Science
Photo Credit: University of Pretoria - Supplied -

Natalie Hanekom, a bioengineering student shares her passion for science and hopes to inspire more women in the field.

 

Pretoria, South Africa (31 March 2024) – Meet Natalie Hanekom (22), an engineering student at the University of Pretoria (UP) whose passion for science knows no bounds – and whose journey into the world of engineering began long before she set foot on campus.

Natalie’s upbringing was inspired by scientific curiosity, which is unsurprising, given that electronic engineering runs in her family. Her parents, both accomplished electronic engineers, cultivated an environment of learning within their home, with every corner adorned with bookshelves containing engineering and scientific textbooks.

As part of UP’s Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, she developed an acoustic microphone array beamformer to improve auditory communication experiences. The device consists of a set of microphones working together to create a virtual pattern that allows sounds from certain directions to be heard while muting or turning down the volume on sounds coming from other directions. Beamforming was first used in antenna applications, and the newest 5G cellphone antennas use it with electromagnetic signals. Most new laptops, home assistants (like Siri home pods) and hearing assistive devices like hearing aids also have microphone arrays. Using multiple microphones that are in different positions gives these devices spatial “hearing” – that is, the ability to know where sounds are coming from, much in the way that humans do.

“This spatial hearing enables microphone arrays to perform various tasks, such as cancelling background noise – like from a diesel generator – as well as the speech of interfering voices and all the reflected sounds in rooms,” Natalie explains. “It also separates the speech of many people or the sounds of musical instruments in an orchestra, makes 3D sound recordings for spatial music, and localises and tracks speakers in a room.”

For her project, she localised and tracked a moving person, steering the beam in their direction to extract their voice while cancelling background noise. She also used their direction to steer a video camera in their direction as they moved.

“I had a great time working on the project, even though there were a lot of possibilities to consider when I first started,” Natalie recalls. “I had to read numerous research articles as well as textbooks, and I found it difficult to go through all the information in a way that made sense for someone who was completely new to the field.”

She successfully completed the project by first laying a strong theoretical framework, then allocating her time to simulate, build, test and reiterate her designs. It would not have been possible, she says, without the quality education she received in undergraduate modules.

“Through this project, I learned that sometimes you can discover something you love in places you did not know existed,” Natalie says. “It also taught me that when things don’t go my way, I should keep trying rather than accepting defeat, and that while there is always room for improvement, sometimes something is good enough for now.”

Natalie will be pursuing a master’s degree in electronic engineering within the department’s Bioengineering Group. The group’s research focus is on hearing impairment, specifically cochlear implants to restore hearing to deaf or partially deaf people, and on auditory prostheses. An aspect of this research includes improving the speech that hearing-impaired people hear, which is exactly what Natalie’s microphone array beamformer does.

However, speech enhancement in real-life environments is challenging, although techniques like beamforming do offer some improvement. Much research is being conducted on speech processing in other domains too, such as telecommunication, automatic speech recognition, virtual meetings and virtual reality.

“I am looking forward to diving further into all the amazing engineering and mathematics that drive these topics, and to create awesome technology that will improve auditory communication and experiences for people,” Natalie says.

Her message to young girls and women is to be curious, explore and create.

“Engineering, mathematics and science change the way you see the world, because suddenly, you are empowered to understand how things work, and things that used to look impossibly difficult become understandable and explainable,” she says. “Engineering, science and mathematics are extremely broadsubjects. There are always new corners and alleys to explore. There is probably something hidden in there that you will love but do not even yet know exists.”

Natalie adds that she would love to do research and develop helpful technology in any field, although she prefers the bioengineering field as her parents are both in that field and she’d like to collaborate with them.

She also hopes to travel and work with other engineers and scientists to solve problems as a contribution to making the world a better place.


Sources: UP – Supplied
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About the Author

Tyler Leigh Vivier is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Her passion is to spread good news across South Africa with a big focus on environmental issues, animal welfare and social upliftment. Outside of Good Things Guy, she is an avid reader and lover of tea.

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