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Little Sight, No Sound, No Stopping Chris Wells from a Doctorate

Related Photos Commencement 2011 Photo Gallery

Christopher Wells is considering becoming a professor, a theoretical chemistry consultant, or a post-doctorate researcher. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)

Albany, N.Y. (May 15, 2011) -- Commencement was a sweet victory for Christopher Wells, a Lake George, N.Y., resident who is deaf and legally blind. He earned a doctorate in inorganic and physical chemistry on May 14 from the University at Albany.

“Now, with my doctorate in my hands, I feel I have achieved one of my greatest dreams, one that so many did not believe to be doable,” wrote Wells. “It is a roar that will reach those who continue to suffer from the oppression that disabilities place upon us, for us to rise against the challenges we face in society and achieve what once was believed to be insurmountable.”

Wells’s dissertation is on graphene, a promising material so exciting to scientists that two Manchester researchers won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their research on it. O’Leary Professor Lawrence Snyder, a professor emeritus of chemistry and Wells’s dissertation adviser, said there is intense scientific interest in graphene at this time because of its possible use as a new material for electronics. He receives the Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation award at the Graduate Commencement ceremony. 

For his success in life, Wells credits his mother, Eileen K. Wells, a registered nurse who adopted him when he was 7, and taught him sign language. Prior to that when Chris was hospitalized for dehydration at age 4, his young and overwhelmed biological parents agreed to place him in foster care, and later gave him up for adoption.

“Over the years many people have told me how fortunate Chris was to have been adopted by me,” said Eileen Wells. “Truth be known, I am the fortunate one. Chris is an inspiration in all aspects of his endeavors and I have been blessed by his presence in my life.”

Since entering graduate studies at UAlbany in 2002, Wells has overcome many challenges. He can read if he literally sticks his nose in a textbook, but severe myopia prevents him from lip-reading.

“Coupled with my deafness and lack of speech understanding, I could not pick up small talk among people,” he noted. This led to a feeling of isolation in a lab group.
For eight years his interpreter Donna Kosloske drove him to campus from his home in Lake George and back. More recently, he works without an interpreter.

Other challenges were scientific. “Right now, it seems that the physical chemistry exams are among the most challenging, compared to the other fields provided for chemistry examinations, from both an objective and subjective perspective. For that, I am real proud that I took the ‘hardest’ path and survived,” he added.

Wells credits Professor of Chemistry John Welch, his initial research adviser, and Snyder, with his academic success.

“One of my greatest supporters on campus has been Dr. Larry Snyder,” wrote Wells. “His deep faith in my abilities made a difference in my journey to obtain my Ph.D.”

Others who helped Wells establish a support network on campus include Disability Resource Center Director Nancy Belowich-Negron and former department coordinator Elaine Bailey, who communicated with him by word processor.

One of Wells’s crowning achievements was becoming the first deaf-blind doctoral student to present research to an American Physics Society meeting in Dallas, Texas, in March. His work dealt with the energy states in graphene.

“The thesis contains a figure depicting the K and K’ states of graphene, which became the basis for the patterns in the beautiful ‘Graphene Quilt,’ an 84” by 84” quilt, made by Shirley Livingston of Williamsburg, Va., that I keep on display in my home,” said Snyder.

“Christopher Wells has a deep interest in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and philosophy,” said Snyder. “This is reflected in the extensive library he has accumulated over the years. In addition, he works with great intensity to apply computer programs to problems he is interested in. He is very facile in the use of computers, and is very productive in employing them in explorations.” 

Wells also completed a Summer 2007 internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where he worked on modified carbon nanotubes terminated by water fragments.

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