UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering University of California San Diego
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Breaking Down Barriers
Blind Student Earns Ph.D.


John Miller received his Ph.D. in June, with a dissertation on a new approach to coding that could push hard disk drive manufacturers to adopt a powerful type of code that, on the surface, looks more appropriate for digital cell phones. But he is also proud of another achievement: he is the first blind student to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Jacobs School.

To do so, he had to overcome daily obstacles—reading an algorithm on the whiteboard, a Powerpoint presentation, a print textbook, even email. According to Miller, blind students face particular obstacles in engineering classes. "The lecturer may have put up five different curves, so I had to ask that he explain each one," recalls the 33-year-old, who has been blind since early childhood. "I also asked them to email their Powerpoint presentations to me ahead of time, so I can go through them with a reader who describes them in detail."

Miller – who worked for QUALCOMM and Rockwell Semiconductor before doing his Ph.D. – came to UCSD to work with ECE professor Jack Wolf. "There is no general university fund to assist with the graduate research of disabled students," he says. "As my advisor, Jack bore those costs."

Miller is now doing postdoctoral research at UCSD, and as president of the science and engineering division of the National Federation of Blind, he hopes to continue "breaking down some of the barriers that have made it almost impossible for young blind students to pursue careers in science and engineering."