Page 83 - Winter 2020
P. 83

  Ask an Acoustician: W. Owen Brimijoin
W. Owen Brimijoin and Micheal L. Dent
    Meet W. Owen Brimijoin
In this installment of “Ask an Acoustician,” we learn more about an acoustician in industry. W. Owen Brimijoin is the Perception Research Lead for the Audio Team at Facebook Reality Labs Research (FRL-R), Redmond, WA. He received his PhD in brain and cognitive sciences from the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY. Owen participates in the Psychological and Physiological Acoustics Technical Committee of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and regularly gives talks at ASA meetings on his work determining the role of movement in our perception of auditory space. Let Owen tell you the rest in his own words.
A Conversation with Owen Brimijoin, in His Words
Tell us about your work.
We don’t spend our lives listening to the world over headphones, hearing sounds that move with us as we move, nor do we carry on conversations with loudspeakers while clamped into a bite bar in an anechoic chamber. Because the head is never still, hearing and communication always involves movement. If we are going to properly understand hearing and truly help people communicate in difficult environments, we need to understand how listeners actually listen and what fundamental cues the brain uses in making sense of its acoustic world.
Describe your career path.
I was raised in Minnesota, the son of a genuinely gifted history teacher and an eccentric neuropharmacologist. I was deeply lucky to have my family’s support, education, and encouragement in science. I was given every opportunity to follow in my dad’s footsteps in the laboratory, but I loved the guitar a bit too much. I was sure I would forge my own path, learning about music, vibration, and language, anything but neuroscience,
©2020 Acoustical Society of America. All rights reserved.
really. But in college, the course in musical acoustics I had enrolled in was canceled on the first day. The only other class that even remotely interested me and met at that same time was Intro to... Neuroscience. I gave it a shot and was utterly hooked when I first heard amplified spikes coming from a cockroach leg proprioceptor. I didn’t know that this fascination with neuroscience would eventually combine with my love of sound. After college, I worked as an exhausted prep cook, a novice language tutor, and a seriously bad receptionist and office worker but then decided to return to school because you can’t do neuroscience with an undergraduate degree. I worked in Bill O’Neill’s laboratory because he is a brilliant teacher and he was doing really clever work in neurophysiology. It was through him that I developed my lifelong desire to understand how the brain makes sense of the acoustic world. My PhD attempted to reveal something about what makes a neuron sensitive to the way in which speech-like sounds change over time. Afterward, I did a postdoc examining how this sensitivity changes with hearing impairment, research I embarked on because my wife has difficulty hearing. Things were going well, but I was having increasing problems personally justifying my animal work, so I made a big switch. A change is something I entirely recommend, but you must be prepared for a rather precipitous drop in your reputation. I moved into human perception, where nobody knew who I was.
The laboratory at the Institute of Hearing Research in Glasgow, Scotland, UK, happened to have a motion tracking system. I used it to investigate where people with
Volume 16, issue 4 | Winter 2020 • Acoustics Today 83

   81   82   83   84   85