Faculty Profile: Jin Ha Lee

It all started with a Seattle rock band.

As a teenager growing up in South Korea, new iSchool Assistant Professor Jin Ha Lee learned violin and piano and knew a lot about classical and popular Korean music. But one day she caught a snippet of an American rock video on TV.

"It was about five seconds. I didn't know the title or the band, but I couldn't get it out of my head," Lee remembers. "None of my friends listened to pop music; they couldn't help. So I went to the music store, but I was quiet and shy so I didn't ask anyone. I read the music magazines, pretty much all the magazines they had about pop music. I assumed the show was a countdown show, and [the song] was on at the end of the hour, so it had to be popular. Finally, I figured it out and I read all about the band in the magazines." The song was Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. That began an expansion of her musical interests. "Now, I like everything: German techno, Indian music, you name it" she says.

Lee's quest came back to her in an undergraduate class about information retrieval, when a professor gave them a 30 second description of the field of music information retrieval. For Lee, that put her passion for music into an information context. She eventually earned a bachelor's degree in library and information science, and became a corporate librarian on the Intellectual Property Team at LG Chem, the largest chemical company in Korea. "I did anything related to information services," Lee recalls. "Everyone else in my group was working on patents, so there was a lot to do."

After earning a Fulbright Award for Graduate Study, Lee came to the U.S. for her master's and Ph.D. degrees, both in library and information science. When she got to the University of Illinois, Lee discovered an additional wrinkle to the question of how to identify music. "In Korea, music is a required subject so everyone has to learn how to read sheet music and you also have to learn an instrument. There was even a test in my middle school that you have to pass, so some of the boys who never learned had to learn the recorder. Here, a lot of people haven't learned to play, so they don't know how to read sheet music; which means they don't know about things like pitch and often they don't have the vocabulary to describe what they've heard."

In her graduate program, Lee started working with Professor Stephen Downie, who was researching Music Information Retrieval and evaluating the various systems that try to help users identify music. Working on large-scale music user surveys got Lee interested in the user experience of information retrieval. Her thesis focused on identifying the kinds of information people provide when faced with that same problem she had in high school -- sometimes they can't get a lyric or melody out of their head but they don't know the title or artist. She studied the questions and answers at Google Answers, an experimental Web site from Google where users could ask for help from researchers with search expertise. "People would usually start with information like where they heard the music from," Lee explains, "like 'I heard it in this movie or a TV show' or a range of time when it was recorded because they remembered listening to it with their grandfather."

Lee views answering these kinds of questions as a quality of life issue, "These are things that stay with a person, sometimes for a very long time. Not knowing the answer won't hurt you, but you keep thinking about it."

Her interests made Lee a great fit with the UW iSchool community. "We talk here about all the ways information changes lives, and about the fact that information can help you have fun and enrich your life," says Dean Harry Bruce. "Jin Ha's work does all of that. It's unique, but at the same time such a good fit for us and our students. We're very excited she's here."

Now that she's at the iSchool, Lee is looking forward to expanding her research. She's been talking with the producers of National Public Radio's Car Talk, where many listeners call in with questions about their cars and try to recreate the engine sounds with their voice. As with music, they often lack the education and the vocabulary to talk about their cars, so they start with what information they do have. Lee is hoping to develop a database of these sounds and the car problems they diagnose. "It's early yet, but the producers and I are really excited about it," Lee says. So is her husband, a big Car Talk fan and a frequent informal subject for Lee's work with music. "My husband doesn't read sheet music, so I use him all the time. I'll play him something and listen to how he describes it."

As someone who started studying library and information science as an undergraduate, Lee is also interested in bringing that set of skills to undergraduates at the University of Washington. "I team-taught a class at Illinois that I'd love to do here called Information Organization in Everyday Life," she says. "We let students bring in collections of things they loved. It could be photos, music, comic books, any collection really, and teach them how to organize them into a digital record. We even had a student who decided to work on her World of Warcraft item collection. It gets students excited about information organization."