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Visually impaired graduate student not letting any limitation define her academic career or world impact

Posted at 7:08 PM, Apr 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-06 22:07:45-04

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — Maureen Hayden is legally blind, but the Texas A&M graduate student isn't letting any limitation define her or her abilities in or out of the lab.

To anyone else, she's Maureen, but her friends call her "Maureen the Marine Biologist."

An Arizona native and Texas transplant, she's a woman determined to help save the planet through science, specifically looking at human impacts on oceans.

"My master's focused in a lab that studied ocean specification and octopuses at Walla Walla University, and I took a totally different direction in my doctorate," said Hayden, who is now a part of the Texas A&M Marine Biology Program. "When I went out to the Texas beaches, I saw all the litter on the beaches, and I thought, 'Hey, this is a great opportunity for me to use my education to be part of the solution.'"

Hayden was born three months early, meaning her eyes weren't fully developed. She was born with retinopathy prematurity, an eye disorder that primarily affects premature infants.

Hoping to be an inspiration to other scientists, Hayden wants to show that anyone can make a real change, no matter how small it is.

"I want to show people that scientists are people too. I think there is a barrier between scientific literature and the public. I want to break down that barrier and say that what we are learning should be accessible to you as well," she added.

Overcoming barriers as she aged, Hayden credits early intervention for making learning equally accessible for her success.

"I've always grown up with my eyesight as it is with retinopathy prematurity, so I've never known any different. I've also had parents that were active in the blindness community when I was growing up. I had educators when I was younger who taught me to use tools and read braille," she said.

A tool she has recently discovered is in the form of electronic googles. Hayden says Acesight has helped in more ways than one.

"It's really simple things, things you wouldn't think about, like eye strain if you've been looking at the computer all day. Just taking away those little things, being able to write labels on test tubes and sit up straight and not have to wear it under a microscope all the time. Anything that can make it easier to really see and take away that eye strain ultimately is going to make your work more effective and ultimately safer too," she said.

Hayden saw an opportunity where the goggles could help her and also break down access barriers for people who may have a disability.

"I wouldn't say I work faster... just confidence. Just increasing confidence in the lab. I think ultimately that is all we can ask for anyone, whether it's a situation where we are learning or we want to embrace a new hobby," she said.

Hayden says we have a lot to learn from one another, and she is just one story showing us how it's done.

"And guess what? I also think persons who have disabilities or learn differently, I think we are really great problem solvers, and that's something that is a great skill set to bring to any job or to any learning environment," she said.

When Hayden is working in the lab, Acesight helps with managerial aspects of lab work, like labeling and general safety in the lab. She can control the lighting to ease the strain on her eyes. The goggles can also read out loud freeze frames of written material.

The graduate students is using her marine biology degree to learn more about the health of our oceans and preserve them for future generations. She wants to break down barriers for anyone who wants to pursue a career in STEM.

"Whether it be gender equality, challenges with ethnicity, or barriers regarding accessibility, I think everyone should be able to pursue the career that they want," Hayden added.