Being Welcomed into the World of Acoustics
by Stuart Harper, Brigham Young University
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Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling.
The "Listen Up!" Girl Scout acoustics education outreach session

Photo courtesy of Dr. Nelson, BYU.


My name is Stuart Harper, and I am a physics undergraduate at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. It’s a really wonderful school, and its physics program is incredible. The SPS chapter does a lot of community outreach, which I love to help coordinate and participate in. These experiences, among other things, have set me on the path of becoming a physics teacher.

In order for someone to get their undergraduate degree in physics at BYU, they have to do some substantial research; mine is in the field of acoustics. As part of my research experience, my advisor encouraged me to attend the 161st Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. I am still very new to this field, and the idea of going was overwhelming. I was not familiar with most of the vocabulary that acousticians use and I didn’t know any of the big names in the field. I was also worried because I had attended a different conference when I was dabbling in another field of research, and at that conference I was mostly by myself and had no idea where to go or what to do.

However, I was determined to go and make it a meaningful experience and I decided to learn from my previous mistakes. One of the things that I felt made my first conference experience terrible was that I did not have a plan. I read the conference program the day of, and had no idea where to go. This time, before I even went, I researched the conference online. As I searched, I found the entire conference program online, complete with room numbers and presentation times. I looked over the whole program and made an agenda for each day that I would be there. I learned all about the socials, the main sessions, and the other services that were available. After knowing what I wanted to do and where I would be, I felt that I was well on my way to a much better event.

The first part of my experience was the travel. I wasn’t going to present, but many of my classmates were, and during the fourteen hour drive to Seattle most of them practiced giving their presentations to each other. There seemed to be a deep sense of comradery among the group. We made sure the others in the group were doing well and having fun. Once we were convinced each presentation was the best it could be, we busted out the guitars and Game Cubes. I learned something then that I found to be true for most of the conference: many acousticians have a deep passion for music.


The Seattle Space Needle. Photo courtesy of Colby Haggert

A 'home-made' Edison Tinfoil Phonograph, built by Andrew R. McNeese and Richard D. Lenhart of University of Texas, Austin.

Photo by Stuart Harper.


The meeting began early Monday morning on May 23rd. The first session I attended was not that great, and I learned that it is really impossible to judge a session by its abstracts. This tended to be true for much of the conference - many of the talks that I was originally not excited about attending were some of the best. Some of the talks that I had been excited to see needed handfuls of hotel candy to keep me awake. However, I was very impressed with the immense variety of topics covered in this conference. Acoustics covers almost anything having to do with vibration, not just audible sound. There were sessions on noise, physical acoustics, structural acoustics, oceanography, animal acoustics, bioacoustics, acoustics education, psycho-acoustics, engineering acoustics, musical acoustics, and so much more. I learned an incredible amount as I attended each one, not only in my own research topic, but in other areas as well.

Out of all that was covered, one of my favorite topics was acoustics education. I saw various teachers present their ideas on how to inexpensively demonstrate the principles of basic and advanced acoustics. One of the best presentations I saw was given by Andrew R. McNeese and Richard D. Lenhart of University of Texas, Austin. They presented an Edison Tinfoil Phonograph that had been constructed from approximately $100 worth of materials. I had the opportunity to use it myself and it was incredible; I felt like I was taking part in science history as I saw this fundamental acoustics invention in action. At the end of the presentation they invited all persons interested in obtaining the plans and supply list for the phonograph to email them at I have already done so and am excited to receive the plans once they are ready to publish them. 

Aside from the regular sessions and technical committee meetings, there were occasional extra activities. Among these were tours of the Boeing Research Labs and Dusty Strings music shop, as well as a Girl Scout “Listen Up!” acoustics education activity. I was able to catch the first and third activity. At Boeing we saw a transonic wind tunnel and the largest anechoic chamber I have ever seen. It was amazing to see projects, similar to ones we are doing at BYU, being done on a grand scale and to see what exciting work awaits us after we graduate. I really loved the “Listen Up!” activity. There, acousticians had many acoustic demos and activities for a gigantic community outreach project, specifically targeted at Girl Scouts. It was a lot of fun to see these demos in action, and to see how many of the undergraduate students were running them.

One of the things that also impressed me was the large student presence. Students were not segregated into their own sessions, but instead were absorbed into whatever session their research fit into. This made it possible for them to present side-by-side with the top scientists in their field and gain insight from them. The first evening the ASA Student Council held a new student orientation to help those of us that were not familiar with the conference to know who was who, and to give some guidance on how to use this experience to the fullest. The student council also helped organized three socials, two of which were catered just for students and helped us to develop friendships with other students in our field. The two socials were basic buffets that you can have almost anywhere, but the third was a conference jam session. The professors I had seen moments before in suits and ties, as purely scientists, suddenly took on new characters as they changed to casual clothes and formed their own rock bands. There was dancing, and at least a dozen or so different musicians. You could see sound and music were truly their passions. These activities, as well as the two other meals put on by the conference itself, helped me to develop many great friendships.

Two people in particular made an impact on me. One was a graduate student who was just beginning his PhD in acoustical engineering and was a member of the student council. He was there presenting his work on the acoustics of a church near his university. Though not a member of this particular church, he had done a lot of their acoustic engineering consulting for free. He empathized with the financial struggle most churches are engaged in, and wanted to help them however he could. I found this sentiment incredible and very admirable. He also managed to balance the duties of being on the student council, his PhD research, and a family. It definitely sounded hard, but he said he was very happy with what he does. When I asked why he wanted to go into acoustical engineering he said, “I have always been good at math and engineering and I have always liked music, so I just brought the two together. It is something I really enjoy.”

The second person was a student from Rome, Italy who is working on his master’s degree. He had come to study physics and acoustics in the United States and had to overcome the language barrier to do so. There were many international students who had done the same, but I was especially impressed by the clarity of his presentation and his demeanor of making anyone he met feel at ease. I am glad to have met so many different kinds of people at the meeting and had the chance to talk with them about the research they are doing.

I also took some time away from the conference to enjoy the city of Seattle. It was wonderful to walk around the waterfront and to enjoy the local culture at Pike’s Market. Although the conference was incredible, I feel it’s important to take some time to enjoy the beautiful places you visit.

As a whole, the conference went very well. It had the feel of a massive family reunion as people excitedly shared their research. My advisor was especially busy throughout the whole conference. I noticed that he, along with many other professors, put in a lot of time to make sure everything ran smoothly. It made me appreciate how much scientific collaboration takes place at these conferences and how much further behind we would be if there weren’t regular gatherings of the minds.

Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling.

Author Stuart Harper constructing lab equipment for the BYU research labs.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Harper.


To anyone who is planning on going to a conference, I have two pieces of advice: First, read the whole program beforehand and make a detailed schedule. This will save you a great deal of time and make it possible for you to make the most of your conference experience. Second, be proud of your research. I started off the week being timid about my work, and I can tell you that most of the people I spoke to I never saw again because I failed to capture their interest. Once I began to convey confidence in what I had to offer, I began to develop relationships with many of the senior members that were present. If you do not express your work with assurance and passion, people will tune out very quickly. Being confident in your work demonstrates good social skills and increases your potential as a future employee/grad student. At a conference there is so much information being shared that if you fail to get people excited about what you do, they almost instantly lose interest. Help them realize that your research is interesting and not just background noise in a sea of information.

Overall, this trip was incredible, and much better than my first conference experience. I felt welcomed into a whole new branch of science. The students were friendly, and the faculty was very helpful. I made new friends, and had an excellent experience.

Free 1-Year Membership in ASA

When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free one-year membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).

SPS Reporter Program

SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

SPS Travel Awards

A limited number of Travel Grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.

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