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Want a Blossoming STEM Career? Just add Confidence and a Little Assistance

With a confidence and a little practical assistance, Henry Wedler is convinced careers STEM are just as attainable for Americans with disabilties. A grauduate student at the University of California, Davis, Henry is living proof of that assertion, as he works toward his Ph.D, in organic chemistry.

Henry Wedler is being recognized as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.

Blind people have no less of a desire than sighted people to pursue challenging and rewarding careers, including those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and, in doing so, contribute to society. Unfortunately, many people, including the blind, believe that these fields are too visual and, therefore, impractical for blind people to pursue. Contrary to this belief, all that is missing is the confidence and some practical assistance to fulfill these dreams.

Until I gained the necessary confidence from the National Federation of the Blind in high school and joined Dean Tantillo’s group in the Chemistry Department at the University of California, Davis, I, too, doubted that I could study organic chemistry as a blind graduate student. As I complete my first year of the Ph.D. program, studying computational organic chemistry, I am now confident that I will succeed in graduate school and beyond.

I completed my undergraduate studies at UCD with a double major in chemistry and history and a minor in mathematics. Though my main interest was in chemistry, I expected to enter graduate school as a history major until Dean Tantillo introduced me to theoretical organic chemistry and welcomed me into his group as an undergraduate researcher. With help from Dean Tantillo and fellow group members, I made the computer interface accessible, which permitted me to perform complex organic chemistry research on a level equal to my peers. Once I realized that advanced chemical research was accessible to me, I decided to work towards a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.

I use the same mental process in doing chemistry as I use for my survival as a blind traveler. When I think about the map of a campus or town, the layout of desks in a classroom, or the position of carbons in a benzene molecule, I use the same set of skills. I discovered that the reason chemistry has been such a passion for me is because I’ve always used that part of my brain. If I can understand the layout of my college town, I can make distances between things much smaller and apply the same thought process to an organic synthesis problem or reaction mechanism. Likewise, performing a complex reaction mechanism is similar to walking a complicated route from one part of my college campus to another. I hope that my unusual way of understanding chemistry will allow me to contribute something new and innovative to our community as a chemistry instructor.

As we work to make our computational laboratory more accessible to me, we want to make UCD a place where people with disabilities can study STEM disciplines professionally and seek employment in STEM fields. I now use a talking computer and a program called Gaussian to study organic chemistry reaction mechanisms and relative energies of reactants and products. In addition, with the generous support of a grant from the National Science Foundation, we purchased a 3-dimensional printer. Using this printer, I am able to print computer-generated chemical models that previously were only accessible visually. Ultimately, we are working to make UCD, a Level 1 research institute, fully accessible and accommodating to Americans with disabilities pursuing education in STEM fields.

With encouragement I received from attending science camps put on by the National Federation of the Blind, I founded and instructed an annual chemistry camp for blind high school students. At Chemistry Camp, we teach blind and low-vision students that their lack of eyesight should not hold them back from pursuing their dreams. Ultimately, we aim to teach our students that blindness is a minor nuisance and not a life-long detrimental problem.

I am well aware of the problems of inaccessibility facing Americans with disabilities wanting to pursue careers in STEM fields. My goal as a chemistry instructor and as an active member of the United States’ disabled community is to actively demonstrate to both disabled and non-disabled Americans that they can excel in the sciences and should not give up if this is their passion. As a co-founder of the Student Disability Advocacy Group, a campus-wide disability club at UCD with over fifty members, we work to advocate for students with disabilities studying at UCD.

I have been inspired and assisted by Learning Ally, the National Federation of the Blind, and most of all by learning from other disabled role models. The accessible audio textbooks from Learning Ally are an indispensable resource; without them, I would not have been able to succeed in school. The assistant I have worked with for the past six years of college also played an integral role in my ability to excel in my career. With the Chemistry Camp, the Student Disability Advocacy Group, and the support of UCD, I hope to inspire many more disabled Americans to find professional careers in STEM fields.

I am extremely flattered and honored to be one of President Obama’s Champions of Change. This prestigious award will certainly help me give back to the American community.

Henry Wedler is a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, working towards his Ph.D. in organic chemistry.