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Keeping Current with the Currents
For Dr. Amy Bower, a day at the office might be just that--a day where she works with information at her computer terminal. Or it might mean a day on a research vessel thousands of miles away from her home, where she will gather data which she will later analyze back at the office. The information she gathers enables scientists to better understand the earth and its interaction with its oceans--information that Amy says could ultimately help mankind survive.
by Carol M. McCarl
Amy is a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her career of studying ocean currents and the ways in which the oceans and the earth interact was one she began thinking about as an undergraduate student. But her love for the ocean began much earlier.
"My family moved to Rockport, Massachusetts when I was a few weeks old," Amy explains. "Growing up north of Boston, I enjoyed the ocean and the beach and am sure I was influenced by my mother who had an affinity to the outdoors. Rachel Carson's writings were very popular with my mother. I probably picked up on that subconsciously. I was always interested in environmental conservation.
"In high school I was inclined to the sciences, particularly physics. In college I majored in physics at Tufts University in Medford. The focus there was a lot of high energy physics, particle physics, nuclear physics, solid state physics, and geophysics--the latter being more to my liking."
Amy was fully sighted until graduate school. But as an undergraduate at Tufts, she began giving serious thought to a career as a physical oceanographer.
"When I was an undergraduate," she explains, "I discovered that there was a one- semester off-campus program called Sea Semester which was run by the Sea Education Association. The program included six weeks of instruction on ocean science, navigation, marine policy--sort of a liberal arts exposure to everything marine. I also spent six weeks on a research vessel which definitely wasn't a Carnival cruise. It was like camping and a hard life, but it turned me on totally to oceanography. When I finished that program, I knew that was what I wanted to pursue as a career. I did finish my degree in physics, then I went on to graduate school in oceanography. Specifically, I have combined oceanography with physics so I am a physical oceanographer."
Being a physical oceanographer means Amy studies "waves, currents and the physical forces that make the current move and change with time."
But monitoring changing ocean currents isn't the only skill Amy developed in graduate school. While there, she recognized changes in the currents of her life that would result in the loss of most of her sight.
"I was a couple years into the graduate program when I realized I was having problems reading and using a computer. The first aids I used were embedded lenses in glasses-- they are not useful to me anymore. I used magnifying lenses for driving and computer work. For reading I had bifocals with magnification in them." Her vision has changed significantly since those graduate school days, and the equipment she uses on the job has changed, too.
"Since my vision is worse now than ten years ago," she says, "I still use a CCTV for looking at graphics but not much for reading. I use an Optilec Clearview 517 which has a color monitor. Most of my work is done on a computer. I'm not a biologist so I don't have to use a microscope. That would have been ruled out with my vision loss. I mostly deal with number crunching and spend about eight hours a day at the computer. I use the combination of screen magnification and speech. I use JAWS and Eloquence. I also just acquired Freedom Scientific's Pac Mate and I'm liking that a lot." Amy says the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution provided her with the equipment she uses on the job. It also pays for a sighted guide to accompany Amy on research expeditions and to conferences and conventions. Woods Hole Oceanographic was named employer of the year by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind several years ago because of its accommodations for Dr. Bower.
Dr. Bower obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography at Narragansett, across Narragansett Bay from Newport. She enjoyed her graduate school experience, but when funding began to run out, she knew it was time to move forward.
"Finally, funding ran out so I applied for a Post-Doctorate position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was lucky enough to get it. The application process did not include an interview. It was all done with reference letters and transcripts and stuff like that. I did present a professional seminar around that same time so that may have affected the success of the application. In any case, I was accepted in the position in 1988."
Amy explains that while Woods Hole is a private nonprofit organization, it has the same structure in staffing as a university. In 1990, she was named to the position of assistant scientist. She became an associate scientist, then applied for and received tenure, after some eight years on the job. Amy has had tenure for almost five years. She would like to achieve the position of senior scientist. If she reaches that pinnacle, she will be the first woman to rise to that position in her department. Physical oceanography has traditionally been male dominated when compared to biology. In Amy's department there are 35 scientists of whom seven are women. She was writing up the results of an expedition to the Indian Ocean during the time of this interview. She says after she submits her work for publication, she will apply for the senior scientist position.
But how does an idea go from thought to ultimate publication? Amy says when she has an observation that needs research, she drafts a proposal outlining and defending the project. She sends it to the National Science Foundation where it is reviewed by an anonymous committee of scientists. The proposal is ranked, and it will either be funded or rejected. The reviewing scientists also have the option of requesting that the proposal be refined and presented again in six months.
When Amy receives a grant to do a project she plans it with a team of others-- engineers who build instruments, research peers and technical assistants. When all is ready, they will go out on a ship anywhere from ten days to six weeks. The furthest trip for Amy was in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Africa. They studied the water that comes out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, which was truly exploratory since not many had studied the area before.
Once back at work and off the ship, she can still direct activities and maintain the plan and make changes in it when necessary. After the research team returns to Woods Hole, Amy analyzes the collected data to try to figure out what it tells her about ocean currents. Then she publishes the research in professional journals.
Asked what she would recommend others study who want a career similar to hers, Amy explains, "Traditionally, the focus in college would be on basic sciences like biology and chemistry. I've eased off on that a little because there are more opportunities for undergraduates trained in environmental science which might be a combinational thing. I would say, if you have an opening take a math class. Extra math will never hurt you and may help.
"There are a number of graduate programs in oceanography. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has a Ph.D. program at MIT. West coast programs are at the University of Washington in Seattle, Oregon State University at Corvallis, and the University of San Diego. On the east coast, along with MIT, is the University of Rhode Island and the University of Miami."
When Amy isn't studying the Ocean, she's sailing on it in a 27-foot tartan sloop she and her husband jointly own with another couple. They enjoy cross country skiing and have been active members of Ski for Light for ten years; they are also tandem bicyclists.
A new venture in which Amy has been invited to participate is the illustrations for a book on marine science with the authors of Touch the Stars and Touch the Top of the World. She is excited about the latest developments in tactile graphics and looks forward to this creative opportunity. It's just another way in which this visually impaired talented researcher is adding to the currents of information flowing to blind and visually impaired people throughout the world.
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