Summer Intern from Puerto Rico Has Sunny Perspective
Growing up in the remote town of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, Wanda Diaz-Merced and her sister dreamed of flying the Space Shuttle. They would spend hours in her sister’s room pretending to visit distant galaxies.
This pretend game provided Diaz-Merced and her sister, who both have physical disabilities, an escape from reality. As a child, Diaz-Merced also became proficient at tackling challenges head on.
She became a stronger, more confident person, learning quickly to persevere and push herself. Diaz-Merced, who is sight-impaired, recalls winning second place in a middle school science fair and thinking “Wow! I can do this.” She dove into math and science.
Her studies led her to Goddard in 2005, under a program called Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science (ACCESS). The following year, she applied for and was accepted in a NASA program called Summer Institute in the Engineering and Computer Applications.
Diaz-Merced insists she is not smarter than anyone else. “I have to study, study, study. I am very determined. If I can do it (science), anyone can. No excuses.”
Today, Diaz-Merced may still find her feet firmly planted on the ground, but she is exploring the solar system in a very unique way. For the past five years, she has been an intern at Goddard’s Heliophysics Division where she uses sound to analyze the solar wind.
This year, Diaz-Merced is conducting research on cataclysmic stars using sonification techniques. She developed these techniques under the mentorship of Goddard computer engineer Bobby Candey in the Heliophysics Laboratory and University of Glasgow professor Stephen Brewster. Sonification research is the intuitive audio representation of complex, multidimensional scientific data.
Using Human Computer Interaction, the basic goal of which is to improve the interaction between users and computers by making computers more usable and receptive to the user’s needs, Diaz-Merced conducts experiments to see if sonification techniques she developed, together with visual perception, can enhance the quality and amount of signatures from the data provided. A Harvard-Smithsonian grant, given by the Women in Science Committee at the Smithsonian, facilitates her research.
Her sonification programs undergo rigorous review by an independent researcher. Diaz-Merced’s approach is simple, “People approach knowledge in different ways. This approach, using sonification, will widen the number of people who can access the data.”
Currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Diaz-Merced is pursuing a Computer Science degree and plans to defend her dissertation next spring.
Recently, Diaz-Merced was one of only seven students selected by Google to win the company’s first annual European Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. The scholarship recognizes outstanding Ph.D. students doing exceptional research in the field of computer science.
The winners of the Google scholarship were treated to a surprise, all expenses paid retreat to Googleplex in Zurich in June. “It was a very magical experience,” Diaz-Merced remarked.
In her spare time, Diaz-Merced enjoys developing lesson plans and visiting schools to “bring the world of astrophysics to students of all ages.”
When asked what advice she would give to other girls who may lack confidence due to a physical disability, Diaz-Merced said, “Never give up on your dreams. Give yourself the chance of a lifetime. Anyone with dedication, discipline, and a good heart can reach their goal.”
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center