Interactive lab explores music’s scientific potential

Before the iPod, the Sony Walkman or the home stereo system, music was something people made and experienced with other people.

The universal nature of music-making, which occurs in every culture throughout the ages, suggests evolution may have wired us for it, and that the survival benefit it confers has something to do with the way social groups cohere. But such ideas are speculative and the social dimension of music remains largely unexplored.

Now, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton are aiming to change that with an $8-million facility unique in the world. The novel laboratory they’ve created will explore the interactive side of music-making with an unprecedented rigour – and it will serve as a tool for a wide range of other research applications from engineering better hearing aids to optimizing presentations to better hold an audience’s attention.

“We expect to find all kinds of things that we just never dreamed of that are going on in these complex interactions,” said Laurel Trainor, a neuroscientist and director of the LIVELab (short for Large Interactive Virtual Environment), which officially opens its doors this week.

In essence, LIVElab is a conventional stage and seating area backed by a powerful combination of high-tech gadgetry for recording and cleverly manipulating the way entire groups of people experience music and other forms of performance or presentation. The sound system can be adjusted to simulate a range of acoustic environments from classrooms to cathedrals.

Although music originated as a social activity, scientific research on music and human cognition had tended to focus on individuals. This is largely because the subtle cues and reactions that occur among musicians as they perform – and between the musicians and their audiences – are difficult to capture in a controlled research setting.

Nearly a decade in the making, the facility was funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario government and McMaster. Nothing quite so ambitious has been tried before in the field of music studies and the research possibilities have experts taking notice.

“It’s really an extraordinary achievement,” said Katie Overy, of the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh. “The attention to detail is evident in every inch of the design.”

Dr. Overy, currently a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario where she is working on research related to musical learning, said she hopes to makes use of the lab for pilot studies.

Just entering the LIVELab is a sensory experience. The space is accessed through a “sound lock” which separates participants from the outside world. The room sits on rubber pads to reduce vibrations and is nested inside a suspended concrete shell, which blocks external noise down to a threshold of 10 decibels. Inside, oversized ductwork keeps air circulating without a sound.

In other words, it can be very, very quiet.

In its “off” setting, the room is also entirely dead. The walls and surfaces are designed to absorb sound, so that music and voices are swallowed up without any trace of an echo.

“It’s our blank slate,” Dr. Trainor said in the LIVELab earlier this month.

Then Dan Bosnyak, a research scientist and the lab’s technical director, brought the room to life with a few taps on an iPad. Suddenly an array of microphones and speakers located all around us were sensing and re-projecting our voices, adding a pleasant resonance that perfectly reproduced the experience of being in a small theatre or church.

Such tricks have been employed commercially to enhance the acoustics of various spaces. But in the LIVELab, the sound system is coupled with a battery of infrared cameras that can track performers and audience members in real time and digitize their body movements as they react to music and other stimuli. The lab also has the capacity to measure the brain waves of up to 30 participants at once through electroencephalography (EEG).

“The great thing about the LIVELab is that it’s very flexible. You can mould the space to fit the project,” said Matt Woolhouse, a faculty member at McMaster’s School of the Arts who is planning a study of dance therapy for Parkinson’s patients.

By its nature, the set up invites researchers to explore musical questions that have previously been inaccessible to science. For example, they can study how members of a jazz ensemble or a string quartet react to one another while a performance unfolds, or measure how much the physical expressiveness of a musician influences the way her music is perceived by an audience.

All of it involves the broader question of how human brains work together around a shared activity, which puts the lab at the cutting edge of social cognitive science.

“The lab will undoubtedly become a major centre for inquiry in human thinking and behaviour,” said Robert Duke, director of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.

For this reason, the space is also attracting interest from marketing and arts groups interested in what it can tell them about group experiences. Dr. Trainor said the lab would ideally be used for commercial projects about one-third of the time to help support its research activities.

“What this space really comes down to is studying interactions,” Dr. Trainor said.

In the process, it may finally reveal what compels humans to gather in groups and make music.

All together now.

See the full article at The Globe and Mail

Majority of Canadian med students come from 6 schools

When it comes to applying for medical school, competition can be fierce, and the question of which school to attend for a pre-med program can be a tough one. Maclean’s recently took a look at the first-year cohort attending Canada’s 14 English and bilingual medical schools to determine where the students had most recently studied, finding that a majority (78%) had attended an institution with a medical school on campus. More than half (52%) attended one of 6 schools—McMaster University, University of Toronto, Western University, McGill University, University of British Columbia, and University of Alberta.

Although these schools are known to be difficult, and therefore potentially one might graduate with a lower average, university administrators insist that they do not favour graduates from one school over another. Grades are making up less of the admissions criteria too, with things like MCAT performance, awards, past employment, volunteer activities, and other criteria rising in influence. The bottom line: students shouldn’t worry about avoiding the “hard schools,” but they also shouldn’t worry if they attend a smaller school, so long as they make sure to “round out their education with a rich resume.”

Check out the full article at MACLEANS.

New program trains biomedical scientists with business savvy

Applications are now being accepted for a unique McMaster program which offers students the opportunity to train in biomedical science and business at the same time.

Third-year students have until Oct. 22 to apply for January entry into the new Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization (BDC) Bachelor/Master’s program offered by the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Science with contributions by the DeGroote School of Business.

An information session will be held on Thursday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. in MDCL 3020.

The program, open to students who have completed two years in science or health sciences, includes two years to finish an honours Bachelor of Health Sciences degree, followed by one year for the course-based master’s degree. The 12-month master’s program has a four-month internship in the health sciences sector.

Although the program begins in September 2015, an accelerated start has been arranged which will see about 15 students start in January 2015. Those students will be prepared to begin the fourth year of the program next fall.

“This is a multidisciplinary training program, concentrated in the biomedical sciences, which will produce graduates with strong discovery research skills, street smarts and business savvy,” said Eric Brown, director of the program and a professor of biochemistry and biomedical science.

“The career options and relevance of this program will be a lightning rod for students wanting an exciting future. We’ve met enthusiasm for this program from all, so we decided to get started right away.”

He said the program will be reaching out to the commercial health sciences sector for involvement as guest lecturers and community mentors.

Brown pointed to the current impact of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors on the Canadian economy, and their anticipated growth, adding: “These students will become Canada’s biomedical scientists who lead in discovery and commerce.”

Courses in the program range from drug discovery and development, and laboratory research skills to accounting for decision making and applied marketing. Innovative educational methods of experiential, inquiry and team-based learning approaches will be the hallmark of the program.

More information on the program, including how to apply, may be found at http://bdcprogram.mcmaster.ca/index.html

See the full article at McMaster Daily News.

Spectrum to help student entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life

Do you want to be your own boss?

If so, you’re about to get a boost from a new University entrepreneurship program.

Spectrum will help student entrepreneurs recruit team members, attract funds and connect with mentors.

The program will officially open Sept. 10 with a talk by engineering alumnus Matt Gardner, co-founder of Videostream.

The tech startup’s product wirelessly sends full HD video from your computer to your TV, and is used by more than 400,000 people.

“It all started in 7th grade,” Gardner says. “I realized that pop at Costco was half the price that it was in our school’s vending machine — so I filled my locker.”

Gardner continued to start small businesses throughout his time at McMaster, and after getting into software, says a tech startup “just made sense.”

In addition to alumni speakers like Gardner, Spectrum will also host an event with past participants of The Next 36, as well as how-to sessions on specific aspects of entrepreneurism.

In March, Spectrum will host a student startup competition, during which it plans to award $50,000 as well as in-kind resources.

The program’s kickoff event is scheduled for Sept. 10 at 5 p.m. at TwelvEighty Bar and Grill.

See more at Daily News McMaster.

City open to giving downtown parking lot for McMaster expansion

The city is willing to give up a downtown parking lot for McMaster University’s bid to expand and bring hundreds of new students and faculty to the core.

The latest city donation of land to the university, likely a parking parcel worth up to $3.2 million, will only happen if McMaster beats out other institutions in a competition for provincial expansion cash.

A detailed presentation from university president Patrick Deane helped win over councillors who had indignantly rejected a surprise motion last month that some called a “blindsiding” request for more municipal cash.

This term, council has already given $20 million toward a downtown Mac health campus and $4 million in land for a new bioresearch complex at the McMaster Innovation Park.

Deane apologized for the “premature” August request and encouraged councillors to see the benefits of adding to the growing “downtown hub” of university operations, including around 100 permanent staff and hundreds of new health and engineering students.

“This would bring considerable economic benefits to the city (despite) foregone tax revenues,” he said, referring to the fact universities don’t pay property taxes.

City staff identified three potential parking properties to donate, including one behind City Hall, another on Vine Street and one on John Street. The estimated property values range from $1.8 million to $3.2 million.

City manager Chris Murray assured councillors there would be “no net loss of parking” after construction is done.

Ward Councillor Jason Farr reminded council of its “mandate” for downtown revitalization. “This is a partnership; this is economic uplift.”

See the full article at the Hamilton Spectator.