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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blind Scientist

Scientific research is not a career most people believe to be suitable for the blind, but such beliefs are changing. Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a nationally recognized marine biologist. He conducts research and teaches students at the doctoral level. Dr. Vermeij tells us that science is competitive, tedious, and hard—and, that he loves it. Here is what he has to say:

How, a skeptic might ask, could a blind person ever hope to be a scientist? After all, science is difficult if not impenetrable even for many sighted people; and, in any case, there is almost nothing in the way of books about science available to the blind. How would one carry out experiments? How would one gain access to the huge scientific literature? Perhaps a blind person could be a physicist, at least a theoretical physicist, but surely not a biologist. Why would the blind willingly choose biology, that most visual of all the sciences?

The answer is very simple. Science, and for me biology in particular, is absolutely fascinating. Someone is actually paying me to study shells, some of the most beautiful works of architecture in all of nature, in the expectation that broad principles with implications for our own species will emerge.

What is more, I get to travel to exotic places, to read the scientific literature in all its fantastic diversity, to see my own papers and books published, and to teach others about science, that most powerful of all ways of knowing. What more could one ask of a profession?

Like many of my colleagues, I came to science early in life. Even as a small boy growing up in the Netherlands, I picked up shells, pine cones, pretty stones, and the like. My parents, both of whom are avid natural historians, took pains to acquaint me with all kinds of creatures that lived in the grassy polders and in the innumerable ditches that crisscrossed the Low Land. The fact that I was totally blind made no difference at all. At the age of ten, shortly after moving to the United States, I became seriously interested in shells. Almost immediately I started my own collection, which soon grew to include all manner of other objects of natural history. My parents and brother were enthusiastic; they read aloud, transcribed, or dictated every book on natural history they could find.

The reactions of my teachers in the local public elementary school ranged from polite acceptance to genuine enthusiasm when I told them of my intentions to become a conchologist, a malacologist, or a biologist. If they thought about the incompatibility between blindness and biology, they kept it to themselves, or perhaps they expected my obsession to be a passing fancy soon to be replaced by more realistic plans.

The interest in biology did not flag. As counselors more openly expressed their fears that I would be unable to find employment if I persisted in my plans to study biology, I entered Princeton University to concentrate on biology and geology. There I received strong support from nearly all my professors; they were giants in their fields, and their enthusiasm sustained my youthful confidence.

I applied to do doctoral work at Yale. When I arrived for my interview in the biology department, the director of graduate studies was more than a little apprehensive. During my talk with him, he took me down to the university's shell collection in the basement of the Peabody Museum. Casually he picked up two shells and asked me if I knew them. He fully expected me to draw a blank, in which case he planned to tell me as gently as possible that biology was not for me after all.

Fortunately, however, the shells were familiar to me. All of the misgivings of the director instantly evaporated. Thanks to his enthusiastic endorsement, I was able to enter Yale with a full graduate fellowship that left me free to travel and to carry out an ambitious research project culminating in the Ph.D. dissertation. After Yale, I joined the Department of Zoology at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1971, first as an instructor. Moving up through the academic ranks, I was appointed professor in 1980. Along the way, I married Edith Zipser, a fellow biologist whom I had met at Yale, and we had a daughter Hermine, who is now six.

Very recently I accepted a new appointment to become Professor of Geology at the University of California, Davis.

What do I actually do in my job that seemed so improbable to the skeptics? Again the answer is simple. I do what my sighted colleagues do: research, teaching, and service.

My research centers on how animals and plants have evolved to cope with their biological enemies; predators, competitors, and parasites, over the course of the last six hundred million years of earth history. When I was still a graduate student, working at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, I noticed that many of the shells I was finding on the island's reef-flats were broken despite their considerable thickness and strength. It soon became clear that shell-breaking predators, especially crabs and fishes, were responsible for this damage. I began to suspect that many of the elegant features of tropical shells—their knobby and spiny surfaces, their tight coiling, and the narrow shell opening often partially occluded by knob-like thickenings, were interpretable as adaptations which enabled the snails that built the shells to withstand the onslaughts of their predators.

Most interestingly, the shells I had collected in the West Indies and the Atlantic coasts of South America and Africa seemed to be less well endowed with this kind of armor than were the shells from comparable sites in the tropical Western Pacific. Armed with these observations and hypotheses, I applied for funding from the National Science Foundation to continue my work upon my arrival at Maryland.

When the program director called me to say that I would be funded, he also informed me that the Foundation would not sponsor my proposed field work in the Indian Ocean because he could not conceive of a blind person's doing field work. I reminded him that I had already worked in field situations throughout the tropics, and that the proposed research critically depended on the work in the Indian Ocean. After a few minutes of conversation he relented and awarded me the full amount.

How do I do my research? It is a combination of field, laboratory, museum, and library work that has taken me all over the world to coral reefs, mangrove swamps, mud-flats, rock-bound open coasts, deserts, rain forests, research vessels, marine biological stations, secret military installations, great libraries, and big-city museums.

I make large collections of specimens in the field, work with living animals in laboratory aquaria, measure shells in museums and in my own very large research collection, and read voraciously. Wherever I go I am in the company of a sighted assistant or colleague.

Often this is my wife, but there are many others as well. There is nothing unusual about this; every scientist I know has assistants. I keep detailed field and laboratory notebooks in Braille, usually written with slate and stylus. Once a week I go to the U.S. National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in order to work with the outstanding collection of mollusks and to peruse carefully all the scientific periodicals that came into the library the previous week. While my reader reads to me, I transcribe extensive notes on the Perkins Brailler. Sometimes I will make just a few notations of the main point of a scientific paper, but at other times I transcribe all the data contained in a paper. My Braille scientific library now comprises more than eight thousand publications compiled in more than one hundred forty thick Braille volumes.

Like many of my colleagues, I spend a great deal of time writing. First, I prepare drafts on the Perkins Brailler, using the seemingly inexhaustible supply of memos and announcements that flood my mailbox daily. Once I am satisfied with the text, I type the manuscript on an ink typewriter. An assistant proofreads and corrects the manuscript, which is then submitted to an appropriate scientific periodical or book publisher for a thorough evaluation.

In all my work I find Braille to be vastly more efficient than any other form of communication. I also prefer live readers to tape recorders. How can you ask a machine to spell words, to ferret out a detail in a graph or table, and most importantly to skip whole sections or to scan the text for a particular point? Teaching has always been inextricably intertwined with research for me. I can point to several papers that would not have been written were it not for the fact that I was forced to think about problems in connection with a lecture on a topic quite far removed from my immediate research interests.

Over the years I have taught a great variety of courses—animal diversity, evolutionary biology, ecology, marine ecology, malacology, the mathematics and physics of organic form, and a seminar on extinction—ranging from the introductory to the advanced graduate level.

In the large introductory courses, teaching assistants take charge of the laboratory sections and help in grading papers. Again, there is nothing unusual in this. Professors in science departments at most universities depend heavily on teaching assistants. Like other research-oriented professors, I train graduate students. Thus far, seven students have received their Ph.D. degrees under my direction.

The service part of the job is highly varied as well. There are the inevitable committee meetings and the many tasks that help make the department or the university run smoothly. I head search committees to find new faculty members, I conduct reviews of faculty performance, and I write as few memos as I can. An important service to the profession is the review of dozens of manuscripts and grant proposals. If one writes them, one ought to be willing to review them as well.

Of course, science isn't all fun and games. Science is competitive; it is hard work, full of tedious calculations, revising manuscripts for the nth time, of coping with the disappointment of having a cherished paper or grant proposal summarily rejected, and of quibbling about grades with a frustratingly inept student. Nobody in science is exempt from pressures and feelings such as these, but in the end the work is immensely rewarding and intellectually fulfilling.

In short, there is nothing about my job that makes it unsuitable for a blind person. Of course, there are inherent risks in the field work; I have been stung by rays, bitten by crabs, and detained by police who mistook my partner and me for operatives trying to overthrow the government of their African country, and I have slipped on rocks, scraped my hand on sharp oysters and pinnacles of coral, and suffered from stomach cramps. There isn't a field scientist alive or dead who hasn't had similar experiences. Life without risk is life without challenge; one cannot hope to understand nature without experiencing it firsthand. The blind, no more than the sighted, must act sensibly and with appropriate caution. Along with independence comes the responsibility of assuming risks.

What would I say to a blind person who is contemplating a career in science? Very simple. I would tell that person exactly what I would tell a sighted one: Love your subject, be prepared to work hard, don't be discouraged by doubters and by the occasional failure, be willing to take risks, get as much basic science and mathematics as you can take, and perhaps above all display a reasoned self-confidence without carrying a chip on your shoulder. You will need stamina, good grades, the support of influential scientists, and a willingness and ability to discover new facts and new ideas. It is not enough to do well in courses; one must make new observations, design and carry out tests of hypotheses that have been carefully thought out, and interpret and present the results in such a way that the work is both believable and interesting to others. Science is not for everyone, but I can think of no field that is more satisfying.

What would I say to the educational establishment? I would tell them that the prevailing attitudes about science and the blind must be reformed. For too long the scientifically inclined blind have been steered only toward the social sciences and other "safe" disciplines, and away from fields in which laboratory and outdoor studies are important.

I believe that the chief factor holding the blind back from science is ignorance, not only by virtue of woefully inadequate reading materials in the schools and libraries, but also because of the pervasive fear and discouragement by the establishment to let the blind observe nature firsthand. I once met a blind woman who professed an interest in biology, yet she had never been encouraged to touch the spiny leaves of the holly.

Observation is the first, and in many ways the most important, step in a scientific inquiry. Without the freedom and encouragement to observe, a blind person (or anyone else, for that matter) is subtly but decisively turned away from science.

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