I have always been so curious about how the world works. I remember I had a keen mind for deduction even when I was a young kid, listening to audiobooks of Sherlock Holmes. The detective said he could tell the height of a person by listening to his or her footsteps. I became more inspired and more interested in science by watching The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy and then by the work of Marie Curie and my mentors throughout my journeys. I loved all I learned.
Science, for me, is the pursuit of truth in the world around me, and seeking this truth has always driven who I am. At my core, curiosity drives me to learn as much as I can with no limit to my education, but the world has shown me that there is another truth, a false truth, set by the perception of me from the society in which I live.
Underestimated, but undeterred
At the age of seven, I was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy and macular degeneration, a genetic disorder that would slowly take away my eyesight. At the time, I was too young to understand the implications of that, let alone the box that the world would try to contain me in. A specialist once told my mother that it wasn’t worth it to spend even a penny on my education.
My parents – strong-hearted Lebanese immigrants – refused to take this advice, instead supporting me through the Massachusetts public school system. Teachers didn’t always know how to approach my education, and it was often a struggle. But toward the end of high school, I began to realize my potential was different from that false truth, what society expects from a blind individual. I took advanced biology, and other classes, despite the teacher’s objections to have me in the classroom, and surprised everyone – including myself – with my success.
From then on, I realized that my blindness does not determine my potential for academic advancement. And at Wellesley College, this realization began to come true. While at Wellesley, I had an amazing female mentor who was able to tap into potential that I did not know was hiding within. I also had the first opportunity to delve into research, my greatest passion in science.
What it means to be a blind scientist
My experiences at the women’s college truly shaped who I am today, and the personal growth led to great strength. The tenacity to defy the poor assumptions made by others encouraged me to overcome the obstacles and oppositions in my path, while misguided remarks and doubt stoked the flames of my determination to develop as a scientist. I took those skills I developed when I was little, and I learned to innovate and to create novel ways for blind individuals to perform science regardless of disability. Now I create my own expectations for blind scientists.
And I welcome anyone who wants to be a scientist or who wants to follow his or her passion, and I encourage all to pursue it with vigor. This is the best way to live life, the most fun way to live life. Not through false truths or expectations but through fun cartoons and curiosity and never taking no for an answer.
I am now able to say that I am a professor of bioengineering at Northeastern, running my own research group with whom I do computer simulations and modeling of pulmonary surfactants. I now hope that I can one day reach the level of impact that the scientist I loved on TV had, and I want to tell my audience that anyone with the desire and passion can find a path that will lead to a beautiful journey.
About the author
Dr. Mona Minkara is an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at Northeastern University.
In 2019, Mona was one of three winners of the Holman Prize, an award given to individuals who want to push limits and change perceptions about blindness around the world. The result of that award is Planes Trains and Canes, a mini-series that takes you on a journey around the globe and shows you what it’s like to travel as a blind person. Learn more in her previous #MyBlindStory post, Planes, Trains, Canes – and Me.
You can follow Mona’s worldwide travel adventures via her website, PlanesTrainsAndCanes.com, or on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And to connect with her personally, visit MonaMinkara.com and follow her on Twitter (@mona_minkara).