By Keri Troutman
As part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month we profile Newton Nguyen, a Research Assistant in Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division.
In his last semester of college at UC Berkeley, Newton Nguyen competed in four triathlons while managing a 20-unit workload and writing his geophysics honors thesis. This would be impressive by any standard, but Nguyen is legally blind.
So his college career required an extra degree of complexity—exams were taken orally, which meant about six hours for each one, and in order to do homework or study, he had to carefully manage the limited number of “personal scribe” hours he received each week. If he needed to see the figures in a textbook, he had to go to the university’s alternative media lab to have them printed in Braille.
“Really, I relied on friends a lot to read things to me or help me coordinate certain assignments,” says Nguyen. “Luckily I have really great friends!”
Diagnosed with a degenerative vision condition when he was five, Nguyen says his parents never actually told him, “one day you will go blind,” but when he was 12 he realized in the midst of a Harry Potter novel that reading just wasn’t working for him anymore. Throughout high school in San Jose, Nguyen’s vision gradually deteriorated. Nevertheless, he participated in cross country, track, and marching band, even becoming team captain of the cross-country team. He ran his first half marathon as a high school freshman.
“I was very stubborn and never really admitted to myself that I couldn’t do certain things,” he says. “I had really high standards for myself.”
Those high standards landed Nguyen at UC Berkeley. But by that time he could only see a blur of light, shadow, and color. It was then that he says he had to admit to himself that he couldn’t safely walk around unaided anymore. Nguyen started using a white cane for the first time.
“That felt so uncomfortable; I felt like I could feel people staring at me,” he says.
And it wasn’t all in his head. “People treat me differently with a cane,” he adds. “Sometimes people talk to me really slowly or loudly as if I’m deaf or can’t understand.”
Nguyen learned mathematical Braille as a college freshman, and started navigating the accommodations available to him at UC Berkeley, which he says weren’t exactly plentiful. In his free time, he played saxophone in the Cal band and volunteered for the Cal Teach program, tutoring younger kids in math and science.
When he heard that the Cal triathlon team was trying to recruit more athletes with disabilities into the sport, he decided to give it a try. With his athletic background, the sport wasn’t a huge challenge, but in order to participate he had to have a guide, a teammate who could run, bike, and swim alongside him in each training practice and every race. Nguyen participated in seven triathlons throughout college, tied to a teammate’s wrist with a shoelace, or swimming in open water with a bungee cord connecting him to his guide. The biking portion of a triathlon was the easiest to coordinate, given that paratriathlon rules allow participants and their guides to ride a tandem bike.
“Racing in triathlons has given me a lot of confidence in myself,” he says. “I feel like when I’m on the race track there’s no disability or social issues to worry about—if I’m faster than you, then I’m faster than you.”
Nguyen just competed in the Paratriathlon National Championships in Santa Cruz and is signed up to participate in a full marathon at the end of this year. “It’s not just the racing, it’s the training and the lifestyle that I like,” he adds. “It’s not the destination; it’s the process, and that’s why I like science too.”
At Cal, Nguyen became more and more interested in climate science and he started doing a lot of research in fluid mechanics. He took Berkeley Lab scientist Bill Collins’ graduate course in radiation and climate and was fascinated. “I told Bill Collins I was interested in working in climate science and gave him my resume,” says Nguyen. “And here I am!”
Nguyen started working as a research assistant in the Climate & Ecosystem Sciences Division, which Collins heads, in June, just two weeks after graduation. He’s planning to apply to grad school to study atmospheric science this year. In the meantime, he’s working on observation system simulation experiments, part of NASA’s Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission.
“I study the radiation coming off Earth, which really feeds into climate change,” says Nguyen. “If you have more radiation reflecting back into space by Earth, that translates into cooling.”
At the Lab, Nguyen relies most on his Mac computer, which he says essentially “talks” to him as he works. “As I write code, it basically reads it back to me, and I can memorize lots of code very quickly,” he says.
Nguyen also has a dynamic Braille system that hooks up to his computer via Bluetooth and refreshes as he reads. “Workflow is different for me,” he says. “I have to consider fatigue from the various forms of information intake—and there are things that I’m still trying to figure out, like how to ‘see’ something that I plot.”
But Nguyen also recognizes the benefits his blindness has brought him. “I feel like my disability has really helped me understand other peoples’ perspectives better,” he says. “I think partly because I have to tackle things from so many alternative angles, I’m able to broaden my own thinking when it comes to others.”