Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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Testing the Current

An Interview with Amy Bower

From the Editor: A few years ago I read a book called Seven Tenths: Love, Piracy and Science at Sea, by David Fisichella (Leapfrog Press, 2010). The author recounted his adventures on shipboard expeditions with his wife, Amy Bower, a blind oceanographer. Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Amy herself for Future Reflections.

Deborah Kent Stein: What exactly is oceanography?

Amy Bower and a colleague hold a long float on deck.Amy Bower: When most people think of oceanography, they think of marine biology, the study of living things in the sea. Actually, oceanography brings together many sciences and disciplines. It includes nearly all of the fields of science: chemistry, physics, geology, biology. Today the ocean's role in the climate system is much more fully recognized, and scientists are studying how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere. So oceanography is truly a global science.

DKS: What is your particular area of interest?

AB: I am a physical oceanographer, which means that I study the physical forces that make water move. I have a background in physics.

DKS: How did you become interested in oceanography?

AB: In high school I discovered that I was very interested in physics and math. I chose a physics major as an undergraduate at Tufts University, but I wasn't excited about mainstream physics. My interest lay in the area of geophysics, which includes meteorology, oceanography, and the study of the earth's mantle. While I was in college I learned about a program called Sea Semester (not to be confused with another program called Semester at Sea). Sea Semester was a program that gave undergraduates the chance to study all aspects of the ocean, even literature and maritime history. The idea is to help citizens become good stewards of the ocean. That program got me hooked. After I got my undergraduate degree I enrolled at the University of Rhode Island in Narragansett, which has an extensive oceanography program.

DKS: At what point did you develop a visual impairment?

AB: While I was in college I started to have trouble adjusting to changes in lighting. I noticed that I was having a hard time driving at night. At a routine eye exam my doctor discovered that I had some abnormal blind spots. Eventually I was diagnosed with two progressive eye conditions, macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa (RP).

DKS: How did you handle the diagnosis?

Amy Bower on deck at sea.AB: It was emotionally devastating at first. I didn't know anyone who was blind or visually impaired. I didn't know how much vision I was going to lose or how fast it was all going to happen. A vision specialist introduced me to the CCTV, which helped a lot with reading. I knew I loved the work I was doing, and I made up my mind to take it one day at a time.

DKS: What adaptations do you find helpful in your work today?

AB: As my vision declines I continue finding ways to do my research. I've become a real technology geek, always looking for the next good thing. I access some print materials with a scanner. I do most of my work on the computer: programming, reading and writing articles, and reviewing manuscripts. I use a screen reader, and I can still use magnification to some extent. I've had some Braille instruction, but I'm not very fluent. Braille is great for labeling things and sometimes for notes. I love the iPhone with all its accessible features! It's great for taking notes in meetings, and the calendar is a huge help.

DKS: For travel do you use a cane or a guide dog?

AB: I have a guide dog, and she's a great help. When I'm on shipboard on an expedition, I use a cane. Getting around on a ship is really pretty easy, because every vessel is laid out more or less the same way. Everything has its set place.

DKS: Where are you employed?

AB: I work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). It's a private research institution, and it has a graduate education program with MIT. WHOI is what's called a "soft money institution," which means that the scientists who work there have to bring in grant money to fund their salaries as well as their research. Oceanographic expeditions are very expensive, and it can take years to raise enough money to launch a new project. About 80 percent of our research funding comes from federal grants, and the rest comes from private foundations. Only about half a dozen nations have the resources to fund oceanographic research on a global scale.

DKS: What are some of the projects you've been involved with?

AB: In 2001 I took part in a research project to study currents coming out of the Red Sea. This is an ocean region that hardly has been studied at all, partly because of the political situation with the countries in that part of the world. It's not a friendly place for researchers from western nations to work. But we got our project funded, and we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. We went twice that year, in March and again in August. Travel is a great perk in oceanography. Before setting out on the first trip, my husband and I went on a safari in South Africa. Then we went north, met our ship in Kenya, and ended up in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. That expedition went very smoothly. The second expedition was a different story. On August 31, eighteen miles off the coast of Somalia, we had an encounter with pirates. They chased our ship and fired grenades at us. It was very scary! Fortunately they were in a small boat, and our captain was able to outrun them. They chased us for a while and gave up. No one was injured. Then, less than two weeks later, came the attack on the World Trade Center. It was very traumatic to be away from home during those frightening days, and we had a hard time getting back.

DKS: What are your plans for future research?

AB: I'm going to be part of a large international project to study currents in the far northern Atlantic. These currents are very closely related to changes in the earth's climate. We know that the atmosphere affects currents and, in turn, currents affect the atmosphere. We're trying to learn more about this relationship. I will be releasing floats to measure currents and water temperature. The floats are hollow, sealed containers, each one about six feet long. I'll also be anchoring sound beacons to the ocean floor. These will be used to track the floats underwater. The floats are equipped with instruments called hydrophones to hear the sound beacons. After two years of drifting with the currents, the floats pop to the surface and transmit the acoustic information via satellite. Then we reconstruct the trajectory of each float. There are about a hundred and twenty floats drifting around, and there are ten sound beacons.

DKS: Which countries are involved in this project besides the United States?

AB: We'll be working with scientists from Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, and the UK. It's a long-term project, stretching over ten years. A lot of the variations in the ocean don't have anything to do with climate. We need a profile created over a number of years in order to construct the big picture. A project like this has never been carried out in the North Atlantic before. Several ships will be involved. Some have already been launched. The US ship will be deployed in 2014.

DKS: I imagine you must need to examine and create a lot of maps and charts and diagrams. Do you use any sort of tactile graphics?

AB: I'm excited about some of the developments in the tactile graphics field. They're very promising, especially for students in middle school and high school. Unfortunately, most of the methods that are available at this point aren't refined enough to help people working at more advanced levels. For instance, I need to produce and view very complex graphics. In the course of one day I might make ten variations to a graphic I'm working on. As my vision becomes less reliable, I use human readers more and more. I think ultimately that haptic interfaces with touch screens may be the answer.

DKS: Have you been able to work with any of the companies that develop scientific graphing programs? Are any of them interested in improving accessibility?

AB: There's a Java-based program called MATLAB that is kind of the gold standard for data analysis in science and engineering. So far the program isn't as accessible as it could be, and the developers haven't been very responsive when I've tried to talk to them about that. But I'm still working on it.

DKS: Has WHOI been open to working around accommodations with you?

AB: WHOI has always been highly supportive. They provide whatever services and adaptive equipment I need. They provide salary support for clerical help, so I have someone available to help me fill out forms. They also pay someone to provide support with my technology. That person is on call for troubleshooting. I don't need a lot of time with these support people overall. They're very part-time employees. Hiring them doesn't cost WHOI very much, but having them available makes a gigantic difference for me. I bring in a lot of grant money, so I more than offset the cost of my accommodations.

DKS: What do you like to do when you're not working?

AB: I've just started to study the cello. My teacher is using the Suzuki Method, so I learn mostly by listening. I have an eleven-year-old daughter we adopted from Guatemala. So when I'm not working, my family keeps me pretty busy.

DKS: Would you encourage blind and visually impaired young people to study oceanography?

AB: I would, most definitely. It's a vast field with all sorts of possibilities. In fact, another blind oceanographer and I have just applied for a grant to begin a mentoring project with blind students.

DKS: Can students contact you if they'd like to ask questions and exchange ideas?

AB: Sure. They're welcome to contact me by email at abower@whoi.edu.

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