Terry Christensen, with the help of his guide dog, Dutton, is earning a Ph.D.

Terry Christensen and Dutton
Terry Christensen and Dutton

For OSU History of Science Ph.D. candidate Terry Christensen, daily life is filled with rigors many doctoral students can relate to – 900 pages of reading a week, 25-page reading lists, and, of course, a dissertation. But unlike most doctoral students, Christensen meets those challenges without his eyesight. “Imagine looking at the world through waxed paper,” says Christensen, who is legally blind. Yet with support from Dutton, his guide dog, plus courage, mentors and OSU, Christensen is on his way — and winning awards in the process.

In 1994, Christensen had been a U.S. Merchant Marine deck officer for 13 years and a maritime science faculty member at Clatsop Community College for four. Before classes at Clatsop began that fall, Christensen noticed a problem with eye fatigue. By November he had a diagnosis: Leber’s optic neuropathy, a degenerative disease in the optic nerve. A month later, his visual acuity was below 20/200 – the threshold for legal blindness.

Christensen had been the kind of captain people trusted to navigate through the stormy Bering Sea, and he taught classes like celestial navigation and radar observer. Navigation, at least as he had known it, was out of the question. “I went through a time period when I thought if I couldn’t be a captain, I couldn’t be anything,” he says.

But Christensen — a physics major in college — was inspired while listening to a book by physicist Kip Thorne, who thanked his mentor, John Archibald Wheeler, in his acknowledgements. “It reminded me how much I missed physics and how much I enjoyed teaching,” says Christensen. “I wanted to get back to it.” When he did, Christensen also decided to focus his research on Wheeler, a theoretical physicist who revitalized the topic of general relativity and mentored 50 Ph.D. students, including Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman.

Christensen started at OSU in 2003 after earning a Master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at Marylhurst University. His research on Wheeler is based on the idea that a skillful, proficient mentor may have a multiplicative influence through generations of scientists.

His work on Wheeler is attracting attention — in the past year, Christensen has received awards and honors from the National Science Foundation, the American Institute of Physics, the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and the American Philosophical Society.

The awards have helped Christensen conduct research all over the country. “He’s got a lot of courage, just setting out with a guide dog, getting on a train, getting on buses, getting on planes, doing what needs to be done,” says Mary Jo Nye, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Christensen’s mentor and adviser.

“It’s good to know that I’m doing something important and that the quality of my scholarship merits support,” says Christensen. But he won’t acknowledge his success without noting the people — and dog — that support him. Staff at Disability Access Services provides him with equipment and scanning services that let him keep up with his reading. Nye has been a patient mentor who believes in him. His wife, Betsy, is steadfastly encouraging. Dutton has been — in Christensen’s words — his pilot. “There is no better place to be a visually impaired scholar than Oregon State University,” says Christensen.

College of Liberal Arts
Disability Access Services
The OSU Award for Outstanding Service to Persons with Disabilities
Mary Jo Nye home page feature
Guide Dogs for the Blind
National Science Foundation
American Institute of Physics
Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science
American Philosophical Society

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