Students Conducting Neuroscience Research Honored as Faculty Scholars
Written by Geoffrey Mock
Three undergraduate students who found an engaging intellectual topic and worked with Duke faculty to conduct original research that advances knowledge in that field were honored with Faculty Scholar Awards, the highest honor bestowed by university faculty on undergraduates.
The award was established to highlight students with an exceptional record of independent research and scholarship and who show promise of a scholarly career.
Marcos Hirai Catao is recognized for the study of the relationship between poverty, health and education; Julia Leeman for exploring connections between memory and music and investigating how the brain imagines different types of sounds to help people with paralysis communicate; and Maggie Wolfe for creative writing that explores empathy and emotionality and how learning can be achieved through feeling as well as thinking.
The three were selected by a faculty committee chaired by Sheryl Broverman, professor of the practice of biology. The panel received 30 nominations from across the undergraduate departments and came away thrilled with the quality of the student work.
One of the joys for faculty on the committee, Broverman said, is engaging students on research from other disciplines.
“What we look for are students who display a deep scholarly interest in their field and indicate a desire for a career in academia,” Broverman said. “The best nominee interviews are engaging intellectual discussions about current questions in their field. The students selected this year stood out for their animated commitment to advancing knowledge, for themselves and others.”
MARCOS HIRAI CATAO
Coming to Duke, Hirai Catao knew he wanted to do economics research. A native of Brazil, he believed the policy discussions there were often based only on anecdotes rather than careful studies. His goal, he said was “to improve the well-being of people living in environments with limited resources.”
He worked with Duncan Thomas, Norb F. Schaefer Distinguished Professor of International Studies, on the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on the population of Aceh province, Indonesia. The Thomas lab project allowed Hirai Catao to go outside of economics to conduct interdisciplinary neuroscience research on the cognitive effects of the tsunami on survivors.
During COVID, Hirai Catao remained in Brazil and conducted a series of projects, including a Bass Connections study of “COVID and Household Wellbeing in Developing Countries,” which also gave him experience in performing on-the-ground research with a partner organization.
The research has been one of the highlights of his university experience, he said.
“In working with faculty, I learned some of the skills that I will continue to use to investigate issues relevant to development policies in Brazil and other low-income countries,” Hirai Catao said. “Research has taught me to think critically about the evidence that is presented to support claims in economics, and has allowed me to develop a sense of the type of information I need to answer policy-related questions that I find interesting.”
Much of Leeman’s research was inspired by the moments she shares singing with her great-grandmother, who is more than 100 years old and suffers from dementia. But when the two sing together, Leeman said the clouds of dementia fall some, and “the disease, which disconnects my great-grandmother from the people who love her seems to disappear, and afterward she can share beautiful stories about our family.”
Out of this experience, Leeman became interested in studying connections between music, language and the brain. She started by working with neuroscientist and linguistics professor Edna Andrews, learning about neuroimaging studies of language.
A Bass Connections project introduced her to “Music & Memory,” an organization that brings personally tailored music to older people, including those with dementia. Another research collaboration with neuroscientist Tobias Overath explored how the brain processes language and provided her with a chance to present work with colleagues at a global conference on hearing and balance.
The research with the Overath lab continues: One project examines whether electrical data recorded on the surface of a person’s scalp (EEG) can determine what kind of sound they are imagining, which could greatly increase the understanding of auditory imagery and related cognitive processes, including memory.
One imperative that connects all her work, Leeman said, is for the research to make positive contributions to the people in the study and wider society. Inspired by her time with her great-grandmother, she hopes to, as a teacher and researcher, share information on how complex brain activities such as making music and multilingualism, provide a protective effect that delays the symptoms of dementia.
“My research constantly challenges me to combine my understanding of neuroscience and music to make an impact in my field and community. Using this knowledge to advocate for improved access to music and second language education could give future generations more time to make memories with their loved ones.”
Like Leeman, Wolfe was inspired by family. In her case, it was the strange and colorful stories and sensibilities she picked up as a child hanging out at her grandparents’ pawn shop in rural Georgia. Her avenue for exploration has been through literature and writing, and the place where she’s focused her attention is the Chelsea Hotel and the vibrant New York scene that drew musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Sid Vicious, as well as writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Tennessee Williams.
A class on Bob Dylan – picked up on a whim during drop/add – with English professor Taylor Black opened the world of the Chelsea to Wolfe. She appreciates that academics are likely to focus on the power of thought, but what the Chelsea stories taught her is that she could seek, as Dylan did, a yearning for something she couldn’t name but could feel.
“I’m interested in the dichotomy between thinking and feeling in our reaction to literature and art, specifically popular art that is widely consumed,” Wolfe said. “There is a focus in academia on the thinking aspect, logically so, but I like to explore the paths through which we express and channel the feeling which is so uncomfortable to many, including myself.
“My interest is in exploring these artists’ reasons for arriving to this artists’ heaven and hell,” Wolfe added. “I write for the same reason as many (Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Patti Smith): To process and express the inexpressible, and I have tried my best to explore that line between feeling and expression through my creative work and research.”
Her work as a writing consultant in the Thompson Writing Studio and the support of English department faculty members has helped her research.
“Working with faculty members has been such a crucial part of my Duke experience. My relationships with mentors like Dr. Taylor Black and Dr. Priscilla Wald have changed how I think about academics and who I am as a person,” Wolfe said. “My work is very closely connected to processing my own experiences, and without the mentorship and community available within the Duke English department I would never have thought of the work I do as academically valid, much less as the immensely rewarding and healing creative and research process that I have worked on during my time here.”