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Researcher working with a pipette in the lab at Mayo Clinic

September 19, 2022

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

Charlotte Brown has been visually impaired since birth and blind since age 14. As a scientist-in-training, she faces her research goals with the same approach as all the other activities she loves to do. "I run on a full tank of stubbornness, always," she says.

Charlotte Brown first discovered her passion for medicine through books. As a child, she dreamt of becoming a neurosurgeon and spent hours reading about the brain, diseases, and procedures.

After testing the waters with a master's degree in neuroscience, the Texas native moved to Rochester to join Mayo Clinic's Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program, known as PREP, to take a variety of upper-level science courses and gain the research experience needed to succeed in a Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. program.  

In the lab of neurosurgeon David Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., Brown is learning experiments to study the epigenetic changes that occur in a highly aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer known as diffuse midline glioma that currently has no cure.

At Brown's desk, samples and chemicals are marked with braille labels. To conduct an experiment like a Western blot, which indicates protein levels, she uses a plastic insert that guides the tip of her micropipette into tiny wells.  

Brown has been visually impaired since birth and blind since age 14 due to a rare chromosomal abnormality called partial monosomy 13q.

As a scientist-in-training, she's at home in the lab and has already contributed to published papers. She faces her research goals with the same approach as all the other activities she loves to do. In fact, she's doing more than helping find new treatments for disease. Her goals include dispelling misconceptions about blindness.

Brown was in elementary school when she realized her visual field was diminishing. She taught herself braille in middle school, and by the end of ninth grade, she had lost her remaining sight. An avid athlete, she found ways to continue the sports she loved, like running and cycling, using an echolocation device that makes clicking noises to alert her about obstacles. 

When Brown began the PREP program in Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, she immediately sought out the lab of Dr. Daniels. He specializes in treating pediatric patients with complex brain tumors and leads a research lab that includes studying tumor-derived cell lines and developing new cancer drugs.

Though Dr. Daniels' lab has accommodated students with disabilities in the past, blindness was a new challenge, and he considered the range of tasks Brown could undertake on her own. From their first conversation, he was confident Brown fit right in with the lab.

His approach suited Brown, too: "He said to me, 'I'm going to assume you can do everything, and I trust you'll let me know if there's something that you're struggling with.'"  

Removing barriers 

Communication has been key to Brown's success. She worked with lab manager Liang Zhang, Ph.D., to adapt the workspace, including labeling everything from instruments to various-sized pipettes with braille-stamped tags.

She also worked with Kara James, a disability and accommodation resource specialist in Disability Access Services, part of the Office of Wellness and Academic Support, to acquire accessible tools specific to the type of research conducted in the lab.

"We don't provide special services — it's not 'special,'" James says. Her team serves nearly 200 learners with disabilities across every school of Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.

For Brown, one important tool is a printer with heat-sensitive paper that allows her to read the results of her Western blot experiments. Heat inside the printer causes inked areas to swell, and darkened areas — indicating the presence of protein — become raised bumps.

"The technology transforms a visual piece of data into a tactile format that I can read and interpret in much the same way," Brown says. 

More teaching to do 

Even as Brown has found mentors in the lab, they're learning from her, too.

Julian Rechberger, M.D., who's working toward a doctoral degree in Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, taught Brown several experimental techniques. The two collaborated on a journal article, and he was instantly impressed with her skills in reviewing medical literature, which she reviews through audio technology or through braille.

Brown also took the initiative to contribute to clinical care, developing a children's book that explains brain surgery in easy-to-understand terms. Her book is colorful and tactile, aimed to be read by pediatric patients who are sighted or visually impaired. The book, which is being piloted in the clinic, is a first of its kind that Dr. Daniels has used with his patients.

"As we all work toward creating a more diverse workplace, we have to include disability as part of diversity," James says. "There's obvious value in having disabled researchers and disabled medical practitioners. We need our medical researchers and medical practitioners to be reflective of the communities in which we live." 

Brown acknowledges that there's still more to do to teach others about blindness, and she's eager to be part of that work. In a commentary published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, she argues for more medical school training specifically geared toward treating patients who are blind or visually impaired. She's interested in speaking to medical student groups to help them practice those interactions.  

Regarding her own goals, she's planning to apply to graduate research programs and may yet aim toward a career as a physician-scientist — a decision she'll base on her interests rather than any hurdles.