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Student pursues dreams at UConn
by combining science, music
Playing a musical instrument, especially at concert-level proficiency, is generally considered one of the highest forms of art. But playing at such a level is also a tremendous athletic achievement and, like so many athletes, many musicians incur injuries which hamper or in some cases, even halt performance careers. Many, but not all.
This caveat intrigued Melanie Sue Collins, a University Scholar who has two great loves, piano and science. Her interest in both areas has led to a dual major in music and physiology and neurobiology. It also motivated Collins, a senior who will graduate this month and one of 13 University Scholars in her class, to initiate a research project that examined play-related injuries among pianists and possible strategies to reduce these injuries.
The study Collins designed and ultimately implemented took more than two years of work. But it might not have happened at all, because Collins didn't want to enroll at the University.
Collins was among the best in her class at Somers High School. All her friends were going to elite private schools and she assumed she would join them. So when her father, a UConn alum, suggested his alma mater, she had a ready answer: "Absolutely not."
Collins was looking at Harvard, Yale, Boston College, and Holy Cross among others. But as she looked more closely, she began to have concerns.
"None of those schools would let me combine science and piano at the level I wanted," she says. "They told me I could minor in one and major in the other, but that was it."
Then a guidance counselor told her about a faculty member at UConn named Neal Larrabee. "I heard Dr. Larrabee was just an incredible teacher, that I would have to audition to study under him, and that, as good as I was, it would be a difficult audition."
Collins auditioned with Larrabee, an associate professor in the department of music. After hearing her play, he accepted her, although he indicated that Collins would have to work hard. "One can always teach technique but one can't teach musicality," Larrabee says. "Melanie had obvious musicality."
Collins also discovered that she could do a dual major or individualized major at UConn, allowing her to combine music and science. But she still wasn't sold, and when her parents told her her first choice college was too expensive, she says, she "had a fit."
Yet after arriving at UConn, Collins quickly discovered that her impressions bore no resemblance to the University itself. The classes were not impersonal nor was the campus. Her professors knew the names of their students and encouraged interaction with faculty. She made friends quickly and easily. Best of all, she was being challenged academically.
"I talked to my friends who were at the other schools I had considered and discovered I was being asked to work harder and learn more than they were," she says. "I realized the standards here at UConn were very high. I also noticed that I was seeing the names of some of my UConn professors in basic textbooks that were being used in colleges all over the country."
The names included that of Andrew Moiseff, associate professor of physiology and neurobiology. Collins met him one day when she was trying to get her schedule set for the next semester and they began talking about science and music. Soon after that, Moiseff became her primary adviser and Collins raised her ideas for a research project.
"Melanie was one of those students who really wanted to go beyond classroom lectures and do some original scientific research," Moiseff says. "This is always exciting to see in a student and I helped her focus her efforts."
Collins had read a study stating that 75 percent of the musicians surveyed had experienced some sort of carpal tunnel or tendonitis injury. Yet Collins knew there were other musicians who never encountered such injuries. One in particular, Arthur Rubenstein, performed on the piano at a concert level well into his 70s. Collins wondered if she could create a prompting system to help pianists avoid the type of excessive muscle movement in their technique that could produce injury.
Collins decided on two methods of analysis. One, a biofeedback system, she had to create herself. This meant taking a specialized course on electronics and circuitry.
"The course was an independent study that Dr. Moiseff put together," she says. "I got so good at electronics that I can build anything now."
The system she designed uses electrodes on the skin to transmit kinesthetic information produced during playing. The system lets the pianist know if and where excess muscle movement is occurring by emitting an electronic beep. By gauging the beeps with the playing technique, pianists are able to modify their technique.
Collins tested the system on a group of 15 pianists. "Every person in the study was able to reduce excessive muscle activity by using the system," she says. "By reducing the excessive muscle activity, they were reducing their risk of injury."
The second part of the study used an NIH image analysis software package to analyze a videotape of Rubenstein performing. The program let Collins identify composite joint movements and calculate ranges of motion in various activities. She discovered that Rubenstein's wrists only moved 3 to 5 degrees during playing. The majority of his movement came from his shoulders and back. Collins used Rubenstein's motion as a benchmark and then videotaped other pianists and used the software to create a comparison. She discovered that wrist motion of the pianists in her study varied as much as 15 to 20 degrees.
"This is the sort of project that could have easily been, in an expanded form, a master's level study or even beyond," Moiseff says.
With graduation coming up this month, Collins has decided on medical school. Her first choice? "UConn," she says. "I think so highly of the University now and I really want to go to the School of Medicine in Farmington."
A medical degree alone may not be enough of a challenge for Collins, who hopes to specialize in pediatric neurology. That's one more reason she's excited about going to UConn's School of Medicine. "They have a combined M.D./Ph.D. program," she says. "It's exactly what I'm looking for."