Providing visually-impaired students the tools to work independently

Jan 29th, 2019

Kelly Foss

Providing visually-impaired students the tools to work independently

Earth Sciences master’s student Gabriel Sindol is extremely near-sighted, which can make some of his hands-on research difficult.

His supervisor, Dr. Mike Babechuk, wasn’t aware how much of an issue his eyesight was until Mr. Sindol was sent to Dublin, Ireland, to collect data and they discovered certain laboratory tasks were extremely challenging for him.

“I was born with a condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, which involves the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eyes,” said Mr. Sindol. “They bleed and lead to scarring, and the shrinking scars pull on the retinal wall, which can lead to blindness, as is the case in my left eye.”

It also affects the depth perception in his right eye. That means that when he transfers acids into sample beakers using a pipette, he struggles to properly locate the openings.

Logistical challenges

“The issue was exacerbated by the fact that all of the surfaces in the trace metal clean laboratories we work in are translucent or in shades of white, which provide very little colour contrast to aid with constraining depth perception,” said Dr. Babechuk.

“Moreover, we are measuring elements in rocks at low parts per billion levels – think of a single, tiny grain of sugar dissolved in a volume of coffee equivalent to a full bath tub – so we needed to handle all items and reagents extremely carefully to avoid contamination.”

The issue led to a lot of conversations to determine the extent of the logistical challenges Mr. Sindol faced in the lab. They determined most of which could be worked around by allowing him to take more time with his work or to start over if a sample preparation step was compromised.

However, pipetting acids remained a common and potentially hazardous task, if done incorrectly. Mr. Sindol needed to ensure he was not pipetting acid onto work surfaces, instead of into the vessels, or contaminating the pipette tip by touching it against sides of the vessel, a sleeve or another work surface.

Prototype development

Over the summer of 2018, the pair drafted sketches and took them to Memorial’s Technical Services division.

The unit, located on the first floor of the Chemistry-Physics building, is known for its ability to fabricate prototypes for research and industry. Dr. Babechuk hoped the technicians could build a device which would allow Mr. Sindol to do his work safely.

The result was a geochemical pipette station.

“The design was simple, and Stephen Sooley did a great job building a very study and customizable fixed pipette station,” said Dr. Babechuk. “It was completed in time for us to take it to Germany for a test run in September, where it allowed Mr. Sindol to work on his research samples independently and safely in the lab.”

“We invite those with unique challenges to explore possible solutions with us.”— Richard Meaney

The pipette station features included an all-plastic construction that is acid-resistant and compatible with the requirements of trace metal clean laboratories (ie. non-metal); a collapsible design for transport; a height adjustable arm to accommodate different sized containers underneath the pipette; a pivoting arm to allow for pipetting anywhere along an arc; a fixed dot on the base along the arc positioned directly below the pipette, which provides the contrast needed to slide a vessel underneath and be aligned with the pipette tip; and exchangeable pipette cradles machined for a variety of pipette styles and sizes.

“Stephen Sooley and his team are very creative, and it was a pleasure to witness their enthusiasm as they worked with Dr. Babechuk and Mr. Sindol to create this unique device,” said Richard Meaney, the director of Technical Services.

“Our employees enjoy the opportunity to participate with faculty, students and researchers and we invite those with unique challenges to explore possible solutions with us.”

It’s an invitation Mr. Sindol hopes students and faculty take them up on.

“I can’t be the only person who’s interested in geochemistry but has vision impairment,” said Mr. Sindol. “I’m sure there are plenty of other people out there who are probably thinking, ‘Maybe I can’t do lab work, because my eyesight is bad,’ but there are ways around it.”