Creating Opportunity with Accessibility
In this episode Julia talks with Dr. Henry "Hoby" Wedler and Professor Dean Tantillo about their experience adding a new vision to learning at UC Davis and how it has affected their work outside of the classroom.
Host: Julia Winter
Special Guest: Dr. Henry "Hoby" Wedler & Professor Dean Tantillo
Producer: Typhany Jones
Editor/Logo/Music: Liz Gross
Narrator: Gianna Manchester
Welcome to season two, episode seven of Ideas that Matter where we meet with people, making a difference in education, Dr. Henry "Hoby" Wedler and Professor Dean Tantillo join Julia as they discuss accessibility in chemistry.
Hi, This is Julia Winter with Professor Dean Tantillo and Dr. Hoby Wedler PhD from UC Davis. I'd like Dean to introduce Hoby and Hoby to introduce Dean.
All right. Happy to do that. Uh, Hoby is an alumnus of UC Davis, got both his undergrad degree and his PhD from Davis. And he was a graduate student in my research group after graduating, thought he was going to go teach chemistry, but instead he started his own company called Sensepo!nt, which is a consulting company focused on sustainability and particularly important accessibility. In short Hoby is an inspiration and you will soon see why.
Well, thank you, Dean and professor Dean Tantillo was my graduate advisor and is a lifelong mentor of mine, someone who I'm very grateful to have in my life got his undergraduate degree from Harvard in organic chemistry, and then went and studied under, under Professor Ken Houck at UCLA for his graduate work. And before going to Cornell to do a post-doctoral fellowship under Roald Hoffman all before he came to UC Davis and has, has really made a great Mark on the UC Davis chemistry department, studying computation applied computational organic chemistry. I was extremely fortunate to work under Dean's guidance and advisory, really learning about the ins and outs of computational chemistry and figuring out how a totally blind student like myself could study computational chemistry accessibly and Dean was really a champion of, of making all that, all that come to fruition
For the record. I don't make my graduate students memorize my CV.
That's pretty good, cause I just put Hoby on the spot. And he had it down that's quite a pedigree actually. I'm that's, that's impressive. And I will say it's interesting because I did graduate work in theoretical chemistry also. So all three of us did work in this area. So I have read somewhere and this one's sort of interesting. I read somewhere Hoby that you, you had to hedge your bets a little bit. You weren't "just", and just with quotes, just chemistry major at UC Davis. You had another major too, didn't you?
You know, I, I have the heart of a teacher, so, and I still do as an entrepreneur. You know, I, my whole goal is to, is to help people learn about things. Maybe they didn't know, they were excited about and get excited about them. And early on in my undergraduate career, I was a nerd and knew that I wanted to teach something ideally at the college or university level. I didn't know, Dean at the time. So I didn't know that computational chemistry was possible. And I was worried about working in the experimental lab, having to have an assistant look over my shoulder, you know, 14, 16 hours a day while doing research. I really want to do things as independently as possible. So I actually got a degree in United States history, really United States conspiracy theory, history, focusing on post-World war two. And that's been a very interesting topic over the past few months, but it's uh, yeah, it's, it's just another, another total love of mine. Chemistry's it's definitely my thing, but yeah, that's what we did.
I'm pretty sure Hoby had a third major at one point as well, and in math is that right, Hoby?
A minor in math, but that was an easy minor, because the only make you take just a few upper division classes, so it was like, I'd already taken one and I thought, let's see if we can do it.
Okay. Hoby, you and I are exactly the same. Cause that's what I'm like. Well, all I need is, you know, a couple more math classes. So I got a math minor too.
One of the things about Dean's work that I found so intriguing is that the notion of symmetry and how important symmetry is to organic chemistry, but really where that came into play for me is in modern algebra, which was my focus in math. You know, we talk about group theory and link theory and field theory and really connect connecting symmetry back to chemistry through algebra was really exciting for me. That's one of the ways that I realized that I had such a love for organic chemistry and in particular Dean's work is just understanding that wow, it's thinking in terms of symmetry is really a lot like thinking about things spatially, like I do in a lot of other places in my life. So it really brought it all together.
I just read an article. There was a quote from you, Hoby, that says "We all have vision. Some of us just lack eyesight." I love that. Here you're talking about visualizing, visualizing symmetry and visualizing chemistry. People say, isn't that ironic? What we've discovered in our work is it isn't ironic. Everyone has vision and you just have different ways of accessing it. So with that Dean, how did you quote unquote, discover Hoby? How did you meet?
It was fairly indirect. Hoby was talking to another colleague in my department named Jared Shaw about the potential for doing some research and that Hoby can relay this better. But as I understand it, Jared said, you know, you should talk to Dean. I think we can build some robot that will take ball and stick pieces and assemble them into a three-dimensional structure. And then Hoby came to talk to me. And I said, well, let's just buy a 3D printer.
That's exactly what happened. That is in a nutshell. That's exactly the story.
Yeah. So then, Hoby joined my research group as an undergrad and we were focused both on fundamental chemistry problems, but also on ways to make computational chemistry accessible to people who can't see and related to what we were saying before about, about visualizing, you know, I had Hoby in my graduate physical, organic chemistry class, and we talk about symmetry a lot and you can kind of break the class into people who have good 3D Spatial Reasoning and people who don't and Hoby is in the side of the class where students have good 3D spatial reasoning. So for Hoby, as far as I could tell, it was just an input problem. If you could get the molecular structure into Hoby's head, he could spin it around, find the symmetry elements, assign the point group, which is something that a lot of sighted people have trouble with. Yeah. So, so I think a lot of what we've done has focused on just fixing the input problem, input and output of things so that they'll allow Hoby to take advantage of his chemical intuition and his 3D spatial reasoning and things of that nature.
Have you learned from this experience with Hoby that can be applied to sighted people also were there, are there things that have changed your practice because of your experience?
Yeah, so a lot of my colleagues have had Hoby in class and I think it's made us all better teachers in a lot of simple ways. For example, you're more explicit in describing things, instead of saying, you know, that oxygen over there, you can explicitly describe that oxygen on carbon three, which is part of an aldehyde or something like that. And that causes you to be clearer and to slow down and all the students benefit from that. There's also something that I call the "Hoby rule". He's heard me say this many times, but Hoby always came to me and gave me the impression that anything we develop for him ought to be useful to sighted people as well. So the tools that we worked on are tools that would benefit people, whether you could see or not. And that I think is a wonderful attitude to have, and I wish more sighted people had that attitude in the other direction.
What's funny about that being, just to expand upon that a little bit, it's awfully generous of you to call that "Hoby's Rule", but just that way of thinking, I really feel applies to the world around us and I can use it in my work today. And the sort of the most blatant example of it is the wheelchair ramp. You know, the wheelchair ramp went in and in the 1980s, they started to really become popular in California after the work of Ed Roberts in the 1960s and seventies, and then were passed and federal law when the Americans with disabilities act was signed in 1990. There's a statistic I read somewhere that I think 98 and a half percent of the people who use wheelchair ramps are not in a wheelchair, have nothing to do with wheelchairs. Don't know about wheelchairs. If you're wheeling a cart of groceries up to the sidewalk, I don't know how parents push strollers before they were wheelchair ramps. That's a little scary. Anyway, one thing that seemingly was there to help one very small segment of the population helps everybody. And I think if we, if we take on that mindset, you know, all of our work, whether it be an education or research or whatever the case may be, I think we're really opening our minds to so much possibility.
One of those things we've learned, in our work, is visually impaired doesn't mean you're impaired is that everybody has access to different tools. Hoby can flip things around in three dimensions in his brain. I cannot.
I think that I definitely have a different perspective than Dean does, or than you do, Julia, you know, in, in terms of just thinking about and understanding sort of how things happen around us. So, and, and this is a push for diversity as well. I think the importance, you know, a lot of people think of, "Oh, diversity, now with these changing times, I need to make my company more diverse. I'm going to hire my diversity officer. There I checked the box," but really diversity is so much more than that. I think it's bringing in unique perspectives, whether there are different disability perspectives, perspectives of people, of different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, different perspectives, I think, especially in STEM help solve problems in a more unique and probably authentic way.
There are ways to look at the world differently and not think of it as a disability is in other words, think of it as a different ability as we've had these multiple conversations with you. I've been so inspired. So if that's a power, it's pretty inspirational to work with you Hoby.
I just want to say, I think of Hoby as a super hero.
It's mutual , you guys!
Okay, now we got a love Fest here going on. Hoby, there is one young man, that during our research with Department of Education, IES research, he was on the edge of saying, "I can't do science. I'm blind. I really would like to do science. It's really hard." What would you say to somebody like that?
I'd say everything that we do in life. I don't care if you're 15 years old, if you're five years old, if you're 50 years old, everything in life is about mindset. And I think the way to get the right mindset is to talk to people who have done it. Talk to people who have been in the field and have figured out ways to solve the problems. You have inspiration that, okay, there is a way to do it. If there's a will, there's a way, the way it just might not be quite the same for a blind student or a sighted student. Dean educated me. So this doesn't necessarily apply to Dean because Dean and I came on a playing field of just understanding that we both wanted to make this happen and the Dean was the biggest proponent of my career that I know really to this day.
But sometimes I have to, as a blind person, I have to show people what I can do and how I do it. So it's just as important as a blind student to be an educator, as it is to be a learner. The more you can show people how you learn in that will make it not scary for them to have you in their presence and in their class. And you want to make it fun. So many of these blind folks that I talk to in science or not, they kind of put up a battle and they make it hard to work with themselves. And it's like the more that we can make it just fun and enjoyable for everybody all learning and thinking and coming together. That's when it's fun. And that's when we accomplish these challenges together. Anyone said that, Oh, I was able to get a graduate degree in chemistry myself. That's just bunk. That's not true at all. I was able to do it with the amazing support of my instructors and my mentors and my colleagues. Right? So it's all about creating an opportunity, a place of collaboration. And if you can do that and you have the right mindset, I would just say, anything's possible.
Has Hoby come back to talk and meet with students at Davis, since he's left there?
We try to rope Hoby into everything we possibly can. Yeah, and I'm sure to, get him to come back to talk to people in the future.
It's so amazing to be able to come back and be with, you know, budding graduate students and undergraduates alike and be able to just say to them, this is an absolutely, and I'm saying this from experience, this is an incredible place where so much learning and growth will happen.
All of us know that organic chemistry is not easy for anyone being an inspiration to everyone. Like "this is tough. You can get through it. These are my tricks." I think I can see that being an inspiration to students who are struggling. And I had somebody say, well, why would a blind student want to have chemistry? And I said, well, if they want to be a dietician, they need to get through chemistry. Why shouldn't they aspire to be a dietician?
I would say, why, why wouldn't a blind person want to take chemistry?
Why wouldn't? Exactly, and there's no reason that, you know, dietician, chiropractor, whatever, why wouldn't a blind person want to be a professor of chemistry or a teacher of chemistry. There's no reason to say, "why would someone?". I might ask the same question? Why would someone want to be a pilot? Well, well, you know, Dean's exactly right. Why wouldn't they?
Sighted people, this sounds really ironic, have blinders on because this is the way we experience the world, putting ourselves in the shoes of somebody without that experience is hard. But I think that's what we all want to try to do that empathy of understanding other people's perspective is sort of the beauty of, as you said, talking about diversity and talking about different viewpoints. What have you done since you've left Davis? I hate to tell you this Dean, but I think it's pretty interesting what he's done.
I agree with you.
I think the work that I did with Dean is, is the most exciting work. And really, I just want to talk a little bit about how Dean and I would go about problem solving if I might briefly.
Oh, that's fine, but you still have to tell us what you've done after, because everybody wants to hear about that too.
The thing that made working with Dean so much fun and so interesting is that he was always willing to come to the table and just solve the problem. Okay, Dean, this is what I'm dealing with and how do you think we should solve it? And we'd literally brainstorm. And for each project that we would work on, you know, Dean would come up with an idea or I would come with an idea and then the question would be first of all, okay. Yes, this is great, but how are we going to make it accessible? How are we going to make it as doable with as little sighted assistance as possible? And that, that was the exciting part of planning for each project. It was like, we'd have these epiphanies along the way there, whether it be with 3D printing or some scripts that we wrote in house.
But then it was like a double epiphany because we get the accessibility stuff, I don't want to say out of the way, but we'd solve for that. And then it was time to really sit down and do the hardcore chemistry and get into the actual nitty gritty of solving the problem. So I'd see about 40%, 35 to 40% of the work that we did is, you know, it was, it was about accessibility 60 to 65% was actual, you know, hardcore chemistry, problem solving. And one of the things that I regret actually is that we published a lot of the results of our accessibility findings in journals that are behind paywalls. And if I were to ever do this again, or have an opportunity to publish more articles in the stability space, I would say we want to make them as available, AKA accessible to as many people as possible.
If anyone listening to this podcast is interested in talking about in publishing eventually some, some results from your work that have anything to do with inclusivity or accessibility, I would say publish them in an open access journal, if at all possible. That's just a bit of how Dean and I approached problem solving. That was such a refreshing and wonderful way to think about things. And it was great to work with someone so dedicated and motivated. And in that place, the, uh, the business side of, of my career actually started with Dean when we co-founded Accessible Science, which is a nonprofit designed to make chemistry more accessible to blind kids and really show them that they can do whatever they want, no matter how visual this subject seems, those assets are currently being wrapped up in, into another nonprofit, which we're going to advise. We're very excited about that.
That's how I got into, into this world with helping people. And I really picked up this bug for entrepreneurship and started working with the Francis Ford Coppola on some truly blindfolded wine experiences. And over the past year, it's actually been over the pandemic that I've really refined what we do. We're putting together a brand of products and services we're actually calling "Hoby's" that, um, you know, that's really a line of, of food and beverage labor strategy, strategy in terms of how to think about problems and a clear, diverse, and inclusive way, even outside the food and drink industry and products. So our first product is that a couple of, uh, seasoning blends that are going to be packaged with accessible packaging with braille on the packaging that should be coming out in the next month, 30 to 45 days here, and a couple of products in the work, in a, in the wine and spirits industry as well, that we're excited about bringing out a brand called Blind Truth, vodka and gin here Uh, ideally before end of the year, we're looking for funding for that at the moment and partnership there.
But ultimately, you know, what I would say is that for me, entrepreneurship is not about power or money. It's not about that. It's nice to pay your bills at the end of the month, if you can just like working in Dean's group and just like being blind in a sighted world, it's about problem solving, identifying a real problem, coming up with a solution to that problem, and really having a totally positive, "can do" abundance mindset while you do it. I always say that, you know, I learned, I learned my desire and yeah, ability to solve, really solve problems from graduate school, from the work that I did with Dean. Dean and I got to do together, and that's totally dovetailed into some really exciting entrepreneurial work. Julia, the other thing we do a lot in terms of accessibility and thinking about how to make science more accessible to blind folks, that's where you and I came together, started talking I think in 2017. So very early on and the wonderful fortune to work with you over the past couple of years and do some actual consulting and really exciting work together on a couple of grants in the past six to eight months.
It's been really fun. Our team has been inspired by our conversations with you. We hope when this pandemic is over to have a day long, deep dive on usability in our office. Dean, maybe you can come to Michigan too. Who knows? This has been a great conversation. I look forward to seeing you and working with you on our project with that. Any final thoughts, Dean and/or Hoby final thoughts?
I defer to Hoby, for final thoughts, he's always got good ones.
Well, Dean is, is an expert when it comes to accessibility as well, doing some amazing work. I've been reading, reading some papers that have been coming out recently being, I just, I think what the group is doing is incredible for my sort of final thoughts. I'd just say anything is possible. Keep your head high, stay positive. Every one of your listeners, both of you, my sort of new tagline that I'm going with is "you deserve to believe in yourself all the way through and that's everybody deserves it." Whether you're a professor of science, whether you're a student, whether you're an educator, no matter what you do, we all were, you know, were put here for a reason. And we all deserve to believe in ourselves and always challenge ourselves and never, ever lower that bar. Man, that's one thing, Dean had high expectations of me and just kept me so motivated and it's people like Dean, the great mentors over the world. Good mentoring like Dean does is such a powerful thing. The trick that mentors have is that they see a future for people before their mentees see that future for themselves. So Dean saw this possibility of me studying chemistry and being hopefully successful at it long before I saw that for myself and guided me through it and really guided me to it. I always say, thank your mentors whenever you think of them, then Dean, I thank you very much as we're on this call today. And Julia, thanks for having us on.
That's amazing. Well, Dean, that's quite a tribute and it's been such a pleasure...
Hoby is always too kind.
It's been such a pleasure to talk to both of you and never ever lower the bar.
Thank you for listening to ideas that matter. Alchemie is launching a Kickstarter to support the production and further development of the Kasi project to become a backer visit. www.alchem.ie/kasi for more information, be a part of our growing community and join the discussion by following us @learnalchemie on Instagram and Twitter. This podcast was created and published by Alchemie edited by Liz Gross, produced by Typhany Jones and narrated by Gianna Manchester.