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Science without sight: bringing medical discovery to low vision community

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11 December 2018
  Dr Erica Tandori, legally blind artist with her model of HIV. Photo: Stephen Blake

Lucy Carroll

An exhibition by Single Molecule Science at UNSW reveals the world of science and medical discovery to people with impaired vision.

Rapid advances in science and technology – from AI, screen reading software and image recognition devices – has made the world a more inclusive place for people with limited vision.

But for people with impaired vision or blindness, access to the wonder and discovery behind science has been far more elusive.  

In a half day event at UNSW Sydney, the blind or low vision community experienced scientific and medical discovery through shapes, textures, sounds, spoken word, and even smells at the Sensory Scientific Exhibition & Discovery Day hosted by Single Molecule Science at UNSW Medicine.

The public outreach event, the first of its kind in NSW, included a seminar on 'Infection & Immunity’ by Professor Jamie Rossjohn of Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, art by legally blind artist Dr Erica Tandori, and sessions with hands-on activities, tactile displays, sculptures, and 3-D & kinetic models.

“As research scientists, we try to make discoveries that benefit everyone,” said Dr David Jacques, who leads the Structural Virology Group at Single Molecule Science.

“But scientific results are often difficult for the public to access or shrouded in impenetrable jargon. We see it as a duty to bring our discoveries to the community, particularly to groups that don’t always have equal access to science.

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A model at the Sensory Scientific Exhibition & Discovery Day at UNSW. Photo: Stephen Blake

“Communicating ideas behind science such as size, scale, infection, immunity and resolution requires more than just spoken words. We have deliberately developed experiences that we hope will bring these concepts to life in a unique and simple way that can be appreciated without depending on visual effects.”

Visitors explored breakthroughs in the understanding of the AIDS virus (HIV) using tactile and audio displays and models representing developments in understanding our immune system and how this has led to more advanced cancer treatments.

The event included models of the biology of the eye, tactile models of cells, bacteria and viruses that will explain infectious diseases and a lab experience will guide participants through using real lab tools.

Examining the theme of the building blocks of life, presenters and researchers from the School of Medical Sciences, School of Physics, the Centre for Eye Health, the Museum of Human Disease, and Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute also explained their research on disease agents and the structure of atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, or organs.

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Sensory Scientific Exhibition & Discovery Day at UNSW is the first public outreach event of its kind in NSW. Photo: Stephen Blake

UNSW Advanced Physics student Paul Seo, who has a genetic condition that results in shortsighted vision as well as blindness in his right eye, says public science events are critical for encouraging the next generation of young people with disability to think about careers in science.

“For people with low vision or blindness it is so important to remember that access to science at the university level and beyond is possible,” Seo said.

“Understanding science is at the core of the future of our planet’s ability to cure disease. In a time where science is often relegated to the back of society’s minds, it is imperative that we encourage people who are blind or have low vision to realise that with persistence and flexibility studying STEM subjects is attainable.”

Mr Seo uses built-in text-to-speech software on his laptop when reading for long periods is difficult, audio versions of books that need to be revised, built-in zoom function on his laptop, or the camera on his iPad to mitigate “visual fatigue” that develops when studying for long periods.

Last year he was awarded a medal of excellence by the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) for academic achievement in the higher school certificate (HSC). He received an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 98.65.

Sensory Scientific Exhibition & Discovery Day is supported by UNSW Disability Innovation Institute, Museum of Human Disease and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging.