Fatimah Musa talked excitedly while sharing her work about one of her initial internship projects.
Musa, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior majoring in mechatronics, is on the path to graduating in December. She is interning this semester at Qcells, a solar panel manufacturer with a production facility in Dalton, Georgia.
Qcells, a South Korean company, opened its North American Dalton facility in 2019. Musa is one of the company’s first interns.
“The options for my project were to make one of the tasks in the manufacturing process more efficient; the one that’s causing the most amount of errors or failures is the soldering,” Musa said. “Soldering is the project that I’m trying to improve on, so I’m adding a thermocouple to the tabbing machine to be able to measure and to take data of temperature for soldering two cells together.
“So 12 cells or 10 cells, depending on the size of the module, makes a whole matrix that becomes a solar panel—and my project is very specific to what I’m learning here (at UTC). We’re including PID control (a type of feedback control system used in engineering and industrial automation applications), which is what I studied in control systems. Some of the employees haven’t used these concepts that I studied just a year ago, so I showed them my notes from that class when I studied it. That was cool.”
Cool, indeed. Considering Musa is visually impaired—as in legally blind.
Musa said “visually impaired” is usually the correct term for her case, “but I generalize myself as blind because blind does include the visually impaired. It’s like an umbrella term.
“I can’t see at night; walking around at night is a ‘No’ for me. When the lights are out, it’s a ‘No.’ I can’t read if it’s dim. Sometimes certain colors I get mixed up; it’s not like colorblind, but if I take a colorblind test, I miss enough.”
A native of Tunnel Hill, Georgia, and a 2019 graduate of Ringgold High School, Musa was born with cone-rod dystrophy—a type of inherited retinal degeneration affecting the retina’s photoreceptor cells. The condition is characterized by progressive loss of function and death of cone and rod photoreceptor cells, leading to vision loss.
“Rods are the color part, and some of those are missing,” she said, “and most of the cones are missing. The light and color are in charge in one of those; if they’re missing, you’ll have trouble seeing light or color.”
There is currently no cure for cone-rod dystrophy.
Because she was born with limited vision, “I don’t know what I’m missing. The description of being able to see from far away or read a sign from far away doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know how you cannot zoom in on a word and be like, ‘Oh, there it is,’” Musa said.
“In high school, I had an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and I would have worksheets blown up to 130%. So as a reference point of a normal math worksheet or any article, we would blow it up to 11-by-17 paper—which is double the size of a normal piece of paper—and it just lengthens everything because it’s enlarged.”
A magnifier is a constant companion for her when using a computer, and there are obvious things she can’t do—such as drive a car.
She said she doesn’t feel sorry for herself; she just wants to be treated equally.
“If you ask anybody who is a vision teacher, the only thing they say you can’t do is be a pilot—and why would I want to be a pilot anyway?” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think anything is holding me back.
“I just want the same opportunities as everybody else.”
Dr. Ahad Nasab is the Burkett Miller Chair of Excellence and department head of Engineering Management and Technology at UTC.
Nasab said when Musa joined the mechatronics program, he knew she would face unique challenges due to the program’s physical and hands-on nature.
“I was committed to providing her with all the resources she needed to have an enriching educational experience. However, I was impressed by how she deftly navigated the obstacles and barriers that she faced, hardly requiring any extra help,” Nasab said.
“Fatimah’s determination to succeed in her courses and projects without being treated differently was truly admirable. Her independence and refusal to let any physical limitations hold her back serves as an inspiration to me and others. I believe that more people, including myself, could benefit from adopting her positive attitude toward life and overcoming obstacles.”
UC Foundation Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cecelia Wigal taught one of Musa’s early UTC courses.
Wigal said her freshman design course is intended to teach about the design process, emphasizing students with impairments.
Having a visually impaired student “right there in the middle of the class” changed how she teaches.
“Fatimah was very good about going after it; if she needed something, she was open about asking—and that was very helpful,” Wigal said. “I learned you have to think that you might have students with sight issues. Now I use a smart screen and write on it; she could read it directly on her equipment, see it and blow it up.
“I also make sure that I record every single class session and post it so that if there’s anybody who needs it for any reason—sight reasons, attention reasons, anything—they can still go back and see the lecture. She affected how I teach because she helped me become more aware.”
Having a support system, Musa said, is tremendously important. Someone has to drive her back and forth from home to campus and her internship.
She is one of five siblings, which include a pair of UTC graduates in sisters Saada (2019, bachelor’s degree in biology) and Aisha (2021, biology). Her brother, Issa, is planning to attend UTC in the fall. Their father, Akram, owns the nearby University Pizza Deli and Mediterranean Cuisine at the intersection of Vine and Houston streets.
Support comes from outside of the family, too.
Last summer, the College of Engineering and Computer Science launched a women’s mentoring program, pairing Musa with Erin Pasquith—the mechatronic program’s first female graduate.
Pasquith, a May 2021 graduate, is now a production design engineer at Stanley Black & Decker.
“Mechatronics is a new field itself, so it’s kind of unusual to have any attention and mentorship,” Pasquith said, “but for women in engineering in particular, they succeed and do better when they are pushed and encouraged by peers—and particularly peers that they relate to.
“Fatimah is an extremely driven person. She’s very humble and passionate about engineering and women in engineering—especially people with disabilities in engineering.
Pasquith noted that an issue Musa has faced is when technology doesn’t allow for cross-compatibility with accessibility software programs. Some programs range from difficult to impossible for Musa to navigate.
“You and I can probably read a standard eight-point font; hers has to be closer to 72 in order to read it,” Pasquith said.
“She and I had had a conversation prior to the fall career fair about employee resource groups. She wanted to ask employers what they were doing for their employees with disabilities, how they were supporting them, and what she could do as an employee there to help others. She was asking employers that during her interviews and I thought that was very impressive—turning the tables on the interview.”
Said Musa, “Erin has been amazing. She will always ask how things have been going or ask how things have been upgraded since she was here. She’s given me a lot of good career advice.”
Heading into the academic year, one of Musa’s biggest goals was landing an internship. She admitted she didn’t think it would happen until this summer.
In early February, she was accepted into the Qcells internship program.
The company, recently in the news when Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Dalton plant, was founded in 2007 and has quickly become a leading provider of high-quality solar panels for residential, commercial and utility-scale solar projects.
Ryan Law, equipment engineer for the front-end manufacturing process, is Musa’s Qcells mentor.
“She told me the first day, ‘I have a vision impairment, but it’s just an obstacle and I can work around it.’ It doesn’t impair her engineering ability,” recalled Law, a 2019 Kennesaw State University mechatronics, robotics and automation engineering graduate. “I looked at it as a challenge for myself: How well can I explain something to someone to not make that an issue? What project can she focus on that the vision impairment won’t affect all aspects of mechatronics or improvement items? What projects can she handle and be fully capable of doing?
“It was just utilizing what she can do instead of focusing on what she can’t do.”
Musa has been spending 14 hours a week at Qcells in addition to her academic endeavors.
She lauded the company’s inclusiveness and said she was welcomed the first time she stepped through the company’s doors.
“As a visually impaired person, I love that every employee gets their own monitor. I have a really large monitor that I can plug into my laptop—and that’s my setup at home anyway. I’m glad that was a default; I didn’t need to request it,” Musa said. “I use my magnifier and can see everything I need as I navigate certain programs or an Excel sheet or anything like that.”
Law was asked to assess how Musa was doing.
“How’s she doing? I think she’s doing phenomenal,” he said. “She’s very eager to learn and she’s taking on a huge project that I don’t think I would trust many engineers to take on. She’s showing great work and she’s knocking it out.
“Her work ethic is beyond most people I see, and the vision won’t impair or impede her. I see her being more on the project side of mechatronics.”
Musa said she wants to specialize in robotics and automation, not solely for the fact that it’s something that’s affiliated with the mechatronics degree but because “I just find it to be really cool.”
Her UTC mechatronics mentor, Pasquith, said she could envision that for Musa.
“What Fatimah wants to do is work in robotics,” Pasquith said, “and the accessibility software that she has will definitely enable her to pursue that goal. I think the major roadblock would just be industrial settings; it could be a safety hazard to try and walk through an industrial facility with different traffic patterns.
“If she is allowed the correct accommodations, she will absolutely flourish as a robot technician.”