Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac, a member of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) since 1977 and a fellow since 1987, served as ASA Vice President from 1996-1997 and ASA President from 2003-2004. As a fellow of ASA in 1987, she received the R. Bruce Lindsay Award for her outstanding work in acoustics for an individual under age 35, and the Science Writing Award in 1999 for her article “Trends in Electromechancial Transduction,” as well as serving on several committees throughout her membership.
Dr. Busch-Vishniac holds a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Rochester (UR). She earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with research in acoustics. Dr. Busch-Vishniac spent her career dedicated to academia and academic administration. She has been married for nearly 44 years to Dr. Ethan Vishniac, an astrophysicist and editor-in-chief of the American Astronomical Society. They have two daughters, Cady and Miriam. Currently, Dr. Busch-Vishniac is, as she puts it, “passionately failing retirement” as Sonavi Labs’ Chief Innovation Officer and Acting Chief Operating Officer. Sonavi Labs is a start-up company that builds devices that can diagnose disease simply by the analysis of body sounds, such as those from the lungs. If you think Dr. Busch-Vishniac sounds impressive, find her at the next Acoustical Society of America meeting and ask her about the long list of other interesting and prize-winning artists and scientists in her extended family. We had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Busch-Vishniac to find out about the path that led her to become ASA President and what being ASA president was like.
The Sonavi Labs team: Executive Director, Brandon Dottin-Haley (top left), Chief Executive Officer, Ellington West (top middle), Chief Technology Officer, Ian McLane (top right, Ph.D. expected fall 2020), with Dr. Busch-Vishniac, Chief Innovation Officer (bottom left), and Chief Information Officer, Jai McLane (bottom right).
Tell us a little about your career path and journey to where you are now.
I started out as a music student, playing piano and interested in music therapy. I realized early in my college career that I didn’t have the talent or the drive it would take to be successful as a musician. By then, I had taken a course called “the Physics of Music” at UR and I ended up hooked on acoustics, ultimately switching into and graduating from the physics department. Life got truly complicated after graduation from UR. I married one of the other nine physics majors in my class and we coordinated our graduate school plans. We managed to finish our Ph.D. s at MIT and Harvard at roughly the same time and looked for academic positions, ultimately ending up at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, where I worked in the department of mechanical engineering and Ethan in the department of astronomy. In the 16 years we were there, we also had our two daughters.
After many years at UT Austin, I felt that my career was being stifled by antiquated views of appropriate roles for women. I had served as associate chair of my department quite effectively, but could not seem to break through the glass ceiling in spite of accomplishments. Thus, I looked around for administrative roles elsewhere and ultimately ended up at Johns Hopkins University as the Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. I served a five-year term as dean, loving nearly every minute of the time I served. Instead of serving another term, I decided to step down to try my hand at Acoustical Society of America President. I also loved every minute of that appointment!
After my term as dean, I returned to the faculty at Hopkins and started working with Dr. James West (ASA president 1998-1999), a friend and collaborator since my postdoctoral days at Bell Laboratories where we met. We started working together at Hopkins when we were approached by a top official at the school of medicine, to help on a hospital noise project. We were surprised to discover that this had been an understudied, yet huge problem for hospitals, and were happy to expand the world of knowledge on the subject. We did this very successfully, but the itch to get back into administration so I could have greater impact struck again. I left after nine years at Hopkins to become the provost and vice president at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. After a five-year term there, I left to become president and vice chancellor at the University of Saskatchewan, but served only two years there due to a lack of agreement between myself and university board members on which direction to take the university.
In 2015, I returned to Baltimore and once again started periodically attending ASA meetings. I am now working as a consultant on hospital noise and higher education issues, and on the executive team at a start-up called Sonavi Labs.
What are you working on now?
I am working on two different projects. As a consultant, I am working with the University of Nebraska to help them form a research institute focused on the link between medical outcomes and medical facilities. The University of Nebraska is the right place to do this because they have a top medical program, a top architectural engineering program, a couple of special medical facilities, and Omaha is the headquarters of two of the top three hospital design firms in the U.S.
I am also working as the Chief Innovation Officer and Acting Chief Operating Officer of Sonavi Labs. Sonavi Labs builds off of research at Johns Hopkins in the labs of Jim West and Mounya Elhilali. It is a startup the makes respiratory devices capable of monitoring and assessing lung diseases based on lung sounds. The lab consists of a group of five led by Ellington West, the daughter of Jim West. Ian McLane, a student of Jim West and Mounya Elhilali, is our Chief Technical Officer. Our goal is to save lives, which is why we have targeted: 1) pneumonia, the top killer of children under the age five worldwide, 2) tuberculosis, the infectious disease that kills more people than any other, and 3) asthma, which affects over 235 million people. We are also working on devices for other respiratory needs, such as cystic fibrosis and lung transplant patients, as well as to meet the needs of everyone from individual patients to doctors to community health workers. We are about to apply for FDA approval of our first line of devices and have a number of studies ongoing in Bangladesh, Malawi, Peru, Belgium, and the U.S. Our Feelix line of devices is just coming on the market this year, which incorporates our AI technology for detecting lung sound abnormalities into a digital stethoscope. Life is very busy!
What inspired you to run for ASA president?
The ASA has played a major role in my career. I gave my first talk at an ASA meeting (Providence, R.I. 1978) and met collaborators and colleagues through the ASA. For me, the ASA has been a very friendly, welcoming, and nurturing society. I have brought students from high school, undergraduate programs, and graduate programs to give talks and always found the audience interested in the work and the well-being of the student. I wanted to be able to give back and help ensure this wonderful friendliness would be sustained for the next generation of acousticians. So, I agreed to work for the society, first as vice president and then as president. I was also blessed and honored to serve at a time when some extremely talented folks were actively seeking to shape the future of the ASA.
What was the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? And as ASA president?
The biggest challenge in my career was most definitely dealing with a hostile provincial government while I was president of the University of Saskatchewan. Funding of public universities in the U.S. has monotonically dropped year after year while I’ve been an academic. This process of defunding universities is now happening in Canada as well and the leaders of Saskatchewan could not fathom that a university president might not be willing to support ever decreasing funding of programs. I am happy to be out of the situation that existed and continues to unfold in Saskatchewan, preferring instead to spend my time constructively.
Being ASA president was unremittingly positive! I loved being able to work with a broad group of acousticians and with the ASA staff. We faced challenges related to anticipating meeting sizes, and budgeting, but overall it was a fabulous time to lead the ASA. The challenges were that there were simply too many opportunities to respond to and we had to assign some priorities.
What was your biggest contribution to ASA as president?
The year I served as president was also the year we held our 75th anniversary meeting in New York City. The preparations required were incredible and the meeting went extraordinarily well thanks to the work of the ASA staff and an amazing group of volunteers. This year was also a time of transition. We put together a survey and used that to establish a strategic plan, not unlike what has happened more recently. Notably, there were growing pains with the way the Acoustical Society Foundation interacted with the society, and transparency about what the foundation was doing. So we wanted to work on that. In particular, we clarified some of the rules on the management of funds, which streamlined operations, and made it easier to expand ASA activities. The Acoustical Society Foundation has come a long way since then and the people running it now are just terrific!
What surprised you most about being an ASA president?
I knew that our wonderful staff worked really hard, so this aspect did not come as a surprise. I also knew that we had a very talented membership who had ideas for programs and activities that would exceed our financial and personnel resources, and that also was no surprise. What surprised me was the sheer volume of work that comes along with being the ASA president. On slow weeks, I could get through the mountain of signatures and decisions in a day. On normal weeks, being ASA president was at least a half time job.
ASA is constantly growing and evolving. How has ASA improved and changed since you were president?
When I was president of the ASA, the membership was changing. It was aging and some fields were in decline, while new ones had not yet emerged. We were all significantly worried that the ASA would suffer a slow death as students ceased to enroll in acoustics programs. When I returned to the ASA after being gone for a decade or more, I found an extremely vibrant group of young educators who were helping drive new activities at the ASA meetings. The concern about students was gone and we were once again a growing and thriving society. Reflecting on the general shift in science, we have added some biomedical groups to the ASA. We have added staff to support the new activities the members desire, and collaborative meetings with other acoustics organizations have become more frequent. While costs for membership and meetings have risen, we have remained true to the ideal of highly valuing student participation.
What attributes about yourself have helped or hindered you in your career?
Almost anyone who knows me knows that I tend to speak my mind. Further, I tend to evaluate situations quickly and draw conclusions while many are still trying to grasp context and potential implications. I have had to learn to not be the first to speak all the time and to let others catch up to me and to change my opinion.
What person influenced your career path the most and in what way?
I have been blessed with wonderful mentors throughout my career. When I first started in the ASA, I was a student of Dick Lyon, famous for his work on statistical energy analysis. I was also mentored in the ASA by Tony Embleton and Allan Pierce. And a list of my mentors would be incomplete without mentioning Jim West, who I worked with at Bell Labs, brought to Johns Hopkins University, and now work with again through a startup company based on some of his research. Outside of acoustics, my work on diversity and education has been a wonderful learning experience mentored by Patricia Campbell. And I am grateful to some of the presidents and former presidents of Canadian universities for helping me navigate extremely rough waters.
I have also been blessed by fabulous students, many of whom have transitioned from being the student, to being my collaborator, or my teacher. I have visited some of these former students in places throughout the world and continue to work with some of them on acoustics and diversity issues.
It is just not possible to name a single person who was the most influential. I am who I am today thanks in part to these wonderful scientists.
What is one work hack that you learned or found over your career and would recommend to others?
Life, for me, has always been busy. I had young children when I took on the deanship at Johns Hopkins University, and I continued to do research as a university administrator. I had no option but to learn to be very efficient. I did this by adopting two principles: I appointed great people and told them to take judicious risks as needed; and I learned to prioritize important work over the never-ending administrivia. But more important than all of these work habits was that I have had a life partner who has taken up the slack when I was never home and supported me in all my decisions, even when it took us far from family.
What advice would you give to a young ASA member about getting involved in professional groups, such as ASA, and the role these professional organizations may have on their lives?
You know I was very lucky. I had great mentors who dragged me to technical committee meetings of the ASA and insisted that I get involved. Generally young folks, or people junior in their career approach this with some trepidation. What I would say to everyone starting out is that you spend an awful lot of your time working, so getting involved in professional groups is a fabulous way to meet people, a wonderful way to find mentors and people who share interests you have, and it is a great way to find opportunities to advance your career quickly. I would certainly encourage everyone to just jump in, especially at the ASA. I’ve been a member of lots of different groups, some organizations that are almost hostile. In these circumstances, you are afraid to say anything, especially when you are not a very senior person. At the ASA it is never like that. If people do not like something you have said they will gently pull you aside later and say, “you might have done this a different way” and they will mentor you.
Selected Publications of Ilene Busch-Vishniac:
Busch-Vishniac, I. (2015). A Model of Clinical Alarm Errors in Hospital. Biomedical Instrumentation and Technology 49(4), 280.
Busch-Vishniac, I. (2006). Climbing the Ladder. In Pritchard, P. A. (Ed), Success Strategies for Women in Science: A Portable Mentor. Elsevier Academic Press, Burlington, pp. 61-81.
Busch-Vishniac, I. (1992). The Case for Magnetically Driven Micro-Actuators. Sensors and Actuators A: Physical 33(3), 207-220.
Busch-Vishniac, I., and Ryherd, E. (2019). Hospital Soundscapes: Characterization, Impacts, and Interventions. Acoustics Today 15(3), 11-18.
Busch-Vishniac, I., and West, J. (2007). Acoustics Courses at the Undergraduate Level: How can we attract more students? Acoustics Today 3(2), 28.
Busch-Vishniac, I., West, J., and Wallace Jr., R. (1984). A New Approach to Transducer Design Applied to a Foil Electret Acoustic Antenna. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 76, 1606-1609.
Busch-Vishniac, I., Kibler, T., Campbell, P., Patterson, E., et al. (2011). Deconstructing Engineering Education Programs: The DEEP Project to Reform the Mechanical Engineering Curriculum. European Journal of Engineering Education 36(3), 269-283.
Busch-Vishniac, I., West, J., Barnhill, C., Hunter, T., et al. (2005). Noise Levels in Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 118, 3629-3645.