Helping the visually impaired see the stars: An interview with Jamie Ferguson, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow

Jamie Ferguson attended The University of Aberdeen studying Computer Science and graduated in 2015. His work involves the Audification, Sonification and use of Spatial sound within the field of Astronomy and Astrophysics. In essence it is a means of understanding astronomy through sound.

He is currently completing his PhD at The University of Glasgow, as well as attending various residencies and seminars in the field, from the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town to Planetario Medellín in Colombia. 

Company Connecting spoke with Jamie to find out about his University career and life as a Graduate, what drew him towards Astronomy, as well as the intersection of Computer Science and other scientific fields. 

Hi Jamie, could you tell us a little about your University work and what you've been up to since graduating?

During my degree I was exposed to a wide variety of computer science ideas, from the theoretical to the practical - both aspects being incredibly useful in my life since graduating. 

When I left university I worked on data visualisation systems for Saccade Diagnostics - an Aberdeen based startup working on analysing patient’s eye movements to aid diagnoses of mental illnesses. Following Saccade I worked for Pulsion Technology in Glasgow - researching and developing machine learning systems. 

Towards the end of my degree I began working on simple systems to map astronomy data relating to stars (e.g. brightness, distance from Earth) into audio parameters such as pitch and volume. The goal of this work was to investigate the potential of using these sonification techniques within visually impaired education. During this I work I realised the potential of using sound in both astronomy education and data analysis and decided to pursue further studies within this space.

How did you find the process of getting your place on a PhD course and acquiring funding after graduating from your Undergrad course?

The process is quite lengthy, however very straightforward. My process was slightly different, as I found my own supervisor and proposed my own topic of study, whereas the more common approach is to apply for a topic of study which is proposed by an academic or department. Because I proposed my own topic, I had to find my own funding. Funding for PhD and other postgraduate courses are unfortunately incredibly competitive, therefore the criteria (in the applied sciences at least) is based on the potential research’s academic and more importantly - societal value. The administration team and my future supervisors at Glasgow, as well as my former lecturers at Aberdeen were very happy to help with any forms I needed filled out, or any difficulties I had in the application process.

Would you say that your interest in Audification and Sonification in Astronomy and Astrophysics was something that was introduced to you during your studies, or was it more of a specific interest that you had outside of Computer Science?

I was introduced to these ideas during my studies, the computing science and music departments at the University of Aberdeen have close links and sonification is a common ground between the two. I have always had amateur interests in music and astronomy, so I knew I wanted to find some way to find a link between the two and the collaboration between departments at the university allowed me to explore this. If it wasn’t for my choice of degree, I would never have been exposed to these ideas and therefore my current career.

Could you explain to us a little about what your work entails, and the benefits it can provide?

My work for the next few years is focussing on researching and developing tools which make use of spatial and three dimensional sound (such as using an array of speakers, or modelling these effects in headphones) to sonify astronomical data, so that it can be analysed through sound. However, my particular focus is how these technologies can be used to teach astronomy (and other sciences) to visually or cognitively impaired learners who may not be able to interact with traditional visual media.\

The human ear is incredibly powerful at recognising patterns, therefore when large data sets are turned into sound, it may not only vastly reduce the time it takes to analyse these data sets, but also allow new discoveries to be made that may be missed when interacting visually with the data. Furthermore, these technologies have huge potential benefits within education and science communication, allowing data to be opened to people who can’t see it through traditional means such as graphs and charts.

Where and how do you see your scientific career developing? And what areas of research are you interested to pursue both within and out with Astronomy. 

I hope my research over the next few years will be able to prove the usefulness of spatial/3D sonification in education for both sighted and visual impaired learners. Moving forward I hope to develop a cost-effective and easy to use hardware and software combination, so that these technologies can be accessed and utilised by schools, universities, science centres and so on not only in Scotland, but across the world. To make this a reality, I hope to begin discussions with governments and education ministries in Scotland to learn how educational policy is drafted and how I may work to make my technologies accessible to schools.

I have recently been working with European Space Agency (ESA), on using sonification as a tool to convey ideas and science behind some of their current missions. I hope to cultivate this relationship, as ESA will be a major part of the next decades of space missions.

In my future research I hope to take advantage of an accelerating rate of technological advancement that is producing ever-decreasing costs of computing equipment and new interaction technologies such as virtual reality to explore how sonification can grow as a scientific analysis tool.

What advice would you give to any potential or current students of Computer Science? And what advice would you give to recent Graduates working in Comp Sci? 

To current students, the only advice I would give would be that you never know what kind of interests you may have or work you may be involved in in the future, therefore the wider the variety of what you can learn during your degree the better. I didn’t realise the area of work I was interested in until maybe three months before the end of my degree and I ended up having to use a lot of knowledge that I had learned during courses I had taken two or three years earlier. 

To recent computer science graduates, I would say that one thing I have noticed in all my experiences in industry and academia since graduating is that companies and institutions are looking for skills that set you apart from the hundreds of other computer science graduates. If your degree involved cutting-edge ideas like artificial intelligence or machine learning, then make that obvious in your CV. A lot of companies don’t have the skills to utilise these technologies and the current generation of graduates have the skills to bring these ideas to companies and this is something which is highly sought after.

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First published on Company Connecting August 2016

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