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This Is What Science Looks Like at NC State: Sean Mealin

Photo courtesy of Sean Mealin.
Photo of Mealin at his work station with guide dog Simba. Photo courtesy of Sean Mealin.

Editor’s note: This post comes from Sean Mealin, a Ph.D. student and NSF graduate research fellow in the Department of Computer Science at NC State. The post is part of an ongoing series that we hope will highlight the diversity of researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The series is inspired by the This Is What A Scientist Looks Like site.

My name is Sean Mealin, and I am a completely blind graduate student in the Department of Computer Science here at NC State. My research focuses on using technology to enhance communication between dogs and their handlers. Right now my focus is on working dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind and search and rescue dogs, but in the future I could see my research expanding to encompass pets and their owners. I love my research since I get to work and play with dogs every day, such as my guide dog Simba, and I get to come up with new technology that blurs the boundaries between software and the physical world.

When not in the lab, I enjoy hanging out with friends, watching movies, and finding the places with the best food. When I have the money, I also love traveling and exploring, whether that be a different state from North Carolina, or a completely different country. When I’m feeling more creative, I take a lot of pleasure in coming up with ways to do fun activities which may be considered more difficult for someone who is blind; for example, one hobby of mine is to develop a system that will allow me to go skydiving on my own.

Being a grad student can be stressful, but it is also wonderful since I get to experience things that I may not have even known existed otherwise. Since I work in an area of computer science that has not been explored before, my research is pretty much limited only by my creativity. And after I come up with and implement a new idea, I usually get to see it used to help people in their jobs and their day-to-day lives.

Being blind can sometimes make certain things difficult, but there’s a real feeling of pride when I find a way to do the things I want to do both within and outside of the lab.

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  1. Hi Sean,
    First off, I am so inspired by you and your work!
    I’m currently a 4th year student at California College of the Arts majoring in industrial design and I’m working on my thesis around guide dogs. I’ve been in contact with Guide Dogs for the Blind and am working to design a harness with similar technologies to help both the user and dog to navigate in newer surroundings and I would love to have a more in-depth conversation with you, if you are available.
    I hope to hear back from you.

    Thanks,
    -Helen J

  2. I felt compelled to write after reading the BBC’s recent coverage of the harness technology development project. The work takes on added significance when one learns that researcher Mealin is himself partnered with a Guide Dog for the Blind. However, as a former puppyraiser and trainer for GDB who additionally watches these dogs work and train in my community daily, I am confused by his assertion that service dogs are “trained” not to show stress. Yawning, lip-licking, shaking, panting and other and displacement behaviors can be mitigated by densensitizing dogs to stressful scenarios through exposure and practice, but these are not behaviors that lend themselves to extinction by “training”. While it is true that a disabled handler might not be able to visualize these behavioral signals, they otherwise apparent and can and should be discerned by thoughtful handlers. Obviously, the bigger picture here and “opportunity” is for remote sensing of physiologic cues, with attendant implications for a host of uses across a variety of disciplines. But attentive dog owners and handlers should be themselves trained to recognize the many manifestations of stress in their animals ….without invoking technology. Fido isn’t tired, he’s yawning because he’s stressed. And you can’t train that behavior away.

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