your connection to The Boston Globe

Making wavelengths

Everyone thought Robert J. Crowley was crazy when he retired from Boston Scientific three years ago. He would be the first to tell you that he was well paid, enjoyed boundless travel opportunities, and had a great staff. But he was getting restless.

''Life is short, and the pace and rate of change at a large company is glacial. I had so many ideas that I had to run out of the door."

The Sudbury resident's specialty is sound. And working with just four employees out of his Ashland shop, he is making waves in music and medicine.

Crowley, who will turn 53 this month, looks a bit more like a rocker than a scientist. He wears blue jeans, and a black Pink Floyd T-shirt peeks out from underneath a black blazer. His thick salt-and-pepper hair would have made Elvis envious.

His company, Soundwave Research Laboratories Inc., applies principles from ultrasound technology -- as in those pictures of the womb -- to the manufacture of ultra-high-end microphones for studio musicians and broadcasters. The company also develops ultrasound equipment for peering inside blood vessels.

Crowley's office is in a small alcove partitioned off the 3,000-square-foot laboratory and factory. There is no receptionist, no fancy leather furniture. The one distinctive touch is a collection of antique microphones displayed on a wall alongside an electric guitar.

''People open up to us," Crowley said. ''We get a lot more done in this informal setting than we would in the typical corporate setting, where there are a lot of written and unwritten rules in terms of how far you go proposing new things."

The company's cofounder, Hugh Tripp, released more than 200 products at Boston Scientific in two decades at the company.

As Crowley chats, two employees sit at a table in the center of the lab, painstakingly assembling microphones that will cost between $750 and $2,000 each. All parts are fashioned on the premises.

Crowley, who worked as a research and development director at Boston Scientific for 16 years, holds more than 100 US and foreign patents for devices used in acoustics, communications, nanotechnology, and optics. His formal education ended with a bachelor's degree from Framingham State College, where he studied to be an art teacher.

''I'm an intensive learner," Crowley said. ''I become a maniac if I want to learn how guitars are made or how a fuel cell is being produced."

Crowley grew up in Newton as a ''proto-nerd," which he describes as being ahead of the curve on the nerd scene. His idea of a good time was building crystal radios out of toilet paper tubes and pestering telephone linemen for their access codes so he could play pranks on friends.

He spent his first two years after high school at Brandeis University, setting up demonstrations for physics professors. He would prepare the apparatus for firing bullets into playing cards and rev up the spark-spouting Van de Graaff generator.

''I'd sit in the back of the classroom and scribble down notes," he said. ''I was getting a free education from some brilliant, helpful professors who would explain things to me."

That whetted his appetite for science. His interest in medicine was sparked by his job at Schultz Ex-ray Corp. in Needham while he was going to college, a company which he happened upon while glancing through the newspaper.

Crowley was hired by Boston Scientific in 1987 to launch a program called intravascular ultrasound. The goal was to adapt ultrasound, which was then used only externally, into a catheter-based tool that could be inserted inside an artery to detect atherosclerosis.

Initially, many in the medical community were horrified by the idea of sticking an ultrasound probe near a beating heart.

''It was railed against," said Crowley, recalling the reception he received at a medical conference in 1988. ''It was pure heresy. The ultrasound group warned us that we were going to injure people."

Now intravascular ultrasound catheters are considered essential equipment. At his new company, Crowley is working on the next generation of the devices.

When he isn't inventing, Crowley spends time with his wife, Pat; collects antique radios and 1950s Eames chairs; and plays the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. It's a good thing he needs only four hours of sleep each night.

For more information on Crowley's company, visit

MAKING BEAUTIFUL MUSIC: For three years, violinist Suyeon Lee spent every other weekend waking at 5 a.m. to fly to Ohio to study violin at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Lee picked up a lot more than frequent flier miles: Last week, the 17-year-old Newton resident was handed a copy of her new CD, ''Heifetz Transcriptions," which will hit stores such as Virgin Records, Barnes & Noble, and Borders this month. The Newton South junior was especially happy to learn that her music also will be available on iTunes.

The CD, which is on the Naxos label, was recorded at Robert J. Werner Recital Hall in Cincinnati when Lee was 15 years old. She used a Stradivarius to play 18 pieces transcribed by violinist Jascha Heifetz that had never before been recorded. Lee, who is accompanied by Michael Chertock on the piano, plays works by 16 composers, including Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Gershwin.

''It was one of the best experiences of my life," said Lee, who spent nine hours a day perfecting each track. ''It really helped me focus and listen to my own playing."

Lee said a former teacher knew the president of Naxos and sent off an e-mail requesting he lend an ear. Two days later, Lee was the one listening -- to a contract offer.

''I don't think my school friends fully understand the pressures and things I go through because they don't play music themselves," she said. ''They'll finally see a part of my life that they haven't seen."

Lee's long-distance commute ended last summer when she played for Donald Weilerstein, who invited her to study with him at the New England Conservatory. Weilerstein was the founding first violinist of the renowned Cleveland Quartet.

Weilerstein said that what sets Lee apart is ''the sensitivity, refinement, and nuance" of her sound. ''The passion underneath can really communicate to people."

Lee, who practices for four hours a day, said that she has fashioned her own style of playing.

''I go with what I feel is right and how I feel the music should go," she said. ''Sometimes people will not agree with me, but I don't agree with them, either."

Lee was born in Korea and came to the United States when her father, Kyung Hwan Lee, became director of footwear development at Reebok.

She was 4 and her sister, Sujin, was 17 months old. Her mother, Jung Sook Min-Lee, cares for the family.

When Lee was 5, she asked her parents for violin lessons after watching the orchestra at the Korean Church of Boston in Brookline, which her family attends. She gave her first public performance the following year and has since traveled the world to take part in master classes and competitions.

In 2003, Lee placed first in the International Violin Competition of Jeunesses Musicales in Romania; and she recently placed first in the Boston Trio Competition.

Sujin, now 14, plays the cello.

''We tell them, 'If you like it, play, but if you do not, then you should stop,' " Lee's father said. ''We know nothing about music."

Jin Wook Park, Lee's first violin teacher and the conductor at the Korean Church, said he has never had to push his star student to practice. The 37-year-old Korean native moved into the Lees' home eight years ago to manage Suyeon's career, act as her practice teacher, and travel with her.

''It sounds weird, but it's normal for me," said Lee, who has known Park for 12 years. ''He's like a brother."

More than 63 classical CDs line the shelves of Lee's bedroom, along with stuffed animals and photos of friends. High on the wall is a commemorative porcelain plate with photos of the Kennedy family. She acknowledges having an infatuation with John F. Kennedy after doing a class project on him in the fifth grade.

She describes herself as being like any other teenage girl, enjoying novels like ''Gossip Girls," shopping, and watching ''The O.C." on television.

She hopes to attend a dual program at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory.

Lee's next performance will be on May 23 at Jordan Hall with the Boston Trio. For information on Lee's CD, visit

AROUND THE TOWNS: Framingham resident Faye Harrington is directing Arry Shue's ''The Foreigner" through Wednesday at The Center for Arts in Natick. Among the performers are John G. Kelly of Wayland, Chris Erath of Framingham, Jay Ball of Natick, and Patrick Boyd of Northborough. . . . Richard Hagar of the Westborough Public Schools has been recognized as Orchestra Director of the Year by the American String Teachers Association.

Have a suggestion for People? E-mail

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives