From the laboratory where she works at Brigham Young University, there is little to suggest that one of the school's top genetics students faces any exceptional challenges.

Robin Zook is highly skilled with laboratory equipment, is meticulous in her research and is a welcome help for the students she counsels as a graduate assistant, says her faculty adviser, Daniel Fairbanks."She's the kind of student teachers hope for, and they only come along once every decade or so," he says.

Yet Zook is blind, a condition that once devastated her so completely that she dropped out of high school.

Now a graduate student in the College of Biology and Agriculture, Zook was recently awarded a $10,000 fellowship from the National Federation of the Blind, the top honor at its 50-year anniversary celebration this year.

"With a nearly straight-A average and a real talent for scientific scholarship, we forget she has extremely limited vision," says Fairbanks.

"She assists with teaching and grading in some of our largest classes. In the lab, she knows what she needs, and her performance gives no indication that there is a handicap involved. She plans to get both a master's degree and a doctorate, and I see her as a real asset to the cause of science."

Despite her success, it has been - and continues to be - a challenging life for a woman whose bout with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 8 damaged her eyesight. She had nearly normal vision until she turned 15, but, within a few months, Zook lost nearly every visual capability except the ability to distinguish a few colors.

With later operations on both eyes, she completely lost sight in her left eye but gained about one-tenth of normal vision in her right eye when enhanced by highly magnifying glasses. This means she sees at 20 feet what a person with normal vision can see at 300 feet.

Believing that her options for a happy, productive life had been closed, Zook eventually left school and stayed home for six months.

"The adjustment was frightening," she said. "I faced depression, and I thought, `Well, here I am. I can't do anything. I shouldn't do anything, and I am afraid to try new things.' These attitudes were, of course, misguided, but at the time my family and I thought that was the way it was."

When she decided to finish high school, she attended a school for hearing- and sight-impaired students, but despite the achievement, she continued to feel she had little worth.

She found herself caught in societal attitudes that, she says, dictate a lesser status for those who are blind.

"Society has told blind people they are dependent and not normal, and I believed that for a while," she said. "On my own and through help from the National Federation of the Blind, I've come to realize it doesn't have to be that way. Blind people can function on an equal basis if given the proper training and opportunities. I'm normal; I just sometimes need different tools."

Those tools, in her case, include a magnifying glass attached to her goggles for lab work; a closed-circuit television that allows her to place a book under it and enlarge the words; a computer with an enlarged print and a voice that will read back what she puts into it; and the use of Braille.

Most of her teachers at BYU and the University of Colorado, where she received a bachelor's degree in biology, have cooperated with her in getting notes of materials presented on the board or on a projector. On one occasion, however, she had a professor who would consistently ask, "Can everyone see the board?" after she had explained that she was legally blind and could not read it.

"Part of my personal challenge has been to accept that I am not a sighted person," she said. "For a long time, I tried to pretend I was. I would go to the airport and not be able to read the signs to help me find my flight. If I asked someone for information and all he or she did was point at the board, I would say `thanks' and wait until another person came along.

"At first, I didn't like the signals a white cane communicated because I didn't believe it was respectable to be blind. Now, I use a cane to get around at night and in unfamiliar locations."

As a budding scientist, she is pursuing study she once professed to "hate as much as everyone else did."

"Only after a friend persuaded me to take a biology major's class with her did I discover that science was fascinating."

Zook pursued chemistry studies before finding genetics as her scientific discipline of choice. She is interested in genetics at the DNA level and currently pursues research with sugar cane, in which she examines mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA.

"I've come to view sight as a compelling sense," she said. "It's convenient and pleasurable, but it is definitely not a necessity. I think I can get a lot of satisfaction from life."