Living in the Acoustic Environment

Our Blog Editor, Dr Sarah Marley, reports back on last month’s Spring Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in Minnesota, USA. Find out what made it such a successful conference, and why she did not end up being the loner she expected to be…

Last month, several hundred acousticians descended on Minneapolis, Minnesota for the 175th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA). I was among them, attending this conference for the first time. Although I have been conducting research in acoustics for over five years, I still feel very new to this field and was nervous about presenting to ‘hardcore’ acousticians rather than my normal audience of biologists. And, although I was an invited speaker, I did not actually know many people attending this primarily American conference beyond my PhD supervisor and a few Twitter acquaintances. So the 27hr plane ride over from Western Australia was a fairly unsettled one.

Luckily for me, I had been accepted into ASA School 2018. This two-day course immediately preceded the conference, bringing together graduate students and early-career researchers in all areas of acoustics. The aim is to broaden the acoustic knowledge of attendees around an inter-disciplinary theme; this year, that was ‘Living in the Acoustic Environment’. Co-organiser of the school Professor Stan Dosso, University of Victoria, said “Our primary goals were to show students the wide range of interesting and important work in acoustics, and to encourage them to get to know each other and build networks and friendships for their future careers in acoustics. We hope the ASA Schools serve both the students and the ASA well.”

To that end, ASA School provides opportunities for meeting fellow students and established acousticians, discussing research topics, developing collaborations and professional relationships, and mentoring. We received presentations from 10 ‘grown-up’ acoustic researchers, on topics ranging from bioacoustics to psychoacoustics, biomedical acoustics to physical acoustics. These were all delivered in an enlightening and entertaining manner, interspersed with personal stories and followed by a series of roundtables and panel discussions. “We chose instructors who are international leaders in their fields and are known as effective speakers – and their talks were great!” said Professor Dosso. “The group discussions were lively and wide ranging, including practical questions on developing careers in acoustics.”

But there were also plenty of opportunities for socialising (ahem, networking), through tea breaks, shared meals, and even a campfire! As much as I enjoyed hearing about all the exciting research going on, I particularly loved having the chance to connect with attendees and guest speakers, and some of the best moments involved wildlife spotting on an impromptu group walk around the lake or swapping stories of fieldwork fails over a drink by the fire.

My fellow attendees agreed, particularly the other first-timers. “ASA School was a fantastic opportunity to meet students and faculty whose research interests span the enormous breadth of acoustics,” said Daniel Smieja, a Masters student at the University of Toronto. “It also gave a rare opportunity to have informal discussions with faculty from across the world – aside from technical content, we learned about their life stories, challenges that they face(d) and their outlook on the field’s trajectory.” Dr Rosalyn Putland, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Minnesota, was also attending ASA for the first time and echoed this sentiment of the School being a fantastic experience. “I enjoyed the range of topics covered by the speakers and felt I learnt a lot about both inside and outside of my own field of underwater acoustics,” she said. “The ASA School also allowed me the opportunity to connect with fellow early career acousticians to discuss our current research. In the future I even hope the friendships built here will go on to form future collaborations!”

But even those who had attended ASA conferences previously found the School beneficial. “The best part for me was meeting all the different participants from around the world and learning about what everyone worked on,” said Eldridge Alcantara, a PhD student at the University of Washington who was attending ASA for the second time. “I was able to network regularly with everyone because the ASA School provided so many opportunities throughout the weekend to socialise with other students and young professionals. I especially liked that the ASA School took place right before the ASA Conference, so we got to know each other well enough that many of us were attending each other’s presentations to show support for one another.” ASA veteran Xavier Mouy, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, was attending the conference for the fifth time. “I found the ASA School absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It was such a privilege to have lectures from extremely talented and recognised acousticians and have the opportunity to interact with them – very inspiring. I found the time allocated to meet all the other students was also very constructive. I hope this will result in future collaborations.”

The guest speakers also enjoyed themselves. Dr Megan Ballard, a Research Scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, presented her research on underwater acoustics. “I enjoyed the extended presentations that allowed speakers to provide an in-depth perspective of research in their respective fields. The diversity of the work across the many technical areas of acoustics was truly impressive,” she said. “I also enjoyed the protracted coffee breaks and meal times, which allowed for further technical discussions and friendly interactions.” Associate Professor Mark Bee, University of Minnesota, jokingly refers to a talk by fellow guest speaker Professor Timothy Leighton (University of Southampton), saying that he learned more about bubbles than he knew there was to know about bubbles. “More seriously,” he adds, “It was great to see the vast diversity of topics related to acoustics covered by experts in a rather condensed time frame. I learned a lot!”

For me, participating in the ASA School resulted in a bit of a ‘zero to hero’ moment – from knowing almost no-one when I arrived, I suddenly had over 70 friends attending the conference! The following week was full of friendly exchanges in the hallway, sitting together in sessions, and evening socials. Much to the surprise of my supervisor, who said I seemed to know even more people than her! It was particularly gratifying to see some of the guest speakers attend my own conference talk, giving me thumbs up from the back row. I’m not sure I would have registered on their busy radars without attending the School, and their support was greatly appreciated. More conferences would benefit from running similar events for students, ECRs or even just general first-time attendees, especially when the conference aims to promote inter-disciplinary topics. The outcomes were rewarding for the School organisers. “I particularly enjoyed watching the group get to know each other well, and seeing students hanging out together and supporting each other at the ASA conference that followed,” said Professor Dosso.

The inter-disciplinary nature of the conference was invigorating. There were 101 technical sessions, of which 27 were live streamed. I presented in an acoustic oceanography session on “Acoustics in Naturally-Constrained Environments: Estuaries, Bays, Inlets, Fjords and Rivers” where I shared the results of my work on spatio-temporal patterns in underwater sound within an urban estuarine river. Luckily, this was first thing on Monday morning, so following my talk I was free to relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. Naturally, I primarily gravitated towards ecology-related sessions, including some on bat sonar, marine mammal sound production, insect hearing, seabed characterisation, polar soundscapes, and even plant bioacoustics! Through these I heard about a variety of work being done on animal communication, soundscape ecology, and anthropogenic disturbance. But I also found myself drawn outside my comfort zone, sitting in talks about signal processing, human health, and ultrasonic weapons – and it was wonderful!

This feeling was shared by some of my new friends. Associate Professor Andrew Morrison, Joliet Junior College, is Chair of the ASA Musical Acoustics Technical Committee but enjoyed branching out at this conference. “I often times only get to musical acoustics sessions at ASA meetings,” he said. “The Minneapolis meeting had a smaller number of musical sessions than usual, which meant that I was able to sit in on some structural acoustics and education in acoustic sessions.” Daniel studies physiological acoustics, in particular cochlear implants, and similarly enjoyed the inter-disciplinary nature of the conference. “ASA gave me an incredible view of the different technical disciplines in acoustics, their interplay, and the common questions and concepts that underlie all of acoustics research,” he said. Nisarg Desai, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota, also valued the range of topics on offer. “This was my first ASA conference and I enjoyed it a lot! It was particularly fascinating to get a sense of the breadth of research being done–how the simple tools I use for studying chimpanzee vocalizations can be used to detect mines or tumours or to let whales feed peacefully,” he said.

This diversity of acoustical backgrounds also provides a sense of ‘research perspective’, said Xavier. “I find that it is easy to get trapped in our PhD topic without taking the time to step back and look at the bigger picture,” he said. “I found that the ASA was good for that – seeing other projects in other areas and topics of research forces you to think differently and open the door to new ideas.”

Having such a technical audience can provide other benefits. Dr Putland presented her PhD research on vocal communication space for whales and fish. “Attending the ASA meeting allowed me to present my research to an acoustics community where the basic knowledge normally presented in introduction was already there, and so I felt I could really get into the methodology and results in ways that are not possible at other conferences,” she said. And of course, a technical audience also allows the opportunity for important feedback. “Before this conference, I had never presented my current research work to an outside audience, so this was an opportunity for me to get that experience and possibly widen my professional network,” said Eldridge. “The experience overall was uniformly positive, as I met new people in the field who showed interest in my work and even got some great feedback and new ideas to explore in my work over the next year.” Nisarg agrees: “The most productive thing for me was receiving feedback and future directions about my work from more experienced researchers with varied backgrounds.”

But acousticians don’t just work hard – they play hard! Each day also came with a variety of fun activities, from evening social hours to luncheons to the infamous ASA Jam Session. Eldridge tried to attend as many of these as possible. “The social events every evening were amazing,” he said. “I attended the student reception and social hour dinner, and for the first time I checked out the ASA Jam Session. All the events were fun, relaxed, and well-organised! I’m looking forward to attending again in the future!” Daniel made the most of these events to broaden his network. “Free food is never to be missed,” he said. “But I would also encourage other students to take advantage of the ASA Students-Meet-Members Lunch, which is a great way to meet faculty or industry members who have valuable insights to share.”

For Dr Putland, the Women in Acoustics (WIA) events were a highlight, particularly the WIA Luncheon. “Meeting the many different people (men and women, students and professionals) who work in acoustics and how they have moulded their career paths was inspiring, and provided motivation for myself as an early-career researcher,” she said. This enthusiasm is infectious, spreading beyond students and ECRs. Professor Christine Erbe, Curtin University, said one of her favourite things about the conference was the people. “I get to catch up with the top researchers in bioacoustics and underwater acoustics, and hear about their latest research,” she said. “I always come back highly motivated and inspired.”

I know the feeling. In comparison to my nervous flight over, the trip home saw me buzzing with new knowledge, new friendships, and new ideas. Despite my fears of being a bit of a loner, I discovered one of the friendliest conferences I’ve ever attended. I look forward to attending again in the future – and with both Spring and Fall Meetings each year, there will be plenty of opportunities!

One thought on “Living in the Acoustic Environment

  1. Reblogged this on Dr Sarah Marley and commented:

    Last month, I attended the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) conference in Minnesota. I prepared a conference report for the Journal of Animal Ecology Blog, which I have reposted below.

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