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STEM is for Everyone: Wanda Díaz-Merced, Astrophysicist

Wanda Díaz-Merced was forced to find new ways to continue her work as an astrophysicist after going blind. Today, she uses sonification to approach space data from a different angle — with her ears.

Icons related to astronomy and space science to represent Wanda Díaz-Merced's career in astronomy

A Career Studying Space

When we think of astronomers, astrophysicists, and space scientists, we often think about looking at the sky. Many kids grow up learning to identify constellations they can see on a clear night, maybe having opportunities to look through a telescope or visit a planetarium, and learning about planets, the solar system, and galaxies beyond our own Milky Way from images in books and videos.

Being able to see the stars does make it easier to visually appreciate the night sky. But when it comes to studying space, being able to look to the skies (or at the data generated by telescopes) may not be required. Wanda Díaz-Merced's story is an inspiring reminder that STEM is for everyone and that there are always different ways to approach observation, discovery, and science. You just have to find them.

"What people have been able to do, mainly visually, for hundreds of years, now I do it using sound." — Wanda Díaz-Merced

Losing Sight of the Stars

Díaz-Merced was a college student studying math and physics when she first started experiencing blind spots caused by diabetic retinopathy. By thirty, she was blind.

"It left me without a way to do my science," says Díaz-Merced, in her 2016 TED Talk, "How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars." For an astrophysicist, her loss of sight could have signaled the end of her exploration of space data, but Díaz-Merced discovered another way to access, analyze, and interpret space data. She listened to it.

Describing her aha moment, Díaz-Merced explains, "I suddenly realized that all a light curve is, is a table of numbers converted into a visual plot. So along with my collaborators, we worked really hard, and we translated the numbers into sound. I achieved access to the data, and today I'm able to do physics at the level of the best astronomer, using sound. And what people have been able to do, mainly visually, for hundreds of years, now I do it using sound."

Hearing Space

Today, Díaz-Merced works with the sonification of digital data. She takes large sets of data from telescopes, converts it to sound, and listens to it. In the process, elements of the data that can be identified visually are mapped and converted to audio. What someone sees as brightness, for example, might be conveyed by audible elements like pitch or volume. In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Díaz-Merced walks audience members through several examples of listening to data that has been converted to sound. (This is an excellent video to use with students to let them experience, even briefly, what this approach is like. Have them listen with eyes closed!)

"This is not music," she repeatedly reminds listeners. "This is not music. It's sound." This is audible data. According to Díaz-Merced, there are discoveries that can be made and patterns that can be identified by listening that might be harder to detect or overlooked by sight alone.

In the "This Blind Astrophysicist 'Sees' the Universe in the Most Amazing Way" video (National Geographic, Short Film Showcase), shown below, Díaz-Merced says: "I am an astrophysicist and a computer scientist. I study the universe through sound. The universe is big, and I want to study it all. People ask 'how do you do it?' They are used to people just looking at the stars. But sound can make something clear when it is not just something clear to the human eye."

Explore Astronomy with Student Projects and Lessons

Students inspired by Díaz-Merced's story and astronomy and sound science may enjoy exploring projects like these:

Note: The astronomy projects listed above are not necessarily related to sound, but students might use these projects as starting points for exploring the kinds of data that exist and thinking about other approaches to studying the data.

Part of Díaz-Merced's story (and the story of space science and astrophysics in general) is related to the analysis of large data sets. Students curious about data analysis can learn more with space science-themed big data projects like these:

(View more Big Data Science projects)

Educators can lead hands-on sound science activities with lesson plans like these:

Related STEM Careers

The following career profiles help students learn more about careers related to space science and astronomy:
"I came to astronomy because I lost my sight. I don't want you to ever give up. If there is not a way, create it. Do not allow your mind to discourage you." — Wanda Díaz-Merced

Learn More

"I think that science is for everyone. It belongs to the people, and it has to be available to everyone, because we are all natural explorers." — Wanda Díaz-Merced

The STEM is for Everyone Series

For more information about this series of profiles of scientists with disabilities and to learn about other scientists and engineers, see the following posts:

This post is part of our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series. This series is made possible by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its US affiliates, working to make changes for the better by empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives.

Astronomy icons adapted from icons by Freepik from www.flaticon.com.

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