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Women’s innovative contributions to acoustics (Part I)

Q:  What do Turner’s Classics and the world of acoustic inventions have in common?

A:  They both owe a debt of gratitude to this heroine, right here.

Hedy Lamarr juxtaposed with her influential work.

Although Hedy Lamarr wasn’t an acoustician per sé, the frequency hopping spread spectrum technique she developed with avant-garde composer George Antheil was a milestone invention in the field of information technology, one still used in underwater acoustic communication owing to its anti-interference and anti-fading properties. These same properties explain why the two friends are widely credited with paving the way for later, more complex inventions including WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth.

Best known as a shining star of golden era Hollywood, Austrian-born Lamarr personified the beauty and brains combo.

Picture it: 1941

Lamarr’s fame soars as Hitler’s forces ravage. Not content to sit by photogenically as wanton destruction prevails, Lamarr draws on military engineering knowledge quietly gleaned during her brief marriage to a Viennese arms tycoon closely associated with both Mussolini and Hitler. Having fled from her domineering first husband a few years earlier, she enlists Antheil’s help to devise a means by which radio signals can guide torpedoes without detection or interception by “hopping” among numerous frequencies.

Sadly, military elite dismissed the technology, and it wasn’t employed during WWII. More sadly still, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent had long expired by the time frequency hopping was used during the Cuban missile crisis. Lamarr received no monetary compensation and lived to become an old and reclusive woman before due recognition came her way.

It seems probable, however, that Lamarr inspired and served as a role model for generations of women that followed… women like Bridget Shield and Dame Ann Dowling.

“Every engineering project is about making something that someone wants. It is very creative.”

Bridget Shield

A preeminent acoustics researcher nominated first female president of the Institute of Acoustics in 2012, Bridget Shield earned her academic credentials at Birmingham University in the UK, going on to serve as Professor of Acoustics at London South Bank University from 1986 until her 2014 retirement. Perhaps best known for her findings regarding the effects of noise on children and their learning abilities, the award-winning engineer expressed concerns that British architects were excessively focused on aesthetics—while overlooking factors necessary for healthy learning environments—in their designs of much-needed new schools.

“The spacious, light-filled palaces going up under the government’s multi-billion pound school building bonanza […] look wonderful,” Shield writes, “and, with their lack of dark corners, make pupils feel safe. But how well can pupils hear inside these educational glasshouses?”

New as well as older schools often feature overly reverberant and/or noisy classrooms in which children struggle to hear while teachers struggle to be heard. Current architectural trends (if you’ll pardon the word choice) amplify the problem, incorporating as they do large, open spaces as well as hard reflective surfaces like glass and steel. “These are precisely the types of material that make for echoing, noisy spaces,” Shield explains, noting detrimental effects including compromised working memory (and consequently, scholastic performance) in children, as well as voice and throat problems among teachers.

The techniques for reducing reverberation and noise in schools are well known, Shield states in a 2008 article. They include:

  • Careful choice of the site, layout and design of school buildings to ensure noise sensitive rooms such as classrooms are not adjacent to busy roads or railways.
  • Adequate sound insulation to reduce the transmission of noise from outside to inside, and between classrooms.
  • Adequate amount of acoustic absorption on ceilings and corridors, and carpets or other resilient floor coverings to reduce reverberation.
  • Use of quiet building services such as ventilation, heating and lighting.

Dame Ann Dowling

A prominent British mechanical engineer, Dame Ann Patricia Dowling OM DBE FRS FREng is renowned for her research in combustion, acoustics and vibration, particularly with regard to her focus on efficient, low-emission combustion and reduced road vehicle and aircraft noise.

Dowling chaired the 2013 Global Grand Challenges Summit, and in an Engineering and Technology Magazine interview around that time expressed her concerns about the critical shortage of British engineers in general and female engineers in particular:

Despite the enormity and importance of these [energy efficiency and noise mitigation] projects, the shortfall in British engineers is huge. Dowling often gives talks in schools, but the message is still not getting across. In particular, it’s not getting across to her own sex.

The feedstock of girls reading engineering at university is around 17 per cent, Dowling thinks. Why? The perceived lack of social relevance and flexible working hours perhaps? “Nothing could be further from the truth,” protests Dowling. “Every engineering project is about making something that someone wants. It is very creative.”

However, Dowling says her department has a higher percentage of female engineers than elsewhere. Could this have something to do with herself as figurehead? “I don’t think I can claim that.” Instead, she puts it down to offering a broad strand of engineering. However, later on she concedes that it’s always useful to see someone active in your field and doing well. 

We encourage you to read Part II of our tribute to women in acoustics.

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Denny Ng, M.A.Sc. P.Eng.

Senior Acoustic Consultant

Denny is a locally trained and licensed Professional Engineer specializing in environmental noise modelling, architectural acoustics and mechanical noise control. His career as a consultant began with an internship at BAP Acoustics in 2016 while completing his graduate studies in acoustics at the University of British Columbia. Working closely with Eric and Mark, Denny has had the privilege of working on numerous post-secondary education and infrastructure projects including Emily Carr University of Art and Design, UBC Gateway and Brock Commons Phase 2, Stuart Lake Hospital Replacement Project and Nanaimo Correctional Center. His approach to consulting is communicating acoustical concerns as they arise in order to reach cost effective solutions. 

 

Qualifications

B.A.Sc. Mechanical Engineering – Thermofluids Option (with distinction), University of British Columbia, 2014

M.A.Sc. Mechanical Engineering – Acoustics Group, University of British Columbia, 2019

P.Eng. BC

Leanne Farmer, B.Eng.

Acoustic Consultant

Leanne Farmer began her career in Adelaide, where she gained four years of experience providing acoustic design advice across Australia. She possesses extensive technical knowledge in both building acoustics and complex environmental noise assessments. Demonstrating her capabilities in multi-disciplinary coordination and project management, Leanne effectively managed large-scale measurement campaigns and contributed to major infrastructure projects. After re-locating back to Victoria, BC in 2023, Leanne joined BAP Acoustics. She is excited to be working on local projects, applying the experiences and insights gained from her diverse international work.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, University of Victoria, 2018

EIT, BC

Alex Mendes, B.Eng. EIT

Acoustic Engineer

A graduate of the University of Victoria, Alex has contributed to an array of computerized acoustic modelling projects during his tenure with BAP Acoustics. His passion for music lends itself to a particular focus in room acoustics modelling, where he has applied creative approaches to navigate the unique challenges posed by varied architectural designs. His expertise extends to outdoor sound modelling, where he has lent his skillset to initiatives ranging from shooting noise control studies to public alert system performance evaluations. Alex’s ardent curiosity and his analytical, pragmatic approach to consultation have served him well in providing sensible, practical solutions to a host of acoustic challenges.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, University of Victoria, 2018

EIT, BC

Kathryn Gulewich, B.Eng. EIT

Acoustic Engineer

Kathryn is a Mechanical Engineer who graduated from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) with a Bachelor of Engineering degree. She pivoted to the field of acoustical consulting upon joining BAP Acoustics in 2022, embracing a transition marked by rapid expertise accrual—particularly in outdoor noise monitoring and HVAC noise control. Kathryn’s solid engineering background supports her technical approach to acoustic challenges, blending mechanical engineering principles with the specialized demands of acoustic consultancy.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, BCIT, 2011

Nicole Yeung, M.Eng. EIT.

Acoustic Engineer

An Honours graduate, Nicole earned her M.Eng. degree in Acoustical Engineering at the globally renowned Institute of Sound and Vibration Research founded 60 years ago by the UK-based University of Southampton. Nicole’s project experience encompasses acoustic design, implementation and testing at all stages of work. Her project contributions include examining and optimizing: sound insulation between spaces; room reverberation time; and mechanical noise emissions. She is also experienced in outdoor noise propagation simulation and environmental noise study for: new residential developments; fitness facilities; office buildings; and industrial developments. Nicole has a strong foundation in outdoor noise propagation software Cadna/A. In addition, she is experienced in using programs such as Insul for sound insulation prediction and ODEON for room acoustics. 

 

Qualifications

M.Eng. Acoustical Engineering (Honours), Institute of Sound & Vibration Research, University of Southampton, UK.

EIT, BC