Those who know her agree that 19-year-old Chelsea Cook is the most determined individual they have ever met. And rightly so. Cook is a physics major from Newport News, Va. She’s taking a full load of courses such as physics and multivariable calculus, maintains a 3.3 grade-point average, and is active in the Society of Physics Students and the Ladies of Robeson, a women’s physics group. She likes to write science fiction and listen to astrophysics lectures on her iPod.
And one more thing. Cook is blind.
Her goal is to be an astronaut.
“The plan may change but the overall goal will not,” she said. “I want to go to graduate school, study astrophysics, and then knock on the right door and tell them I want to go up into space.”
Cook’s interest in astronomy started at a young age when she read an astronomy book by Noreen Grice, an author and educator who makes astronomy books accessible to the blind.
“I’ve always been interested in astronomy, but I never thought I could do anything with it until I read her books,” Cook said. “There was a foreword in one of them by the first blind radio astronomer, and it gave me confidence from the beginning.”
In 2009, Cook attended a ceremony sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind to honor Louis Braille, who invented the Braille alphabet. During the event, she read a letter she wrote for inclusion in a commemorative book about her experiences with Braille. She also met Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education.
Cook continues to be active in the federation and serves on several committees. She met Grice at the organization’s Maryland headquarters in 2005 and has maintained a friendship with her. In fact, in summer 2010, the two conducted a hands-on science exploration program at a camp for 200 blind high school students interested in science.
Several notable mentors helped Cook thrive over the years. One in particular was her 10th grade physics teacher, who made sure she was involved in every class demonstration and that she understood the concepts.
“Something as simple as a spring. He made sure I could feel it and play with it. He understood I need to process things tactilely. He could look at my facial expressions and judge if I understood something or not,” she said.
“He also realized I was good at math and that I had potential that wasn’t really being tapped in to. If I had not had the experience with him, I would not be a physics major today.”
Cook said the main inconvenience in her life is having to wait to get her textbooks and lab manuals translated into Braille. She said it was an almost unbearable frustration in the public schools.
“I knew there was something out there that other people had, but I had to wait for,” she said. “Science … I needed it. It was in my blood. I don’t think even my parents understood the kind of connection I had with it.”
One of the reasons Cook chose Virginia Tech was because of the assurance she got from the physics department that her accessibility needs would be met and that being blind would not be an issue, she said.
“They were great,” she said. “At the start of freshman year, I had both my math textbooks in Braille waiting for me at the beginning of the semester.”
Last year, Cook was invited to test drive a prototype of the Blind Driver Challenge vehicle developed by College of Engineering students that enables blind people to safely operate a car. “It was so cool,” she said. “I can’t wait to do it again.
Cook receives help through the universities’ Services for Students with Disabilities Office, where she has her textbooks and other materials translated into Braille and receives one-on-one assistance with keeping her coursework organized and working with computer software, as well as other support.
“Chelsea is an amazing individual,” said Beate Schmittmann, chair of the physics department in the College of Science. “With her determination, motivation, and inner strength, she is an inspiration to all of us.”
When told that some people consider her an inspiration, Cook’s response was, “Why? I just do what I love.”
In 2009, the National Federation of the Blind asked Americans write letters to President Barack Obama about the role that being able to read and write Braille plays in their lives.
The organization compiled 100 of the responses, including one from Chelsea Cook, into a book. The organization also published the letters online.
The Blind Driver Challenge is the National Federation of the Blind's mission to develop non-visual interface technologies that will allow a blind person to safely and independently operate a car.
The challenge was issued in 2004. Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering was the first and remains the only academic institution to take up that call.
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