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CJ Burke '19 Takes the Lead on Data-to-Sound Innovation Team

CJ Burke '19 and Kirk Anne, director of research technology and strategic projects.

A team of Geneseo faculty members, a student and a small-business consultant have been exploring how large amounts of data can be conveyed through sound, thanks to a $50,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps-National Innovation Network Teams grant. 

Their project, "Music in the Numbers," will be driven by sonification software that produces sound by translating numerical sequences of archived and real-time data, and could benefit industries such as finance, manufacturing, intensive care medicine and air traffic control.

Earlier this month, the team wrapped up months of research, including conducting more than 100 interviews with finance professionals as part of product development — and giving a final presentation about their results, what they've learned and next phases to the NSF Innovation Corps. 

CJ Burke '19, a business administration major with a finance and management minor, led the presentation and interviews. As the entrepreneurial lead for the team, Burke is the team's spokesperson throughout the process. Of 24 Innovation Corps teams in this cohort, Burke is the only entrepreneurial lead who is an undergraduate student, said Glenn McClure, adjunct lecturer of English, who is the principal investigator for the project and also a faculty member of the Eastman School of Music and Paul Smiths College. Other leads are graduate or post-graduate students, he said.

"CJ's ability to excel in this highly competitive, national program speaks to both his ability to learn quickly and to be persistent, and to the broad education he received here at Geneseo where critical thinking, communication skills and integrative learning are stressed in classes across the curriculum," said Mary Ellen Zuckerman, dean of the School of Business. "The interdisciplinary nature of this project and the Geneseo team reflect accurately the integrative education the Geneseo community provides."       

The project grew from an NSF Artists and Writers Fellowship McClure received to join a team of climate scientists in Antarctica in 2016, where he gathered seismic data that he later converted to sound in choral and instrumental musical compositions. "Music in Numbers" focuses on converting data to musical sounds that can be used in trend analysis and more, he said.

"From the time we are in elementary school, we are taught how to take a list of numbers and make a graph with it. Looking at it, it helps us understand numbers in a new way," McClure said. "If that's true for changing numbers into pictures, what new things can we learn by changing numbers into sound?"

For the next phase of the project, the team will create the software and develop a business proposal. Phil Wilton, a strategic business development consultant, will continue to serve as the team's mentor. To create the software that converts data to sound, Burke will work with Kirk Anne, director of research technology and strategic projects at Geneseo. Anne said he will teach Burke programming required to do the project; Burke will draw from the key features he's determined need to be included and tested.

"By working with students, I gain the enthusiasm and creativity they bring," said Anne. "And by collaborating with a team, students gain confidence and learn teamwork and knowledge from the subject matter experts as peers."

Before joining the Music in Numbers team, Burke was an intern at Nasdaq for two summers. His experience and contacts he made supporting teams in U.S. equities product development and U.S. options product development helped him in this role and setting up and conducting interviews with compliance and technology professionals who gave insight into their potential customer base.

He said he was at first unsure of himself in the Innovation Corps cohort with entrepreneurial leads in graduate school, but soon realized he could succeed. "It is a big confidence boost," he said.

Burke said he learned to hold himself to high standards — and be committed to reaching them — partly through being a member of the Geneseo basketball squad. Playing in front of hundreds of fans in a crowd also gave him the skills to present in public.

"It gave me the motivation to be my best," he said.