Disabled in STEMM

Interview with Dr Geerat Vemeij

Tell us about yourself

Dr Vermeij : First of all, my name is Geerat Vermeij. I was born in the Netherlands. Right after my birth, it was obvious that my vision was terrible. By age 3, I became totally blind after many, many painful operations, which I quite well remember. Then I went to school straightaway in Holland, to schools for the blind. But at age 9, our family immigrated to the United States, where I joined a public school. And from there I went on to Princeton as an undergraduate and to Yale as a graduate student. It’s at Yale, by the way, where I met my wife, Edith. We have now been married for 49 years. My early interest in science and nature in general started as far back as I can remember. So I have always been interested in science and nature and I knew very early on what I wanted to be.

Doing fieldwork as a blind marine ecologist

Interviewer : The first thing that struck me when reading your book was that you have traveled all over the globe, to the remotest places that were very dangerous even for a sighted person. Could you tell us to what extent do you need assistance when you go into the field to do your research?

Dr Vermeij : Like every other field scientist, it is always a good idea for me and for everyone else to have company. It’s a safety issue. So for me, it is totally essential to go into the field with another person. Most of the time that’s been my wife, but at the beginning of my career, I would often get local people to do it. In one case, when I was in Fiji, I had a 14-year-old boy do it and he was very good. In any case, once I’m in the field, I can operate quite independently, but I want to have another person there, not only to tell me where things are and to give an indication of what the place really is like, but also to help in many other ways, as any other fields assistant would also do. So, I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in this respect at all.

Interviewer : I see. But have you ever felt fear against going and working in the wild nature? I mean, it seems to me even for a sighted person it’s very dangerous and fearful. But how did you feel?

Dr Vermeij : Oh, well, yes, I have certainly felt fear, particularly, for example, at times when the waves are extremely high. I remember being in Jamaica, for example. There’s a cliff at a place called Fort Point where there’s big surf there usually. I went on a calm day, but had there been big waves, I would have been thrown out of the environment and probably would have drowned. I’ve certainly been afraid. There was a time in the Northern Marianas and the island of Pagan, which is well south of Japan, where we went to a very slippery basaltic shore. And one of the people on the boat said, “When I tell you to jump, you jump so that you land without the boat being destroyed.” That was very scary, but it worked. And I’ve been under many other circumstances like that. Other times, we have been intercepted by military people and that was very dangerous because you never know what they will do. We had several instances in Indonesia and one in the Philippines and one time in Sierra Leone in West Africa. So, there are many, many instances where, yes, things are dangerous, either from humans or from nature itself. But, you know, you have to take risks. If you’re going to do anything interesting, you’ve got to take risks.

Why did you title your book “Privileged Hands”?

Dr Vermeij : Of course, you have to make up for the loss of one sense by using all the other ones as well as you can. And obviously touch is one of them. From the very beginning, my parents and my older brother, even in Holland, showed me everything. I described them as 24-hour tour guides. They showed me everything, I could handle everything. And the things that I couldn’t handle, they would describe. So, early on, I became very good at feeling things and noticing differences or noticing similarities, differences in texture, differences in size and all sorts of things. And I developed quickly techniques for looking inside places where my fingers couldn’t reach, for instance. One of the other things I discovered subsequently when I was on several occasions telling middle school blind children about shells, I discovered that they did not have those tactile skills at all. And that’s clearly one of the things that is really important. I think for the kind of science that I do, personal observation is absolutely essential, no matter which sense you use, whether it be touch or sound or smell or what have you. And I developed all of those, I think, very well early on and that’s another thing that helped me a great deal.

Interviewer : I see. Right now, do you have any seashells around you or on your desk?

Dr Vermeij : I do.

Interviewer : Could you show us how you observe the shells by your hands?

Dr Vermeij : So here it is. Can you see this?

Interviewer : Yes. Could you raise it up a little bit? Yes, that will be great.

Dr Vermeij : So, this is a Vasum turbinellus. This one is from Philippines. Nice spiny shell. The first thing I do is I get a general sense for what it’s like, the shape, the size and so forth. And then I inspect it and I see all of a sudden these little folds here, these little ridges there. That tells me, “Oh, it’s a Vasum,” so I know that. But if I wanted then to count other things and if in particular I don’t know how many of these folds there are, I might take a needle or another long thing to get in this opening which is a little bit narrow for my fingers. And I might count those ridges and other features that might happen to be inside the shell. I will also look with my fingertips at the details. And if there are really small details, I’ll use my nails, the tips of the ends of my nails to find small ridges and riblets and so forth. That is how I examine a shell. What I discovered with these children was that they would pick up a shell, hold it for a second, then put it down. No, that’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to look very carefully. In fact, I discover over and over again that the longer I hold the shell or the more times I do it, I find new things all the time. So you’ve got to be very good and careful and methodical about tactile observation.

Interviewer : I see. So younger children today with visual impairment, they’re not being taught about how to observe with their hands.

Dr Vermeij : That is exactly right. I would argue—I’ve done so in several places now—that observation with the hands, or for that matter with the ears, is a skill. And I think that education in general ignores the skill of observation, and not just for the blind but for everybody. I remember once being at a bus stop, and there was a beautiful bird singing, a nice song sparrow singing. There were some other people there at the bus stop, and Edith and I mentioned something about how wonderful this bird was, and they said, “What are you hearing?” It was plain as it could be, but nobody was paying any attention. Observation means paying attention and it’s really a skill that needs to be learned.

In what ways has your disability contributed to your research?

Dr Vermeij : I can actually point to several things. If you don’t mind, I’ll get another shell for one second here.

Interviewer : Sure.

Dr Vermeij : Can you see this clam?

Interviewer : Could you lower it a little bit? That’s good. That’s perfect.

Dr Vermeij : I just published a silly little paper. It’s not important, but it’s nevertheless curious. And I don’t understand it entirely. It has these little ridges going in this direction. The ridges are not symmetrical. If I rub the shell in this direction, it’s smoother than if I rub it in that direction. This is what we call an anti-ratchet sculpture. It is extremely unusual. This is a fossil from Florida in the genus Caloosarca, Caloosarca rustica is the species. That particular feature had never been noticed by anybody. And it’s very obvious to my hands. Whenever I point it out to my sighted colleagues, they of course say, “I see that.” But nobody ever noticed it. And I have had several occasions where I was in a museum with a sighted colleague and I would say, “Oh, do you see this labral tooth?” and they’d say, “No. Do you see? I’ve never noticed it.” So there are features that are much more apparent to me than they are to a sighted person, even though when I point it out, they all see it, you know, it’s not hidden or anything. I had one other instance where I was working with a friend of mine and we published a paper together. I took my little needle and I poked it inside the shell and I said, “Oh, it has these ridges along the siphonal canal,” and he said, “I don't see them,” because you can’t see them from the outside. I said, “Take this stylus and feel around and you can feel them,” and he said, “Hmm, yeah, you’re right.” So there are these little minor things that I will notice more readily than someone else even though anyone else could have done it as well.

Interviewer : I see, that's amazing. And I think it’s really encouraging for young blind children who might be interested in the nature and science.

Dr Vermeij : I have another instance. It’s also interesting. Many plant leaves have hairs on them and the hairs are often asymmetrical also. And I noticed in some plants—so I like plants as well—I noticed in some plants that the hairs point toward the tip of the leaf, but on the same plant, other hairs point downward on the stem, so they change direction at some point. Nobody ever noticed that, either.

Interviewer : And have you found the reason for it?

Dr Vermeij : I have a hypothesis, which actually we tested. Several colleagues of mine here in entomology at [the University of California] Davis and I published a test of that hypothesis and it turns out to be correct. The idea is that if you’re an insect eating a leaf, it is the interest of the leaf or of the plant to get the insect off as quickly as possible. So, when the insect moves, it is more likely to move toward the apex than toward the base of the leaf. On the other hand, if it tries to climb the stem, it’s prevented from doing it by the downward pointing hairs. And this is pretty much what we found with some caterpillars.

How has the environment for young blind scientists changed from the days when you were young?

Dr Vermeij : There are two main things. I would say, first and foremost, of course, it’s the computer. Everybody uses computers except for me. But everyone relies on the screen reading programs and so forth. And the other thing that has changed is, at least in terms of education, there are many more specific programs that help, you know, disability centers and so forth. I’m actually very grateful that we did not have one of those because in this particular case, I felt much freer to do things as I wanted to do them and not be told how to do them or when. For example, when I needed a student to read me assignments or papers or books or whatever have you, I would just get up in class and say, “Look, I have some money from the state to pay people to read to me. Anybody interested?” and I’d always get somebody. No doubt about it and it was very good. That’s also, by the way, how I met my wife. She became a reader. So there’s a personal, very nice social part of this as well, which in my case, as a relatively non-social person, was very helpful.

Now, in terms of accommodations, everywhere I have worked has accommodated me in allowing me to have a halftime assistant who reads a lot of scientific papers to me, literally tens of thousands of them. And I then take notes in Braille and so I have an enormous Braille library of everything I’ve ever read. As a consequence, in my papers and books, I can cite enormous numbers of references in many languages and from many time periods. That accommodation has been crucial for me. It has saved me enormous amounts of time because, if I had to do that all on my own, say on a computer, it would just take me 10 times longer to not only find things but to actually go through papers, whereas a sighted person can see things very quickly, can spot things very quickly, much more so than I could. So, that accommodation has been important.

I think the assistive technology is undoubtedly very helpful, but what I would say is that it should not necessarily mean that one can’t have some other help as well, human help. There are things that assistive technology is not good at. One of them is fieldwork or work in a museum collection, which I’ve also done a great deal of. They cannot just read labels, especially if they’re in old handwriting or if they’re in a very unfamiliar kind of place. I need an assistant with that. I think a lot of blind people, because of the assistive technology, simply do not even understand that that might be a useful thing to do.

What are the barriers for blind people to study biology?

Interviewer : In your long academic career, have you ever had a graduate student or young researcher working together with you who has visual impairment?

Dr Vermeij : I have not and I don’t know why not. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted it, but it’s never happened. I think part of it is that very, very few blind children go into biology or into geology. There might be an occasional person who might take an introductory course, but the blind people that I know who have gone into science typically go into computers or into a more physics-oriented thing. And there was one student, he was here at [the University of California] Davis, whom I knew reasonably well who ended in chemistry, stereochemistry I think, but biology boy, that is still pretty much out of bounds for most blind people.

Interviewer : That is because you need fieldwork?

Dr Vermeij : Either that or you need some, you know, a lot of biology courses are lab biology nowadays and even that is not populated very much by blind people. I don’t entirely understand why that is the case, but it just is. I don’t think there’s an absolute barrier. I think that people perceive that there might be a barrier or that they for themselves might think “Oh, this is not something that’s good for me.” I also want to say that because fieldwork inevitably brings a risk with it, as we’ve talked about, many parents, many teachers, many administrators are so afraid of being sued, in this country at least, that they might well discourage people from taking those risks. And so, for many people, I think fieldwork in particular might be discouraged. Maybe not explicitly so, but certainly they’re so afraid of people getting hurt or something that they might say, “Oh, well, don’t do that, don’t do this.” My parents fortunately were very different as were my early teachers in Holland. They would show me thorny rose bushes and show me what those are like. That’s great. I had once a blind woman visiting me and at the time I was looking at Holly leaves. Holly is a spiny shrub and has spiny leaves. And I said, “Have you ever touched the Holly leaf?” and she said, “No, never ever touched one.” They’re all over the place. So somebody in her environment never bothered to show her that, perhaps thinking, “Oh, well, the spines might hurt this little girl” or something. That’s ridiculous, but I think that is the kind of barrier that still exists.

What is the most essential trait for a blind person to achieve success in the STEM field?

Dr Vermeij : I would say there are three things. I would say, first of all, you have to have enough curiosity if you’re going to become a working active scientist. Second of all, you have to be willing to work really hard because it will be harder work than for someone of the equivalent intelligence, let’s say, who is not blind. And third of all, you have to have the skill of observation, you have to be able to use your senses very effectively, in order to make headway and gain an intuition about what’s important and what’s not. The earlier you start, the better. And I was very lucky in that I became blind very young, so all my education was as a completely blind student, which means that I read Braille very well. And I would also have to emphasize the enormous importance of Braille. I could not do what I do without Braille. So, blind children who do not learn Braille are at an enormous disadvantage in my opinion.

I would say, if one is capable of doing it, being an active scientist is extremely rewarding. It’s a wonderful career, at least it has been for me and it continues to be for me. I have so thoroughly enjoyed it and I retain a great love of nature, a tremendous love of nature. And so, basically for me it has been a wonderful, fulfilling life and there is no reason why that could not also apply to other blind people. But I will say that, as is true for any other career, it takes a lot of hard work and it does take a certain amount of intuition and talent to be able to do it. But if you have it, it is highly worthwhile.