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A musical edge

Psychology graduate’s research on brain development earns accolades

special feature: Student success spring 2018

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring 2018 convocation ceremonies.

By Melanie Callahan

People who learn music are known to have better sound and cognitive processing abilities and often perform better on both music- and language-related tasks.

Does the method of how one learns to play music impact how the brain processes it? Many musicians are not formally trained and learn to play using videos, books or by ear. Is it the formal music training process or simply the act and ability of playing music that gives musicians an intellectual edge on certain tasks over non-musicians?

New spring graduate Emily Alexander is working to answer these questions. The Kippens, N.L., native is among the almost 200 Grenfell Campus students who will graduate at convocation ceremonies in Corner Brook on May 17. Watch the video below to hear Ms. Alexander talk about her research.

Hearing and neuroimaging

Her research has primarily taken place in the Cognitive Aging and Auditory Neuroscience (CAAN) laboratory, under the supervision of Dr. Ben Zendel, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience.

“The CAAN lab provided an incredible opportunity for me to get involved with research, and I was already interested in hearing and neuroimaging, so it was a natural fit,” said Ms. Alexander.

Ms. Alexander’s honours thesis research is about differences in auditory processing (how the brain processes sound) between formally trained and self-taught musicians.

Essentially, she investigated whether informally trained, self-taught musicians show similar benefits as formally trained musicians compared to non-musicians. She measured auditory processing to understand speech in noise, detecting a bad note in a melody and automatic auditory detection of pitch change (automatic processing) using electroencephalography (EEG).

“I’m excited . . . about the opportunity to conduct auditory neuroscience research in a world-class hospital research setting.” — Emily Alexander

She found that there were hearing advantages for self-taught musicians but they were different than the advantages for formally trained musicians. These findings support the idea that individualized music training could be used as a foundation to develop music-based, auditory rehabilitation programs.

Ms. Alexander recently presented her research at a recent Science Atlantic Psychology conference and will take part in the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science conference in St. John’s this July.

She has also devoted her time to mental health advocacy, including involvement with the Mental Health Commission of Canada as a youth council member, where she contributes to national mental health policy analysis and other related projects. She also volunteers with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the advisory board on youth matters for the Networks of Centers of Excellence of Canada.

Dr. Zendel says Ms. Alexander is a hard-working student who has shown “amazing” dedication to her research project — so much so that she began her research six months before her thesis work was supposed to begin.

“She did this because her research questions were complex and required a large number of participants to undergo a long testing session,” he said. “Not only did she collect a huge data set, but she did so with the care and attention to detail that will allow us to publish her findings in a high-impact, peer-reviewed journal.”

Highly sought

The significance of Ms. Alexander’s work was recognized though her recruitment by five universities for master’s programs. At Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., she was nominated for the prestigious pre-doctoral Killam Scholarship.

“In the end, however, I accepted a position at the University of Toronto, where I will start my master’s in psychology in September,” she said.

“I will be working with Dr. Claude Alain, at the Rotman Research Institute, where he specializes in hearing and is an EEG expert. I’m excited to work at RRI and about the opportunity to conduct auditory neuroscience research in a world-class hospital research setting, with a wealth of neuroimaging equipment available.”

Dr. Alain was Dr. Zendel’s PhD supervisor, and Ms. Alexander is confident that she will enjoy the positive supervisor-graduate student relationship Dr. Zendel did.

‘Support, advice and encouragement’

“I’m very grateful for all of the support, advice and encouragement I’ve received from many faculty and staff at Grenfell throughout this entire process, especially from within the psychology department and from my referees,” she said.

Ms. Alexander has received a grant to spend the summer continuing work with Dr. Zendel and will work on two manuscripts for publication based on her thesis research.

After completing her master’s at the University of Toronto, she will go directly into a doctoral program, for which she’s already been offered funding. Her eventual goal is to teach, after she takes a few detours to travel for leisure.

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