A Blind Scientist's Vision

Amy Bower, J81, may have lost her sight, but that hasn’t slowed her career as an oceanographer—or sailor

Amy Bower

Some scientists like to follow up on other people’s research, going back to where discoveries were first made to see what else there is to learn. Then there are scientists like Amy Bower, J81. “I like to explore areas that are not very well known at all,” says Bower, who studies ocean currents that are 6,000 feet deep in the ocean. “The currents I typically focus on are not even measurable on the sea surface.”

Those mysterious, mostly untracked currents are partly responsible for keeping the earth cool as they transport heat away from the equator. “We’re trying to understand, where are these currents?” Bower says. “How fast are they going? How much heat do they hold? Are they changing? And are any of those changes associated with atmospheric changes such as air temperature increases?”

Bower is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, where her office window reveals an impressive ocean view. But the soothing vista is mostly lost on her. Bower’s retinas can make out only a crescent-shaped sliver of Nantucket Sound’s white-capped waters. She is a blind scientist of the sea who has watched her sight slowly slip away. “I still can see some, and I still have some light perception,” she said. “I have a small region of pretty good retina.”

Bower first began to notice problems with her vision when she was a Tufts undergraduate studying physics. A few years later, when she was in graduate school at the University of Rhode Island, she received an official diagnosis of both macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The news nearly knocked her off the science track. “I didn’t know any blind scientists at all,” she said. “I was devastated at first because I thought that was the end.”

It was a Boston-based optometrist who dismissed Bower’s concern that she would have to leave science. Instead, he taught her about technologies to help sight-impaired people. “He showed me some tools,” Bower recalls, “and I was like, ‘All right, maybe. Maybe it’s possible.’”

Today, Bower does everything other oceanographers do, including going on research cruises. If you want a good story, ask her about the time pirates in the Gulf of Aden used rocket-propelled grenade launchers to attack her research vessel. “They chased us and fired grenades and rifles at us,” she says. “They didn’t hit us, thank God.”

Pirates aside, there’s no place Bower would rather be than on the water. When she was at Tufts and still had her vision, she was on the sailing team. Now, at 55 and legally blind, she’s sailing again. This past fall, she won the World Blind Sailing Championship in Chicago.

Bower is also well-known these days for her advocacy and outreach. In 2007, she started a program with the Perkins School for the Blind called Ocean Insight, which is designed to get blind kids excited about science. “If they don’t ever meet a blind scientist, they’re never going to think that they can be one,” she says.

Sean Corcoran is the news director of WCAI, a public radio station located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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