#WomanCrushEveryday: Wanda Diaz Merced


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Who?

Wanda Diaz Merced is an astrophysicist who had dreamed of being a scientist since she was a little girl growing up in Puerto Rico. She faced a major challenge when she lost her sight due to illness in her 20s. She was studying physics at the University of Puerto Rico at the time and thought she might have to change subjects or stop studying altogether. However, she remained determined to pursue her ambition and figured out a way to continue doing what she loved. She realised she could turn data sets into sound and listen to them rather than analysing them visually. Working with computer scientists, she build a “sonification” computer application to allow her to do this. Wanda said “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.” Wanda’s hard work led her to carry out her research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. Her new method of looking at the data has allowed her to gain a new perspective and give astronomers a more complete picture. She can listen to things that cannot be seen, leading to new knowledge in her field as well as leading other astrophysicists into looking at different ways of looking at the data.

Why?

Wanda’s refusal to give up on what she was passionate about make her such an amazing role model. She took a situation that could have caused her to give up and made it into an opportunity to take her field in a new direction. Through this she brought new knowledge to astrophysicists everywhere, showing that having a disability shouldn’t be considered a hindrance to a person’s career but it can allow for new knowledge to be gained. Wanda has said that she dreams of not being underestimated by others due to her disability and that those with disabilities (or other learning styles, as she likes to call it) should be recognised as capable of contributing to their field, whatever that may be. STEM subjects in particular are often seen as an area that could be much more diverse and Wanda Diaz Merced represents the amazing things that can happen if we allow that diversification to happen. She sums this up perfectly by saying “If people with disabilities are allowed into the scientific field, an explosion, a huge titanic burst of knowledge will take place.”

Watch her TED talk below:


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