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Vocal Chops

Cover image for podcast episode

Daril Brown is dressed up to participate in UC San Diego’s Grad Slam, an event where students have only three minutes to present their research.

Grad Division, UC San Diego

Daril Brown wants to build vocal neuroprostheses, or devices that use brain signals to recreate speech. He tests his methods using zebra finches, who learn their songs through childhood. As a Black researcher in a field lacking diversity, he describes adjusting his own speech patterns to avoid being perceived as a threat in white academic spaces, an irony that does not escape him.

Twitter handle: @darilbrown

Episode Music:
Rad Scientist Theme Motif - Grant Fisher
Tender and Curious - Podington Bear
Old Dancehouse - Lobo Loco
Hedgeliner -Blue Dot Sessions
The Secret to Growing Up - Lee Rosevere
Oriel - Blue Dot Sessions
Um Pepino - Blue Dot Sessions
Moonrise -Chad Crouch
I’m Going For a Coffee - Lee Rosevere

Margot: So Ikran, associate producer tells me I went to a PWI for college.

Ikran: Yep, that stands for Primarily White Institution.

Margot: Ah then yes, I definitely did for both undergraduate and graduate school. Are you hitting me up front with an Acronym I need to Know Today?

Ikran: Sure am. And I have one more for you: an acronym that usually means the opposite of PWI - HBCU.

Margot: Okay, I do know what that one means - a Historically Black College or University.

Ikran: Yes its an higher ed institution started prior to 1964 specifically for the purpose of educating Black Americans in a supportive and enriching environment. These institutions allow any race to attend, but tend to be predominantly Black. Fun fact: they actually graduate twice TWICE as many Black STEM majors than other higher ed institutions.

Margot: That is amazing. We will get into why that might be the case in our last episode of the season. But for this episode, we chat with an engineer who went to an HBCU where he found a sense of …. belonging.

Daril: I went from being the black kid who was on a robotics team who loves science and is really nerdy to just the person who was on our robotics team, who is really nerdy and likes science.

Ikran: Stay with us because this is Rad Scientist.

_____________________________________________________________

Margot: Daril Brown is an electrical engineering PhD candidate at UC San Diego. But his [Plan B or alternate career] path might surprise you.

Daril: My fallback in case the science thing doesn't work is I always want to be a voice actor. So, um, I can make my voice sound very different. Let me wet my palette first. There's others like [Does different voices]. I guess it does fit with my research cause I do I study vocalizations. Um, I'm studying it more like from a like a neuro engineering perspective to be used for like the development of a human speech prosthesis.

Margot: Basically he wants to help build machines that can take brain activity and translate it into human speech for those who can no longer produce vocalizations due to paralysis or neurodegeneration.

Daril: I've always been interested in neuroprosthetics. my grandfather, was a paraplegic. Um, so as a kid, I was always, uh, really curious as to like, how, why can't grandpa walk? Like, how can I help him? Like what can be done?

Margot: The field of neuroprosthetics asks how can we replace - re-engineer- parts of the human body that no longer work. Daril displayed natural engineering tendencies as a kid - tinkering with home entertainment devices.

Daril: I would take apart things, uh, which was like your typical like child thing. Um, but then I'll put them back together and it will still work. I think one of the funniest memories I remember was there was a remote for a TV it was always broken and eventually I took it apart and like, Oh, this like, not knowing what circuits were, but like knowing inherently, like, okay, I think this thing should be connected to this. Um, fix the remote. And it started working. My dad was like, how the hell, this thing start working again. And my dad's laughing because like my dad's a logical engineer and he never really cared to fix it. So he was like, yeah, we should probably water this seed.

Margot: So Daril grew up doing nerdy things and went to study mechanical engineering at Howard University, a historically black university, also known as the Mecca.

Daril: Going to Howard allowed me to really grow.It was one of the few opportunities where I went from being the black kid who was on a robotics team who loves science and is really nerdy to just the person who was on our robotics team, who was really nerdy and like science.

Margot: Afterwards he got a masters in biomechanical engineering, and then went onto his PhD. And when thinking about how to make progress on neuroprosthetics, he was well aware of some of the difficulties surrounding the field, Like how to build better systems given the limits on opportunities of doing experiments with humans.

Daril: We have a patient, um, who typically they either, they, um, are, have like a tetraplegia or they have, um, seizures, or they have some underlying neural pathology where they like that. they, it can't be treated by medication. Like they have to do invasive brain surgery.

Margot: This is where researchers might pop in and ask, “While your skull is open anyways, would you be a doll and let us put some conductive sticks in your brain and have you say some silly things repeatedly..for science?” It is really one of the only ways to get this kind of data with humans- but you can see how it would be hard to make progress quickly.

Daril: Imagine if every game was a Superbowl, like there were no practices, there's no playoffs. You just went straight in.

Margot: Yea that’s probably not going to go so well. That’s why he needs to work with an animal model - some species that makes a lot of regular vocalizations, that you can keep in a lab, and record from their brains.

Daril: But for speech that's not easy. Um, like even non-human primates, like they vocalize, but you can't just like tell a monkey, “Say hello, 15 times in a row”. But you can get a bird to sing the same song a bunch of times in a row.

Margot: Ah yes, birds! Well not just any birds, Song birds. There are about 5000 species of songbirds out there - but Daryl is studying a particular species with bright orange beaks and striped tail feathers. The Zebra Finch.

Daril: They'll sing in isolation, they'll sing in groups.

Margot: These birds love singing, even in a lab.

Daril: The interesting thing is that like those, their song is learned, um, in the, in the way that's very similar to how we learn how to speak.

Margot: Song birds have tutors - older birds that teach them the proper song and young birds start out by doing something akin to babbling until their songs get better. Here is a male Zebra Finch’s song as it goes from a wee bird to an adult.

Margot: So here is an Finch tot, still riding with training wheels. Now a teenager, too cool for school. And this finally the adult finch with a 401K. And now all together in sequence so you can really hear the difference.

[play Zebra Finch songs]

Margot: Ok, i’ve been told by my editor that perhaps it’s not super easy to tell the difference in the songs if you haven’t studied songbirds before. But you gotta trust me on this one. By adulthood, these male birds have constructed their lifelong song that they will use to woo the ladies. And what you hear might sound simple. It’s a chain of syllables that are repeated in the same order.

Daril: one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three.

Margot: But sometimes the finches will mix things up.

Daril: The way I think about it is kind of like whenever you have a drummer playing and while they're playing, they may like a twirl, their, their stick before continue playing. They may add a little flare in between their motifs . Um, that allows us to kind of have the best of both worlds. One. We have like the stereotype song, like the syllables, their, their muscle contractions have to be about the same to produce that sound. Um, but there's still natural, like jitter that happens in speech. So when you think of like human speech, although our words may have their kind of like stereotype sound like the sound like the word. Um, hello. Um, but you can say hello faster, slower. You can in a sentence where I'm saying the same five words in an order, um, the gaps between the words can, can dilate or contract.

Margot: Daril hopes that by studying how the bird brain elicits songs, he can figure out how to make a vocal prosthesis for the zebra finch during his PhD.

Daril: The pie in the sky, like would be we would have, um, found neurosignals that, uh, that would Incode, um, song. Um, we would develop a closed loop, real time system that we can then, um, can like implant and connect to the bird. when we have the birds singing is his prediction does it match what the bird is trying to sing?

Margot: Zebra finches are really just a means to an end. Ultimately the results of Darils work are meant to help out people - people who have lost or will lose the ability to speak. But even though he wants to be a force for good for humanity, he recognizes a bitter irony.

Daril: It's really weird to work in a space where like, like I aim for it to help all people. It doesn't matter the color, their skin is a matter of their race, religion, gender identity, and to. Do work to help these individuals, but still understand that some of those individuals are totally okay with a system that would kill me for no reason. A weird mental gymnastic exercise that pretty much have to do every day. Yeah. That is like pretty, that's tough.

Margot: Ikran, I don’t think I’ve really thought of this before, doing basic research. -

Ikran: As an aspiring doctor, I think about how people might be wary and choose not to have me as their physician because I’m Black. But I guess it is a bit different for Daril because people who get prosthetics that he’s worked on might not know who made it.

Margot: True. You know the science Daril does is so cool, but I sense there are a lot of other things that he has to deal with than just songbirds.

Ikran: Mm-hmm. Yea it’s not just about the impact that his research might have on the world, but also the impact the world has on him and his ability to do his science.

Margot: Well, after a short break I chat with Daril about his experience in academia as a Black man. So stick around.

Margot: Daril grew up with stories of his grandparents who were part of the civil rights movement.

Daril: Like all four of them were civil rights, activists and people who really pushed for like equality.

Margot: They lived in Greenville Alabama, just 45 miles outside of Montgomery. Martin Luther King came to visit Greenville in 1965. That’s when his grandparents received bomb threats on their house.

Daril: So my grandfather had to sit outside the house with a shotgun, um, to watch over. so this is a, this is a U S veteran having to, after already serving his country is having to protect his house, um, for just existing.

Margot: For just existing. Not a new phenomenon even though it is getting a lot more attention these days.

Daril: Like these, these stories, they're like 400 years old. Like they're there, there's nothing new to them. It's more so now, like people finally are seeing it and I hate that. It took for someone to basically be tortured on camera for eight minutes and 46 seconds for people to be like, yeah, they're there, there's no refusing it. It was always irrefutable to me since I was a kid.

Margot: Even though it isn’t new, Daril wanted to march in local protests, but he’s torn because he also just wants focus on his research.

Daril: Um, so it's been stressful in the sense of like, Man, I just want to do science. I really like, I want to do the things that, like, that bring me joy and allowed me to help out in the world, but on the same level as like, well, I can't just do science. Like, I, I, I love talking about science, but also like I'm still feel the need to communicate within this broader context like that.

Margot: Other black academics have been feeling this need to speak out about racism, especially on twitter.

Daril: Right now there's, uh, there's this, uh, hashtag black in the ivory, when kind of addressing the sort of situations like there are every single stage of the like academia of education.

Margot: But he cautions that the stories you end up hearing are just the tip of the iceberg. Because Black academics have to be careful about what they say, how much they push back….

Daril: Those are still filtered stories. Those are the stories that like one there, those are from the perspective, people who are able to survive the environment, but also those are, those are the stories that they were able to like filter, filter through and decide that. Okay. Me telling the story does not pose an inherent risk to my career.

Margot: This is very apparent when I ask about his personal experiences. I often got this answer.

Daril: it's probably in my best interest, not to comment until after I get my PhD I would say like the most explicit cases, I probably won't talk about,

Margot: And yea, it makes sense to be guarded especially as a graduate student, when you don’t have much power. But there were parts of his experience that he did want to share, because they are part of his everyday life.

Daril: I am a black. Engineering researcher. Um, like there, I can't just be a engineering researcher because like, everything that I do and experience will be through that lens. most of these actions like, they're not to the point of being like the explicit civil rights. Like someone's hosing me down and siccing a dog on me. Um, but the intent is still the same. It's still to try to enforce the idea that I am not allowed in this space having to defend my right to be in certain spaces that I shouldn't have to defend myself for like working late in a building I've been working in for years and having someone come in and like, well, well, who are you or are you working here? Are you, are you allowed to be here or like we've had, we had a problem with students breaking in and trying to, to damage property. Like, dude, my picture is literally in the wall behind you. Like I've been working here for three plus years.

Margot: Over time, to deal with all of this... he learned to take on a different persona. Even though he can make all kinds of voices, he uses a calm one. But he knows even this isn’t enough.

Daril: I'm, I'm a big person, both like height and like build. Um, so like I learned from a young age, so like. Not portray myself in a way that makes me a threat. like, no matter, no matter how nice I am, no matter how educated I sound, no matter what big words are used, no matter how many books I read, no matter how hard I work, like one little minor thing will make me a threat slash make me a delinquent.

[Pause]

Margot: Daril wants to continue in the field of neuroprosthetics and help bridge the gap between studies conducted in the lab and what makes it into the clinic. Daril explained earlier that his father saw his capabilities and nurtured them, watering that seed, making it grow. Corny as it may sound, now Daril’s … well..in bloom. And he’s not going to let anything get in his way.

Daril: Right now my acts of resistance is just making sure I publish and making sure I continue to get science. So some of the best, uh, action I can do is just existing in that space. And in spite of all of the, kind of like pesticides coming at me to still growing.

Margot: Alright, it’s time now for our recurring segment, where Ikran schools you with a vocab lesson of sorts. Today though, we are all about the acronyms so, here’s an acronym you need to know today with Ikran Ibrahim.

Ikran: Hey folks, since you’ve already learned two acronyms today: HBCU and PWI, I decided I might be a little bit generous and throw one more at you BIPOC. It’s a catch all for traditionally marginalized people. The B stands for Black, the I for Indigenous, and the POC for people of color. Sometimes it can feel like a cop out when using the acronym when you are only referring to a specific group for instance using BIPOC when you are only referring to Black Folks. Well, I think that’s all I have for today so, sayonara.

Margot: Ok, one more thing before we go. I asked Daril to send me a clip of him saying Rad Scientist - you heard that uptop before the theme guitar riff. But he also sent me this amazing, yet horrifying version.

[Daril saying “This is Rad Scientist” in different voices followed by evil laugh]

Margot: I will never hear Rad Scientist the same again. Ok, now for the credits.

END credits

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Rad Scientist

A KPBS Explore series taking listeners on a journey through the lives and discoveries of San Diego's raddest scientists — researchers pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. Hosted and produced by Margot Wohl.