Category Archives: Press

Any and all posts involving getting in the news

Exploring how speech air flow may impact the spread of airborne diseases

I am participating on an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2022 meeting panel on “Transmission of Airborne Pathogens through Expiratory Activities” on Friday, February 18th from 6:00 to 6:45 AM Greenwich mean time. You can register for the meeting by clicking here. In advance of that meeting, the University of British Columbia asked me some Q&A questions exploring how speech air flow may impact the spread of airborne diseases.

The AAAS meeting itself is hosted by Prof. Bryan Gick of the University of British Columbia. It has individual talks by Dr. Sima Asadi on “Respiratory behavior and aerosol particles in airborne pathogen transmission”, Dr. Nicole M. Bouvier on “Talking about respiratory infectious disease transmission”, and myself on “Human airflow while breathing, speaking, and singing with and without masks”.

Dr. Sima Asadi’s talk focuses on the particles emitted during human speech, and the efficacy of masks in controlling their outward emission. For this work, Sima received the Zuhair A. Munir Award for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Engineering from UC Davis in 2021. She is currently a postdoctoral associate in Chemical Engineering at MIT (Boston).

Dr. (Prof) Nicole M. Bouvier is an associate professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (New York). Nichole discusses how we understand the roots by which respiratory microorganisms, like viruses and bacteria, transmit between humans, which is fundamental in how we develop both medical and public health countermeasures to reduce or prevent their spread. However, much of what we think we know is based on evidence that is incomplete at best, and full of confusing terminology, as the current COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear.

I myself am new to airborne transmission research, coming instead from the perspective that visual and aero-tactile speech help with speech perception, and so masks would naturally interfere with clear communication. They would do this by potentially muffling some speech sounds, but mostly by cutting off the perceiver form visual and even tactile speech signals.

However, since my natural interests involve speech air flow, I was ideally suited to move into research studying how these same air flows may be reduced or eliminated by face masks. I conduct this research with a Mechanical Engineering team at the University of Canterbury, and some of their results are featured in my individual presentation. Our most recent publication on Speech air flow with and without face masks was highlighted in previous posts on Maps of Speech, and in a YouTube video found here.

ICPhS 2019

The Nineteenth International Congress of the Phonetic Sciences was held in Melbourne from August 5-9, 2019. It was an amazing success with over 950 delegates, and a nearly unlimited opportunities to forge new collaborations and improve the quality of phonetic science research worldwide.

I was especially impressed with the entire science committee who organized over 400 reviewers for the conference, dealt with difficult-to-administer programme software, and kept every talk and poster well coordinated despite the inevitable last-minute changes. Paola Escudero, Sasha Calhoun, and Paul Warren are to be commended!

I also commend Rosey Billington of the social media liaison. Social media was the knife’s edge between success and failure. I’m not good at the stuff to the point of having to effectively leave facebook of late, but I admire those who can bend social media to their will – especially when their will is goodwill.

I also commend the keynote speakers. My former PhD supervisor Bryan Gick made an amazing presentation on how bodies talk. I really enjoyed seeing the old research, and seeing the new stuff I haven’t been involved with as much. It was great to see Connor Meyer is joining in on writing a new book on that same topic – I await it with great anticipation!

Lucie Menard presented on “Production-perception relationships in sensory deprived populations: the case of visual impairment”. Her talk really helped me see how seeing helps with speaking. I cannot recommend reading her papers enough.

And of course the media darling of the event was Jonas Beskow on “On talking heads, social robots and what they can teach us”.

His talk shows us some of the state-of-the-art on human-robot interactive systems, which while super-interesting, also strongly points out to me how much we can still do to improve human/computer interaction. We have only just begun to exploit such opportunities.

Visual Prosody

I also really enjoyed the visual prosody contest – the poster on the left showed a method of highlighting both pitch and intensity at the same time. Visual prosody requires innovative techniques for showing multi-dimensional information in an intuitive way that people can grasp using the built-in abilities of their visual systems. I intend to write a blog post on this topic, highlighting the incredible multidimensionality of some of the greatest visualizations used in data presentation today – weather maps. The best of these present rain, wind, maps, and pressure systems all at the same time, and in a manner nearly anyone can decipher instantly with but a little training.

The conference dinner was also fun, with really good food and a spectrogram contest with participants who were insanely fast. The winners of two of the contests had answers before I could even finish a draft segmentation. I’m not sure who taught them to read spectrograms faster than I read text, but someone did, and I was impressed!

I was glad to be a member of the organizing committee, despite being quite bad at getting corporate sponsors. I contacted over 200 companies, and got 0 sponsors. We had only a couple, mostly publishers, and mostly organized by other committee members. Only one company contacted us on their own. If I were to do it again, I would have contacted the previous delegates from 4 years before, and asked each three questions: “What research tools do you use that you like? What have you bought in the last year? What is the contact information for the salesperson who sold you those items.” With this information, it becomes possible to build a database of exactly how we as phonetics researchers can benefit companies, with contacts to those who would care the most.

University of Canterbury Open Day

The University of Canterbury held this year’s Open Day on Thursday, July 11, 2019. It was a chance for high-school students to look at possible majors at our University. This year I had the chance to showcase UC Linguistics, and I brought along our ultrasound machine to show people images of my tongue in motion, and let them see their tongues. A few were intimidated by the idea of seeing their own tongues on a machine, but lots of young students participated, and hopefully got a bit of a taste for Linguistics and especially phonetic research.

However, next year I will try to build more materials to address all the ways linguistics can be useful to students. I like the fact that Linguistics is both arts and science at the same time. You learn to write, you learn numeracy, you learn statistics, and you learn how to do experiments. And on top of that, our students learn how to speak in public and speak well. These are exceedingly useful skills, and have led students to continue in research, get positions with Stats NZ, build up computer research in local companies, and so much more.

‘Air Puffs’ – RNZ broadcast

Some time ago, I was on Radio New Zealand discussing my research on the use of air flow to enhance speech perception. Alas, it did not have the commercial value we thought it would have due to the need for higher airflow than is feasible necessary to enhance speech perception in continuous speech. However, it since led to the development of a mask-less and plate-less air flow estimation system that works well. The system provides useful biofeedback information that has the potential to help with speech therapy and accent modification.