Maureen Hayden ’21 has always had her sights firmly set on a career as a scientist and the possibilities that lie ahead. After all, for the longest time, it was about the only thing she could see clearly.
Hayden, a graduate student at Texas A&M University working toward her doctorate in marine biology, is legally blind. She was born with retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disorder that primarily affects premature infants. Because the retina in her right eye is completely detached, the vision Hayden does have is limited to her left eye and clinically classified as 20/400.
Navigating through her day-to-day responsibilities studying the effects of plastic pollution on Texas beaches as a member of marine biologist Mary Wicksten’s laboratory in the Texas A&M Department of Biology often amounts to a tedious, if not also time-consuming process.
“If I were to read digital print, I would need it enlarged until it was about 24-point font,” Hayden said. “If I’m interacting with people, from about 6 feet away, I can see faces and make out broad facial expressions, but I typically can’t tell who someone is until they’re fairly close to me.
“Over time, I just learned how to use the vision I had.”
Last fall, Hayden learned about a piece of equipment that she believed could significantly improve her ability to conduct research — a pair of electronic glasses called Acesight.
Produced by Zoomax, a company headquartered in Massachusetts that specializes in assistive technology for people with low vision, Acesight utilizes augmented reality (AR) technology. The glasses feature two full HD display screens, each about an inch in diameter, situated in front of each eye and supported by an adjustable headpiece. A tracking autofocus lens captures everything the user looks at in magnified form up to 15 times the normal size. In addition, the user can adjust magnification, color and contrast preferences via a hand-held controller.
Hayden shared her discovery of Acesight with her circle of friends, one of whom, as fate would have it, had strong familial ties to the Virginia-based Pruitt Foundation, a non-profit charitable organization with a prior history of helping Aggies. After learning of Hayden’s condition and the potential role a vision-enhancing device could play in her work to preserve marine life, the Pruitt Foundation gifted Hayden with her very own pair of the glasses.
“Imagine seeing the world through your smartphone camera and being able to use all of its editing features in real-time,” Hayden said. “Acesight allows me to better see the materials I’m working with, and I think that’s the big thing — just being able to keep a safe distance from whatever materials I have to use with the added ease of doing my work throughout the day.”
For Wicksten, it’s been particularly gratifying to witness her pupil’s new lease on life in the lab. Smaller, more detail-oriented tasks that Hayden previously would have to perform using a camera hooked up to a computer monitor, or even hunched over a microscope, were a considerable strain on her eyes and posture. With Acesight, Hayden is able to work more efficiently and, most importantly, in an upright standing position.
“Maureen was already a very competent researcher, but the Acesight glasses have been a tremendous improvement for her and a lot of help,” Wicksten said.
Independence Via Accessibility
Higher education, once a seemingly unattainable goal for physically disabled people, is more accessible than ever before. The Texas A&M Department of Disability Resources, which works to provide an equitable campus learning environment for Aggies with disabilities, has seen an increase of nearly 1,700 students using their services since 2010. With the help of technological innovations like Hayden’s Acesight, their college experience is revolutionized.
“One of the most important aspects of technology as it relates to disabled students is that accessible technology promotes independence,” said Dr. Kristie Orr, director of Texas A&M Disability Resources. “For example, students who can use a smart pen to record lectures while they take notes may not need a note-taker in class. Moving beyond the university, they can continue to use this technology in the workplace.”
For Hayden, that feeling of independence is crucial to defining oneself. Once reluctant to open up about her blindness, she says she began to welcome questions about it as she got older. Hayden realized they were teachable moments, a way for her to impart that a physical impairment does not have to be a limitation.
“In K-12, you’re the kid with a disability,” Hayden said. “When I got to college, I realized that I had an opportunity to redefine not only how I interact with others, but also how I relate to my disability. If people had questions about my vision, I welcomed it openly, and I found that the best way to approach it was from a place of kindness and understanding.”
She’s also transitioned that mentality toward mentoring. Hayden teaches invertebrate zoology to juniors and seniors three times a week and also helps train undergraduate research assistants in the Wicksten lab. In her spare time, she participates in the Learning Ally College Success Program, a national peer mentoring organization that pairs mentor and mentees from across the country who identify as blind and have similar academic backgrounds.
“I think it’s really great to have a career where what I find out can potentially go on to help not only our planet and marine life, but hopefully maybe even people,” Hayden said. “I like communicating what I do to the public; I think that’s what keeps me going. Mentoring has been a really fun part of my Ph.D., and I like having a job where I can prepare the next generation of scientists.”
A Will & A Way
Despite being a native of Tucson, Arizona, sea life has been one of Hayden’s biggest passions since childhood, due in large part to the influence of her parents. She cites a healthy dose of old sailing stories from her father, an officer in the U.S. Naval Academy, and her mother’s involvement in water sports as helping to foster her appreciation for the natural integrity of the coast despite her landlocked upbringing.
The summer after she arrived at Texas A&M in 2019 to begin her doctoral program, Hayden visited several coastal sites to try and conjure up ideas for a research project. One thing she noticed was the amount of litter present along the beaches — carelessly discarded plastic bottles, utensils and wrappers that posed a hazard to the local marine ecology. She pored through scientific literature, only to discover a broad lack of existing work toward understanding how litter specifically is impacting Texas coasts. Hayden saw her doctorate as an opportunity to fill that knowledge gap.
Ultimately, Hayden says she wants to be a living example for anyone who’s hesitant to pursue career interests because of a disability of precisely why they should. To that effect, she shares a simple mantra: You don’t know how far you can go until you try.
“Sometimes we have to try things a different way, but guess what — I think people who identify as someone with a disability are really good problem-solvers,” Hayden said. “And you need to be a good problem-solver to do research.”
See a related April 6 news segment from KXXV-KRHD-TV reporter Hannah King.
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