Aziza Baccouche—Dr. Z, as she calls herself—has made a career connecting scientific research to the people it could affect, such as informing patients about medical developments and getting more minority students interested in science. Her medium is the screen, and she tells the stories of science through documentaries. But Baccouche, a Ph.D. physicist-turned-filmmaker, will likely never clearly see any of her finished products: She became legally blind at the age of 8, and ever since she's relied on her wits, passion for science, excellent memory, and what she calls her vision to achieve success.
Baccouche obtained a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2002. But while earning that degree, she was bitten by the film-production bug. Realizing that a research career wasn't for her, she founded a production company called AZIZA Productions a couple of years before graduating. Through her company, she began making films and short documentaries for science nonprofit organizations, working together with a small crew consisting of two cameramen, a sound technician, and a video editor. Now she's working on her first large-scale public documentary series focused on underrepresented minorities in science, including both ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. Baccouche's series debuted this week on a Washington D.C. Public Broadcasting Service local affiliate station with a pilot episode titled Over the Hurricane showcasing the work of African-American atmospheric physicist Gregory S. Jenkins.
Science Careers spoke with Baccouche about her experience as a science student with a disability, her passion for science, and her goals for the new series. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Can you tell us how you lost your sight?
A.B.: I had a tumor in my brain that developed when I was a child. When I was 8 years old, it caused this disorder called hydrocephalus where the tumor is blocking the cerebral fluid in the brain and that automatically creates pressure within the ventricles and it starts affecting different parts of the brain, and in my case it damaged my optic nerve.
Q: How did you get interested in science?
A.B.: I've always been very passionate about mathematics since I was young. When I got to high school, I had a great physics teacher and I fell in love with physics. It's mathematics applied to the real world. And my teacher was a very dynamic teacher, and I decided during my senior year that physics was what I wanted to go into when I went to college.
Q: Did your blindness ever present any challenges to you as a student?
A.B.: I had some difficulties transitioning to the college environment, being legally blind. My freshman adviser recommended that I think about majoring in another subject. He would say that you need sight to do physics. Sighted people think that it takes sight to do certain things, but I didn't let his recommendations deter me from going on. Certainly there were points where I was struggling through the coursework, not so much because I didn't have the intellectual ability to do the work, but more it was dealing with accessibility [to information]. With my sighted peers, they could easily flip open their books and look at the chalkboard and so on, but a blind person doesn't have that flexibility.
Q: Did you develop any strategies to cope with that?
A.B.: I developed a very strong memory. On the spot I had to be able to recall equations, formulas, that kind of thing, so in that respect, it gave me an advantage because I didn't have to waste time flipping through pages. We know power is work over time, that strength is endurance over time. So I endured a lot of obstacles, but at the same time I created strength and vision and wisdom and endurance. I do a lot of motivational speaking to young kids and I talk to them about this concept of sight versus vision, that sight is a physical ability which I lack, but one of the things I've acquired over time is vision. Vision to me is more of a mindset.
Q: Early in your doctorate, you decided to do a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. What was that like?
A.B.: In 1998, I was assigned to CNN in Atlanta and did my fellowship there. I had the chance to meet the chairman and CEO of CNN at the time, Tom Johnson, who supported a film that I produced which aired on CNN later. It was a film on African-American kids in science and engineering. After that, he assigned me to the Washington bureau and I continued to produce for a few subsequent years for science and tech stories while I was doing my Ph.D. at College Park. It was a nice little setup because when I got tired from doing physics, I would go into CNN Washington and work on stories. I did a story on quantum computers. I did another story on the concept of voodoo science. Small little stories here and there when I had the time to do them.
Q: Has your blindness been an advantage to you in any way as a storyteller?
A.B.: The thing that I tell people all the time is that it doesn't take sight to see science; it's being able to visualize it in your mind. One of the things when I was doing stories for CNN that I learned is that in television, for me, being blind can be an advantage. I insist when I interview people for them to be descriptive of what they're talking about. "What are you talking about? Who are you talking to? What are you pointing at?" And so in the grand scheme of things, it's advantageous because you get great natural sound bites from the people you're interviewing. It helps engage the audience, and people explain things more clearly.
Q: How did that scale up into your current documentary project?
A.B.: I opened my production company a couple of years after I did my Mass Media Fellowship. It's like on one hand doing assignments, and then combining that with being an entrepreneur. What I've been doing the past few years is producing documentary films for science-based nonprofit organizations who are interested in promoting their science programs and things like that. But with this new show, I'm very excited to getting back into reaching a mass audience.
Q: Tell us about the pilot episode for the series you're working on.
A.B.: It's about this guy, Greg Jenkins, who is a physics professor at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.], and he embarked on these adventures in conjunction with his research with students and other scientists during hurricane season. We partnered with him to film his work. We went to Barbados and after that, we caught up with a NASA team in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during its expedition flying through Hurricane Earl in 2010. The scientists were doing experiments while flying through hurricanes. So of course we flew through Hurricane Earl, too.
Q: What's your next step with the series?
A.B.: Right now we're just kind of testing the ground to see how effective the programming is, how it's received, and testing it with our target audience. We've concluded this first pilot and we have a series of stories we're trying to work on. We are really trying to find an underwriter who will support us for this series. The first film was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Q: How have your own challenges with disability shaped your plans for the show?
A.B.: One of the things I'm trying to focus on is connecting science breakthroughs and research with the human experience. This is the theme of the series. How does science affect our lives? How do we connect to it? How is it making a difference? I'm interested in doing a film on proton therapy, for example, because I have a tumor in my brain; it's the tumor that affected my eyesight as a child. It's a benign tumor but it continues to grow, so over the course of my life I've had five brain operations. The advantage of proton therapy is that there may be a procedure I could undergo in the future that uses targeted radiation to target the tumorous tissue and that could potentially kill off my tumor. Since I'm the one telling these stories, something like that helps me connect to the audience, for them to see that there's really a human component to the science.
Q: What do you hope people get out of these films?
A.B.: This effort plays into the whole concept of, “How do we increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, and so forth, going into science?” It's important that they have visibility, that they have role models. Otherwise they just wind up becoming business people or going into law. The young kids like to see that there are folks they can connect with and go into research with. We've intentionally oriented it to be engaging for adults and enticing enough for children so that adults can sit down with their child and watch the programming with them.
Over the Hurricane airs on WHUT Howard University Television on Thursday, 30 August, at 7:30 p.m. EDT. For future air times, please check Baccouche's Web site for details.