3D printing helps blind chemists to visualize the data

3D printing helps blind chemists to visualize the data

A group of US chemists converted scientific charts and graphics into tactile materials. This could aid low-vision students and scientists.

The team lead by Baylor University biochemist Bryan Shaw used 3D printing to turn scientific images into thin 3D constructs called lithophanes.

Shaw’s endeavour began as a personal outreach effort. My baby was born with eye tumours, so I became a doctor. Despite losing an eye and having tumours in the other, he can see well, says Shaw. How do we show kids all this great science imagery?

Shaw got a $3500 3D printer and started printing tactile images. His students thinned the sheets to save material and speed up production. When held up to the light, they lit up like the computer screen, adds Shaw. We thought we could use them as a universal visualisation tool so blind and sighted individuals may share the same data.

The researchers 3D printed UV­–vis and mass spectra, protein gel electropherograms, textbook images, and butterfly chitin scales. They compared how blind, blinded, and seeing students and researchers interpreted data. In most questions, blind chemists scored as well as sighted ones.

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Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, a chemist at Yale University who has been functionally blind since birth, says tactile graphics aren’t new. ‘But these images must be generated by a trained professional who is sighted, and they arrive in huge Braille books that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.’ Blind people are lucky to obtain these.

‘When Bryan showed me tactile graphics, I was astonished by how easily they may be constructed. A blind person could do it themselves if the software is accessible, says Guberman-Pfeffer. Being able to 3D print diagrams from papers – which are inaccessible now – and sharing data with others to debate the same image is a huge prospect.

Mona Minkara, a blind computational scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, believes lithophanes can enable blind and sighted people discuss scientific ideas.

As a blind professor, she thinks it’s cool. This medium will make data available to myself and sighted students.

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Paradoxical image
Born blind chemist and entrepreneur Hoby Wedler uses lithophanes to solve the unfairness of chemistry’s exclusion of visually impaired persons. ‘Chemistry isn’t visual. Nobody can see atoms, despite what some say. He claims chemistry is cerebral. ‘The hardest aspect of studying chemistry for me is visual material from literature, textbooks, or PowerPoint presentations — doing the chemistry is easy.’ Another challenge is releasing my data.

‘Whether we like it or not, chemistry has become a visual science dependent on how we show our facts,’ adds Wedler. ‘But having a technology that can easily, cheaply, and rapidly make tactile figures, where I, as a blind chemist, have the same advantages and drawbacks when touching them, brings to life the idea that data can be made available for everyone.’

Jane Essex, a specialist on inclusive scientific education from the University of Strathclyde, UK, was not involved in the experiment. Although persons with vision impairments are the most obvious beneficiaries, this has larger ramifications.

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Essex indicates that employing many senses to learn about something offers a more complete understanding. The blind paleoecologist Geerat Vermeij noted how feeling biological remnants gave him a distinct perspective on their structure. She feels the new technology could encourage’many more people’ to study STEM. ‘It sends a strong signal that there are multiple ways to understand the physical world,’ she says.

Shaw seeks to enhance technology so blind researchers can print lithophanes from journal papers. He wants it mechanised. If we could link up with computer scientists, we could click on an image in a paper and have it printed in a 3D printer, just like a normal printer.

Guberman-Pfeffer believes that 3D printing will encourage more visually impaired and blind young people to pursue chemistry jobs. When he first started chemistry, his instructor discouraged him since he thought he couldn’t interpret the graphics he drew on the board. The lithophanes allow instructors to draw out their course and then 3D print it.