American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Special Issue: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) BEGINNINGS
by Geerat J. Vermeij
From the Editor: Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a world-renowned scientist who specializes in shells. In 1992 he was honored with a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He is deeply committed to encouraging blind youth to pursue careers in the sciences. In this article he describes the early influences that led to his passion for scientific study.
From the time I was a young, totally blind boy, science has been at the center of my life. How did this happen? Would not blindness automatically preclude a scientific education, much less a career in research and teaching in biology and the earth sciences at major universities?
The field of statistics tells us that unlikely things occasionally happen, and that many unusual circumstances must coalesce to turn a dreamy hope into reality. In my case one exceptional circumstance stands out. My parents not only awakened and nurtured my burning curiosity about nature and how the world works; they also enabled me to transform that fascination into a deeply satisfying career as a scholar. What did they do right?
Before I answer that question, a brief introduction to what I do in my chosen fields is in order. I describe myself as an evolutionary biologist/paleobiologist. I am a scientist who studies, teaches, and writes about living and fossil animals and plants. By conducting studies at field sites and in museums all over the world, I ask how natural selection has shaped not only individual organisms but whole ecosystems over the course of Earth's tumultuous history. How have plants and animals and their enemies adapted to each other at various times and in contrasting environments, from the poles to the equator, from rainforests to the deep sea, and from coral reefs to freshwater streams? What causes extinction, and what are its consequences? How do the economic processes that govern human affairs and the evolution of life overcome historical limitations?
Although most of my work has concentrated on the shells of molluscs--clams, snails, and their relatives--I have also delved into the study of plants, crabs, fishes, large marine mammals, economics, the geography of life, and the human influence on Earth's biosphere. So far, this work has resulted in the publication of six books and close to 250 scientific papers. I have taught continuously for forty-five years, first at the University of Maryland, College Park; and for the past twenty-seven years at the University of California, Davis. As part of my duties, I review numerous scientific papers written by others, edit scientific journals, direct research by graduate students, and engage in public service by delivering lectures and getting involved in the affairs of major museums here and abroad. The only duty expected of a professor that I have managed largely to avoid is administration, for which I have little talent and less patience.
To prepare for this academic life, I took rigorous courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics (up through differential equations), languages (German and French, with Spanish picked up during my travels), and of course biology and geology. I continue to read compulsively in many fields, and I add daily to my vast Braille library of notes on all the tens of thousands of scientific publications I have read to date. In addition, I maintain a large research collection in which all specimens (the majority collected by me) bear detailed Braille labels.
No one does this work in a vacuum. Such intangibles as curiosity, creativity, a strong work ethic, an exploratory and questioning frame of mind, and the objectivity that the scientific way of knowing demands, do not come out of nowhere. They must be kindled, encouraged, and molded. Teachers--and I have had some outstanding ones at every level of my education--obviously have a profound influence on the process of fostering passion and developing it into a life's work. But parents and other family members, with whom a child spends more time than with anyone else, wield the greatest influence. They instill the qualities that are essential to success in life, including a life in science.
I spent the first nine years of my life in The Netherlands. I entered my first boarding school for the blind before I turned four. I lived in a modest flat in Gouda with my parents and older brother, Arie. Our close-knit family was never financially rich, but we were rich in every other way. As soon as I learned Braille at the age of four, my parents and brother also mastered writing Braille with the slate and stylus. Each member of the family began transcribing books. My father and brother became adept at making illustrations and maps in relief by pressing a stylus on a sheet of Braille paper laid across a piece of window screen tacked on plywood.
From the very beginning, my parents had me examine anything and everything by touch. My father, who had trained in horticulture (although he never worked in the field professionally), was very knowledgeable about plants, and he was a keen observer of nature. We took frequent outings by bicycle to the surrounding polders, tracts of land reclaimed from the sea. There we spent hours exploring ditches, picking flowers, and listening to birds. On warm summer days we rode to the beach at Scheveningen, where I gathered my first shells. At home I spent hours carefully examining the shells I collected, as well as the pinecones, acorns, and stones I had accumulated at school. Things that I could not experience directly were continually described to me in the strong belief that the world, in all its variety, was there to be observed, enjoyed, and understood.
Our move to rural New Jersey opened up an entirely new realm of nature to be explored. The extraordinary contrast with the tame landscapes of The Netherlands awakened in me the beginnings of a scientific perspective. I began to ask questions of nature, and at age ten I started a serious shell collection.
My parents enthusiastically encouraged my budding passion. They read and copied more books, built primitive cabinets out of old wooden crates to house my growing collection, and continued to act as twenty-four-hour tour guides. Arie and I cultivated plants in pots to measure how fast they grew, and together we read about the sea and about faraway places. Our reading stimulated a fascination with geography that we share to this day. My mother spent countless hours reading to me about nature, and later she read about technical subjects she knew nothing about.
If my parents and teachers had any doubts about where this growing scientific interest would lead, they never expressed them to me. On the contrary, they greeted this all-important period in my development with unadulterated enthusiasm and encouragement. Everyone in the family was fully engaged in the pleasures of exploration, discovery, and learning.
What can we glean from these particulars? It is, of course, difficult to generalize from one child's formative years, but some points seem to stand out. Most importantly, perhaps, my parents strongly encouraged curiosity, observation, and sustained attention, three of the necessary qualities for success in science. My family was unaffected by religious dogma, and intellectual inquiry was expected as a matter of course.
My parents possessed a desire to see me and Arie succeed at whatever we wished to do. They did not push us toward any particular career. In fact, my parents likely had little inkling of what a scientific career would look like. I suspect they gave the matter little thought, believing instead that something would work out as long as we put our minds to it. My teachers echoed this freewheeling attitude, though they might have thought to themselves that my passions for shells and science were passing fancies.
To distill these ideas, I wish to make the following eight suggestions to parents and teachers of blind children with an aptitude for and interest in science:
None of this advice is easy to follow. Much depends on the disposition of both the parents and the child. My experience as a professor has convinced me that it is difficult to instill enthusiasm for a given topic, and sometimes the effort is unsuccessful. On the other hand, when one does succeed, it is immensely satisfying for all concerned. There is nothing quite like the thrill of insight, the pride in seeing another individual grow and develop into a thoughtful and enterprising scholar, and the satisfaction of contributing a scientifically literate person to society.
Some people might argue that curiosity and the ability to observe come naturally to children. Perhaps they do, but if so, these qualities are easily squashed and often left undeveloped. In my experience, observation is a skill to be honed and nurtured. Curiosity must be coupled with diligence, objectivity, and an inquisitive disposition if it is to flower into organized inquiry. Science is a method, a way of describing and explaining phenomena; it is a discipline, a habit of mind that involves exploration, recognition of regularities, objective testing of possible explanations, an ability to put seemingly unrelated facts together, and the courage to try things and to take risks without a guarantee of success. The development of this scientific worldview demands sustained attention and reinforcement by parents and teachers in an environment where the pleasure of discovery and insight remains uppermost.
These points apply, of course, to both sighted and blind children and their mentors. However, the challenges are especially daunting for the blind. Parents are apt to overprotect their blind offspring and to be unaware that the sensory world of their blind children is different from their own. The most important thing that parents of blind children can do is to provide experiences and to bring the unseen world into the child's awareness through description and touch, reading and doing.