Dr. Wanda Díaz-Merced – Sonification

Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced

As a visually impaired scientist, I daydream about not being underestimated. ” – Dr. Wanda Diaz – Merced commenting on how science is not easily accessible to differently abled individuals.

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Dr. Wanda L Diaz Merced. Source: https://goo.gl/yTLQC9

Name: Dr. Wanda L Diaz Merced

Born: Gurabo, Puerto Rico

Occupation: Astronomer

[1][2]

Who is Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced?

Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced is an Astronomer whose research focuses on Solar Flares, Binary Star Systems and Supernova explosions.

Early in her career she went completely blind due to an unknown extended illness, and this left her unable to continue her work in Astronomy via conventional means. Refusing to give up, she realised she could use Sonification techniques to analyse light curves and along with her collaborators, worked to make this a reality. [4.1][4.2][5]

She succeeded, and regularly uses the technique to turn data, collected from telescopes, into sound (rather than a visual plot that sighted astronomers use). Through this she has found features in light curves not predicted in theoretical models and uses her pioneering work to complete her academic work to the same standard as sighted astronomers at the South African Observatory’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD). She also leads the Astrosence team which uses a 3D printer to explore astronomy for the visually impaired. [1][3][6]

Her PhD thesis can be found here: [2][2014DiazMercedPHD]

Life

Born in the remote town of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, Dr. Diaz-Merced always dreamed of being an astronaut. She recalls being young and playing with her sister, spending hours pretending to fly a space shuttle to visit distant galaxies.

[1][3][5]

Growing up as a person with physical disabilities she and her sister (who was also disabled) learned to tackle challenges head on. With her confidence growing, she entered her middle school science fair where she won second place. This would be a turning point in her life, solidifying her interest in science, as she realised it was not a dream but an attainable reality. She recalls thinking “Wow! I can do this.” [5]

Illness and loss of sight

Continuing her studies she entered The University of Puerto Rico to study physics, however during her time as an undergraduate, her health declined and due to her extended illness she completely lost her sight. In her TED Talk, she remarked that It left her without a way to do her science. However, after recovering from this life changing illness she knew that physics was her true passion and that she was not willing to give up on her work. [1][4.1][5][7]

After taking time out to think long and hard about her options, she suddenly realised that the light curves that her sighted peers were using to analyse data originated from phenomena invisible to the naked eye (i.e. light outside of the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum). With this she realised that despite her loss of sight she was just as able as the rest of her peers to work in Astrophysics, as the events being studied via images and  plots were simply, as she describes, “a table of numbers converted into a visual plot”. This was a massive breakthrough as with help she was able to convert the numbers into sound, giving her access to the data. [4.2]

Sonification

The process of converting scientific data into sound, mapping by pitch and volume, is called Sonification. [4.2][5]

Career + Discovery of the Effects of Solar Winds in Supernova Explosions

Due to the success of Sonification Dr. Diaz-Merced was able to continue and complete her degree as well as get accepted onto a PhD program at the University of Glasgow. Her thesis, which can be found here: [2][2014DiazMercedPHD], focused on refining the technique of Sonification, as well as propose a new data analysis method using Sonification, in addition to conventional visual plots to better explore and analyse astrophysical data.

Through her work using sound it was discovered that star formation can affect supernova explosions, suggesting that supernova explosions are not only dependent on the mass of the host star. This was something that was near impossible to see in visual plots, and was only discovered due to a drop in volume associated with the conversion of the data in the sonification process. It was unknown to scientists at the time. Dr. Diaz-Merced proved in her PhD that not only is Sonification an excellent technique that allows for diversely abled scientists with sight issues to evaluate data, but it actually allows for more information to be extracted from the same data, just buy analysing it differently. [3][4.3][5]

Upon completing her PhD in 2013, she became a doctoral fellow at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town. She then moved on to work in the South African Observatory’s Office of Astronomy for Development where she leads the Astrosence team, which uses a 3D printer to explore astronomy for the visually impaired.  Finally, in 2017 she was awarded the Estrella Luike trophy in recognition of her excellent work in Astronomy, and she continues to serve as an advocate and excellent role model for greater inclusivity in the scientific community. [1][6][8]

References:

References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia –  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanda_D%C3%ADaz-Merced

[2]🗒️ – University of Glasgow – http://theses.gla.ac.uk/5804/

[3]🗒️ – Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news – https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/star-sounds-wanda-diaz-merced-ted-1.3452236

[4.1]💻 – Youtube (3:30) “How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars” Ted Talk by Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced – Regarding her illness – https://youtu.be/-hY9QSdaReY?t=216  

[4.2]💻 – Youtube (4:25) “How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars” Ted Talk by Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced – On using Sonification techniques –  https://youtu.be/-hY9QSdaReY?t=266

[4.3]💻 – Youtube (6:55) “How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars” Ted Talk by Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced – On the effects of star formation on supernova explosions  – https://youtu.be/-hY9QSdaReY?t=416

[5]🗒️ – Nasa Article Covering her work using Sonification – https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/people/Wanda_Diaz-Merced.html

[6]🗒️ – Office of Astronomy for Development “AstroSense”- http://www.astro4dev.org/oad-activities/astrosense/

[7]🗒️ – Scientific American Article written by Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced entitled “Making Astronomy Accessible for the Visually Impared”  – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/making-astronomy-accessible-for-the-visually-impaired/

[8]🗒️ – Trophy Awarded to Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced in recognition of her excellent work in astronomy (In Spanish) – https://www.luike.com/trofeo-estrella-luike-una-cientifica-invidente-estudiosa-las-constelaciones/

Authors Note: Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced is different in that her “tragedy” happened very early on in her career, and would eventually inform all scientists of the need for access for diversely abled experts in STEM. As proven by her Sonification technique, allowing blind individuals to contribute to Astrophysics actually improves the quality and quantity of data extracted from already completed experiments for all scientists. She remarks that physics has relied primarily on visual techniques for centuries and she is correct to say this. Physics especially relies on and prides itself on being “on the cutting edge of technology” however Dr. Diaz-Merced’s work is an excellent example of how 1. Larger telescopes, particle accelerators and other equipment aren’t always the answer to questions within the field. 2. There is much more that can be extracted from the data we have already collected (which has the nice side effect of saving time and money on not needing to build more facilities) and  3. Physics has many ancient practices that are fundamentally detrimental to the field. Making space for true inclusion in all of STEM will only improve the quality of each field of study.  

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on twitter @thisismeonline.

 

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