Professor works on new chemistry tool

Dr. Bryan Shaw is giving children everywhere something new to chew on.

Shaw, an assistant professor of biochemistry, and Alireza Abdolvahabi, a graduate student from Tehran, Iran, working with him on the project, are developing a new tool to help blind children learn chemistry. Rather than relying solely on their sense of touch, these children will soon be able to learn the shapes of molecules and proteins with bite-size models designed to be put in their mouths.

“My goal is very singular. I want to teach but that’s not the most important thing; I want to inspire,” Shaw said. “I love biochemistry because I love proteins. They are beautiful structures. If you are a blind person, you won’t get to see them, and I want to help blind kids see them.”

Abdolvahabi said this tool is unique and will be beneficial because taste buds on the tongue have a higher level of sensitivity than skin does, enabling the children to detect a high level of detail.

Shaw said the technology is a smart use of heightened senses.

“When you are maximally blind, or when you are a 3-year-old who’s had both of their eyes removed because they were riddled with retinoblastoma tumors crawling toward your brain, you are going to need to be able to use every remaining sensory system you have,” Shaw said.

The idea for this new invention was influenced by watching how his child, who has retinoblastoma, a cancerous eye tumor, learned new things.

“I have a visually impaired child [that] has friends who are [visually impaired], and I just noticed they always put things in their mouth, that children always put things in their mouth,” Shaw said.

The models are made using 3-D printing technology. The printer is able to make atomically accurate, high-resolution models. Because 3-D printing can be expensive, they will then make molds from the printed models and inject them with different kinds of material.

“Well, this is actually a very low-tech, simple solution to a very big problem,” Shaw said.

While still in the early stages of development, the models will likely be gummies to avoid choking hazards. In addition, different flavors can be attached to different protein models to help blind children identify them.

“The ultimate goal is going to be making these models popular one day and being able to teach blind kids,” Abdolvahabi said. “There are a lot of obstacles and instead of giving them a basic education, we want to provide tools to help interested students learn biochemistry.”

The idea was patented this year, and the first prototype is being developed. Development on the project has temporarily come to a standstill until Shaw can find undergraduate students to help with the research.