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A Medical Sciences Student Overcomes Remarkable Obstacles

By Sheila VERA Flynn

Matthew A. Weed has managed to meet and surpass the successes of many Harvard students. And yet, for this gifted Division of Medical Sciences student, the world is blanketed with darkness.

The first blind and diabetic student to have studied at each Big Three university (Harvard, Yale and Princeton), Weed has taken the Ivy League and the world by storm. Despite his dual disability, he has demonstrated his wisdom in political science and life science.

His scientific aptitude recently earned him a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship. Weed will receive approximately $22,000 a year for the next three years to investigate the issue of access to science.

"I would like to explore ways of allowing blind people to be active in the life sciences, a field in which so much information is on text and paper," he says. "Being able to access genetic data, for example, is essential for blind students pursuing biological projects to compete with sighted students."

Since computers supporting text-to-speech synthesis programs have played a key role in Weed's academic successes, he says he may conduct future research on this technology.

"I may look at a dissertation on how the World Wide Web can be applied to make biological data immediately accessible to everyone," he says. "Computers were the necessary tool to get me where I am, and I will unquestionably push them forward."

Although Weed is dedicated to blind-student causes, the implications of his research will also affect sighted individuals, whom he says will also benefit from the immediacy that the Web offers.

However, Weed says he will not limit his future research only to those technological improvements.

"There is so much more to explore in the area of access to science," he says. "For example, there is potential for change in actual laboratories and with techniques like DNA sequencing. The technology is not there yet, but it can be."

Because access to science is so important for Weed, he will leave Harvard with a one year master's degree rather than completing his doctoral program because, he says, Harvard's resources are insufficient for his special needs.


Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Weed has been legally blind and diabetic for most of his life. When he was six weeks old, medical professionals operated on congenital cataracts in his eyes. The stress and shock of the surgery, Weed says, may have generated his subsequent Juvenile Diabetes, which in turn caused his blindness.

During his childhood, Weed could see enough to get around, but his sight proved to be fleeting.

"As I got older, glaucoma set in and took my vision," he says. "By age 10, my eyes were unresponsive to light on eye examinations."

But he says the blindness and numerous unsuccessful laser surgeries did not dishearten him from learning as much as he could from the world. Mainstreamed into public elementary, junior high and high schools, he proved himself to be an academic success, though he says he still avoids certain subjects, particularly chemistry, to this day.

Weed attended Yale University, graduating with a degree in political science and a letter of commendation in biology in 1993.

"I never thought I would do this well with science at college, even though I was always good at it in high school," says Weed, who took most of his electives in biology.

"Two or three professors really put energy into their efforts and blasted open the doors to science for me," he adds. "Learning by either 'their' way or 'my' way was acceptable, and became the essence of my Yale experience. Students did what they wanted, how they wanted."

The core of Weed's Yale experience was based on the university's help in granting him access to science via computers.

"Yale was the first university to think in terms of doing optical scanning, or converting paper text into electronic text as fast and as efficiently as possible," Weed says. "The university purchased a $15,000 system to do the job, and I spent a lot of time during my first two years just figuring out what to do with it. By November 1990, I was able to benefit greatly from it, and scanned 20,000 to 40,000 pages of materials over my last two-and-a-half years at Yale."

But Weed's college years consisted of more than just biology and computers.

He was active in the Yale Precision Marching Band, with whom he traveled to London as a junior, as well as in the Yale Political Union. Weed was awarded the David Everett Chantler Prize, one of approximately a dozen prestigious Yale graduation honors, which recognizes students who have "shown uncommon strength in pursuit of higher moral purpose," he says.

After graduating from Yale, Weed entered Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs, where he again illustrated natural talent and hard work.

"I believe his dedication and optimism inspired all of us here at the Woodrow Wilson School--fellow students, staff and faculty," says Gregory M. Stankiewicz '84, a Ph.D. student in public policy who worked with Weed as a tutor and classroom aide in the required first-year statistics course.

"I felt I was working together with Matt and the professor of the course to come up with the best way possible to translate statistics, a very visual body of thought, into concepts which would be useful to Matt later on in his career," Stankiewicz says. "In this way, all three of us were learning together."

After two years at Princeton and a summer internship at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina, Weed received his masters in public affairs.

To this day, Stankiewicz says, people still ask him what happened to Weed.

"Matt and I often met for lunch at the school's dining hall," Stankiewicz says. "Whenever I go back now, I am always asked by the dining hall staff about how Matt is doing. Matt continues to be very popular here at the school."

Coming to Harvard

This fall, Weed returned to his studies in the life sciences and came to Harvard to pursue his doctoral degree.

Weed says two doctoral classes, lab work and tutoring took up a substantial chunk of his life at first, but now he has gotten into the main focus of his studies at Harvard: genes.

"I spent many hours working with great people who made biological concepts, that are all taught visually, accessible to me," he says. "I experienced everything that you would expect from Harvard students, such as extreme dedication."

Weed says he uses Genetics Computing Group (GCG) software to examine DNA and protein structure, and how one converts to the other. The software allows him to make predictions, such as what a protein might look like at a later stage.

"The software takes the tedious work out of your hands. There is no need to read A, C, T and G over and over again," he says. "The computer does this for you, without mistakes, in a minute. By hand, it would take days to do as well."

Access at Harvard

An important figure in Weed's Harvard experience has been W. Kelley Gardner, the Director of Information Services at the Joslin Diabetes Center in the Medical Area, where a $60,000 computer system provides Weed with Digital hardware and the text-to-speech software called DECTalk.

"I wanted to find a way to have a machine perform analysis and present biological data in a way that Matt can use," says Gardner, who does not work for Harvard. "DECTalk synthesizes speech from text and supports multiple voices."

"With practice, Matt can hear as fast as we sighted individuals can see," he says. "He listens to 480 words per minute--an extraordinary rate for which the brain is thoroughly constructed. The ability is inherent in us all, but not everyone needs to use it."

"The human species adapts when a skill is needed, and so Matt's other senses compensate," he adds. "However, Matt's adaptive adjustment is quite unique and beyond what I have ever seen before."

To interact with the computers, Weed has learned to touch-type and, once his fingers find the home-row, he can conduct his scientific work and respond to e-mail messages.

Although computers continue to open many doors for Weed, he says Harvard's resources are insufficient for his special needs. In particular, he cannot easily access programming knowledge, because of the physical separation of the Medical Area from the Cambridge facilities.

"The biomedical sciences are here in Boston, but computer science is over in Cambridge," Weed says. "The need to travel between two campuses, an arduous task for even sighted individuals, makes learning the basic scientific programming language emacs-LISP impossible."

"I am unable to access science-oriented computing, and cannot get everything I need--data, professors and so on--together so that I can be independent," he adds. "I need to be able to access everything at once in order to make breakthroughs in my work. Only the pieces are there."

The lack of access has led Weed to decide not remain at Harvard to pursue his Ph.D., but to terminate his program after one year with a masters.

This spring, he is taking reading courses, continuing to engage in lab work and working on an independent project, which will culminate in an article that will be published as his masters' thesis. Weed's project consists of library research on the 'Sonic Hedgehog," a molecule related to the patterning of limbs in tetropods.

"If you are a sighted person, Harvard is at the top of the list of biology graduate programs, with 12 to 13 major lab buildings and great resources particularly for molecular biology research. That is why I came here," Weed says.

"However, the technology that I require to pursue my work is just not here. The little subset of resources that I need is not supported by this program, and thus the program, however great, does not work well for my particular needs," he says.

In the Medical Area alone, too many dangerous streets impair his traveling, he says.

"Finding people to help me travel from place to place is hard. Since Harvard is not too good about finding me guides, I spend several hours a week recruiting friends--a process that significantly cuts into my academic and social time," Weed says. "I never had any such complaints at Yale and Princeton, school that found guides for me."

The Future

"Without a foundation, you cannot do anything," Weed says.

With his foundation having been laid at the Big Three, Weed says he will go to another graduate school or work at NIH.

"I may go to work at NIH for a year and use their resources so that when I go back to doctoral work, I am prepared and in as good a position as possible. In reality, NIH with its staff of 18,000, of which 4,000 are Ph.D.s outstrips Harvard, by far, with its several hundred Ph.D.s in the sciences," he says. "NIH has $1.3 or $1.4 billion available for research, much more than Harvard."

However, NIH does not give degrees or offer long-term teaching classes, such as in emacs-LISP, Weed says. Thus, he will still return to graduate school, even if he decides to work at NIH first.

"I am considering Duke University's School of the Environment," he says. "They offer a Ph.D. in Environmental Management, as well as other life sciences programs within which I can run wild and adopt the programs to my goals."

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