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A delicious new molecular model is inspired by a beautiful father-son relationship

Gummy candy proteins in bite-sized pieces could level the playing field for blind STEM students.

Noah Shaw, a thirteen-year-old with perfect pitch, is fascinated by planets. His father, Bryan Shaw, is a biochemist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and he aspires to be a scientist like him. Noah’s journey to science, however, may not be as smooth as the elder Shaw’s.

Noah has only one eye and persistent blind spots in his eyesight after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma as an infant (SN: 1/5/85). People who are blind or have limited vision, such as Noah, are underrepresented in science and encounter challenges in STEM education.

“Most of the stunning imagery in science is inaccessible to people who are blind,” Bryan Shaw says.

That makes him sad because protein renderings are what got him interested in science in the first place.

Shaw and his colleagues developed bite-sized molecular models that take advantage of the mouth’s supersensitive touch sensors, which can detect finer details than our fingertips.

Gummy candy models of vital proteins, such as myoglobin, which supplies oxygen to muscles, were made, as well as non-edible, non-toxic counterparts 3-D printed. Both can be popped into the mouth to see what happens.

After attaching lanyards to the non-food models to prevent choking, the researchers blindfolded 281 college students and 31 elementary school pupils to see how well they could distinguish between edible and non-edible models.

By tongue or by hand, each student inspected one protein model. The students had to decide whether the protein was the same as the first or different for each consecutive protein model they examined. Instead of models, a different group of 84 college students tested their eyesight using 3-D computer representations of proteins.

The team writes in Science Advances on May 28 that students accurately recognized the proteins 85 percent of the time, regardless of whether they used their tongues, fingers, or eyes to do so. According to Shaw, such low-cost, microscopic replicas could help students learn about proteins regardless of their eyesight acuity.

While twirling a blackberry on his tongue, Shaw had the idea for this potential educational tool. The rough shell of a blackberry resembles a popular scientific representation of proteins, in which each of the protein’s atoms is represented by a spherical. When you put thousands of atoms together, you produce something that looks like an intricate fruit, which the tongue might be able to distinguish by shape.

Many newborns and toddlers learn about the world through their mouths. In 2013, a Hong Kong schoolgirl made waves when she taught herself to read Braille with her lips. Shaw claims, however, that the mouth’s exceptional sensory potential is largely underused in science teaching.

Shaw has applied for a patent on the models and is looking for comments. However, transforming the models from prototype to instructional tool will take more time and effort. For example, the researchers have access to professional equipment that allows them to print models and sanitize them between usage, which is not available to all instructors.
Most notably, kids who are blind or have impaired vision would benefit from testing the models.

Shaw’s team will use the feedback from these kids to develop the models so that they better suit the needs of the students. Shaw has begun discussions about the models with teachers at Austin’s Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Noah did put the models to the test, but his data was not included in the analysis.

This isn’t the first time Noah has influenced his father. Shaw previously worked on an app that may detect early signs of eye impairment in childhood photographs. Whether Noah pursues a career in science or not, his father has one wish:

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