Acoustical Society of America
R. Bruce Lindsay Award - 1995

Beverly A. Wright

Beverly Ann Wright is one of those people that came to a career in acoustics via a circuitous route. First came music. In high school, she was an accomplished clarinet player who—after a flirtation with aeronautics—considered being a professional musician. Accordingly, she applied to Indiana University's prestigious School of Music, where she spent about a year as a music major and member of IU's elite marching band. By her sophomore year in college, Bev found herself drawn toward courses outside music—first to English, then to experimental psychology. A psychology course on Language and Cognition from David Pisoni led Bev to a fascination with the structure of language and she began to study Linguistics intensively; she did so well that some of the Linguistics faculty at IU wanted her to stay as a graduate student there. But by then, Bev had decided that the experimental study of linguistics—psycholinguistics—was for her. Accordingly, she came to graduate school at The University of Texas with an interest in speech perception, and began working with my colleague, Randy Diehl. Finally, after taking a course on hearing, she decided that her interests lay in auditory perception in general, not just speech perception, and she transferred into my lab, where she completed her doctoral studies.

Bev was born in 1962 in Springfield, Illinois, to Erma and Wilbur Wright. Her parents where loving and supportive of their only child, and were eager to teach her some of the out-of-the-ordinary skills they had acquired as inveterate do-it-yourself-ers. From her mother Bev leaned to do elaborate needlework and quilting, and from her father she learned wood- and metal-working. I suspect that no other winner of the Lindsay Award has ever welded flowers and leaves out of sheet steel for enjoyment.

Bev has already been an imaginative problem-solver. During her sophomore year at Springfield High School, she was notified that students from her region of town were to be assigned to attend the town's new high school, then under construction. This news was a source of considerable dismay because all of Bev's close friends were allowed to continue at Springfield High. A loophole existed, however. Any student having an interest in a course taught at Springfield High that was not taught at the new high school would be allowed to cross the redistricting boundary. In short order, she discovered a unique course offering at Springfield High, which led her immediately to realize that she had long lived with a burning interest in ... aeronautics. By convincing the school administrators of this long-standing obsession, she was able to continue attending Springfield High, and to learn about Bernoulli in the bargain. While her classroom performance in aeronautics was satisfactory, her interest inexplicably nose-dived upon completion of the course.

One example of Bev's thoroughness and compulsiveness deserves mention. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another, tried to master the complexities of a new topic area by creating for ourselves a large table that attempts to summarize the relevant knowledge in that area—exactly which past experiments manipulated exactly which variables, with what experimental procedures, and with what consequences. Well, prior to beginning her dissertation research, Bev created a monstrous table of this sort that summarized ALL the known past research on adaptationlike effects in the auditory system. Many dozens of experiments were included, and, in the end, this table covered a large table. During this time, it was quite literally impossible to ask a question about auditory adaptation that Bev could not answer, and woe be to anyone who carelessly asserted something untrue about his literature in her presence. This ardent appreciation for the history and breadth of a topic has already been evident in her writing.

A rather substantial table is now required to hold Dr. Wright's own contributions to knowledge about hearing. She has proven herself to be an excellent experimentalist who easily recognizes the presence of holes and inconsistencies in our knowledge and theories, and sees clearly how to remedy the problem. Much of Dr. Wright's research has been concerned with the perception and processing of sounds somewhat more complex than those traditionally studied by psychoacousticians, and one of her goals has been to explain outcomes that historically have been attributed to higher order, cognition phenomena in terms of more basic mechanisms of hearing. Topics she has touched on include comodulation masking, signal and masker uncertainty, overshoot, critical bands, individual differences, long-term perceptual learning, and cuing.

One line of her research began with work on some aspects of adaptation of masking—the interesting fact that, in some circumstances, people can be 10–20 dB better at detecting masked signals that begin several tens of milliseconds after masker onset than those beginning simultaneously with masker onset. In the course of that work, Dr. Wright noted the existence of marked differences in the magnitude of this effect across individual subjects. Some additional experiments revealed that the subjects that behaved similarly on some adaptation-of-masking conditions also behaved similarly on some other auditory tasks; that is, there seems to be something fundamentally different about the nervous systems of these subjects that affects listening in a number of ways. Then she capitalized on these individual differences in hearing to demonstrate that an absolutely ingenious explanation for adaptation of masking that had been offered by Neal Viemeister and Sid Bacon was apparently not correct. They had imaginatively suggested that adaptation of masking is not produced by an adaptation in the excitatory response of the auditory system, but rather by an adaptation in the lateral suppression that works back and forth across adjacent frequency regions. However, Dr. Wright showed that those subjects exhibiting the most adaptation of masking had little or no psychophysical suppression, and those showing the least adaptation of masking had normal suppression. So these patterns of individual differences reveal that adaptation of suppression is an unlikely basis for adaptation of masking. Further, she and Craig Champlin confirmed and extended some previous demonstrations that psychophysical suppression increases in magnitude, not decreases, over the same approximate time course that masking is adapting.

After leaving Texas for an NIH post-doctoral fellowship in Florida with David Green (a previous winner of this, then-named Biennial Award), Dr. Wright continued to study temporal aspects of auditory processing. For example, she and her collaborator, Huanping Dai, have shown that in some listening conditions, human subjects apparently match their "listening filters" not only to the frequency region of a known signal but to its duration as well—testimony to the engineering sophistication of the human auditory nervous system.

Beverly Wright's scholarship, scientific integrity, and accomplishments stand as a model for young scientists working in all the many fields of acoustics. During her time at The University of Texas, the Psychology Department and the University repeatedly recognized Dr. Wright's obvious talents and accomplishments by awarding her fellowships rather than teaching assistantships. Then, during her last year, the department made her the first recipient of the Lloyd A. Jeffress Memorial Fellowship, established to honor a winner of this society's Silver Medal. Soon after receiving her degree, she was invited to speak at an elite symposium on hearing sponsored by the British Royal Society. Recently she earned a prestigious FIRST award from The National Institutes of Health. And now she has been recognized with an award from this society. Bev Wright's career has had an auspicious beginning indeed, and while it is difficult to imagine exactly what she will discover in upcoming years, it is a virtual certainty that there will be new discoveries, and that they will be throughly studied and clearly explained. This award is unquestionably well-deserved, and we can all delight in the knowledge that there will be more to come.