Student and his guide dog conquer computers, college and life’s challenges
By Katie Ellis
Imagine being born blind, and then imagine beginning to lose your hearing at the age of five. Now imagine that you’re graduating from Binghamton University with a degree in computer science and will begin working for Amazon.
Overwhelming? Not for Michael Forzano ’13, who suffers from Norrie Disease — a rare, genetic disorder.
At age 15, Forzano addressed his hearing impairment. “My hearing was getting so bad that I couldn’t hear well, even with the best hearing aids, so I got cochlear implants,” he says. “I had to re-learn how to hear. My hearing is now so much better, and it can only improve as the technology improves.”
Three years ago Forzano made another change, trading a cane for Delta, a yellow Labrador who has transformed his life.
“I got her from Guiding Eyes for the Blind,” Forzano says. “They match you up to a dog by personality and how fast you walk — and Delta walks pretty fast.”
Training was intensive. “Every day we’d train in different environments. One day we went to New York City; Delta was amazing at handling the subways, trains and busy city streets,” he says. “Learning how to work with the dogs takes time. They say it takes about six months to a year to become a solid team, but I lucked out the day I got her. She’s smart and learns fast.”
Delta is a working guide dog whenever her harness is on – but when removed, she’s a “normal” dog, great with people and very friendly.
A four-year resident of Hinman, Forzano felt he would fit in at Binghamton and he did. He has a younger sister who thinks the same and has been accepted into the Binghamton Advantage program for the fall.
He’ll have quite a trek to visit his sister at Binghamton, though. He starts working for Amazon in Seattle in August, after interning last summer writing the software that sends reminders to renters to return their textbooks. He expects to work as part of the trade-in or rental team when he begins his full-time position.
“I’ve always been really good with computers, always enjoyed them, and I felt it was something I would be good at,” he says. “I was considering possibly becoming a lawyer, but I’ve been playing with computers since I was young and thought I would give computer science a try and found that I really liked it.”
Forzano credits one faculty member in particular for encouraging him at Binghamton.
“Eileen Head (undergraduate program director for computer science) has been great. She always has her door open and is there to give advice on what classes to take and what internships to apply for,” he says. “She always encouraged me to apply to these big companies and I wasn’t sure I would be good enough. She said I have something unique to bring to a company, being blind and hearing impaired. She’s a big part of the reason I’m at Amazon.”
Still, Forzano faces daily challenges. When he arrived at Binghamton he got lost, a lot. But then like now, he remains positive. He also relied on staff in the Services for Students with Disabilities (SDD) Office for help getting books for classes, working out accommodations with professors and ensuring notes were accessible.
Everyone is great in Services for Students with Disabilities, he says. “Every time I go in there, they work hard to make my life easier.”
“Partnering with Michael to ensure the access he needed to excel has been a joy,” says B. Jean Fairbairn, SSD director. “He’s graciously partnered with SSD and the Computer Science Department in exploring new realms of accessibility for the campus and has literally been a pioneer in our development of Braille and tactile access to his academic materials.”
One way Forzano stays involved is through music. “I played alto sax in the pep band,” Forzano says. “It’s something I really enjoy, so I’m hoping to continue playing once I move to Seattle.” An Eagle Scout, he also hopes to do some hiking and camping there.
And one day, to run his own company. “The challenge is coming up with the new idea, something interesting or innovative. The thrill for me is writing software that people use and that improves their lives. Working on a project of my own that makes lives easier in a new and innovative way is something I’d love to do in the future.”
When he arrives in Seattle, Delta will help, just as she did last summer. “She’s amazing as far as learning places. She loves to show me familiar landmarks. She’ll go up to a door and start wagging her tail.”
Student finds fuel in dining hall scraps
When the call came out for senior design proposals to be funded by the Iberdrola USA Foundation’s $100,000 gift to the Watson School, Alex Hantman ’13 brought forth two — converting food waste into biomass briquettes for green energy, and anaerobic digestion of food waste to generate power and compost.
Both were picked up.
Hantman, a bioengineering senior, led one of the five-person teams that included Tim Miller, Adam Morgan, Devan Tracy and Megan Watkins.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste. At Binghamton University that equals 2,000 lbs. of food waste daily.
Hantman is exploring ways to transform the energy that remains in the waste after it hits the garbage to fuel for campus.
The challenge: “Over here is food waste, and over there is something that can burn it — figure out how to go from A to B.”
His efforts are right in line with the University’s 2009 Climate Action Plan that outlines strategies to achieve campus climate neutrality. One initiative in particular aims to transition away from coal usage for heat by converting the central campus plant to 100 percent biomass by 2020.
It is estimated that this option alone will offset between 31 and 42 percent of the total campus greenhouse gas emissions.
Two technologies currently exist for converting biomass to burnable briquettes, pressing and extrusion — essentially the difference between batch and continuous production. “Extrusion is what you would want at University scale,” says Hantman. “Right now we’re prototyping with batch processing while developing an implementation plan for how to deploy extrusion at the University level.”
The team successfully created the biomass briquettes and tested to prove that the University boilers are compatible. “Our goal is to be net economically positive by the end of the semester,” explains Hantman. “We’re looking at different ways to transport the food, and different drying methods to optimize cost and energy usage.”
Post graduation, Hantman will remain on campus in the ITC Startup Suite in an effort to commercialize the process. With the help of Adam Ibrahim, a Harpur College junior studying financial economics, he’ll try to bring in pre-seed dollars to continue funding the project, known as Discard Dynamics.
“Energy is one of the most important issues of our time,” says Hantman. “There are a lot of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.”