Penn State acoustics program strikes right tone with doctoral student

Justin McDaniel
October 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Molly Smallcomb was an undergraduate student at the University of Hartford, little did she know that her decision to attend a summer research program at Penn State would have such a profound impact on her future.

At the suggestion of her undergraduate adviser, a Penn State acoustics graduate, she took part in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program in acoustics at the University, an opportunity that altered her plans for life after college and set her on a path to pursue an advanced degree in the field.

Based on her meaningful undergraduate research experience, together with the fact that Penn State is the only institution in the United States that currently offers a doctorate in acoustics, University Park was Smallcomb’s clear-cut top destination for graduate school.

With world-class faculty experts, robust industry connections and partnerships, a flexible and interdisciplinary curriculum, hands-on research opportunities, and a vibrant alumni network, Penn State’s Graduate Program in Acoustics, housed in the College of Engineering, has long been an area of strength for the University.   

LEARN MORE about the partnership between Pennsylvania-based Martin Guitar and Penn State’s Center for Acoustics and Vibration.

Now in her third of year of graduate study, we sat down with Smallcomb to talk about her personal experiences in the program, and to learn about her research with therapeutic ultrasound in the Biomedical Acoustics Simon Lab (BASiL).

Q: What was the spark that fueled your interest in acoustics?

When I was in high school, I took my first physics class, and there was a week on sound. I was also really into music at the time. Just learning about the science of sound with that passion for music led me to try to find a degree that would marry the two, which I did at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in acoustical engineering and music. My adviser there was a Penn State alum in the acoustics program, so that definitely helped.

Q: Before enrolling in Penn State’s Graduate Program in Acoustics, you participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University, where you were an undergraduate research assistant in the Sound Perception and Room Acoustics Laboratory (SPRAL). How did that opportunity come about, and how did it impact you personally?

It totally shifted my mindset. I was thinking about going into consulting at the time — acoustics consulting and architecture — and my adviser at the University of Hartford led me to apply for the REU program in acoustics. I came here and worked with Dr. Michelle Vigeant in SPRAL, and it completely changed my mind about graduate school and just wanting to further my knowledge in acoustics. It definitely led me on the path to graduate school rather than just going into industry.

Molly Smallcomb

Researchers in the Biomedical Acoustics Simon Lab at Penn State are studying therapeutic applications of ultrasound. Here, graduate student Molly Smallcomb is preparing a specimen in a water tank to see if focused ultrasound can create mechanical damage in connective tissue — and, ultimately, facilitate better healing for tendon injuries.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Q: What did you learn from that undergraduate research experience and what type of work did you do?

During the summer I got to work with a graduate student who was doing concert hall acoustics, and I helped him build an audio system. It was a loudspeaker array where you could individually control each channel, allowing you to replicate any instrument that you wanted. When you’re trying to do concert hall measurements, common practice is to use an omnidirectional loudspeaker, which doesn’t completely replicate what an orchestra would be like. So the goal was to make a loudspeaker that could replicate an entire orchestra to get accurate concert hall measurements.

Q: Why did you choose Penn State? What sets Penn State’s acoustics program apart?

Penn State was at the top of my list. The acoustics program has such a great reputation and network that’s been built over the years. In my opinion, compared to other schools I was looking at, Penn State’s program has the best grasp of fundamental acoustics. Because students come from different backgrounds, the program spends the first year on very fundamental topics, so everyone is on the same page and everyone understands the broad basics of acoustics, which I really appreciated.

Another thing I appreciate about the program is that they haven’t just focused on one field of study in acoustics. They like to keep it broad with the classes and with faculty who have expertise in a lot of different areas, where in another school you would see more of a focus on oceanography acoustics or architectural acoustics, for example. I think that’s what sets Penn State apart.

The other thing of course would be how the program is the only one in the U.S. to have a Ph.D. in acoustics, which was huge for me because I wanted the general acoustics degree. Instead of being in a mechanical engineering program and concentrating on acoustics, we are in the heart of the field.

Q: Penn State’s acoustics faculty have industry connections and use their expertise to solve practical problems, such as Assistant Research Professor of Acoustics Micah Shepherd’s work with Martin Guitar. What real-world examples and case studies have faculty brought into the classroom to enrich your studies?

Dr. Shepherd was my professor for a lab class, and we did a modal analysis on a guitar where we learned how to measure the mode shapes of a guitar face, which was really interesting. That was probably my favorite lab study in that class.

I liked that class because it gave us a lot of studies that were completely different from each other, and it provided a way to get research experience in an array of fields in a short amount of time. There was one lab on how to measure the characteristics of a loudspeaker, for example. There also was a study on how to characterize the acoustic implementation of construction at the IM Building. I definitely got a broad sense of acoustics and more practical applications than a normal class would be able to provide.

Practical applications of acoustics

To help bring real-world examples into the classroom, Micah Shepherd, assistant research professor of acoustics at Penn State, used his work with Martin Guitar to build a lab where students could measure and study vibration in guitars.

Q: What are your plans after you earn your doctoral degree? How has Penn State helped to shape your career path?

I want to get into some type of academic career pathway. Getting a teaching job would be my first plan, but I’ve also been interested in possibly going into outreach. We have the ASA (Acoustical Society of America) Club in our program, and I’m the club’s outreach coordinator, so that’s really inspired me to do more STEM outreach to younger kids and get them interested in the field. Especially being a woman in STEM, just being that role model for younger girls, to help influence them, is important to me. So that’s another academic career I’ve considered, and the fact that the program has provided me with the opportunity to be in charge of that has been really nice.

Outside of the acoustics program, this past summer I was part of the Upward Bound Program. They had a summer program for potential first-generation students going to college, and I taught them geometry, which was really fun. It was my first teaching experience, and it really helped me understand if I could be a teacher and was capable of it. That was a really cool experience that was provided by Penn State.

Q: In addition to teaching, what are some other career paths that students in the program follow?

There are a number of areas that you can go into. More recently, there’s been a big shift to going into transducer design at companies like Apple or Bose. A big thing about our program is that since we have such a great network, companies often come here to recruit us rather than us going to them.

With the Applied Research Lab, there are government funding options. You can work on vibrational studies, which includes aerospace and structural design, such as with car companies. Then there’s architectural or civil engineering. Consulting is a big field in acoustics, too, being the acoustics expert for architectural or general engineering firms to design concert halls, modifying classrooms or conference rooms for a quieter space, or even implementing quiet HVAC equipment.

Q: You worked in SPRAL lab and now you’re in the BASiL lab. When you came to Penn State, did you have a set idea of what you wanted to study in acoustics, and has that changed over time?

Coming into the program I had no idea what I wanted to study. Dr. Julianna Simon reached out to me and sold me on biomedical acoustics because it was so different than my undergrad and from my research in SPRAL. She motivated me to help widen my knowledge of acoustics and make me a better candidate for teaching.

Q: Can you describe your current research in BASiL?

Our work involves therapeutic applications of ultrasound, specifically using focused ultrasound for tendon injuries. Focused ultrasound is being used clinically, and the big question I’m trying to answer is whether mechanical damage is possible in connective tissue. Because the tendon is collagenous and fibrous, it doesn’t really like to be broken up, probably for a reason. The overall application of this is similar to when you make microtears in your muscle to help build the muscle and make it stronger — I’m trying to make that microdamage in the tendon to break up scar tissue and help facilitate better healing. We’re in collaborative efforts with Dr. Meghan Vidt and her lab, MUSL (Movement of the Upper Limb and Shoulder Lab), to address these issues.

Q: What is the potential impact of your work?

Current therapy methods have mixed success rates and can be invasive. With focused ultrasound, the big improvement is it’s completely noninvasive, so you’re never entering the body, and there are a lot of different parameters you can control. We still have to prove it to be successful, of course. So it could be a good therapy for tendon injury and other collagenous tissues. Obviously, it could help athletes, but it could help anyone who has developed chronic tendon injury from recreational sport or just age, too.

Q: Will you be following up to see if focused ultrasound can heal and strengthen tendons?

Yes, once the proof of concept is established and our parameter space is defined, then we would go to a live tissue and see if we can heal tendons. Dr. Simon and Dr. Vidt just received a National Institutes of Health grant, and I just got a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grant, which is funding my next three years, so our plan is to continue this work and see if it’s possible to heal tendons.  

Last Updated October 29, 2019