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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Chemistry not an obstacle for blind Ph.D. student

Henry “Hoby” Wedler is just like any Ph.D. student studying chemistry at UC Davis. He spends countless hours conducting experiments and reads endless amounts of complex material. Yet he will never see a chemical reaction and he learns chemistry by using audiobooks.

That’s because Wedler is blind.

Wedler, who has been blind since birth, was one of six students to be awarded with a Scholastic Achievement Award from Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind, a nonprofit that creates accessible audiobooks for those with visual and learning impairments. He won $6000 and a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with congresspersons this February.

“It’s a true honor. It means they appreciate what I’ve done and they know I’ve used their resources to their maximum potential,” said Wedler, who has been using their audiobooks since sixth grade.

Doug Sprei, director of communications at Learning Ally, said that the judges recognized excellent leadership, academic achievement and a capacity to service others, all of which Wedler exemplified.

Sprei recently met with Wedler and left the encounter feeling like he made a new friend.

“He’s just really a superstar,” Sprei said. “Not only has he flourished in education, but he wants to be an educator. He represents the best possible outcome for our organization.”

Wedler really began to use Learning Ally in high school and college when the reading demand was hundreds of pages per week.

“I was able to compete with my sighted peers at their level,” Wedler said.

Since childhood, the Petaluma native has always loved science and he credits his parents for his success.

“Their attitude was, ‘It’s your life, you need to live it the way you want to live it and we’re not going to hold you back because of your disability,'” Wedler said.

When Wedler showed a passion for chemistry in his junior year of high school, his instructor discouraged him from studying it in college because she claimed it was too impractical.

“I eventually encouraged her by saying that nobody can see atoms, and even though labs are difficult I can find an assistant to help me,” Wedler said. “If I can think about it, I can do it at a level comparable to my sighted peers.”

During that same year he attended a science camp put on by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and NASA where he worked alongside blind scientists to launch a rocket over a mile into the sky.

“Seeing these mature blind scientists proved to me I could get my chemistry degree,” Wedler said. “That made me want to give back to the community in any way that I could.”

In 2011 Wedler held a two-day chemistry camp for blind students at Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa, with the help of NFB of California and LightHouse for the Blind & Visually Impaired.

The students conducted experiments that changed smells by using garlic and onion to tell when it was neutral.

“I showed them science is something they could do. They left wanting to be scientists,” Wedler said.

Wedler graduated from UC Davis in 2011 with a double major in chemistry and history, and a minor in mathematics. He was in the Chemistry Club, the emcee of the Chemistry Magic Show on Picnic Day and co-founded the Student Disability Advocacy Group.

Wedler planned on going to graduate school for history because of the possibility science could fail him. With the help of UC Davis chemistry professor Dean Tantillo, a computational chemist, they were able to make all of the lab equipment accessible to Wedler by having the computer print out three-dimensional ball-and-stick models.

“He’s one of the most exciting students I’ve ever had,” said Tantillo, as he described how Wedler “reads” the models with his hands.

Wedler hopes to become a chemistry professor at a junior college or small four-year university.

“I want to take students when they’re just coming into chemistry thinking it’s going to be bad and hard, and make it less daunting and more fun and exciting,” Wedler said.

Wedler’s passion for chemistry intertwines with his love of pairing food and wine. He hosts “Tasting in the Dark,” a blindfolded tasting at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. He said that when people are blindfolded they notice subtle tastes of vanilla, lemon or oak that are layered in the wine.

“Wine is complicated and beautifully complex,” Wedler said.

Wedler’s love of chemistry is present in everything he does, and it goes back to a realization he had.

“I realized that I’ve been visualizing things in my mind ever since I was a little boy; the way chairs and tables were laid out in my house, the way out of my backyard,” Wedler said. “I’m making the things I visualize much smaller and just using that to think about atoms and molecules. There’s nothing that says you can’t think about molecules like desks in a classroom.”

He uses the same mental process to do chemistry as he would to find his way around school.

“Blindness is just a nuisance. It’s not a physical problem,” Wedler said.

CASEY SPECHT can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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