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Interview: Geerat Vermeij

Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a professor of geology at the University of California at Davis, with research interests in marine ecology. Widely published and respected in the academic community, Dr. Vermeij has received prestigious awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal, and was named a National Ambassador for Braille Literacy by the National Federation of the Blind. Craig Pearson speaks with Dr. Vermeij about growing up blind in a sighted school system, balancing cutting-edge audio technology with Braille, and discovering one’s academic passions.

Craig Pearson  :::  Our academic interests later in life often trace back to early exposure. When did you first develop an interest in science, and did you have any influential teachers or mentors who shaped your career path?

Geerat Vermeij  :::  My interest in science dates back to my very youngest years. My parents were excellent natural historians, and my brother and I looked at and read about nature near and far. My teachers were uniformly supportive of my profound interests in science, and at university I likewise had nothing but strong support from important mentors such as Alfred G. Fischer, Robert H. MacArthur, Henry S. Horn, and Egbert Leigh (all then at Princeton).

How did being blind affect your education, and how does it influence your scientific work today?

Obviously I have chosen to work with fossil and living organisms that I can manipulate (shell-bearing molluscs), although I have done huge amounts of fieldwork and some lab work in which other faster animals also came into play. Blindness did not stop me from copious amounts of reading or from research thanks to a very good early grounding (Braille) and supportive teachers, colleagues, and spouse. It is best to emphasize what one is good at, which is in part determined in my case by blindness.

We’ve seen great leaps in assistive technology over the past several decades, occasionally at the expense of other forms of communication such as Braille. What role has technology played in your career, and where would you like to see it go in the future?

I have greatly benefited from computer technology. Assistants and others read to me from the screen, find materials, communicate, etc., all made vastly easier with digital journals, e-mail, etc. I maintain a gigantic Braille library which is added to every day as I keep reading; and I write in Braille, type my text, have text scanned and edited, and then submitted. Sighted assistance makes my scientific life greatly more efficient. I would love computer technology for the blind to improve and above all to be less clunky than it is today, but I do not foresee a time when highly productive scientists can work entirely independently of sighted help, nor will Braille become obsolete.

You mention several of your mentors at Princeton. Can you tell us more about your university years, and how this shaped your career in academia?

My intense curiosity, I think, endeared me to all my professors, so I had an exceptionally good experience all the way through. In my last (third) year at Princeton I took several graduate courses and went on a field trip to Costa Rica, my first large-scale immersion in the tropics. At Yale, where I did my PhD, I was given free reign, and I again had excellent experiences. The state of New Jersey provided me with reader money throughout, so no troubles with access to the scientific literature. (My mother supplemented my reading as well during times when I was home, and toward the end, my girlfriend and now wife did a lot of reading too.)

I’m curious to hear more about your research community. How would you describe the network of colleagues and assistants you work with day to day?

Through most of my career I have had a half-time assistant who reads, edits, and does other research — and teaching — related tasks. My colleagues are everywhere in the world; I have done very extensive field work from Iceland to New Zealand and many places in between, and I have worked in more than 20 natural history museums. I can say that I have friends on almost every continent and maintain active correspondence with numerous colleagues. I have coauthored papers with something like one hundred people worldwide; sixteen students have received a PhD under my supervision. As you can tell, my experience has been entirely satisfying.

At Exceptions, we have an interest in creative forms of expression. Do you have any passions outside of science, such as literature or music?

I do not play an instrument, but I deeply love classical music in the broad sense, most especially Baroque and Renaissance music. As an atheist, I am especially fond of sacred music, and have taken considerable effort to hear organs and choirs in churches here and in Europe, even in New Zealand. To my wife’s continuing surprise if not consternation, I do not generally read fiction.

Do you have any advice for our Exceptions community? In today’s social and academic climate, how would you encourage a blind student with interests in science?

My advice: learn and use Braille; develop curiosity, become a very good observer with the brain in gear; work very hard even at tedious tasks, which is most of what science entails; keep a scientific diary with ideas and observations; read a lot; spend time thinking; don’t mind being alone; get to know teachers and professors; go to the best university possible not just because of good professors but especially because fellow students are likely to be good and interesting; integrate with the wider sighted world; don’t feel afraid to seek sighted help if that will save time and if it enables you to go places that would otherwise be off limits.

Photo courtesy of the UCDavis – Earth and Planetary Sciences website.

Photo courtesy of the UCDavis – Earth and Planetary Sciences website.

Dr. Geerat J. Vermeij is a renowned marine biologist who is currently a Distinguished Professor at the University of California in Davis. Originally from the Netherlands, Dr. Vermeij lost his sight at age three and spent his childhood studying and collecting the nature in his backyard. In 1971, he received a PhD in paleobiology from Yale University and his main research interests include fossil and living mollusks. Dr. Vermeij thoroughly enjoys teaching in the classroom, and as a strong proponent of tactile observation, is dedicated to sharing the beauty of science with blind students.

InterviewsCraig Pearson