Student excels despite extreme visual loss

From the laboratory where she works at Brigham Young University, there is little to suggest that one of the school's top genetics students faces any exceptional challenges.

Robin Zook is highly skilled with laboratory equipment, is meticulous in her research, and is a welcome help for the students she counsels as a graduate assistant, said her faculty adviser, Daniel Fairbanks."She's the kind of student teachers hope for, and they only come along once every decade or so," he said.

Yet Robin is blind, a condition that once devastated her so completely that she once dropped out of high school.

Now a graduate student in the College of Biology and Agriculture, Robin – a member of the BYU 6th Ward, BYU 2nd Stake – recently was awarded a $10,000 fellowship from the National Federation of the Blind, the top honor at its 50-year anniversary celebration this year.

"With a nearly straight-A average and a real talent for scientific scholarship, we forget she has extremely limited vision," Fairbanks said.

"She assists with teaching and grading in some of our largest classes. In the lab, she knows what she needs, and her performance gives no indication that there is a handicap involved. She plans to get both master's and doctoral degrees, and I see her as a real asset to the cause of science."

Being a member of the Church has influenced her education in many ways, Robin said. "Mostly it has fostered my desire for growth, whether that be spiritual or secular growth, and it has also taught me to strive toward perfection."

Despite her success, it has been – and continues to be – a challenging life for a young woman whose bout with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 8 damaged her eyesight. She had nearly normal vision until she turned 15, but, within a few months, Robin lost nearly every visual capability except the ability to distinguish a few colors.

With later operations on both eyes, she completely lost sight in her left eye but gained about one-tenth of normal vision in her right eye when enhanced by high-powered magnifying glasses. This means she sees at 20 feet what a person with normal vision can see at 300 feet.

Believing that her options for a happy, productive life had been closed, Robin eventually left school and stayed home for six months.

"The adjustment was frightening," she said. "I faced depression, and I thought, `Well, here I am. I can't do anything. I shouldn't do anything, and I am afraid to try new things.' Those attitudes were, of course, misguided, but at the time my family and I thought that was the way it was."

When she decided to finish high school, she attended a school for hearing- and sight-impaired students, but despite the achievement, continued to feel she had little worth.

She found herself caught in societal attitudes that, she said, dictate a lesser status for those who are blind.

"Society has told blind people they are dependent and not normal, and I believed that for awhile," she said. "On my own and through help from the National Federation of the Blind, I've come to realize it doesn't have to be that way.

"I've learned that my Heavenly Father loves me and I believe He knows me. I believe that I am physically acceptable to Him; therefore, why shouldn't that be good enough for me?

"Blind people can function on an equal basis if given the proper training and opportunities. I'm normal; I just sometimes need different tools."

Those tools, in her case, include a magnifying glass attached to her goggles for lab work; a closed-circuit television that allows her to place a book under it and enlarge the words; a computer with an enlarged print and a voice that will read back what she puts into it; and the use of braille.