Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience PhD candidate Rebecca Scheurich talks to In The Spotlight about passing her passion for music cognition onto the next generation.
Research Area: Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Caroline Palmer
Tell us a bit about yourself: I grew up in the pacific northwest in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and from a very young age I became fascinated by neuroscience after attending a conference intended to give young girls an idea of the opportunities available in science and technology fields. I also studied music very seriously most of my life and was always curious about the connections between neuroscience and music.
What probably propelled me into studying the science behind music was when drastic budget cuts were being made to school music programs all over my state. I was incredibly frustrated by this decision and spent a lot of time contacting my state representatives and my peers to prevent these cuts. I knew the critical role that music had played in my life and so many others, and this led to a desire to be part of the effort to better understand the impact of musical training on the brain and behaviour. Montreal and McGill specifically are incredible hubs for studying this, so I knew that I wanted to come here to be a part of this amazing community of researchers.
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: My research investigates whether musical training gives us better flexibility in coordinating and adapting our actions to our constantly changing auditory environment. Even simple situations like changing how fast you walk when you hear the crosswalk signal indicate that it is about to turn off requires us to be adaptable. Past work from our lab has found that people tend to consistently pace their movements at comfortable rates and their actions tend to be less flexible when they are pushed away from those rates. Through behavioural, computational, and neuroimaging methods, I examine whether individuals with musical training are more flexible than those without musical training in adapting their actions to changes in sound. Through this work, I hope to identify neurological markers of enhanced motor and cognitive flexibility with musical training.
What excites you most about your research? Similar to how I got my start in the sciences when I was younger, I really love being able to pass on my passion to others, whether this is through volunteer organizations like 24 Hours of Science, where we can go into schools to teach kids about music and the brain, or through expanding how music cognition is seen by the public at large. Even though music is already being used in so many beneficial ways from therapy to education, I feel like we are only scratching the surface of this topic. Through my research, I feel like I am gaining insight every day to contribute to a better understanding of the benefits of musical training. If we can develop an understanding of how music impacts us, we can harness it in more powerful and effective ways in the future. Right now, studies are already examining how music can be used in targeted clinical settings, like using rhythm to help individuals with autism understand social cues, as well as in broader populations, like looking at how music might help individuals get better sleep. I’m excited to be at the forefront of this rapidly evolving field.
Is there any recent or upcoming work you would like to tell us about? I have been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Caroline Palmer and Dr. Signy Sheldon on a series of projects examining how people remember specific details from complex, real-world events. We recently received funding from the Grammy Museum Grant Program to launch our neuroimaging project in which we will examine the effects of musical training on memory. Stay tuned for the findings!
Do you have any experiences that have particularly shaped you or your research? My undergraduate research supervisor, Dr. McNeel Jantzen at Western Washington University, had a huge impact on me as a person and a researcher. I learned so much from her about the research process and pursuing a career in academia. At that pivotal stage in my career, we were also able to have open and honest conversations about what it meant to be women in science and academia. It validated some of the feelings and issues I was experiencing at the time as a female undergraduate student in neuroscience and reinforced for me the importance of representation and equity in science and technology careers. These are issues that will always be ever-present on my mind.
Do you have an interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share? I played competitive soccer for about 10 years and had a training session with Tiffeny Milbrett from the US national team and Christine Sinclair from the Canadian national team, and they are amazing!
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? There is nothing that I love more than hardcore athletic activities! I regularly do CrossFit, am an avid weightlifter, and occasionally play soccer.
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? Never lose sight of what first excited you about psychology. Pursuing graduate studies is a long and often difficult process. In the times that I question myself, I think back to the overly keen 19-year-old version of me that couldn’t contain her excitement upon administering an electroencephalogram and seeing brain activity for the first time. Remembering the passion I first felt reminds me why I chose to be here.
How can people contact you? People can contact me via e-mail at rebecca.scheurich [at] mail.mcgill.ca, follow me on Twitter at @BeccaScheurich, or visit my website at rebeccascheurich.com.