiments at the bench, Wells is at the computer solving a complex mathematical equation or using a theoretical modeling program to test an experimental nanodevice that he designed.

For his doctoral thesis, Wells is investigating the role of aromatic molecules in nanotechnology. In an experiment he recently completed, he converted more than 25 metals into electrode materials and tested each for conductivity in a nanodevice containing an arene molecule. Wells, who has coauthored seven papers on his research, communicates with others through writing or his sign language interpreter. His latest findings will be part of his dissertation, which he plans to defend next year.

Wells doesn't let his disabilities stop him from doing the things he loves. Among his hobbies are hiking, sports, playing video games, and drawing structures of natural products (he has over 2,000). He is also an avid reader and, because of his low vision, literally buries his nose in the books. One of his personal goals is to finish writing an autobiographical philosophy book.

After graduation, he would like to find a job as a research scientist in industry or as an academic professor. He admits that he has mixed emotions about leaving the supportive environment of his current lab. But he's ready for the challenge and says new work environments rarely intimidate him. What's more, wherever he ends up, he will provide motivation for others to learn how to adapt, too.

More on this Topic

  • Seeing the Possibilities
  • Blind chemistry students get a taste of independence in the lab
  • » Overcoming Disabilities
  • Legally Blind And Deaf, Graduate Student Nears Completion Of His Ph.D.
  • Awareness
  • Teaching The Blind And Visually Impaired Is Not A One-Size-Fits-All Endeavor
  • Research Tools
  • Studying Protein Structure Can Be A Musical Experience
  • Web Resources
  • Online Information For The Blind Or Visually Impaired
  • Video: Hoping to Make the Cut
  • In April, Hopewell Valley Central High School junior Trevor Saunders became the first blind student to qualify for participation in the International Chemistry Olympiad. Watch Saunders complete the lab portion of the exam.
  • Photo Gallery: A Day With Blind Students Cary Supalo And Trevor Saunders
  • On May 22, C&EN reporter Linda Wang and blind Pennsylvania State University graduate student Cary Supalo (shown) visited Hopewell Valley Central High School, in Pennington, N.J., to document the progress of blind junior Trevor Saunders in using several new assistive tools for the chemistry lab. Here is a selection of the photographs Wang took.


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