Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced

Here’s a little piece I wrote about an amazing female scientist. If you have time, her TED talk is well worth looking up.

Inspirational Astrophysicist

Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a prime example of women and minorities in science today. Like many of the hidden actors we have explored this semester, Dr. Diaz-Merced is not what one’s mind normally conjures when the word ‘scientist’ is uttered. However, like those actors, this only makes her that much more interesting to the discussion of women and minorities in science. Here we will explore how her upbringing which was rich in family values, her economic and physical setbacks, and how mentors and her determination, all combined to make Diaz-Merced the inspiring astrophysicist she is today.

Wanda Diaz-Merced was born and grew up in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, an impoverished municipality in the central eastern region of Puerto Rico. Times were economically difficult, but Diaz-Merced grew up happy anyway. “My parents tried very hard to preserve the innocence, spontaneity, and magic of childhood for my sister and I throughout our childhood,” Diaz-Merced says.1 Her father’s work in a government-run supermarket was the family’s sole income. Unfortunately, Diaz-Merced’s sister was disabled, and for much of their childhood she remained immobilized in a nearly full-body cast. To entertain themselves, the sisters would dream about exploring the depths of space. For example, when their mother acquired a metallic walker in preparation for Wanda’s sister’s recovery, the sisters used it as a makeshift spaceship while they were their playing. Diaz-Merced remembers, “we did not have extravagant gifts for Christmas, but my parents would make a big deal of the candies they gave us as presents making it very special.”1 Unfortunately, medical concerns touched Diaz-Merced at a young age. Pre-diabetic since she was seven years old, she had to begin insulin treatments by age eleven. Despite these setbacks, Diaz-Merced’s optimism was undeterred. “When I was about 13 or 14 years old,” she recalls, “we moved to a house that had a small yard where we could have our chickens. I have always loved chickens. Since we had the chickens, my sister and I would sell the eggs to help our parents financially. At times, we were so poor that the eggs were all we had to eat. Sometimes, I would take the money that we gained from the sale of the eggs and get my family a treat: Chinese take-out. My mother would tell me to save it, but I knew it made her happy to have the treat.”1

Her optimism would, unfortunately, be tested again. In her early twenties, Diaz-Merced lost her vision as a result of diabetic retinopathy. “I noticed deterioration in my sight,” she recalls, “It was as if my vision had become clouded. For example, I would put my hairbrush down on the dresser. Upon looking for it again, it seemed to have disappeared. Now, I have always been interested in the mystical. In those times, my sister and I were Wiccan, and we figured that the brush had magically disappeared. This helped me to stave off the fear of my impending loss of sight.”1 At the time, Diaz-Merced was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. Determined to further her education, she applied for and was accepted to a student exchange program with the University of Maine in Orono, and began to save up money for an airplane ticket to Maine. While there, her doctor informed her that her medical condition was indeed deteriorating. The doctor recommended continuing to limit her sugar intake through a proper diet, and continue her exercise regime. When she returned from Maine, Diaz-Merced graduated, received her bachelor’s degree in physics, and immediately began graduate studies in the same field, again, undeterred by the ominous condition looming over her. “By that time, I could not walk around the university without the aid of a cane, and could not even read for myself anymore. Even so, I tried to hide my loss of sight any way I could because after all, the development of handicaps such as blindness has a lot to do with how one identifies oneself. You must accept the fact that you have a handicap, and I was in denial.”1 Disabilities cause many unavoidable anxieties. So, she started to use the cane throughout campus, but only in the evenings and at night, hiding the impediment from those in the physics department.

Rather than quit, she sought out clever and surreptitious ways to fight her inevitable condition. “Since I could no longer read for myself, I signed up for a class about technological assistance for the disabled with the late Dr. Luz Torres, mostly as a way to find out what was going on with me and to find out if there was anything that could help me.”1 However, Diaz-Merced got more than she expected from the class when her astute professor noticed her handicap and scolded her in a truly caring Puerto Rican fashion. Diaz-Merced laughingly recalls her teacher’s words, “You’re walking around here on the brink of falling and breaking your teeth! Is that what you want?”1 Dr. Torres then acquired a computer application which would read aloud to Diaz-Merced. This generous gift was a life-changing moment. “Now, I could listen to what was on the computer. It was like re-discovering the Pacific Ocean,” Diaz-Merced affirmed.1 The beautiful coincidence that her professor’s name was Luz, which means light, is not lost on Diaz-Merced. “She brought a lot of light to my life. My professor was marvelous. Because of the program, I now had a way to even understand the equations!” she exclaimed.1 This gift renewed Diaz-Merced’s determination to further her scientific career. To keep current on developments within the field of astrophysics, she began to read the latest scientific articles being published. The reading program became an indispensable tool because even today, access for disabled persons to these publications is limited.

Just as early female scientists had to think of creative ways to explore science, Diaz-Merced now delved into the history of science for inspiration on how to investigate the stars without sight. “I thought back to how astrophysical information is obtained, and how investigations originate and how does it occur to us to study these things. As you know, much is acquired through sight. For example, the optical telescopes in Green Bank, China, and Mexico measure things that cannot be seen [with the naked eye]. So, I found out about L.R.O. Storey who had published his telegraphic code methods in the Royal Astronomical Society of Britain in 1953, and how telegrams went from being printed out to auditorily transcribed which was the birth of radio telecommunications.”1 The idea was to study atmospheric events which manifest in radio telecommunications. This is how acoustic astronomy came about, and how electromagnetics and gamma rays can be studied without the ability to see. In the 1970’s another American scientist, Dr. Donald Burnett expanded the notion of sonifying data with his work at NASA. While Diaz-Merced was researching acoustic astronomy, and continuing her master’s degree, she also read about a man who would prove very important in her own life: computer engineer Mr. Robert “Bobby” Candey who still works at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Candey has worked at NASA since the 1980’s and, like Burnett, had been toying with the idea of developing a system to instantly translate cosmic data into sonified data to further study the cosmos. Diaz-Merced speaks of him fondly, “Bobby basically adopted me and has become my mentor. I can’t tell you how much I owe that man.”1 They met as a result of a series of fortuitous events. “Her studies led her to Goddard in 2005, under a program called Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science (ACCESS).”2 Upon arriving, she was assigned to work with Ramona Kesser, but she never received direction from her assigned mentor because an illness kept Kesser from work over a long period. Candey, whose office was nearby, said he would direct Diaz-Merced’s work in Kesser’s absence. And shortly after, when the director of the internship program asked if she had met her mentor, Candey officially announced himself as her mentor. Together with their team, they developed the prototype for X-Sonify, “an open source application for sonifying data. It is free for anyone in an effort to permit access to data to all.”1 Converting data into sound files, or sonifying the data, allows astrophysicists to interact with data they have collected in a new way and reveals new details about it that may not have otherwise been detected. This application realized Candey’s goal as well as providing Diaz-Merced with a way to pursue her astrophysics career.

Other contributions of their team included working on Radio JOVE, a NASA outreach program through which people build or remotely use radio telescopes and share observations via the internet. During her five years as an intern at Goddard Space Flight Center’s heliophysics laboratory she also helped to develop a series of analytical techniques in the field of sonification and to analyze solar wind. She was also accepted into another NASA program called Summer Institute in the Engineering and Computer Applications. An accidental contribution of Diaz-Merced’s efforts happened when some of her sonified x-ray data from EX Hydrae that had been collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory became the raw material for a series of inspired songs called Star Songs by another research associate at the Institute, Gerhard Sonnert whose own work focuses on women and science. He noticed an Afro-Cuban rhythm called clave in the sonified x-ray data which had been printed out in musical notation.3

Although this recurring summer internship opened many doors for her over the next five summers, Diaz-Merced was still pursuing her master’s degree and working as a research assistant in the physics department at the University of Puerto Rico during the regular school year. During that time, she was invited to Japan by the prestigious Soka University of America in Tokyo. Unbeknownst to Diaz-Merced, the purpose of the invitation was to present her with an award for her contributions to science and education. When she returned to Puerto Rico, however, the professor supervising her work-study asked her to find a different position. Rather than discrimination, “this was an abuse of power and an act of envy,” Diaz asserted.1 Although this did not deter her, this setback did mean the loss of funding for her education. Additionally, the loss of academic affiliation meant that she no longer met the requirements to return to Goddard for her summer internship. Fortunately, Candey, her mentor, assured her that NASA would make an exception. “It is because of Candey that I am where I am today,” she insists.1 At the end of that summer, with her mentor’s encouragement, Diaz-Merced went to Harvard University in Massachusetts and completed a special education program to teach physics. After that, she returned to Puerto Rico to graduate with her master’s degree in physics. Immediately, Candey insisted on helping her find a place to complete her doctorate studies. With her mentor’s financial and moral support, Diaz-Merced completed her physics post-doctoral studies with a specialty in computer science at the University of Glasgow. Simultaneously, Diaz-Merced worked with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to design paradigms associated with person-computer interactions financed by a Harvard-Smithsonian grant endowed by the Women in Science committee at the Smithsonian. Additionally, Diaz-Merced was one of only seven student recipients selected by Google to win the company’s first annual European Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. This scholarship recognizes outstanding Ph.D. students doing exceptional research in the field of computer science.

In 2012, she was invited by Dr. Abebe Kebede to share her knowledge as a member of the faculty at a conference at Gondar University’s School of Science and Technology in Ethiopia. She was so enamored of their program that she returned the following year.

In 2016, her colleague Dr. Jedidah Isler encouraged Diaz-Merced to speak at a TED conference in February. Through the story of the life of a star which becomes a supernova and ultimately a magnetar, Diaz-Merced speaks about how sonification provided her an avenue to continue with her career, but has also shown her the importance of expanding educational opportunities for all people throughout the globe including those with disabilities. She calls this “leveling the playing field.”4 Specifically, Diaz-Merced is “investigating multi-sensory methods to study science and mathematics. I visit schools armed with these methods and attempt to implement them and observe their effectiveness. That way they [students] can use strategies and tools to further their studies once they graduate.”1 She also spends time at the South African Astronomical Observatory, Office for Astronomy Development “using sonified data to study and identify atmospheres which could sustain life”1 on planets other than Earth.

Although she has worked at many prestigious institutions, and her work has been published in distinguished scholarly journals, Diaz-Merced still experiences discrimination because of her disability when applying for employment. “The only country that accepted me to work with my disabilities was South Africa.”1 The characteristics which personify Diaz-Merced are humility, dedication, and hard work. While growing up in Puerto Rico, her hard-working parents instilled values of faith, self-confidence, and the importance of helping one’s fellow man. Although they may not have always had much food to eat, Diaz-Merced’s parents’ steadfast support of their daughter’s dream to someday become a scientist never wavered. “My parents would have supported me even if I told them I wanted to earn a living decorating clouds. I am very proud that I don’t come from an economically privileged family.”5 This iron-clad familial support together with encouragement from several mentors along the way, fueled the budding astrophysicist’s immutable determination through disease, disability, and language barriers to achieve her goals. Diaz-Merced insists that it was these factors and not some magical touch of genius that has brought her so far in her career. She does not fancy herself smarter than anyone else. “I have to study, study, study. I am very determined. If I can do it [science], anyone can. No excuses.”6

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