Scientists are using an old-fashioned art form and 3D printing to make a major breakthrough in eliminating the exclusion of blind or visually impaired people from chemistry and other life sciences

A research team led by chemists at Baylor University has taken a revolutionary step forward by eliminating the exclusion of blind people from chemistry education and experiences. In an article published today in Scientists progressresearchers detail how they used lithophane – an old-fashioned art form – and 3D printing to transform scientific data into tactile graphics that shine with video-like resolution, enabling universal visualization of the same data by blind and sighted people.

Although lithophane is an ancient artistic medium, it has never been used – until now – to represent scientific data and images in a quantitative and controlled way for tactile visualization and tactile integration.

The Baylor study – “Data for All: Tactile Graphics that Light Up with Perfect Resolution” – compared how blind and sighted people interpreted lithophane data by touch or sight. Cohorts of participants tested all five forms of lithophane — gel electropherograms, micrographs, electron and mass spectra, and textbook illustrations — interpreting the five lithophanes by tactile or visual detection with an overall accuracy of 79%, according to the study.

The researchers focused on creating and testing lithophanes from data found in the chemical sciences due to the explicit and systematic exclusion of blind students from chemistry, which the researchers say “can be considered a virtue by educators, parents, peers, or self, based on lab safety and the “visual” nature of chemistry.”

“This research is an example of art making science more accessible and inclusive. Art saves science from itself,” said Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who heads the Shaw Research Group at Baylor and is the corresponding author. on the journal article. “Science data and imagery – for example, the amazing images from the new Webb Telescope – are inaccessible to blind people. We show, however, that thin translucent tactile graphics, called lithophanes, can make all this imagery accessible everyone, regardless of view. As we like to say, “data for everyone”.

New use for the old art form

Probably originated in China as early as the 6th century and popularized in Europe in the 1800s, lithophanes are thin etchings made of translucent materials (first porcelain and wax, now plastic) and initially appear opaque in ambient light. However, when backlit by any light source – from ceiling light to sunlight – a lithophane glows like a digital image, the light scattering through the translucent material causing the thinner regions to appear brighter and the thicker regions darker. Using free online software to convert a two-dimensional image into a 3D topographer, the scientists in this study used 3D printing for lithophanes.

“The idea of ​​lithophanes was a concept that Dr. Shaw had toyed with, and I thought it was an incredible opportunity to help a group of individuals who have been stigmatized in the field of chemistry,” said said co-lead author Jordan Koone, a chemistry PhD student at Baylor and a member of Shaw’s lab. “It’s great to see blind people who have been told all their lives that they can’t excel in science interpret data as easily as a sighted person.”

The participant cohorts included sighted students with or without blindfolds and five blind people who had experienced total blindness or low vision since childhood or adolescence. Four of these people with blindness have obtained a doctorate. chemistry degrees before testing, and the fifth person is an undergrad at Baylor who suffered complete vision loss as a senior in high school. These blind people are co-authors of this study but did not participate in the design of the specific data sets.

“Before working on the lithophane project, I thought the research was limited to experiments done in the lab,” said co-lead author Chad Dashnaw, a doctoral candidate in chemistry at Baylor, also in Shaw’s lab. “But research is simply trying to answer unanswered questions, and our work here answers a very important question: Can blind people be part of STEM? Lithophanes provide a format of data that can be universally shared among people. sighted and blind, making STEM more accessible to those who have been overlooked before.”

The study found that the average test accuracy for the five lithophanes was:

  • 96.7% for blind tactile interpretation,
  • 92.2% for visual interpretation of backlit lithophanes and
  • 79.8% for tactile interpretation blindfolded.

Sighted participants were able to accurately interpret digital images on a computer screen 88.4% by sight. For 80% of the questions, the blind chemists’ tactile accuracy was equal to or better than the visual interpretation of lithophanes, suggesting that lithophanes could function as a sharable data format. In fact, Shaw said some of the blind chemists in the study had such tactile sensitivity that they could sense the tactile characteristics of data that sighted people could barely see.

“See” datasets for the first time

Study co-author Hoby B. Wedler, Ph.D., an entrepreneur, chemist and CEO of the Wedland Group in Petaluma, Calif., first interpreted the lithophane data during a Zoom call with Shaw. For his study co-authors and fellow chemists, it was a most significant moment as Wedler, who was born blind but earned a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, saw data for the first time by touching high-resolution tactile graphics.

“You can watch this, and it looks exactly how I feel,” Wedler said. “I’ve never felt a mass spec. I never thought I’d be able to speak through an analytical dataset like this. The sky’s the limit here.”

“They were so excited to finally see the data and the images that they had heard about for so long. And they saw that data. Because you see with your mind, not with your eyes,” Shaw said.

One of the study’s most notable co-authors was Baylor undergraduate student and researcher Noah Cook. Cook completed his first semester at Baylor last spring, despite losing all of his vision in his senior year of high school.

“The five blind co-authors on this project are some of the most interesting and hardworking people I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Dashnaw said. “For years they had heard of things like SDS-PAGE or mass spectra. But they had never had the opportunity to observe one for themselves, let alone interpret it. Lithophanes gave them gave that opportunity. They were able to explain in detail exactly what they were feeling, and it matched perfectly with what we were seeing.”

Opening of chemistry to grades K-12

This latest study involving Shaw’s group expands Baylor’s research to remove barriers to the study and discipline of chemistry for K-12 students with blindness or low vision.

Shaw recently received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a first-of-its-kind early intervention project that opens lab work and provides materials and teaching equipment tactile chemistry. Combining high-tech and low-tech approaches, the project combines robotics and technology with educational materials and “lab hacks” that allow blind and visually impaired students to participate in the same roles and routines as their sighted counterparts, including the use of lithophanes.

“The great thing about tactile graphics that illuminate with perfect resolution is that whatever I can see with my eyes, another blind person can feel with their fingers. So all images and data high resolution are accessible and shareable, regardless of sight. We can sit down with anyone, blind or sighted, and talk about the exact same data or image,” Shaw said.

The five-year grant — in partnership with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin — is funded by NIH’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, which promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM projects) for kids K-12.

Shaw and his collaborators are initially focusing their project on high school students by developing a pilot program allowing 150 TSBVI students to participate in education and curriculum and learn about the materials both on campus at the school and in Shaw’s lab at Baylor. The pilot project is scheduled to launch this fall, with the full program scheduled to begin in the spring of 2023 through 2027. Going forward, the team hopes to expand the program to include resources for children who are just beginning the study of science.

Beyond chemistry

The lithophane or LDF data format, and data for all movements, goes beyond chemistry or science and can be used for any subject, from art, history, philosophy and anywhere images or graphics are used, Shaw said. Thanks to this latest research, the path to shareable and accessible data is accessible to anyone with tactile senses.

For PhD students Koone and Dashnaw, the research highlights one of Baylor’s core values: to facilitate the discovery of new knowledge and research for the benefit of humanity.

“Most of the research I do on a daily basis will not have a meaningful impact on the scientific community. However, the lithophane project is enabling real change in real time,” Dashnaw said. “We are making STEM more accessible to people with visual impairments and drawing attention to their systemic exclusion.”

Comments are closed.