STUDENT Spotlight
Caitlin Seluzicki, Independent Student Researcher

Grade: 12
School: Perry Hall High SchoolStudent Spotlight

What is the Independent Student Research course?
The Independent Student Research course is a course that I participated in as part of a pilot. Students choose a topic and develop a thesis that they research for the entire year. The students develop a literature review, research proposal, presentation for the Independent Student Research Symposium and a final paper.

Why did you enroll for the course?
I knew from experience with English essays, history papers and projects that I loved to research. I also enjoy writing, which is an essential part of the course. I have always had an interest in science and music and have believed that interdisciplinary learning is a key component in understanding concepts and solving problems. Therefore, when I was given the opportunity to participate in the Independent Student Research course, I chose a topic that had a diverse and unique approach to treating many medical problems.

What was your project?
My project title was "The Impact of Music on the Cognition of Alzheimer's Patients." I read scholarly articles on PubMed and visited Keswick Multicare facility (a facility for 24-hour, dementia patient care) to play the flute for the memory care unit and observe the impact of music on Alzheimer's patients.

Why did you choose this topic for your project?
When I was in middle school, my band director, Mrs. Clavell, told us that a previous professor of hers had an interest on the impact of music on the brain. The professor had been astonished to learn that music was one of the only activities that could virtually synchronize multiple individuals' brain waves. This interested me very much, so I began to research on my own and began reading from a book titled This is Your Brain on Music. When I was asked to take the independent research course during my junior year, about five years later, I immediately knew that I wanted to research the impact of music on the brain. I loved science and music, having played the flute for six years at that point. However, I had to dramatically narrow my topic to something very specific.

I came upon an article about Gabby Giffords learning to speak after her injury. She underwent Melodic Intonation Therapy, which combines music and rhythm with speech therapy in order to teach the patient how to speak again. I narrowed my topic to the impact of music on people with speech impairments. However, this was still too broad because it could include stroke patients, patients who suffered a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer's patients and people with various disabilities. So, I narrowed my topic to the impact of music on the cognition of Alzheimer's patients because I was very interested in the various ways that music could impact Alzheimer's patients.

What did you learn from the findings of your project?
The following is a brief description of what I learned about my topic: I learned that music seems to be the most complex part of an Alzheimer's patient's memory that is spared by the disease (Spiro, 2010). Also, playing an instrument seems to have the strongest "protective" effect against the degeneration of the brain out of cognitive activities, like reading, writing or doing crossword puzzles (as interpreted by Wan & Schlaug, 2010, p.5). This is supported by a study conducted by Sluming, Barrick, Howard, Cezayirili, Mayes and Roberts in 2002 titled Voxel-Based Morphometry Reveals Increased Gray Matter Density in Broca's Area in Male Symphony Orchestra Musicians (Sluming et al., 2002). In this study, Sluming et al. found that there was increased gray matter density in the left inferior frontal gyrus (Sluming et al., 2002). Sluming et al. also found that there were "significant age-related volume reductions" in many regions of the brain, including the cerebral hemispheres, left inferior frontal gyrus and "dorsolateral prefrontal cortex subfields bilaterally," in controls (non-musicians), but not in musicians (Sluming et al., 2002). Of the musicians that have developed dementia, their procedural memory, the motor skills needed for playing the instrument and declarative semantic memory, memory of vocabulary and skills associated with playing the instrument, are still intact (Spiro, 2010).

What was the most challenging part of your project?
The most challenging part of my project was narrowing my topic. As I was researching, I had a continual fear that I would never be able to find a definitive direction for my research. However, I was eventually able to develop my final question by late January while still having valuable background research that I was able to make connections to.

What was the most rewarding part of your project?
In April, my teacher, Ms. Simon, found an article about the use of music at Keswick Multicare Facility. Ms. Simon suggested that I play my flute at Keswick for the Memory Care Unit. I wanted to play various songs that I thought would be familiar to everyone so I played Christmas and holiday music, even though it was April. Many of the residents responded to the songs by humming along to the music and tapping their feet.

When I played Trumpet Voluntary, one resident exclaimed, "That's my wedding [song]! That's my wedding [song]!" She had not only correctly made the connection that Trumpet Voluntary was a song typically played at weddings, but she seemed to experience an "awakening," an experience when music triggers Alzheimer's patients memories of the past. After playing the song, her daughter entered the room, and she greeted her daughter with "Rochelle! That's my daughter, Rochelle!" Being able to witness, what I believe was an awakening (I cannot say for sure because I do not personally know the resident) was a wonderful and astonishing experience.

Also, the finished product was extremely rewarding because I was able to present my work in a county-wide symposium and send my final paper to guests that attended my presentation and requested the final paper. Presenting my research was an exhilarating experience because I was able to demonstrate the connections that I had made between different scientists' research and reveal the connection between the brain and something relatable to every human, music. The entire journey of my research was a wonderful experience because I was able to research my passion, combining my love for music and my love for science.

How does your project relate to your career goals?
When I enter college next year, I plan to major in biology or neuroscience as an undergraduate student and continue onto a PhD/MD program to pursue my interests in infectious disease or neurology. I love interaction with people, but I also love to research. In a PhD/MD dual program, I would get both aspects.

What advice do you have for other students who are interested in taking this course?
When deciding whether or not to take the course, ask yourself whether you enjoy projects. Do you get excited when a history project is assigned that requires outside research? Do you like to write papers about the topics or books you have read about? Once you have decided that you want to participate in the course, find a topic that you are passionate about, and challenge yourself to think about all of the possible directions your research could take you. Then, begin to research each sub-topic. Most likely, you will develop an extensive list, and once you start researching a few of those sub-topics, the list will grow longer. However, don't get discouraged if you do not settle into a narrow topic right away; your thesis will morph and pull you in unexpected directions. Finally, have fun researching your topic and discuss it with anybody who will listen. The more enthusiastic you are about your topic, the better your writing and presentations will be. I have learned a lot from talking with other people about my topic, and it has led me down unexpected research pathways that have been very helpful and were a part of my entire research process.

What are your hopes for the next school year?
I hope that I can use my new research skills and writing skills effectively and apply them to my other classes. It will be very sad that I will not be able to continue this course, but I felt that I chose a topic that is a growing field in research, and I look forward to following the research being done on the impact of music on cognition of Alzheimer's patients. After visiting Keswick in April, an administrator at Keswick invited me to continue to play in the Memory Care Unit as a volunteer. I have played my flute for the Memory Care unit over the summer, and I hope to play each month during my senior year.

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