Overcoming “scholar fear” – Memories of “Linear Predictive Synthesis” in San Diego #ThinkBigDiversity


I’m in San Diego, California, and after my meetings ended, I had a chance to leave the building and get some fresh air at the mall in Horton Plaza, the local open air, multi-story mall near my meeting site. I was excited to see the mall because it brought back memories of a time years ago when I gave my first scholarly presentation as a graduate student at a national conference. I had been doing some work at Northwestern on “linear predictive synthesis,” a coding method that was being investigated to improve the quality of speech signals. I was applying this method to “esophageal” speech signals of women, that is, the speech produced by women who’d had the larynx removed due to cancer. The speaker no longer had a larynx, or “voice box,” so they would use an “air swallowing and shaping” technique to produce a speech sound in the absence of vibrating vocal cords. There are some images to help you to visualize this condition in my “Voice for the Voiceless” post.

Approaching the mall, I remembered how nervous I was about that presentation those years ago when I was a student. I was scared … really scared. I had just graduated from my engineering program at Howard University,  I was a first year graduate student at Northwestern, going to a conference  in California and I’d feared that people wouldn’t think that I was smart enough to do this work that was combining aspects of engineering and medicine. It was new to me. I liked math and engineering, but concepts didn’t always come easily. I was able to see the big picture, but digging deep into the depths of the theory and getting into the details such as predictor coefficients, autocorrelation, etc. was exciting, but challenging. Looking back at it now, I am proud of this small work. The content is actually incredibly basic within the world of speech signal processing, but at that time, it was great to feel like a real engineer with hybrid, multidisciplinary work. Here are images of the paper:

Citation: Tull, R.G., and Rutledge, J.C. (1993). Linear predictive synthesis of vowels for pitch enhancement of female geriatric esophageal speech. Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, 1993. Proceedings of the 15th Annual International Conference of the IEEE. pp: 1359 – 1360, DOI: 10.1109/IEMBS.1993.979176.

Available through IEEE Explore Digital Library.

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I put this post on Facebook yesterday. As you can see, I survived that very first conference presentation! Today, I’ve given more than 200 presentations since then. Several are listed in my CV, but as I reflect, I am grateful to people who went before me to break barriers for women in STEM, I am grateful to my professors and mentors who encouraged me to submit and present, and I am grateful to my friends and family who continued (and still continue!) to encourage me.

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I was scared then, but that was the first one. Since then, I’ve given all kinds of presentations to audiences large and small, all over the world. So here are my thoughts about overcoming fear in these situations.

  1. Don’t give up the opportunity. It’s ok to be scared, but don’t be paralyzed. Accept the challenge, move forward, and do it.
  2. Don’t be fearful in a vacuum. Talk with others … both those who will tell you give you the unbiased reality of the situation, and those who will encourage you and build you up despite the reality. You may find this in one person, or within several people but the key is to be sure that you have both sides. Examples include: Reality: “Yes, this is a critical situation, and there will be a lot of important people there who will judge your work.”  Encouragement: “You have been preparing for this, and you can do it. You are great!
  3. Prepare in advance on your own. My mother has always been a firm believer of practice, practice, practice. To this day, I still take her advice to heart. You have to know within yourself that you’ve done everything that you could to be ready for your moment. I always tell my students to practice out loud, and not in their heads. You need to hear yourself say the words, and become familiar with your own voice within a scholarly context. This is an important part of your scholarly identity.
  4. Prepare in advance, with others. It can be intimidating to practice in front of someone else, or a group, because you often feel that you don’t yet have everything just right, so there is a tendency to want to hold back on sharing anything until you feel that it is perfect enough. The problem with waiting is that it will rarely feel perfect enough until the very last minute. However, there is great benefit to getting feedback from others, especially those who have been in your shoes in the past and know the landscape of the path that you are about to traverse.
  5. Have a safe place to land. Remember that the presentation is going to be given within a limited time frame. It will come and go. Have a place to go, friends to meet, a place to rest … a place to breathe and feel good about the step that you’ve taken.

In short, just do it. Prepare, practice, and do it. Looking back at my young self and remembering my fear then, I know that if I had not been able to conquer those kinds of fears, I would not have ever been able to speak in Latin America, or the Middle East, or Europe, Asia, or Australia … I would have been too scared. You have to take steps to become more comfortable with your situations. The more you do it, the more comfortable you become. Sometimes, I still get butterflies, and can’t eat before a talk. It may seem strange that as the keynote speaker, I don’t eat up to an hour before I go on stage, but that’s just how it is for me. I’m comfortable enough now to enjoy the moments when I’m speaking, and I’m passionate about my work. However, I now smile and fondly remember those early moments of presenting a short talk on “linear predictive synthesis” here in San Diego … those 10-15 minutes, and nearly running out of the session as soon as I’d finished, enjoying the solace of an outdoor mall. What a difference time and experience makes!

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