Dr. Jim West outside Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Jim West, Acoustical Society of America’s (ASA) President from 1998-1999, has been a Fellow of the Society since 1985. The Minority Fellowship, established in 1992, was renamed the James E. West Fellowship because of Dr. West’s integral role in establishing the fellowship and advocating for underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. In 1995, West was awarded ASA’s Silver Medal in Engineering Acoustics and in 2006 he was awarded the Gold Medal not only for the development of a polymer electret transducer but for his leadership in the Society and acoustics.
Dr. West earned his B.S. in physics from Temple University in 1957 and holds honorary doctorate degrees from five academic institutions: New Jersey Institute of Technology (1997), Michigan State University (2006), University of Pennsylvania (2013), Princeton University (2014), and Temple University (2014). He spent 45 years with Bell Labs from intern to fellow, retiring in 2001 only to begin his tenure the same year as a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Whiting School of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) where he still is today.
In 1999, he had the distinct honor by only several hundred people nationwide of being inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the electret microphone, used in 90% of all microphones found in the United States today. And in 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology for his technology contributions by President George W. Bush. James has been surrounded by influential family members all his life, including his mother who was one of the human computers at Langley Research Center, and his daughter Ellington West, who started a medical device company with technology from her father’s research lab. Dr. West has three other children who continue to make meaningful contributions to society and six grandchildren that make him proud every day.
Dr. West receiving the National Medal of Technology from President Bush in 2006.
We had the privilege to speak with Dr. West about his career in telephony, improving diversity and opportunities for underrepresented minorities, as well as his experience navigating industry, academia, and professional societies as a minority.
Tell us a little about your career path and journey to where you are now.
I started at Bell Labs in 1957 as an intern in their summer program. I found Bell Labs to be among the few places that I felt, as a Black male, that I would have a comfortable and prosperous career. I measured and monitored this in terms of the number of underrepresented minorities and women that I saw in roles that I might eventually want to be a part of. I turned down the lower level management opportunities, as I did not see a clear ladder of progress in management as a Black male. I remained in the lab and retired in 2001 at the highest rank of non-management, a Bell Labs Fellow. The same year I joined the faculty at JHU, first as a research fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and most recently as a full professor.
I would say I have a profession, as well as a strong side interest, improving diversity in the institutions that I’ve joined throughout my life. At Bell Labs, we formed a number of organizations primarily aimed at improving diversity for both women and under-represented minorities (W&URM). I was instrumental in starting what was called the summer research program, which was instituted throughout the operating companies of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). Upwards of 3000 university students received summer internships throughout the AT&T network. This turned out to be a very significant program because many W&URM found out what careers in industry were all about.
We formed an offshoot to that program called the corporate research fellowship program, which paid for and mentored roughly 600 successful W&URM as PhDs. The attrition rate was better than any school in the country, mainly due to our ability in matching mentors and students. Many of the graduates are now at major universities throughout the country. For example, most recently Gary May, a graduate from this fellowship who also had a career in engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, became the Chancellor at University of California, Davis. There is also Bill Wilson, the Executive Director at the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, and Bill Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor at Princeton University. These are just a few examples of the people I could name.
What inspired you to run for ASA president?
The short answer to that question is that it was suggested and I was nominated by a number of people in the Society who asked me to run.
But let me capitulate a bit. I was a member of many societies and technical organizations where I gave talks early in my career as I looked for the best home for the direction in technology that I was taking. The ASA turned out to be the most welcoming of all the others. Of course, when I say welcoming, my colleagues at Bell Labs were always there so there was that level of comfort, but at meetings you don’t make progress unless you talk to people outside of your circles. I found that the ASA was open: people talked to me, discussed their work, and accepted me as a normal person– not one of a particular class. This was very interesting to me. I saw this as a Society I could probably work for, so I joined a couple of technical committees which I eventually chaired (Engineering Acoustics). The opportunity to feel the freedom and feel accepted was very important, and it was very much a part of the reason the ASA became my home. For example, in pointing out the lack of diversity in both W&URM in the Society we pushed through several fellowships. The one for underrepresented minorities is now named for me. Women have made tremendous progress. They make up about 50% of the population nationally, but only represent about 15% of the workforce. So, there is still a lot of work to do there. Underrepresented minorities are even worse off. They make up roughly 25% of the population, but less than 5% of the workforce (For more Information). With all that we are doing it’s really a penance to what is necessary and needs to be done.
For a short while, Henry Pollak, a very famous mathematician, was my mentor at Bell Labs. At one point he went to Africa and found that even very poor students there were far more advanced in math than students in this country, for example, but there was no outlet for that– no follow up for the knowledge that they were gaining. The schools there were doing a great job at remedial education and then training students to be at their grade level in math. This is something we do not do in this country, and I think, that is still true today. What worried him was that the solution to word-wide problems could very well be in the students he saw in Africa, but there was no opportunity for them to advance there in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). I’ve devoted a lot of time and worked really hard to convince the organizations I’ve been a part of to work on these things, particularly trying to ensure that W&URM have opportunities to excel.
The reason I talk about all of this is because the ASA had open minds to this kind of thinking and valued the things I valued. By being president of the ASA, I had the opportunity and full-fledged support to advance these ideas further.
What was the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? And as ASA president?
When I took over the presidency of ASA one of the biggest problems I faced was the lack of due diligence by the treasurer at that time. I think they were as much as two years behind in auditing the financial situation of the organization. For that and a few other reasons, this led me to discharge the treasurer and find another.
That was difficult because I have not managed many people in my life, and not had to discharge any of them up to that point. It was a responsibility I knew I had to the Society, but I wasn’t sure how well it would go over, that is, a Black man discharging a white man. I was very elated and surprised to find that I was 100% supported by the Executive Council and later the body of the Society because we were then able to appoint a treasurer that took care of the books and brought everything up to date within the terms of my service.
As for the biggest challenge in my career, I’ve sort of done a random walk through life in general and it has all been good. A couple of times at Bell Labs I was told that there was very little chance of improving the technology that I was working on beyond what I had accomplished and that I should consider taking a sabbatical or moving on to something else. I just always moved on to something else because there were always many problems that I wanted to see solutions to, and I needed money and people in order to solve them.
In life, racism was my biggest obstacle. I always felt like if I was white, would I have had a better life? I don’t know because I really do have fun. But I had to pay attention to things that more directly affected me than others. For example, I got an email from a colleague a few days ago that said basically I wish I hadn’t accused you of conspiracy theory as much as I did. We used to have lunch together and talk about the disparities between the races and now he finally understood why I was so upset by getting continuously stopped by police on my way to work through an all-white community. Now more people understand why the fear is there. I’ve feared police all my life: they were not there to protect me, they were there to kill me. This is what I was taught in order to survive. That outlook hasn’t changed for any Black person. There was always a lot going on in my life, but when you worry about a big problem the little ones get flushed and you don’t see them as clearly. A concern of safety was always foremost in my mind.
In what productive ways do you think ASA members can contribute to the current human rights movement?
My mother was one of the Hidden Figures, a human computer. She is mentioned a number of times in the book. She went from teaching math in high school to working at Langley Research Center and was also an active officer in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This role eventually got her fired from Langley because Senator McCarthy viewed the NAACP as an adverse and communist organization. This really ended my mother’s productive life; she couldn’t get over it. So, the topics of systemic racism, and increasing and accepting diversity have always been at the forefront of my mind. I’ve been involved in this sort of work for over 20 years. Let me tell you what I am doing that may work for you.
I joined the board of a program in Baltimore called the Ingenuity Project. The program serves Baltimore City Public Schools, but really focuses on and nurtures students in the Advanced Placement (AP) program. When I joined the board six to seven years ago, the program was 90% white and 90% of those were white males. In vetting me for the board, I said, “this statistic is very unsatisfactory as it does not represent the demographics of the city of Baltimore. As a heads up, if you put me on the board, I’m going to change the way things are.” They put me on the board anyway and without changing the requirements of the program it is now about 80% W&URM and 70% of that is women. So, the complexion of that program has changed. What makes this so significant is that Hopkins is very selective of accepted students. Last year seven students from the Ingenuity Project were offered a place, five accepted, and two got better offers from schools elsewhere.
To make a long story short, the funnel was empty, and the funnel needs to be filled, or at least partially, with qualified W&URM people that want to enter STEM. If you can increase and open that pipeline that will only bring positive change. How can you help? Find and mentor qualified W&URM students in your local area and improve their training so that they have the opportunity and potential for a future in STEM.
What was your biggest contribution to ASA as president?
When I joined the Society, I was the only active Black member. I wanted to change that. My most significant accomplishment was to establish regular meetings with the Societies in Mexico and South America. I think we meet now every three years. I know our membership in South America and Mexico were already substantial, but once we instituted these bilateral meetings, I got the impression that membership from these places also increased.
What surprised you most about being an ASA president?
I think what most surprised me was the unequivocal cooperation that I acquired from the members of the Society for those things that I wanted to do. No matter what you try to do there are going to people that oppose it. However, that opposition was much less than what I expected. For example, there were some people who felt that if we had bilateral meetings with South America, then we would have to do it with every country. I said, well we already hold international meetings with Canada, so what is wrong with South America? In this way I found it relatively easy to counter the objections that I had to that idea.
ASA is constantly growing and evolving. How has ASA improved and changed since you were president?
I was the only active Black member of the Society for a very long time. There were also only a few women scattered throughout the organization. We have now had a number of women and underrepresented minority presidents, officers, and now many parts of the Society are even populated and controlled by women. As much as things have changed, as much they still need to change.
How do we do this? Well I think why we were able to change the ranks in the Ingenuity Project so easily was because we gave the students examples of successful W&URM in many important careers in and around Baltimore and the District of Columbia. The ASA can do this too: provide role models and successful examples of W&URM in acoustics.
A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk in Acron, Ohio, hometown of LeBron James. What I pointed out in my speech was that Lebron James and I would probably be equally as well known and have equal pay if technology were better understood and appreciated. We only see the pinnacle of the pyramid; we don’t see all of the work that goes on behind the scenes that makes entertainment possible. To be able to think about that pyramid and what underlies it in training and opportunities, this is a very important.
What attributes about yourself have helped or hindered you in your career?
My race hindered my advancement in industry, all of the examples I’ve shared before modulate that. I think if I were white I would have had a totally different career. I’m not saying it would have been better, or that I would have been more satisfied. But I’m an extremely competitive person, and mobility is very important. I probably would have enjoyed the opportunity to see where things could have led.
What person influenced your career path the most and in what way?
That would have to be Gerhard Sessler, my dear friend and colleague. We collaborated together on the electret microphone, which is ubiquitous throughout the telephony industry. He came here from Germany and my director, Manfred Schroeder, who was also from Germany were very instrumental in advancing my early career because they didn’t see me as a black person. They just saw a person. They were not encumbered by the systemic racism that people in this country are exposed to. On the other hand, Jim Flanagan, who is not only from this country but from Mississippi, became one of my mentors later in my career. He fought very hard for me on a number of occasions. Although we had proven the electret microphone was far superior to other microphones, including the cost per unit, the development department at Bell Labs was slow to adopt this technology and only did so because Flanagan fought really hard for them to consider integrating it into the telephone.
Left: Dr. West in the anechoic chamber in the 1970’s. Right: Photograph of Dr. West (sitting) and his colleague Manfred Schroeder (standing) working in the anechoic chamber at Bell Labs in the 1980’s.
When the electret microphone made its way into telephony there were publications that began to circulate that I was the first Black person to make a substantial contribution to telecommunication. That was a hard thing for me to take because communication is such a broad field and it just didn’t sound right to me. I spent a week at the Schomburg Library in Haarlem, NYC, which is the best library in the world from the standpoint of Black contributions to society. There I found that Granville T. Woods sold his patent on the carbon microphone to Alex Graham Bell, which was the first microphone in telephony. And so now you can see how significant this chain of events becomes. A major part of telephony history in this country has been invented and developed by Black people. How many more stories are there like this? We (Black people) don’t write the history, so we are not adequately represented in terms of history. There are 28 Black people inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and to be inducted you must have a patent that is undisputable and must have affected the quality of people’s lives. Some of the patents by Black males would blow your mind. I have two Black graduate students in my lab group at JHU and one of them studies electronic resistors. He didn’t even know that this was invented by a Black man. Incidentally, there have been 33 women who have been inducted to the Hall of Fame and you would be surprised by all the astounding things they’ve invented too. You can see how important it is to know history and we must use history no matter how slim it may be to encourage women and minorities.
What is one work-hack that you learned or found over your career and would recommend to others?
I think the important thing for women and minorities is to stand up for your rights no matter the stakes, or what you think the consequences might be. This is the way I maintain my sanity. If I let things build up, then I really want to go out and hurt somebody. Have I suffered from that? Yes. Have I prospered from that? Yes, so it’s a tradeoff.
What are you working on now?
The sounds from the human body as picked up by a stethoscope have interested me for some time. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at JHU was studying methods of identifying pneumonia throughout the world; this was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Some of the data they had was interesting in that pneumonia takes the lives of more than a million infants throughout the world each year. It is a perfectly curable disease, so what is the problem? The problem is in detecting it. I attended a seminar on the progress that they were making on this project and their goal was to take an electronic stethoscope, put a recording device on it, train high school students to place it on the chests of infants, and record the data. That data was then sent back to Hopkins where it was evaluated by experts to figure out what the signature implied. There was one thing that really disturbed me about that work. Fifty per cent of the data collected in the field was not usable because of noise contamination. Stethoscopes are meant to be used in reasonably quiet environments. And clinics in the third world are nowhere near what they are in this country. On some of the recordings from those places you could hear trucks going by, you could hear other babies crying, people talking, all of that noise.
My contention, not knowing how, was that we ought to be able to do better than this. So that started a totally new direction for me, my graduate students, and new colleague, Mounya Elhilali. We invented an artificial intelligence algorithm and electronic stethoscope that, without an expert, could identify pneumonia in ten seconds. The original loop for feedback to patients that I described was days. With our technology, you knew on the spot whether to investigate or treat that infant for pneumonia. My youngest daughter, Ellington, got rather tired of hearing me complain about having this technology which wasn’t going to go anywhere. To do the research is one thing, but to come up with a distributable product is different. So, she started Sonavi Labs and made these stethoscopes for evaluating pneumonia. The first product should be out in a few months, just waiting on clearance to distribute. This goes full circle back to my story about Henry Pollak. Perhaps some of the children we save in third world countries with this technology may grow up and find solutions to the problems of the world.
Now we are working on new sensors to improve the signal that we are getting from the human body, as well as developing technology and algorithms for other diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and potentially, yes, Covid-19. We have a substantial database of cough sounds coming from a number of independent studies for which we are trying to see if artificial intelligence is smart enough to point out a difference between Covid-19 and other illnesses. For example, at the beginning of the outbreak, Israel started to ask all emergency callers to say a particular phrase and cough. I have a student in my lab working on analyzing those recordings now.
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?
Professional organizations are very important to your survival in STEM. It improves your quality of life, provides opportunities to get your personal work out, and it does wonders for your career. When I look at my career path and what I was able to accomplish I believe my activity in all of the societies I participated in was very fundamental in advancing my career. It is extra work, beyond a doubt, and it may drive you nuts at times, but the benefits are definitely there.
Select Publications of Jim West:
Busch-Vishniac, I., and West, J. E. (2007). Acoustics courses at the undergraduate level: how can we attract more students? Acoustics Today 3(2), 28-36.
Elko, G. W., and Harney, K. P. (2009). A history of consumer microphones: the electret condenser microphone meets micro-electro-mechanical-systems. Acoustics Today 5(2), 4-12.
Orellana, D., Busch-Vishniac, I., and West, J. E. (2007). Noise in the Adult Emergency Department of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 121(4), 1996-1999.
Sessler, G. M., and West, J.E. (1966). Foil electret microphones. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 40(6), 1433-1440.
West, J. E. (1991). A third of a century working with Gerhard Sessler. IEEE Transactions on Electrical Insulation 26, 15-17.
 Dr. West served on the Executive Council from 1989-1992 and is a member and past Chair of the Engineering Acoustics Technical Committee.