Dr. Mona Minkara: Reviving the American Dream
The home of America’s first blind female Muslim chemist is as immaculate and welcoming as it is modern and bright. We knock on the door of her highrise apartment adjacent to the University of Minnesota’s campus, and Dr. Mona Minkara opens the door with a disarmingly friendly smile, wearing a cotton hijab and a big cozy wool sweater.
Mona may be blind, but she’s opening our eyes and renewing the power of our American dreams. The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, she shows us - by example - that if we bring our hope to action, the America we love can still be a radically inclusive place for all of us to make our exceptional dreams come true.
THE DAUGHTER OF MUSLIM IMMIGRANTS
Mona’s story begins in Tacoma Park, Maryland in the mid 1980s. It weaves across the world to Lebanon, then Boston, South to Florida and finally lands her here, in the middle of a cold Minneapolis winter.
Mona is the eldest daughter of Fida and Samer, two Lebanese immigrants from Tripoli. With creamy skin and clear bright brown eyes, Mona was a curious and independent child. Before she started her public school education, Mona was already a voracious learner. With Arabic spoken at home, young Mona absorbed Bill Nye the Science Guy and Magic School Bus with sponge-like thirst, devouring anything related to science.
As it turns out, the scientific method was to become Mona’s most fluent language, and the most powerful thread of inquiry to define her life.
Her young childhood was typical and happy. She spent it playing with her sister Sara and her brother Ibrahim, living contentedly in her own curious world of experiments and learning. Summers were enjoyed in Lebanon visiting aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
On one such trip back to Lebanon, Mona had an appointment that changed the course of her family’s life. There, Mona was handed an official diagnosis that she would eventually share with her equally impressive sister Sara. That diagnosis was ‘macular degeneration with cone-rod dystrophy,’ a genetic disorder that causes complete blindness.
This recollection is punctuated by a heavy pause.
Had Mona, who so values science and education, been born to different parents - and if America had not welcomed them as immigrants - she may never have accessed the discovery that now defines her life.
And so, with a confirmed diagnosis and a forever altered future, seven-year-old Mona and her family returned to the United States, settling in a new home in Boston, where Mona’s parents still live today.
Her mother’s grief was short-lived. A woman of deep and abiding faith, Fida was blessed with an inner strength that comes from what Muslims call tawakkul (or a trust and reliance on God).
“Whenever I told her I wanted to do something she was like: ‘go do it!’” recalls the 2016 Ford Foundation fellow. “There was no pitying, no coddling, no telling me ‘you can’t.’ My mother is very faith-oriented, she trusted in God and she pushed me.”
With those consistent lessons, Fida passed the values of faith and hard work onto her children.
Whether it was advising Mona about trying out for track and field or living solo in her college dormitories, Fida and Samer relied on their faith to guide all of their parenting decisions. “Whenever we found obstacles in our path, they reminded us that God always has a plan as long as our intentions are good and we work hard,” shares Mona.
Pursuing A Public Education
Even with a strong faith tradition and a deeply loving family, being a blind first-generation immigrant was challenging. Because of her new diagnosis and deteriorating eyesight, Mona was placed in Special Education classes in the Massachusetts public school system. “We were the only Muslim family in a very white town. My parents didn’t know how to navigate the school system,” she recalls, “And the school didn’t know exactly what to do with me because I was blind.” Until tenth grade, school was a mismatched environment for Mona, one that lacked rigor and challenge.
Finally, her boredom in Special Education gave way to unabashed self-advocacy. “I was bored out of my mind. Sophomore year I decided: this is it. I’m going to take Advanced Biology,” she remembers. The head of the science department at her school was not supportive. “You’re going to fail,” she recalls him stating matter-of-factly.
But for Mona, failure was a more palatable option than boredom, so she pushed back with the full force of her rights as an American student with disabilities,
Mona was right to seek out and advocate for her legal rights. The head of the science department couldn’t stop her from pursuing the class. It was a public school, after all. And as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Education Act, Mona was able to take full advantage of the beauty of the American education system.
“Interestingly enough from a legal perspective,” explains Mona, “the United States is the only country in the world that legally mandates requirements to accommodate everyone. It’s the only nation that has it written on the books,” referring to the Americans with Disabilities Education Act. This act mandates free, appropriate and publicly supported access to education for people with disabilities.
Some might admonish the early failures of her school system to not provide appropriate learning, but Mona would not trade her experience for any other globally. In fact, she insists that America is the number one place in the world to be a disabled person, despite existing gaps in equity.
“I’m glad that I’m here in America,” she shares. “People with disabilities are last on the list of worries for a country like Lebanon. Lebanon would not have been able to provide what I needed.”
Despite the lack of support and roadblocks from school administration, Mona did not fail. In fact, she ended the semester with the highest grade of any student in more than two years - and a formal apology from the advanced science teacher.
“After doing Advanced Biology I realized I could do advanced everything,” She shares. “And that’s exactly what I did. The world opened up to me. I just felt everything. I was voracious and I was ravenous.”
Bolstered by this success, Mona went on to challenge herself and self-advocate at every turn.
Expanding the Landscape of Scientific Discovery
Her advanced high school coursework led to a Bachelor's Degree at Wellesley College, one of the most prestigious women’s liberal arts colleges in the nation. Her time and leadership experiences at Wellesley showed Mona that she could live and learn independently - and further from home - so she pursued a terminal degree in Computational Chemistry at the University of Florida, who ‘rolled out the red carpet’ for her by providing exceptional accommodations and access.
Though homesick for the Boston area, her most recent academic decision - to pursue postdoctoral work with the University of Minnesota’s Chemical Theory Center - was made in large part because of one Minnesota professor. To him, her blindness was not an impediment, but an asset to the field.
Hearing someone reframe her disability as a strength was powerful for Mona. “It floored me. My entire life I’ve been working on proving I am good enough, and here comes someone...Not only does he see that I’m good enough, but he sees that I might be even an asset because I think differently - because I’m blind. He sees my blindness as something positive.”
Mona’s research on surfactants could eventually have huge implications for drug delivery or even for environment health. Even more important, though, is the way she thinks about science as a discipline.
Being blind makes it impossible for Mona to visualize data firsthand. So together with another blind scientist, Mona is thinking about how researchers can experience and model data in new ways. “We’re proposing a shift in the mentality of data analysis,” explains Mona. “Why does it only have to be visual?”
A sighted scientist might never think to ask this question, but the question needs asking, if we are to truly push the boundaries of discovery.
A true educator, Mona explains further: “Did you know that your ear has an order of magnitude higher resolution than your eyes? For example [a rhythm] can beat twenty beats per second, and your ear will hear that it’s separate beats. On the other hand, if you watch those same twenty frames per second, you have yourself movie. Your eye cannot distinguish twenty separate frames, but your ear can hear those unique beats.”
Mona goes on to explain that traditional data representation is only visual because it’s been our unquestioned tradition to model and express it that way.
“For example, take the heart,” she explains in full professorial fashion, “People couldn’t see the heart. So they made the stethoscope. Doctors still use a stethoscope that was made two hundred years ago. What’s the best way to know if a heart is healthy in 2017? Not by looking at it. By listening to it.”
As a blind scientist, Mona could eventually change the entire landscape of data analysis simply because she craves a firsthand experience of the data patterns she studies. Instead of seeing graphs and scatterplots, we might soon be able to experience data also by hearing it, potentially identifying new patterns that we could never discern with our eyes. And that contribution wouldn’t just benefit blind scientists or the field of chemistry, it would benefit all sciences and all scientists at once.
Her supervisor might eventually be able to claim responsibility for changing the face of science because he sought her expertise and invested in her way of thinking. Dr. Minkara will not only tackle questions that sighted scientists haven’t yet been able to answer, but she will also pose altogether new questions that sighted scientists have never even thought to ask.
These are the ultimate questions that will advance true innovation across disciplines.
Mona is quick to point out that the America she loves has made her science possible by virtue of the way our country values inclusion in education. As she speaks, Mona draws parallels with one of her own Sheroes, Marie Curie, who was excluded from the scientific community in Poland because of her gender, but eventually found a niche for her research in France. Curie went on to become the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the only person in history, up to today, to win more than two prizes across multiple sciences, winning a total of five Nobel prizes.
In an energetic tone, Dr. Minkara expands upon the contributions of her longtime hero: “Marie Curie was not even allowed to practice her science in Poland. To this day, Poland regrets it. She wanted to support her nation but her nation was like, ‘no women scientists [allowed]!8uhojk’ So France got [to take credit for] her. I love Lebanon, and I’m proud of my culture, my history and my family. But I could never have become a scientist there.”
This story demonstrates that universal inclusion pays off in the global race for innovation and advancement. “What I mean to say,” shares Mona, “is good on America - because the United States has collected someone like me.”
Inviting Us All to Dream Bigger
As Muslim Americans, we are living during a critical time in United States history, a time when we need to come together by leading with inclusion. Fear is doing its best to seep into our community from all angles. This is a time when we need the buoys of hope, excellence and tawakkul that Mona’s immigrant parents infused into her family’s values and in the shaping of her life’s path.
Today, Dr. Minkara invites us into an American dream unfettered by the possibility of failure.
“I feel that my mom has always been a dreamer,” Mona says with tenderness. “And she didn’t necessarily get to achieve her own dreams, you know, because of the state of the civil war in Lebanon. But she came to America and she passed her dreams along to us. We followed our own dreams. But the idea of dreaming big, the idea that she raised us seeing a bigger picture and trusting God. That inspires me.”
We’re inspired by you, Mona: By your parents’ steadfast application of Islam to your upbringing, and how that couples seamlessly with the American dream; by your unwillingness to be limited by the probability of failure; by your hope and optimism for America despite its faults; and by the exceptionally exciting science that you practice daily.