Celebrating Excellence

May 29, 2003, vol. 27, no. 3



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David Gerhard and Shaheen Sharriff have made their mark, albeit in widely different ways. Gerhard designed a way to measure music to quantify differences between singing, reading poetry and speaking, while Shariff is helping to bring schoolyard bullying under control. -- 

High tech band leader
By Roberta Staley

David Gerhard heads a band called Lassiter Road, a trio of singers/musicians who fuse Celtic, folk, jazz and rock. However, that's just for fun. Gerhard does sing for his supper - using computers. One of SFU's latest crop of PhD graduates, Gerhard designed a way to measure music to quantify differences between singing, reading poetry, speaking and even rapping. For example, with vibrato (think Joan Baez), where the voice wobbles slightly, Gerhard numerically rates to what degree this feature is present. “It's not something a lot of people have done before,” Gerhard says from the University of Regina, where he is now an assistant professor of computer science. “No one has tried to quantify these phenomena into measurable differences.” Gerhard, who received many scholarships, fellowships and awards while at SFU, says his research has numerous practical applications. It is one small, but significant, step in further laying the groundwork for the time when voice-recognition programs in computers will detect subtle nuances in a person's voice and react with an appropriate response. More immediately, singing teachers, musical educators and speech therapists would benefit from systems like Gerhard's that quantify sounds. It would also open new vistas for songwriters who produce electronic music on computers, allowing them to create new notes by blending speaking and singing. Gerhard's research also has implications for Query by Humming, a system of computer music recognition that is still more theory than reality. A person hums a few bars of music into a computer, which then provides the name of the song and links to sites where it is offered for sale on CD, or where it can be downloaded. Ultimately, does this mean a tin ear can learn to sing like Luciano Pavarotti, or Celine Dion? Not likely, but at least Gerhard's creations could determine how one's voice differs from these famous singers. “That's a first step to figuring out how to change your voice, so it could sound similar,” Gerhard says. So for all those paranoid about public singing (something else Gerhard is exploring) there is hope. Just don't count on a Grammy. --

Standing up to bullies
By Carol Thorbes

Originally, Shaheen Shariff was daunted by the controversy surrounding her doctoral research in education. But, her desire to help the public school system grapple with a burgeoning problem and potentially save lives spurred her on. Shariff's dissertation, A System on Trial: The Legal Culpability of Canadian Schools in Handling Violence, argues that public school systems must deal with bullying and schoolyard violence more effectively or face consequences. She predicts an increase in lawsuits and more violence, potentially leading to suicide. North America-wide, bullying has been linked to taunted children being beaten up, suffering psychological damage and committing suicide. Shariff's award winning dissertation is dedicated to Hamed Nastoh, a 15-year-old victim of bullying in Surrey who killed himself. In his suicide note, a portion of which is in Shariff's dissertation, Nostoh pleads for better education about the impact of school violence. “There's a lot of controversy over the extent to which schools can be held responsible for protecting students from psychological damage,” says Shariff, a former Port Moody resident. The expert on the impact of law on educational policy adds, “Parents are accusing schools of turning a blind eye to bullying and the courts are reluctant to rule against schools for fear of opening the floodgates to litigation.” Shariff uses legal standards on supervisory responsibilities, statutory and case law on breach of duty and negligence, and human rights precedents to demonstrate why schools are skating on thin legal ice in handling bullying. Her thesis aims to “help educators stay out of court by clarifying their legal obligations. I also wanted to inform parents of their legal rights in protecting children and help judges decipher when case law is applicable to school violence.” Shariff is now an assistant professor of education at McGill university and often consulted on bullying. Her thesis is slated to become a book. --

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