Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1998
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I N    S H O R T

A Sound Specialist
Takes Charge at Engineering

Interview by Melissa Hendricks

In August, Ilene Busch-Vishniac took over as dean of Hopkins's G.W.C. Whiting School of Engineering, becoming one of just a handful of women engineering deans in the United States.

JHM: How did you get involved in engineering?

Busch-Vishniac: They had this game plan in my family. The idea was that my sister was supposed to become the doctor, I was supposed to become the lawyer, and my brother was supposed to take over my father's business. Now, my sister is a doctor. My brother is in the process of taking over my father's business. So I guess I'm the black sheep in the family because I did not go into law.
  I got into engineering through the back door. I started out as a music major, studying piano at the Eastman School of Music and taking academic classes at the University of Rochester. After one semester I figured out that I didn't have sufficient talent to ever be a successful performer. Nor did I have the drive to make up for the lack of talent. I couldn't live in a way where I ate, slept, and breathed music, and it was ruining my appreciation of music.
  But I took a freshman seminar called physics of music--a marvelous course that got me interested in acoustics. So after one semester, I switched my major to physics and mathematics. As a graduate student, I went on to study acoustics, which happened primarily to be in engineering departments.

Career Milestones

Ilene Busch-
Vishniac's career has been largely about mastering sound--clarifying sounds that people want to hear and quelling sounds that they don't.

After completing her undergraduate studies in physics and math at the University of Rochester, Busch-Vishniac earned her master's ('78) and doctoral ('81) degrees in mechanical engineering at MIT. As a graduate student, she developed computer tools for studying problem noise in the suburbs and investigated how to produce quieter impact line computer printers, a notoriously clamorous breed.

Later, as a post-doc and researcher at Bell Labs, BuschVishniac developed devices for microphones and earphones, and improved conference calling systems so that speakers did not sound as if they are in a rainbarrel (the troublesome "rainbarrel effect"). She has been awarded several patents.

In 1982, Busch-
Vishniac joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and was later named Temple Professor of Mechanical Engineering. At Austin, she turned to the country's noisiest problem, the racket caused by transportation, and investigated how to build more effective, less expensive highway sound barriers. The solution, she says, appears to lie in the geometric design of the barrier more than in its composition. Busch-Vishniac plans to continue this research at Hopkins.

Busch-Vishniac's husband, astronomer Ethan Vishniac, is also continuing his career at Hopkins, as professor of physics and astronomy. The couple has two daughters, Cady, 12, and Miriam, 10.

You've said that being a woman both opens and closes doors in engineering. What's been your personal experience?

Let me start with the positive. When you are female in a male-dominated field, it's much harder to get lost in the crowd. People notice you. That worked to my benefit when I was a junior faculty member. It also worked to my detriment because my mistakes were much more visible.
  In general, though, I have not encountered many difficulties that I could categorically say were related to my gender. On occasion, I have wondered whether the reactions I have been getting would be the same that my male counterparts might get. But it's speculation. I know that I am aggressive. I'm young. I am female. And it's hard to know which of those things people are responding to.
  In Texas, which is where I come from, a lot of the engineering jobs are related to the oil industry. That is a community where they're not used to seeing women, particularly in the field. I've had women students over the years who have told me they wanted to interview with Exxon or Texaco or one of the other major oil companies, and they were literally told at the interview that they would not be hired because everybody had to start out on an oil platform in the ocean, and that women weren't going to be put out there. I had a lot of trouble with that. On the other hand, I know lots of women who have risen in the [petroleum] industry. So I think things are changing. But saying things are changing at the top doesn't necessarily mean that the field engineers going out to look at the wells aren't going to encounter some harassment, some difficulty. Every woman I've talked to has at least one story to tell.

There are only a handful of women engineering faculty at JHU. Do you plan to try to increase that number?

First, the Whiting School is a small engineering school, and the fact that there are relatively few women faculty could just be the statistics of small numbers. Also, nationwide, there are not large numbers of women on engineering faculties, even in areas like computer engineering and chemical engineering, which have tended to have larger numbers of women students. I think it is very hard for engineering schools to compete with the industrial offers that women are receiving. The last time I checked the statistics, which is at least five years ago, maybe 10, women engineers actually got paid more than men. So the offers women were receiving from industry were simply so compelling that it was hard to convince them to go to graduate school. And if you don't go to graduate school, you're not going to get a faculty position.
  As for the Whiting School, I never want to compromise quality in order to be able to check off some boxes. But I also know that there are very highly qualified women and members of underrepresented groups who are now getting degrees in engineering. And we simply need to do our homework and try to find people who can help us broaden the diversity on our faculty.

What are some of your other priorities?

I'd like to see Hopkins become more visible nationally. We're now ranked nationwide something like 20th among engineering schools. We have the potential to be in the top 10. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen over a period of years. My goal is to do everything I can to see that happen.
  Clearly, we have an absolute powerhouse in biomedical engineering, and the department is well deserving of that reputation. My priority is to build up other parts of the Whiting School. Environmental engineering comes to mind. In the School of Public Health, there are courses and programs linking the environment to public health. At SAIS, they have an emphasis on international environmental policy. So I could easily imagine the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering, and SAIS putting together a [joint] program for environmental studies.

You have said you would like to be a "bridge builder," building bridges between the Whiting School and industry. How can this best be done?

The way to start, in my opinion, is through the Society for Engineering Alumni--Hopkins graduates in industry who are currently helping students find industrial internships. I also need to find out more about industries in the area. Not just to have my hand out and say, 'Give us money,' but to forge programs that would benefit both the industry and our students and faculty. Some of those interactions would be for research, and some would be through the part-time engineering program. The transfer of technology is a very key issue. There is now no real technology transfer office at the Whiting School. There are no set policies for how you decide what to pursue patents on, and whether or not faculty can have ownership in a company that spins off the research they do. These issues need to be thrashed out.

Will you make teaching more of a priority at the Whiting School?

There are faculty members who think that teaching on the undergraduate level is simply not acceptable. I certainly got a taste of this through the interview process. I was here three times for interviews and I was asked almost everything you can imagine. What no one asked me was what I felt about teaching, what I taught, and what I want to do here in teaching. I thought that was indicative of a bit of a problem.
  I wish that I could tell you that Hopkins is different from other major research institutions, but it simply isn't true. At virtually every major research institution in the U.S., research is held in highest regard, and teaching, at best, is a distant second. There have been many attempts to change this at some universities, but until teaching quality plays a greater role in tenure and promotion decisions, such attempts will be little more than lip service.
It is my opinion that the time is right for Hopkins to emerge as a world leader in engineering education. Funding agencies have been very interested in supporting research on educational methods, and Hopkins students and faculty are among the best in the world. So I hope to encourage greater activity in engineering education research at the Whiting School, and to adopt the same sort of exacting standards for the quality of that research as we apply to technical research.