Wanda Diaz-Merced: Astronomer and Advocate
Imagine a world where the cosmos are heard, not just seen. In the vastness of space, a blind woman has redefined our understanding of the universe through the power of sound. Meet Wanda Diaz-Merced, an extraordinary astronomer and advocate who turned her disability into an opportunity for groundbreaking innovation.
Photo courtesy of: TED.com
Early Life: Growing up in Puerto Rico, Losing her Sight
Wanda Diaz-Merced was born and raised in Gurabo, a small town in Puerto Rico. As a teenager, she began to lose her sight, becoming completely blind by the time she graduated from secondary school- putting an end to her goal of studying medicine.
Diaz-Merced has been very open about how losing her sight almost caused her to give up everything.
“I couldn’t even see what the professor was writing on the board, and I obviously couldn’t read books anymore,” she said to CNRS News.
One of her classmates, an amateur astronomer, introduced her to Radio Jove, a NASA project that analyzed radio transmissions from the galaxy. This allowed Diaz-Merced to hear what was going on in the universe and gave her a new field of study to pursue.
Paving the Way: Education and Career
In 2005, Diaz-Merced traveled to the United States to pursue an internship with Robert Candey at the Goddard Space Flight Center. There, she began to work on a program that translates signals from astrophysical objects into variations in audio frequency and intensity, called xSonify, and later worked on recordings made by the Swift satellite of gamma-ray bursts.
In 2013, Diaz-Merced earned her Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow (UK) in computer science. Since then, she has worked to utilize sound in astronomical studies. She currently works in Italy at the European Gravitational Observatory Cascina.
Wanda Diaz-Merced’s Contributions to Science
Diaz-Merced created her own sonification software to allow her to utilize sounds in her research, even though the rest of the field generally didn’t use sound. In order to prove her theory that sound provided a valuable asset, she presented experienced scientists with three simulations to identify black holes: one with just visual data, one with just sound data, and one with both. The results concluded that Diaz-Merced was correct, that sound helped astronomers.
“I felt really disappointed at that moment because people like me had been completely left out of the field for no reason,” Diaz-Merced said, “Then I realized that the future was in my own hands, it was the moment to use my results to equalize participation in the field.”
Throughout her career, Diaz-Merced has been a staunch advocate for accessibility. In 2016, she gave a TED Talk about the importance of an inclusive scientific community and co-directed a conference entitled “Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion” in 2019 at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
Her goal is to ensure that other people with disabilities don’t have to go through all the work that she had to do to prove herself in order to contribute to science.
Check out her TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/speakers/wanda_diaz_merced