Losing her sight, and facing an enormous test of her determination to study, teenager Wanda Díaz-Merced heard live audio of a sunburst and was inspired. She is now the leading proponent of sonification of astrophysical data, and has travelled the world to study and to promote equality of access to astronomy.
Struggling without sight
Wanda Díaz-Merced first noticed her sight loss during her adolescence. It progressed aggressively, reaching a peak when she was doing her bachelors degree.
'Because I couldn’t see well, I wasn’t understanding anything in the classroom. Not a thing. The transmission of information just was not accessible – I couldn’t see what the lecturers were writing on the board and I didn’t have access to the books.’
As her vision got worse, she was forced to make a decision: quit, or keep going. She chose to persevere, and that’s typical of Wanda’s tenacious approach to life. She repeated classes until she got her degree. It took her six years.
The sound of space
By that time, Wanda had switched her focus to astronomy. She spent her childhood and teenage years fascinated by science and wanting to become a doctor, because ‘that was the way I thought you used science’. Until one day at university, when a friend knocked her completely off course.
‘He saw me in the corridor and said, “hey you need to come hear this”. He was doing a NASA outreach project and played me live audio of a sunburst – a huge ejection of energy from the sun that reaches detectors on the ground. It was inspiring. I could hear the sun in real-time, and when the sunburst finished, I could hear the galactic background.’
For Wanda, whose sight was fading fast, this solar soundscape gave her a completely new direction, with the exciting prospect of using her remaining senses to study space.
An important step was to get observatory experience, and to do this she applied for an internship with Robert Candey at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, USA.
‘Bobby taking me on was really an act of trust. I didn’t have the required grades or experience and I felt like the other students were talking in tongues. I grabbed his hand and told him I didn’t know anything, but he just said ‘I’m not worried’.’
With a supportive mentor, Wanda’s confidence and abilities increased. Together they created prototype technology to analyse astronomical data that had been converted into sound.
‘What happened with Bobby is that I had the opportunity of analysing my first dataset, using my own way to explore the data. That really empowered me. It brought me to think this is something I can do. I don’t have to sit in a corner thinking of something I can do as a scientist.’
Testing the technique
This ‘sonification’ of astronomical data isn’t new. Karl Jansky used radio astronomy to hear the cosmos in the 1930s. Astrophysics is littered with terms associated with sound: whistler mode emissions, chirping, ringing. Yet, audio was no longer being used in the field.
Wanda was driven to create sonification software so she could participate fully in astrophysical endeavours. But could this technique really enable her to make a meaningful contribution to the field? She was concerned that it must have been discarded from astronomers’ toolkits because it didn’t work well, so she decided to test it.
She simulated a task that astronomers regularly use to identify black holes near galaxies. Then she asked experienced scientists from the Center of Astrophysics at Harvard to identify which of her simulations indicated the presence of a black hole. The data was presented as sound only, visual only, and sound and visual mixed together.
The experiments revealed that sonification of the data improved astronomers’ ability to detect the subtle signals indicating the presence of a black hole. It was a positive result, but Wanda was downhearted.
‘I felt really disappointed at that moment, because people like me had been completely left out of the field for no reason. Then I realised that the future was in my own hands, it was the moment to use my results to equalise participation in the field.’
On a mission
Wanda has worked tirelessly to develop as a scientist and deepen her knowledge. She continued to undertake astrophysical research at NASA Spaceflight Center, and completed a PhD in computer science at the University of Glasgow.
‘I always have trepidation about new places and experiences, but challenges like going to Glasgow are opportunities for growth. The culture was so welcoming and it turned out to be more than I had expected. I got used to everything and lived a full and independent life in Scotland.’
After obtaining her doctorate, Wanda held positions at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the South African Astronomical Observatory. She’s spoken widely about astronomical sonification and co-chaired the 2019 conference Astronomy for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
‘The conference is part of the work to continue equalising access to astronomy. I don’t want people with disability to have to pass through everything I had to pass through in order to contribute as part of the mainstream.
‘My advice to young people would be to remember that outstanding people do not become great overnight. They have to keep focus until they become victors in their mission. Not giving up is really hard, but just keep moving forward, find good mentors and be a good mentee.’