The molecular biology of cancer is among the most visual areas of the sciences, and it is a challenging enough field of research for many sighted people. But can you do cancer research effectively if you are legally blind?
"Yes, it is absolutely possible. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying through their teeth," says Mahadeo Sukhai, a visually impaired PhD student and cancer researcher in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. "Science is one of these things where one does need their eyes more so than their legs or arms or hearing, so a lot of people are surprised when they find out I am in the biomedical research field."
Born in Guyana with congenital cataracts, a condition that affects one in 10 million people, Sukhai lives with the knowledge that the defect might have been cured by laser surgery had he been born 5 years later than he was--or born in a different part of the world. But he hasn't allowed his disability to inhibit his progress in life--he has a CV that would be the envy of most sighted students--or quell his passion for science, which began at an early age.
One of the keys to his success so far has been an abundance of good mentors. When Sukhai had completed elementary school in Barbados, his family relocated to Toronto. It was his high school science teachers at Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate in Toronto--his biology teacher, Lon Darby, in particular--who first nudged him in the direction of research as a potential career. "My high school biology teacher was a very good mentor and teacher. He taught me molecular biology so well that it stuck for the last 10 years. I guess it was because of him that I eventually gravitated towards genetics in particular," Sukhai explains. By the end of high school, Sukhai knew that he wanted to go to graduate school and become a researcher.
Astronomy had always been his first passion, however, and after finishing high school he enrolled in the physical sciences program at the University of Toronto (U of T) Scarborough campus. There he was introduced to a senior lecturer, Ann Verner, who further encouraged his career goal by helping him realise that his lack of vision didn't have to limit his capacity to do research as long as he had "the right approach and the right mentality."
But perhaps the biggest revelation for Sukhai in his first year at university was that although he loved astronomy, he "hated computer science with a passion." At the end of the year, he decided to study molecular biology at the downtown U of T St. George campus. The larger campus, bigger class sizes, and the fact that "students don't really have the chance to get to know their undergraduate professors as well" made the transition seem a culture shock to him at first. Nonetheless, Sukhai rose to the challenge and graduated with a bachelor's degree in science at U of T in 1998.
The biggest obstacle Sukhai has had to overcome to date was getting into graduate school. Despite his outstanding academic record, he had to apply not once, but twice--he was unsuccessful the first time around, he surmises, because he was forthcoming about his vision impairment and his lack of research experience. It was in his second attempt a few months later, and to a different department, that a faculty member--Dr. Micheline Piquette-Miller in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences--was open-minded enough to give him a chance.
"I had no research skills when I started my master's degree. I didn't know if I could do research, I just knew that I wanted to." Under the guidance of Piquette-Miller, Sukhai learned how to plan and develop experiments and embarked on a research project that was limited only by equipment and funding. Eight months into the project, Sukhai was the only senior graduate student in the lab. "I had to learn fast," he explains. His supervisor enlisted the help of the U of T Accessibility Services unit in arranging an accommodations package for him, which included a three-quarter time technician. Learning how to run experiments on a small budget and manage the day-to-day affairs of the lab was, Sukhai says, "very good training."
Two years later, after completing his master's degree, Sukhai was accepted into the doctoral program in U of T's Department of Medical Biophysics. With some experience behind him now, Sukhai was better able to assess what his needs in the lab were and so he assumed a more proactive role in setting up accommodations for his PhD studies at Princess Margaret Hospital's Ontario Cancer Institute. His current supervisor--Dr. Suzanne Kamel-Reid--the department, the institute, and Accessibility Services met to find ways to improve on his original accommodations package. "I stay involved in the process just to make sure everything goes to plan," adds Sukhai, "but ultimately it's a partnership between me and Suzanne and the Accessibility Services office." The U of T Admissions and Awards office provides funding for visual accommodation aids inside the lab and a full-time technician. "It's an interesting dynamic, because on the one hand my tech functions as my eyes and hands and I am sort of relegated to the role of assistant. But on the other hand, the experiments she's conducting originate in my brain."
Sukhai's doctoral research involves using transgenic mouse models to study the pathogenesis of acute promyelocytic leukemia. The research makes extensive use of techniques such as in vitro bone marrow culture systems, flow cytometry, polymerase chain reactions, microarray analysis, and animal surgery, not all of which Sukhai is able to do. "My talents lie in the planning and analysis of the experiment rather than with the execution," he declares. His limited vision allows him to make out high-contrast objects but not in any detail, and highly technical tasks must be left to his assistant. One of the visual accommodation aids in the laboratory, however, enables him to do his own microscope work; instead of looking down an eyepiece, he sees the slide contents enlarged on a TV screen. Sukhai is involved as much as possible in day-to-day experiments, "I always want to be present during big experiments, such as animal surgery. Whenever I can help, I'm there, whether it be sample collection and storage, data collection, or making tissue culture medium and treating the cells. ?"
"I don't think there are very many [visually impaired people] in the sciences," says Sukhai. Indeed, as far as he is aware, he is the first U of T science student to receive an accommodations package of this kind. "It shouldn't be that way," he continues, "With the appropriate coping mechanisms there are lots of things we can do." He recounts a recent experience at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) conference in Philadelphia, where he had requested low-vision accommodations. "A staff member of the conference planning committee actually said to me, 'Well you're the first one to ever ask that question!' ASH has been having annual general meetings for 45 years involving thousands of scientists--the fact that I was the first is not good."
Sukhai admits that the assistance he receives from the university comes at a "price." It started innocuously enough, he explains, with U of T's request that he participate in one or two committees. Then the press got involved; the campus public relations office contacted him for a couple of interviews, and Accessibility Services engaged him in a video aimed at faculty, to advocate students with disabilities. "Suzanne and I were the stars in that video," he asserts. And with further encouragement from Accessibility Services, his commitments soon broadened to more general disability activism on campus and nationally, a role he is enthusiastic about. He is presently chair of the Graduate Accessibility Committee on campus, a Graduate Student Union representative, and a member of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, among a long list of other volunteer activities.
In teaching him the ropes in diplomacy, negotiation, and tact, he says, the staff at Accessibility Services has provided invaluable mentorship. But there are other benefits: "It's good for the service provider because they have a student making a case for more funding or recognition, and it's also good for my supervisor and the department to an extent because they get a measure of publicity out of it." When all is said and done, Sukhai says it's about giving something in return, "It's only fair that I repay the kindness I've been shown over the last couple of years."
Sukhai is sticking to his original plan of becoming a principal investigator in a research laboratory. To that end, he's very grateful for the time and effort Kamel-Reid has invested in teaching him the ropes of running a lab, including writing budgets and grant applications. "She knows that my ambition is to be a principal investigator and she's done her best to push me in that direction," he says.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing for this 24-year-old pioneer. "Sometimes there are days when I feel 'No, I really can't do this.' You go to a conference by yourself, for example, and there are 20,000 people surrounding you and there you are, standing by your poster all alone. It's bad enough if it's your first big conference and you're a perfectly sighted individual, but it's even worse when you have impaired vision."
But Sukhai's outlook remains positive. "When you are faced with little or no choice, life decisions tend to be based on where you can be accommodated and what you can do. Ultimately, things work out." And his advice rings true for all scientists, disabled or not: "To do something rewarding, to have a life, and to maintain friends and family, is really the best outcome one can hope for."