Fully blind student navigates Baylor’s campus through memorization, science

Fully blind student Noah Cook shares his experience at Baylor. Camryn Duffy | Photographer

By Ana Ruiz Brictson | Staff Writer

“I’m not asking people to not see it and look past it,” San Antonio sophomore Noah Cook said. “I’m asking people to see it and be OK with it. It’s a part of me that I can’t change.”

At three months old, Cook was diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition where the fluid in the eye builds up pressure and causes vision loss. Although he was very susceptible to eye injury, Cook said he had a normal visual experience growing up.

When he was younger, Cook was hanging out at his best friend’s house. While they were playing around with his friend’s five younger brothers, one of the brothers threw a Nintendo DS that hit Cook in the eye. A couple of weeks later, he lost his right eye through retinal detachment.

“Living a relatively normal experience and then all of a sudden that getting changed through losing one eye — I remember it being really hard, just the adjustment, since it was so fast,” Cook said.

Cook said losing his second eye was more of a gradual process that took a couple of years, but eventually, during his senior year of high school, he lost it due to buildup from a lot of small injuries.

Cook said it was tough to lose his sight during his senior year of high school because he had to hear his friends go to college while he was still trying to figure out how to adjust to his new lifestyle.

After losing his sight, Cook said he was very grateful that his parents let him live his life instead of coddling him. He said they never allowed him to live in fear, and it is ultimately one of the reasons why he is able to attend Baylor by himself.

“They helped shape me to be more courageous,” Cook said. “I give them all credit for that.”

After high school, Cook went to an adjustment to blindness program in Minneapolis, getting six months in before COVID-19 hit.

When the pandemic began, it was difficult for Cook to take classes online. As he was trying to figure out what the best environment was for him to learn, he said he got in contact with Dr. Bryan Shaw, a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department at Baylor, which eventually brought Cook to Baylor in January 2022 as a biochemistry major.

One of the things Cook said he investigated about Shaw’s research was its focus on increasing accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities, specifically the blind.

“I can’t believe I am actually here, at the forefront of this opportunity, where we’re making the field better for everybody, and I get to be a part of that,” Cook said.

Cook contacted Shaw via email after hearing about Baylor and his work at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He expressed his interest in attending Baylor, and Shaw told him he would have a desk in his lab from day one.

“Noah is extremely smart, very smart,” Shaw said. “His progress is excellent.”

Shaw said he has always had an interest in people with visual impairments. His initial work in this area, along with Dr. Greg Hamerly in the computer science department, began with trying to develop new ways to help parents and doctors detect eye diseases in children. Currently, they are interested in finding ways to teach science to blind people.

Shaw said after he graduates, “Noah can do whatever he wants. I hope he goes to graduate school and gets a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He’s indicated that he wants to study biochemistry.”

After having experienced the STEM field as a place where he didn’t belong due to a lack of accommodations, Cook said he was surprised when he got to Baylor because everyone was very accepting at the Baylor Sciences Building, making it one of his favorite places to be.

One of the things Cook has practiced while being on campus is memorizing which buildings are located in which places.

Cook said he would usually ask people what building he was in, which would eventually become landmarks in his mind. Then, he would use those as references when asking for directions.

“It’s like another puzzle piece of my mental map is getting put in there,” Cook said. “It starts with a very general map, and then details get added as I experience the campus.”

Boise, Idaho, junior Aliya Endebrock — who is a student laboratory assistant and acts as an extra hand for Cook in some of his classes — said that while watching Cook do analytical chemistry, she has noticed two things: his memorization ability and mental math are both amazing.

“He’ll remember answers he wrote down from weeks ago, and I’m like, ‘How do you remember that?’” Endebrock said. “But he just does, because he’s using his brainpower like that.”

At first, Endebrock said she expected working with Cook would be a more professional and formal relationship, but once she began working with him, he would converse and ask how she was doing.

“If he was kind of a different personality, our relationship would be very different,” Endebrock said. “He is very friendly. Instead of just being a tutor, I’m his friend as well.”

One thing Cook said he wishes more people asked about him was how he was doing in general. He said behind all of this, he is just a guy trying to make friends, and it sucks that people may be scared to approach him in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

“At the end of the day, I’m looking to just build relationships with people and just make friends,” Cook said. “I don’t want my disability to get in the way of that.”