Music, Brain and Academic Life

This weeks’ expe(e)rtise is by Psyche Loui, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, musician and mother. In her interview she gives insights on what fascinated her to start studying music and the brain, how it is important to be fascinated by a scientific question while also focusing on learning the methods required, and highlights those challenges she would like to change within the academic system (i.e. missing transparency, publication biases and research funding).


How did you get into research?

I have always loved music and played violin and piano from a young age. I also love science, and thought I was going to medical school to become a doctor. But during undergrad years at Duke University I realized from my classes that there is a field of research called Cognitive Neuroscience, where we can study things that might seem mysterious and unscientific, like our thoughts and perceptions and feelings, with the help of good experiment design and some useful tools such as brain imaging and electrical recordings from the brain. I learned that people were starting to use these tools to study how we hear and learn and form preferences for music, and I wanted to get in on it. I’ve been studying the Cognitive Neuroscience of music ever since.

What is your focus?

Music and the brain.

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I love asking questions and finding answers to them. There are always important new questions that have not yet been asked, and there is always more to learn. I am also motivated to use what we learn to design something applicable to the general public.

What are the biggest challenges?

Everything always takes 10 times longer than you expect it to.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….

…a student deciding upon her/his field

Follow your passion. If there is some question that keeps you up at night, and if you love the process of pursuing that question, then that’s the field for you.

…a post-doctoral researcher

Start by pursuing the low-hanging fruit while learning some new techniques, then move on to more ambitious questions.

…a junior faculty

Spend the first year getting to know your colleagues and some students really well so that you can learn about the culture of your institution from multiple perspectives. Then you’ll have an easier time working within your system.

Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?

No. I have a longer commute than I’d like, but in general I have been quite lucky.

What are some of the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance) and do you have any advice to overcome these?

Students often want to meet at inconvenient times given my parenting schedule (I have a 2.5-year-old daughter and have to do all drop-offs and pickups for her daycare). I think one solution has been to use online tools as much as possible (online schedulers, chat programs e.g. Slack), but I am still figuring it out.

If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be? 

  1. Academia often operates in a shroud of secrecy under the guise of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of people involved. The result of this secrecy is that many important decisions in academia can be driven by a small number of individuals, each with their own biases and limited knowledge. I think most people would benefit overall if the system was more transparent.
  2. I wish my field placed less emphasis on a few selective journal outlets, and more on the quality and quantity of research ideas as a whole. The practice of evaluating a publication by the rejection rate of the journal in which it is published is ridiculous and unhealthy, and not conducive to academics’ main role of generating good knowledge.
  3. Research funding should be more evenly spread between labs and schools.

What did you want to be as a kid?
I wanted to be a writer. I guess I am one now, I just write about science!


Psyche Loui, above with her team from the MIND Lab – Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Lab at Wesleyan University, is also on twitter (@psycheloui) and available online through her homepages

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