Braille Monitor                                             April 2016

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On Careers in the Blindness Field and the Freedom to Choose

by Geerat J. Vermeij

From the Editor: Dr. Vermeij is a scientist of considerable fame, and the Braille Monitor is blessed by the fact that he is a reader of the magazine and sometimes writes articles that add significantly to discussions featured in these pages.

In the January 2016 issue we featured an article by Justin Salisbury entitled "Keeping Some of the Good Oranges," making the case that we cannot send all of our best people to other fields and that some need to stay in work with the blind to help others. Dr. Vermeij offers the perspective that having highly qualified people in work with the blind is a good idea, but not at the expense of doing what one’s heart, head, talent, and inclination indicate he or she should do. He also argues that integration means going beyond the blindness field and demonstrating our abilities in diverse areas where people come to know us as competent colleagues, valued mentors, and trusted friends. Here is what Dr. Vermeij has to say:

It was the last day of the fourth International Paleontological Congress, held in late 2014 in Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina. Miguel Griffin, one of Argentina's foremost paleontologists, was about to introduce me as that day's plenary speaker to an audience of some 1,200 colleagues from all over the world. For years I had been studying the circumstances that permit and compel some lineages of animals and plants to evolve to gigantic sizes. I measured specimens in museums and in my own collections, read hundreds of scientific papers, and spent many hours reflecting on the results; and now it was time to bring all this work together into a coherent story, with wide-ranging implications for how we interpret the history and future of life on our planet. It was thrilling to communicate my findings and thoughts on this widely discussed topic to a receptive audience of exclusively sighted scientists. Together with the scientific paper that I subsequently published on the subject in the journal PLoS One, this event was one of many in my professional life that fulfilled my aspirations to participate and play a leading role in the global scientific enterprise. Following the congress, about a dozen of us went on a field excursion to Patagonia, led by Miguel Griffin and Alejandra Pagani. We visited fossil sites, drove over thousands of kilometers of washboard roads, ate delicious meat-heavy dinners in which the principal vegetable was wine, and ended with a visit to the spectacular Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, home to the largest (and still unpublished) dinosaur ever discovered.

I am one of those supremely fortunate blind people who, thanks to a wonderful family, the gift of Braille, and a first-rate education in two countries was given the opportunity to enter the profession of my choice. From a very young age, I yearned to be a scientist. With my love of shells and of the natural world generally, I gravitated inexorably to biology and the earth sciences. Flexibly minded mentors, an incredibly smart and supportive spouse, accommodating employers, and talented students and assistants enabled me to become a competitive scholar-scientist, one who continues to live a full life of field and museum research, writing, reading, university teaching, journal editing, reviewing papers, and engaging with the blind and sighted public through lectures, presentations, media appearances, and service on commissions and as a museum trustee.

Two motivations power this trajectory. First is an immense, all-encompassing curiosity about how the world works and about the principles underlying its history. I have a passion for science, the most reliable way we have of uncovering empirical truths and exploring natural phenomena. Second is the expectation and hope that what I do benefits society in a meaningful and lasting way. The work may be academic and curiosity-driven, but it bears directly on the world's current and future environmental crisis as well as on the application of evolutionary principles to understand human economic structure and behavior. To be sure, a career at a premier research university comes with a certain status, but that by itself would never be enough to sustain an active engagement with the facts and ideas of science.

Geerat J. Vermeij bends over to reach into aquatic grasses while standing in water nearly to his knees

Why, the reader may ask, has blindness figured so little in my life's work? Do I not feel an overwhelming responsibility to dedicate my energies to teaching other blind people or to expand my efforts into advocacy for issues that matter to the blindness community? Could I not be accused of ignoring the problems faced by my fellow blind humans in favor of selfish scientific interests? Does a career like mine, in which involvement with the blindness community is well-meaning but incidental, reflect the destructive attitude that work in the blindness field is somehow unimportant or inferior? The answer to this question, according to Justin Salisbury in his article "Keeping Some of the Good Oranges" (Braille Monitor, January 2016), is yes. According to Salisbury, a second-year graduate student, blind people who insist on working and staying in fields outside the blindness field harbor unwarranted feelings of smug superiority.

Let me deal with these issues in turn. The first question concerns a sense of obligation to the blindness community. The honest answer in my case is that, although I find it important to give back, this sentiment extends broadly to the academic community and the scientific enterprise in which I was raised, and is not limited or primarily focused on the blind. I can only hope that, by being the best scientist I can be, I might be seen as a respectable and desirable role model by aspiring blind scholars and by anyone else with the drive and wherewithal to enter the competitive but immensely satisfying world of science. This role is ideal for one who, like me, is not enough of a people person to become deeply involved in worthy political causes or with extensive outreach. For better or worse, my talents and interests lie elsewhere. Reflection persuades me that fulfillment in one's work and in one's life as a whole comes by acting on unvarnished self-knowledge, a combination of responsibility, and of knowing who we are, what we are good at, and what our passions are. Integrity, it seems to me, derives from being honest about ourselves, being open to others, and being true to our ideals.

As to the second question, the choice of one career over another does not mean that the other is less important or less worthwhile. Having been the recipient of some superb teaching, I am fully convinced of the crucial place of education in shaping people and of the central role that talented blind people can play in it. Likewise I value and admire an effective, levelheaded political leader, a benevolent and flexible administrator, a competent plumber, and a farmer who sells the finest locally grown California oranges at the Davis farmer's market. This does not mean, however, that I should be the one to do what these people do, nor does it imply that those pursuits carry less prestige. Regardless of what we do for a living, we develop a legitimate sense of self-worth and honor and meaning when we carry out our responsibilities well. Status and respect flow from our accomplishments, not from either good intentions or from job descriptions. We must in any case avoid conflating the importance of our work with the passions that motivate it and the talents and skills that enable it.

One of the most enduring goals of the National Federation of the Blind is to ensure that blind people have the same range of opportunities as their sighted peers. Some of us will choose to work in the blindness field, where great talent and passion are most certainly needed; whereas others, like me, will find other ways to contribute to fields and causes where talented blind people can also make a difference. As blind people living at a time of unprecedented opportunity, we should celebrate the freedom that comes with greater choice. Knowing what the options are and how our interests and abilities mesh with them is a key ingredient in fashioning a productive and rewarding career.

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