Despite failed vision, alum running a self-guided race to his Ph.D.

(UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The first semester of his freshman year at UC Berkeley, Newton Nguyen was struggling. After failing his very first math class, in fact, Nguyen feared he might never make it to graduation.

Nguyen had a pretty good reason for his first semester struggles: He had gone blind.

“For better or worse, the reality of Berkeley is that it’s a rigorous place,” says Nguyen four years and a geophysics degree later. “It was so hard. I remember failing that class and it was such a low. I felt worthless and genuinely thought I couldn’t succeed here. I was seriously considering dropping out.”

Nguyen’s vision has been deteriorating since he was 12, and by the time he arrived on campus his world was a blur of shapes and colors. He couldn’t read the whiteboard or his textbooks. Homework was essentially out of the question. And while his loss of vision was certainly debilitating, the more arduous task for Nguyen was swallowing his pride and asking for help.

“I still get embarrassed about it, if I’m being completely honest,” says Nguyen about his disability. “I refused to use my cane until I absolutely had to, and as my vision declined, eventually I got to the point where I had to admit to it myself: I’m blind. I’m disabled. It’s a coming-out kind of situation, because once you start using a cane, there’s no way you can hide the fact you’re blind anymore. I just had to make the decision and embrace it.”

‘Seeing code’

Embracing his blindness, despite the discomfort, ended up being a turning point for Nguyen. He became an advocate for himself, seeking out the Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program as well as securing funding from the state of California that gave him access to a personal scribe for six hours a week. His grades rebounded, even though his field of study, geophysics, presented another complicated academic hurdle.

“I had to learn how to ‘see code,’” says Nguyen. “I’m a climate scientist, so it’s foundational to what I do. I code all day.”

The mechanics of being able to “see code” are complicated. Nguyen requires a screen reader, technology that reads what is on his computer monitor aloud to him, as well as a text editor so he can enter his data.

“If I was typing a Python code and wanted to create a function that squares an object it would be something like, ‘def square, left parent, x, right parent, colon, tab, return…’” he says, slipping into a language he has become fluent in.

“Initially it was really hard to listen to,” he says, “but eventually you get used to it. It’s just like any other thing.”

Newton Nguyen (center) with training parters Arthur Tonelli (left) and Varun Pemmaraju (right). (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Guided training

“I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone as much now as I used to,” says Nguyen.

After overcoming his reluctance to ask for help, seeking out support groups on an off campus and teaching himself how to “see” code, Nguyen took up a new challenge: triathlons.

In high school, when his vision was still passable, Nguyen had run track and cross-country. As for swimming, Nguyen admits he “didn’t really know how.” But when the Cal triathlon team, in an effort to be more inclusive and accessible to disabled athletes, came by the Disabled Students’ Center and asked if anyone was interested, Nguyen volunteered.

“They had to teach me how to swim,” he says with a laugh.

In truth, competing as a disabled athlete was something that both Nguyen and the triathlon team had to learn how to do. Because of Nguyen’s disability, he is allowed a guide for each race. For the biking portion, Nguyen and his guide rode a tandem bike, and for the run and the swim he and his guide were tethered together.

Adjusting to Nguyen was easier than expected. The triathlon team invited a seasoned paratriathlete to practice and the sighted athletes ran laps wearing opaque sunglasses to get a feel for what Nguyen was experiencing.

“We were prepared to have to radically change the way we approached practice,” says Varum Pemmaraju, a 2014 graduate who trained with Nguyen and served as his guide during races. “But there really wasn’t much of a difference at all. If you didn’t know he was blind, you wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual. In many cases, he didn’t need a guide. When he was running in practice with a big group around him, he felt comfortable on his own.”

There were, of course, some bumps along the way. Sorting out the correct tether, for example, was a process of trial and error. When the team was experimenting with rubber tethers, they realized there was too much give in the line. When the guide would pull the tether to steer Nguyen out of harm’s way, the elasticity in the line would delay the tug on Nguyen’s finger. He was getting the information he needed, it just wasn’t on time.

“Stuff came up,” says Pemmaraju, “but we never had any catastrophes.”

“We’ve definitely tumbled off the tandem bike a few times,” says Arthur Tonelli, another of Nguyen’s teammates. “Ultimately, though, it’s just a matter of being more aware. We went to a training camp in January at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. For me as a guide, the workouts weren’t particularly intense physically, but it was exhausting because every workout I had to be really sharp mentally.”

New challenges

Despite starting slow, Nguyen graduated in May last year. After a gap year working as a research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he’s set to branch out beyond Berkeley. Nguyen has enrolled in an environmental science and engineering Ph.D. program at Caltech, and this summer he’s moving down to Pasadena, a city where he knows precisely no one, where he’ll start the process of adjusting to a new city, campus, and community all over again.

Nguyen has some trepidations about the move, but generally is upbeat and confident that it will go well. He plans on continuing to run triathlons while he works his way through the Ph.D. program.

“Inevitably there will be setbacks,” he admits. “But I’m optimistic about it. As long as I’m able to take something away from the experience, I should be fine.”

When taking stock of his time at Berkeley, Nguyen feels a sense of accomplishment.

“It was hard, for sure” he says. “But by the end I didn’t feel like I had to give anything up. I was so interested in my research and what I was learning, and then after school I would get to run or swim or ride bikes with my friends. Really, what more could I have wanted?”