How 3D printing could help blind researchers ‘see’ data | Science

When postdoc Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer wants to read a newspaper article, he has to go through an obstacle course of potential problems. First, the physical chemist at Yale University downloads the PDF and copies it into a separate text file. Then he uses a screen reader to read each sentence aloud, going slowly because the reader often doesn’t recognize complicated scientific terms. Sometimes the column formatting doesn’t copy correctly and the reader ends up dictating a confusing mess. Sometimes it includes each reference number; sometimes he stops mid-sentence to read an advertisement.

But the biggest struggle is always the numbers. There is nothing a text reader can do to help visualize them. He has some vision, so by magnifying a graph or diagram up to 1000%, he can see a tiny fragment of the visual at a time, ultimately piecing together a patchwork image in a process that he likens to the history of the blind. and the elephant. But usually it is not worth it, and he hopes that the textual description that the authors gave of the figure will be sufficient.

All of that could be about to change. Working with Baylor University sighted biochemist Bryan Shaw and his team, Guberman-Pfeffer and other visually impaired scientists have developed a simple way to transmit visual data by 3D printing it in minutes, reports- they today in an article published in Scientists progress. It’s Shaw’s latest step on a mission to help those like his science-loving son, who was born with tumors in both eyes, “see” the amazing images of science.

Science Careers spoke with three of the paper’s authors — Guberman-Pfeffer, Shaw, and Mona Minkara, a faculty member of chemistry and bioengineering at Northeastern University, who is blind — about how the technology could make science more inclusive. The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: How did you come together to participate in this study?

Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer: I was talking to Hoby Wedler, another of the paper’s blind chemists, and he said, ‘There’s this guy who does a great job in terms of making science accessible, making things tactile, so maybe we should you seek it.” This was just before the gummy paper came out last year. I connected with Bryan, and it’s been great ever since.

Brian Shaw: We had this article last year in Science Advances with little models that you can put in your mouth and visualize tactically with your tongue and it’s actually a better touch sensor than your fingers. It was the first paper I did in this [field of tactile visualizing], and this has interested all blind people with doctorates in chemistry. Everyone on this article teamed up after my lab published the last article and now we are a team for all future articles! [laughter]

Mona Minkara: I was sitting in my office one day, doing my thing. And then I get an email from Bryan. And he was like, “Hi, I do stuff to make chemistry accessible to people, and would you like to collaborate?” We get a Zoom call, he tells me all his spiel. I’m like, “I’d love to be a part of that.”

Q: Your new research focuses on lithophanes. But they are usually used as art, right?

BS: You could call them very, very fine, translucent engravings. When you hold them up to the light, the thicker regions scatter light and appear darker and the thinner regions don’t scatter as much light and appear lighter. So you end up seeing something that looks like a backlit painting or photograph. Some people think they were made in the 6th or 7th century in China during the Tang dynasty from very fine porcelain or possibly wax, but they really took off in Europe in the 1820s. it’s 3D printing. Kids make them for lampshades and all sorts of neat little things.

PGM: So Bryan, I have a question. How did you first hear about lithophanes?

Q: Oh, so you’re going to ask my questions now? [laughter]

BS: A student and I were playing creating 3D printed graphics. I said, “Hey, make these thinner, they’ll print faster and we’ll use less resin.” Then he made them like potato chips. I picked one up, then held it up to the light, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is like a photo.” So for about a week I thought we had invented lithophane. And then I slowly discovered that it was invented over 1000 years ago. [laughs] But it has never been used to make 2D imaging accessible to people with blindness that we formally know.

Postdoc Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, here reading a lithophane with his fingers, is one of four visually impaired chemistry PhDs who contributed to the project.Jason Guberman-Pfeffer

MM: That’s what’s innovative here, using this pre-existing technology to make chemistry accessible to us blind people. It makes you wonder what else is out there that can be used to make things accessible. It’s not expensive to make something accessible, you just have to be innovative.

PGM: Much of science takes old ideas or old things and brings them together in new ways. I mean, that’s what we do with chemistry, right? Atoms have always been there. We put them together in new ways to see new products. It’s really cool to connect this old technology or piece of art to the accessibility challenge.

BS: What’s cool here is how light scattering works with this particular resin, all I can see when I hold the lithophane up to the light, they can feel it. So we can sit down and share the exact same piece of data and talk about it. It is a type of universal visualization.

Q: What makes you most excited about this innovation?

MM: It could revolutionize the way I connect with my students. My students are not blind, but I am. If I can get a lithophane system they can just print their data for me and we can talk about the same information at the same time. That’s what turned me on personally.

PGM: When I was a student, it was a translation problem to communicate with the teacher. There were constantly diagrams drawn on the board, but I had no idea what she was drawing. It was like a vaudeville act: one person is blindfolded and the other holds an object, describing it so that the blindfolded person says what it is. But if she knows what sketches she’s going to do before a presentation and prints a lithograph, problem solved. You don’t need a $50,000 or $100,000 braille book where an expert transcriber has to create tactile graphics by hand.

BS: $3500 is what our 3D printer costs. And that’s top of the line.

Q: What should happen next?

MM: It would be really nice for us blind people to be able to create these lithophanes ourselves, to make sure that the software used to create the lithophanes is accessible. This process also really needs to be integrated into the regular classroom. It doesn’t have to be just lithophanes for the blind; it’s lithophanes for everyone. It then becomes essential that the data be universally accessible.

BS: For Mona and Matthew and anyone else to print whatever they want, upload an article and boom! Images print like a deck of cards.

PGM: It would revolutionize everything.

Q: How do you hope it will be different for budding blind and visually impaired scientists compared to when you started?

PGM: When I was an undergrad, I started out as a political science major in the humanities, partly out of interest, but also because I was told how impossible science would be for me as a blind, both from the professionals in the respective departments and from the disability coordinators for the state. In the end, I had to take a lab class, took chemistry, and, as I like to say, bonded with matter; my love for her was so great that I could stubbornly find ways to tunnel through the barrier. If we can lower that barrier, it’s more likely that people like me or people with even less vision will break through and contribute to the chemistry. I hope people can say not “Oh, there’s no way to do this as a blind man”, but “Yes, there are ways, let’s use them. Let’s build on them. Let’s tinker and see what works for you.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your job?

BS: For me, it’s meeting people. When I saw Hoby and Matthew and Mona and [co-author] curry [Supalo] visualizing data for the first time was great.

PGM: It’s not just data. Like this one-[holds up lithophane of a butterfly wing to the light]- there’s no way I could ever see a butterfly wing. And yet here you made a touch of a butterfly wing and I was able to measure the width and the length. It was a crazy experience. You give a form of sight to a whole bunch of people. It’s pretty cool.

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