NORMAL, Ill. — When one of Cary Supalo’s students says a chemistry problem is too difficult, he has a standard reply that usually stops them cold.
“My being the blind guy,” he tells them, “if I can do that, you can do it, too.”
Supalo is an assistant professor at Illinois State University who has an Indiana-based business that sells adaptive equipment for the blind or visually impaired.
While in Pennsylvania, he served on the Governor’s Advisory Committee for the Blind. He recently was appointed to the Normal Human Relations Commission.
“I believe in a can-do attitude,” said Supalo, who lost his sight at age 7 to a rare genetic condition called FEVR, Familial Exudative Vitreo-Retinopathy.
The Bolingbrook native started his job at ISU last semester. His courses include general chemistry and a general principles class. He also is a lab instructor and works with student teachers.
John Bauer, chairman of the chemistry department, said he’s received mostly positive feedback about Supalo while acknowledging “it’s an adjustment for everybody.”
Students with a problem have to describe, rather than show, what they are doing. But those students have indicated that can be positive because it makes them think about what they are doing, said Bauer.
One of those students is freshman Andrew Winfield, a bio-chemistry major who is in Supalo’s “Research in Chemistry” course.
Winfield was somewhat surprised when he found out he had a professor who is blind but said, “After a while, you barely notice at all.”
Winfield said that, on the first day of his class, Supalo had each student—about 50 of them—say their name and put the names and voices together from the start.
“He picks up on voices really well,” Winfield said. “He explains things really well.”
Before Supalo attended college, he hated chemistry.
“I wasn’t allowed to touch anything in high school,” he said. But that didn’t stop his thirst for knowledge.
“I just love learning. Learning is my passion,” he said. And science was one of the things he wanted to learn.
“Understanding science to me was being smart,” he said. “I wanted people to think I am smart because I wasn’t going to be a baseball star or football star.”
He started as a business administration major at DeKalb’s Northern Illinois University, later transferring to Purdue University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and communications. Along the way, he added majors in computer science, engineering and liberal arts. He has a master’s degree and a doctorate from Penn State.
Supalo’s journey through several majors was not a case of indecision. It was fueled by a desire to know about different subjects—acquiring a broad knowledge he uses to adapt various devices to help himself and others with visual impairments.
One device is the Talking LabQuest.
“If you are a Star Trek fan, this is like a tri-corder for the blind,” he said.
It is essentially a lightweight, handheld computer into which different probes can be attached to perform functions, such as measuring temperature, pH levels, conductivity or force. In addition to relaying what is recorded by the sensor probes, it makes graphs and data tables. A synthesized voice reads the information aloud.
His primary research focus is on chemistry education and making chemistry and other sciences more accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.
“We’re not making these blind kids enjoy science,” Supalo said. “The overall perception is that they cannot do what they need to do. That’s where I come in.”
At ISU, he is working to create more lab projects that are hands-on for all learners.
Not everything has to be high-tech. The website for his business, Independence Science, includes low-cost ways to create tactile adaptations for the visually impaired, such as making “skeletons” from Q-tip cotton swabs glued on paper.
He thinks more should be done to encourage visually-impaired students to enter the high-demand fields of science and technology.
“They are lifelong problem-solvers,” he said. “And that’s the essence of what a scientist does.”
Supalo considers himself well networked, with connections in the technology, science, education and blind communities.
Bauer agreed, saying, “He will give us a national presence in the education of the blind.”
Noting Supalo is still getting settled in, Bauer said, “I certainly expect big things from him.”
“I think he’s going to bring a lot of notoriety to ISU chemistry,” he said. “Check back in a couple of years.”