We Need People with Different Perspectives to Solve Problems

BioE Assistant Professor Mona Minkara speaks at the United Nations about the need for visually impaired people in the field of science earned her a standing ovation.

‘We need blind scientists.’ Northeastern professor tells United Nations about her ‘unseen advantage’ in inspirational speech

Main photo: Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering and affiliate faculty of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The world needs more scientists with “the unseen advantage,” says Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering and affiliate faculty of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern.

Her inspirational speech at the United Nations about the advantages of including people who are blind or partially blind in science earned a standing ovation and an endorsement from President of the General Assembly Csaba Kőrösi on behalf of all 193 member states.

“We need scientists of all walks of life. We need blind scientists. We need people from different perspectives to find the solutions that haven’t been solved,” says Minkara, who lost her sight in childhood due to macular degeneration and Cone-rod dystrophy.

Minkara and six other accomplished scientists who are blind presented the Science in Braille Global Campaign during the eighth International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly in February.

The Science in Braille is a new initiative of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust, which unites professionals in science, technology, arts and mathematics with lived experiences of being blind or partially sighted to promote the accessibility of STEAM literacy and education for all.

Minkara was asked to direct and launch Science in Braille project because she was already making strides in advocating for blind people through various projects and her YouTube channels. She knew several blind scientists whom she invited to form this international consortium.

“​​We’re a group of leading experts in our field,” she says. “As blind individuals, we are here to help make science accessible.”

These experts not only know from personal experience what needs to be done to make science accessible, Minkara says, but believe in creating educational opportunities in science for blind individuals.

Science in Braille’s website will become a one-stop-shop for blind people who want to learn and practice science to find a community and support, to learn what is possible for them to achieve in STEM, get acquainted with tools and resources already available and engage with the advocates.

Science in Braille is also launching a magazine named “Diversity, Inclusion, Science and Change,” which will publish content about culture, current events, history and science created for and by blind and partially sighted people.

Children who are blind or partially sighted often don’t get to realize their full potential, Minkara says. They are taught low-level classes in schools and get offered careers like a massage therapist. Some countries don’t teach them math or science at all, she says.

Minkara wants blind children to dream and to feel themselves and for the rest of the world—to realize that they can make it happen.

“When you’re blind your eyes don’t work,” she says. “But you are still a complete human.”

All countries, including the United States, need to allow blind children to interact with science, Science in Braille believes. It is ready to help with curriculums and advocate for policies that would create tools and change existing education systems.

There are already some technologies that make certain things possible for blind individuals, Minkara says, and more technological solutions need to be created. Science in Braille organized a workshop at the UN headquarters to demonstrate how Braille STEM kits developed by Twin company allow blind children to participate in STEM activities that focus on problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.

“We all just want to be happy and be ourselves. And I want to do science,” she says. “Let me decide what I can and cannot do. Let me decide whether to pursue my passion or not.”

Minkara was born in Maryland to immigrant parents from Lebanon and grew up in Massachusetts. When she was 7 years old, she learned that she would lose her sight.

By that time she already fell in love with science, she says, from watching TV shows like “Magic School Bus Bill” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“I just wanted to know how the world worked,” she says.

She was inspired by the story of Marie Curie, Polish-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.

However, teachers at her public school didn’t think it was possible for her to study science. Minkara had to advocate for herself and figure out how to study with her disability. She hadn’t learned Braille when she was younger.

She convinced the skeptical teachers to let her study advanced biology when she was a sophomore in high school.

“They said I would fail. At that point, I didn’t care if I was going to fail, I was just so bored,” she says.

Just by listening, she succeeded in that class and other advanced classes with the help of an aide who read and wrote for her.

Minkara went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and Middle Eastern studies at Wellesley College and a master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from University of Florida, supported by a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

While looking for her first job, she still didn’t fully understand the power of her blindness and suffered from internalized ableism. But J. Ilja Siepmann at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Chemical Theory Center thought she would be a great asset in his lab.

“Because you’re blind you’re going to solve problems that nobody else solved, because you think about things differently,” he told Minkara.

“It was the first time in my life that I saw my blindness as a possible asset as a scientist,” she says.

She had to shift her thinking about her blindness as something that was holding her down to a secret weapon that gave her a unique perspective to find new solutions.

“That is what I call the unseen advantage,” Minkara says. “This is what the world needs.”

But she is not only a researcher, she says. She cares about sharing knowledge and teaching in the classroom at Northeastern.

Knowledge is a privilege, Minkara says, and a reason why some people get further along than others. That is why she believes that science needs to be made accessible.

“If I die knowing there’s more blind scientists out there than when I started off, that’s a success,” she says.

by Alena Kuzub, Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Mona Minkara

Related Departments:Bioengineering