Interview

What were some of the things you liked to do when you were growing up?

I grew up in Rockport, Mass. Now it’s a tourist town, but it used to be more of a fishing town. From an early age, I was interested in the beach. Not for sunning, but for exploring. The beach we lived near was rocky and the water was cold, so it wasn’t great for swimming, but it had great marine life under the rocks.

I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, and I can attribute that to my parents and grandparents who liked to boat, fish, and hike. My mother had a big influence on me. I think she was influenced by Rachel Carson’s writing and popularity in the sixties and seventies.

I was also interested in meteorology. My interest was inspired by the eternal childhood hope that school would be canceled by the next snowstorm. I watched the weather carefully and tried to make predictions.

When did you start considering a career in science?

As I went through school, I found I had some aptitude for math and science. When I went to college at Tufts in 1977, I decided to major in physics. I was the only woman majoring in physics in my class. I remember telling a friend my freshmen year, I think it was a guy, that I was a physics major. He said, “But you are a young woman, a girl. What are you doing being a physics major?” I was shocked. I had no idea that women had not done these things traditionally.

I liked physics in college. But nuclear physics, solid state physics, electricity, and magnetism didn’t capture me. I was interested in geosciences and geophysics. That led me to search far and wide for places to study meteorology or oceanography. Then I found out about this program called Sea Semester in Woods Hole, which is run by Sea Education Association. It was a semester-long off-campus program focused on oceanography plus other marine studies.

It was in the Sea Semester program that I learned about physical oceanography and decided to pursue it more. When I was finished with my bachelors degree at Tufts, I went to the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography for a Ph.D. in oceanography with a focus on physical oceanography.

What did you do after graduate school?

I applied for a postdoctoral scholar position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And I was very pleased when I got it. Then a couple of years later I applied for a permanent position on the staff. And I got that too. And I’ve been here for 15 years in the department of physical oceanography. I’ve been doing independent research and really enjoying it. But a couple of years ago, I thought that I might like to do something a little different on the side. So I inquired over here at Sea Education Association. They were looking for someone to organize and analyze the oceanographic data they collect here. So I accepted the Doherty Chair in ocean Studies, which is a one or two year position.

Could you talk about your vision disability?

When I was in graduate school, I started to have a little problem driving at night. I went to an eye doctor, and he said I have some serious problems and should get it checked out by a retinal specialist. I went and was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which is relatively unusual for people in their twenties. Macular degeneration is the deterioration of the central vision, which makes it difficult to see fine detail, recognize faces, see details at a distance, or read normal-sized print. But my peripheral vision has remained more or less intact. Your peripheral vision is what you use for mobility, avoiding chairs, falling down stairs, and things like that. I had to adapt my work environment so I could read and see graphics. I have kept up with the technology and have a bunch of adaptive equipment for viewing text, pictures, and images I make as part of my work on the computer. There is more and more available, especially for the computer, such as magnification and there’s speech output. It’s a great tool.

Has your vision disability affected how you approach your research?

I have to work harder. There is an interesting quote from the director of CETI, the Center for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. He is totally blind and has been since birth. His advice to students with disabilities is that they will have to work harder and that they better search for pursuits that they are really passionate about because they are going to need that level of passion to keep going. With a disability, things are harder, no matter how much adaptive equipment you have or how accommodating your employer is. That is true for me. I love oceanography, and I love the pursuit of knowledge and independent research and all that goes with it. So it’s worth it to me.

Your work requires you to generate and interpret many complex images. How difficult is that for you?

My memory has improved as my vision has decreased. I think it’s just a natural adjustment of the brain to focus more on what you can do and less on what you can’t. It’s hard sometimes, but I can keep a lot of pictures in my head of how things look. I think I have a fairly decent three-dimensional sense.

I feel strongly about educating the people around me about having a vision impairment. I try to be upfront about it because I realize that there a lot of kids behind me who may want to pursue science. It’s up to me to open the doors because I’m pretty much the only significantly visually impaired person I know in my circle of colleagues. Sometimes I feel like a pioneer, and it’s not always easy being a pioneer. I am passionate about what I am doing, and that keeps me going.

Have you faced any challenges in your career as a woman?

Not really. Realistically the challenge associated with being a woman probably pales in comparison to the barriers I’ve had to overcome with my vision disability.

Physical oceanography, which is my specialty, is male dominated to this day. But having come from a background where I didn’t expect anyone to get in my way, I’m not expecting people to say, “Oh you are a woman. You can’t do this.” It doesn’t happen often to me.

There has been a transition. When I was very junior, my mentors were all male. You are their underlings, so they like you because you are not competing against them. As I reached mid career and started to be more of a peer, I felt the competition level rise. I can’t necessarily pin that on being female, but I did notice a difference in the way I was treated. It got a little harsher with some people. Developing a thick skin is important.

What continues to inspire you about what you do?

I’ve always had a driving desire to learn new things. The field of science is about learning new things all of the time. Some of them are rather esoteric and detail oriented. The more you get into a field, the more you get into the subtleties and details and whatnot. But that still intrigues me to learn about how the earth works. Water goes here, water goes there. Why?

What interests do you have other than science?

Almost all of them have to do with the outdoors. Although I like to read. I listen to books on tape and magazines on tape and also on the computer. But everything else outdoors. We have a sailboat and I love to sail. And cycling with a tandem bike. Hiking and walking. Music. I really like live music of all veins from classical to ethnic to jazz.

What advice do you have for somebody thinking about a career in oceanography?

Develop a thick skin. It’s competitive. I learned that comments that people make are sometimes not as serious as they seem. If you can let it roll off your back, you can get along fairly well. The pursuit of science is intense. A lot of the people involved have a lot of passion for it, so passions frequently run high. It’s just n intense working environment. It’s exciting, but sometimes it can be a little harsh. The more you can just stick to your own beliefs about what you are doing and the quality of what you are doing, the better off you will be. Take critical comments as best you can and try to follow advice. But basically stick to your own convictions and don’t believe everything you hear that people say about you or about your work. Most of all you want to make sure you are still enjoying it.

My other advice is to remember that women are as deserving of all the same opportunities as men and to make sure you get them. This applies more to people with disabilities, but being your own self-advocate is extremely important. You really can’t sit around and expect other people to do something for you. If you need some special service or you need some opportunity to be made available to you, you have to speak up and say so. That can apply really to anybody. Look ahead and ask for what you need.

Amy Bower

  • Associate Scientist, Physical Oceanography
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Instituion

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