Christopher Wells is a can-do kind of guy. Recently he graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with a PhD in chemistry. Deaf and legally blind as a result of nerve damage sustained when he was born two months premature, he grew up to be a topnotch student, and even interned at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He plans to use his degree to teach, conduct research or serve as a consultant. ABILITY’s Molly Mackin conducted her interview with the scholar via text message, the easiest way for him to communicate.
Molly Mackin: Congratulations on receiving your PhD. What is it you like so much about chemistry?
Christopher Wells: Chemistry is one of the central sciences— along with physics and math—that have proven to be great areas for me. I feel in harmony with atoms and molecules; their diverse compounds and structures come naturally to me.
Mackin: You make chemistry sound poetic. I was a hack at math, but I loved mixing potions in chem lab. Your studies involved something called ‘nanotubes.’ What are those?
Wells: Nanotubes are carbon structures that look like tubes. They are hollow cylinders made up of carbon atoms; they can be metallic or semiconductors.
Mackin: What would you use them for?
Wells: They are great electricity conductors. They have excellent tensile strength, and they can be good capillary tubes.
Mackin: Capillary tubes? Like blood vessels?
Wells: Yes. They can draw liquids or other substances into their interiors, and multiple tubes can act as bearings for nano-motors. They slide past each other with great ease.
Mackin: Sounds like robotics.
Wells: That’s how some of us are trying to use nanotubes. My current research is not in that area, but in carbon electronics, where the nanotube is rolled out flat into sheets. I’m especially interested in control of material properties via atom-atom interactions.
Mackin: Everything is going well for you these days, but you started out with some real challenges.
Wells: I was born premature by two months, and my birth parents, who were really young, found themselves overwhelmed by my disabilities. They placed me with my foster family, which later adopted me.
Mackin: At what age were you adopted?
Wells: I was a foster kid from 4 years old, and then my family adopted me when I was 7. I have two godsisters: Dani, who is 20, and Kate, who is 15, and an adoptee like me, only she is from Romania. I also have a brother, Bobby, who is 20, and deaf like me. My two godmothers, Pat and Sally, were college friends of my mother, and my godfather is Larrie. All my guardians work at an agency and school for special needs kids.
Mackin: Are you still in contact with your birth parents?
Wells: My birth mother, one sister and I are in touch on Facebook now! They are real proud of my achievements. They never regretted their decision to let me go to my new family. In the transitional period, my birth mother got to see me thrive with my godparents.
Mackin: How was the transition?
Wells: Smooth. I learned sign language and developed a thirst for knowledge. It challenged my guardians to think about what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t.
Mackin: What early schooling did you have?
Wells: From kindergarten to second grade, I went to Sanford Street School in Glens Falls, NY, which recently closed. But it once was great for special-needs kids, helping us learn to socialize.
During a visit to Kendall School for the Deaf in Washington, DC, I decided I wanted a “regular” education. Finding that seventh-grade students there were learning about farm animals, made me realize there were challenges far outside special education, so I requested to enter elementary school in third grade.
Mackin: You did well there?
Wells: Yes, I excelled in “regular” education, and ended up as valedictorian of my high school with a 92 average! Our class was very competitive. There were a lot of smart kids. I skipped two grades in math, and one in Spanish.
Mackin: Where did you apply to college?
Wells: Siena College; RPI; Union College; SUNY Albany, and SUNY Adirondack, all of them are in located New York.
Mackin: Where did you get in?
Wells: I got into all of them! I visited four out of the five, and won a presidential scholarship to Siena College for all four years! I had also won a scholarship to RPI, but my uncle, Michael Wells, had attended Siena before, as a math major. Later, I did my graduate studies at SUNY Albany. All of the colleges I visited never had a student who was both deaf and blind before. I was a pioneer.
Mackin: Did you know what you wanted to study going in?
Wells: Yes, since high school I’ve wanted to study chemistry.
Mackin: While we’re on the subject, do you have time for a girlfriend amidst all this work?
Wells: Well, I was real busy with my research and so focused on my work, that if I had free time, I used it to read up on topics that would help me. That was how I became so knowledgeable. I do want to look for a girlfriend, now that I am free and on academic break.
Mackin: I’m sure you will find each other in perfect time. You said your godsister is Romanian; what is your ethnicity?
Wells: My biological family was German, however, my experiences with society run parallel to those experienced by African-Americans, so I have a natural affinity for black people. Both people who are deaf and black people have had their families ripped apart, and defined modern cultures via peer interactions before gaining ground.
Mackin: That’s an interesting insight. You’ve dealt with being both deaf and blind, what was communication with your school peers like?
Wells: I first learned that sign language was a great friendship builder! I also started to diversify my techniques, so I could become more independent and interact with many people, not just classmates. My interactions helped me define the ideal relationship style of symbiosis. I would like a relationship where we empower each other and strengthen both our bodies and souls as a team.
Mackin: Do you have a job lined up?
Wells: Not yet. My village has no place for a chemist or a PhD. SUNY Albany has openings, but they’re not right for my expertise in inorganic chemistry and applied quantum theory. My village is a tourism industry.
Mackin: I grew up in upstate NY, and we sometimes vacationed in Lake George, so I understand.
Wells: Yes, it’s real nice!
Mackin: Where else are you looking?
Wells: I like cities and campuses, so I have been looking to relocate. I am willing to try out new environments and build new social circles.
Mackin: You have partial vision; do you have partial hearing, as well?
Wells: My hearing works, but it is so bad that I am often in an aura of silence.
Mackin: Do you use hearing aids?
Wells: I used to, but not anymore. Sound does not help me now. I ditched my hearing aids in high school.
Mackin: That’s rather rebellious of you.
Wells: I have always been aware of what society did to deaf or blind people in the past. It tried to make them assimilate and gave them a substandard education, which made integration hard. I have done much to ease this process, and even blazed new paths for people like myself to follow. I am a ‘black swan.’ People did not think I could do this, yet I am here, completely unabated by their opinions or experiences.
Mackin: Did you always have such confidence?
Wells: Yes, from birth! I was a medical miracle in 1979.
Mackin: How so?
Wells: I refused to let what doctors thought about me influence my outcomes. I loved to prove experts wrong at every turn! I was born two months too early and suffered some nasty brain damage as a neonate. That made doctors believe I would have cognitive disabilities. Boy, were they wrong!
Mackin: That’s a pretty unique perspective—to think of yourself as an activist from birth.
Wells: Yes, I was born to be different!
by Molly Mackin