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A Quiet Place

A groundbreaking researcher is exploring the link between noise and health.

Erica Walker ’01 was a working artist after graduating from Simmons when a new career, literally, came calling. Above her Brookline apartment ceiling, the footfalls and peals of children became a “desperate” distraction.

“I felt irritated and sick knowing that I had no control over these extremely loud and bothersome noises,” she recalls. “It was hard to deal with, and I felt hopeless. I couldn’t handle the inability to focus on my work.”

Walker got out of the furniture design business and earned a doctorate in public health at Harvard. She since has gone on to become one of the nation’s leading urban noise researchers.

Her landmark 2016 study, the Greater Boston Noise Report,was the first effort of its kind to gauge “community noise perception, annoyance, and health-related impacts.” Walker’s findings are building on meager public health research on the topic, helping to confirm long-held beliefs that the urban soundtrack can lead to short- and long-term cardiovascular and mental health problems.

In a survey of 1,050 Boston residents, three-quarters of respondents reported having trouble sleeping because of noise. Eighty-two percent said they don’t do anything to alleviate their exposure to sound, instead turning up the television, for example, or leaving the area.

“I wasn’t in any space at Simmons that told me I couldn’t do something. The experience allowed me to stand in my truth, and helped me be confident in whatever I’m doing.” Erica Walker ’01

Walker also measured decibel levels throughout Greater Boston. But the research was novel for another reason: It didn’t just consider actual volume, but also a population’s varying threshold for sound tolerance.

“A person’s perception is important in understanding the relationship between sound and negative health,” Walker says. “We have to not forget that. It’s really important for me to democratize the science, so that everyone has access to the conversation.”

That focus on perception is what makes Walker’s work groundbreaking, says Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, where Walker is conducting postdoctoral research. “Noise is an underappreciated stressor in urban environments,” Levy says. “Erica is driven by a genuine desire to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Walker is also a research affiliate at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, which uses digital technology to influence the way cities are described, designed, and occupied.

She’s planning to expand her efforts to other American and international cities. Findings could help city dwellers find a peaceful place to live or grab a cup of coffee. (“That lack of quiet space is scarce real estate,” Walker laments. “There are less avenues to escape.”)

Much is unknown about the exact role of the urban thrum on public health.

“What kinds of sound are creating these negative health outcomes?” Walker asks. “Is it the loudness? Is it the frequency? Is it the person’s perception? We have to step back and tease apart these components before we link sound and health.”

Erica Walker, photographed in her Boston neighborhood, with her research equipment—a bike and phone, below, loaded with a sound recording app.

Walker, who in 2000 won the Alumnae Award for Academic Achievement, double-majored in mathematics and economics at Simmons, which she credits for launching her on a fearless pursuit of inquiry.

“I wasn’t in any space at Simmons that told me I couldn’t do something,” she says. “The experience allowed me to stand in my truth, and helped me be confident in whatever I’m doing.”

That Walker’s BU office overlooks the Boston Medical Center emergency room—where the piercing wail of sirens frequently interrupts her conversation—is one of those occupational ironies.

“Here I am, a noise researcher, working in one of the loudest offices on campus,” she says. “It’s crazy.”