The Hub Q&A with Mickey Vallee, Canada Research Chair in Community, Identity, and Digital Media

Q&A with Mickey Vallee, Canada Research Chair in Community, Identity, and Digital Media

AU recently had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Mickey Vallee, Canada Research Chair (TierII) in Community, Identity, and Digital Media. He is researching and exploring bioacousticsis—the science of how organisms produce sound.

“There is the kernel of an accident at the heart of every good research question. Good research comes about because something unforeseen happens for which there is no readily apparent answer or set of answers.”

-Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

When did you become an Athabasca University (AU) Canada Research Chair (CRC)?

My CRC was announced in November 2017 but I joined AU more than a year prior. It’s a long process to become a research chair. First, you apply for the position outside of the university that is advertising for it. Then, if you’re chosen to be the nominee for the position, you put together another, very lengthy, application which is read by a committee of established Canada Research Chairs in Ottawa, and they decide together whether your chair will be awarded.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What did you do when you first joined AU?

When I first joined AU I immediately started to research bioacoustics, which is the science of how organisms produce sound. It’s an interesting merging point between biology and acoustics, but I’m also interested in the cultural aspects of doing bioacoustics research and looking at the infrastructure that helps make sense of bioacoustics.

I started taking road trips to bioacoustics research labs and field sites in the Fort McMurray post-wildfire area (Wood Buffalo National Park) as well as Waterton National Park, following researchers as they placed recording units in natural environments to capture datasets of animal sounds.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What are the duties and expectations in your role as an AU Canada Research Chair?

Basically, to maintain a healthy interest in research and to share my research as much as possible. I get to read the most current and exciting research from journals, conferences, and book presses, but I’m expected to contribute what I can to the international conversation about my area of study and field of expertise. Bringing my interests to the table in the form of journal articles, books, conference presentations, and interviews is essentially what sums up my duties and expectations while holding a CRC.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

How does being a CRC at AU help your research?

The position comes with a reduced teaching load which helps me concentrate on research and on writing. That includes helping my graduate students with their own projects. AU also helps my research by virtue of its infrastructure: an almost entirely decentralized mode of post-secondary education and research. I don’t necessarily miss my office from my previous position. Much of my office-time is spent by rural river bends. It makes for a healthy life and a healthy work ethic.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What does an average week look like for you?

It’s unpredictable and anything but average. Lately, there were some weeks I was driving all over Alberta and British Columbia, trudging through swamps and parks, recording birds or creeks, or following along scientific research excursions. Some weeks I’m at home reading, writing, or helping graduate students through their research projects.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What is your current research about?

I’ve always been interested in sound technologies, especially recording technologies. For the last couple of years, I’ve been researching the scientific field of bioacoustics, which uses sound and recording technologies to understand a wide range of biology-related topics: shared ancestry, environmental monitoring, learning capabilities, and more.

I’m really trying to get at how researchers use sound technologies; what kind of creative decisions they make to make the natural world more computational; and what kinds of global human, animal, technological, and environmental communities they create as a result. By using sound, they’re finding new ways to co-inhabit the earth with animals, respecting animal habitats, and taking steps to prevent biodiversity loss while forming new ethical bonds.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

How does your research affect or involve AU students?

I really enjoy the diversity of students that I’ve encountered at Athabasca. My goal at AU is to get student voices beyond AU and become part of a global academic network in terms of developing new ideas and theories. I’d like for them to see that their research has global implications.

We’ve had some very positive results so far; from co-authoring articles, to having students join me at academic conferences, and learning networking skills.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What are your post-secondary studies?

I was interested in the recording arts and music initially. I took a good amount of time off between high school and university to work as an accordionist. Out of interest, I enrolled in a very small Bachelor of Music program at Carleton University, where I was first exposed to cultural studies. I liked how cultural studies scholars asked questions that were sociological in nature yet read cultural texts like music as a means of answering those questions.

I’ve always been interested in sound technologies, especially recording technologies. My graduate work (Master of Arts – Canadian Studies) was on how the family piano, the early phonograph, and sheet music, introduced new experiments in music production and consumption that still resonate today in digital culture.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What is your background with music? Did you play instruments growing up?

I was a self-taught accordionist. I got work in Celtic rock, cowpunk, and swing revival groups in Ottawa in the 1990s—pub music, mostly. I eventually got into Carleton as a mature student only with the intention of brushing up on my music theory. And I talked about the rest. I don’t play music as much anymore but it’s always with me.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What led you to study bioacoustics? Why are you so interested in it?

I’m interested in it because it’s a new way of asking questions through sound recording and sound recording technologies are occupying a new role along with other sensory and computational media. Sound technologies are non-intrusive, cheap, and good for citizen-scientists and bird watchers who want to record and contribute sounds to global database networks. I was always stuck to the idea that you record something to listen to it later. With this new approach, obviously one more about data than aesthetics, I think is a fresh new way of understanding the significance of sound.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

How long have you been studying this topic?

Just a couple of years now. I got hooked on it from listening to birds in the Crowsnest Pass, where I lived for five years before moving to Calgary. That whole area in Southern Alberta has a very diverse bird population: some claim it’s as high as 160 species of birds. At certain times of day, it would sound like an orchestra tuning up, and I couldn’t help but record it occasionally. It was hard not to be interested in animals and their sounds.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

Is your research locally focused to your city or province? Or are you taking a national or international approach?

Bioacoustics has a global reach and uses shared open data. That’s the beauty of digital communications right now. You can do local research and it’s immediately global. There’s no understanding of one local pattern of behaviour without it immediately having some connection to other research stations around the world. I don’t think it’s even appropriate to say anymore whether research is global, local, or national. It’s all of that at once. I think we need a new word that does away with us having to make an excuse for being local with global implications. We’re so far down the road of that being a given now, we need a new language for it.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

If you were to speak to someone who knows nothing about your research and expertise, can you summarize why they should be interested in your work?

Sound opens up our understanding of the complexity of the world. Sound carries with it a tremendous amount of information about our past, our environment, our time, what we value, what we devalue; and the better we get at accessing the tiny, and immense, vibrations of the world, the more we’re discovering how infinitely complex life systems are.

Ultimately, tuning yourself to sound is a way of helping us realize that we are just a part of this complex life system, definitely not the centre of it. Sound is not the representation of life. It is life itself, the pure raw data of living systems.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Athabasca University Shield

Athabasca University News

What are your future plans?

The pragmatic answer is easy: I have to research, publish, network, and repeat. But in terms of future research questions: I think there is the kernel of an accident at the heart of every good research question. Good research comes about because something unforeseen happens for which there is no readily apparent answer or set of answers. So, I can say that I will be committed to understanding how and why sound is important, but I can never be sure what direction it will take me.

Dr. Mickey Vallee

Published:
  • September 11, 2018