The Early Lab Rat Gets the Cheese: My Observations as a High School Lab Intern

A year ago, I finished working on my International Baccalaureate personal project. It was a year-long culmination of research and community service where I taught underserved youth in a Guatemalan town how to play the piano through Skype, using my 10-year training as a classical pianist. Through my project, titled “The Effect of Music Education on Insular Poverty,” I explored how music education can help combat the effects of poverty and improve cognition in youth. During the time that I spent researching this topic and engaging with various scholars in the field, I became fascinated with the subject of cognitive science and how scientists analyze processes such as perception, memory, and language. I recognized that I wanted to pursue this versatile area of study beyond my curricular assignment and began searching for opportunities.


I soon came across an excellent resource in my own city: the School of Behavioral and Brain Science at University of Texas at Dallas (UT-Dallas). The incredible studies that the professors in the school were conducting fascinated me. I was especially captivated by Jay Dowling’s studies of music cognition in his Music and Perception Cognition Lab (MPaC), which analyzes how listeners process and understand music. The work that Dowling has published along with Rachna Raman, a postdoctoral research fellow at UT-Dallas, spans many topics, from the influence of musical expertise and age on music perception to cross-cultural aspects of music cognition. I reached out to Dowling asking if there was an opportunity for me to intern in his lab and was very excited when he said yes.


The majority of research studies at MPaC are performed using computers equipped with the MATLAB software. Subjects, who are typically college students, run study-specific programs on a computer in the lab to help analyze how human brains respond to musical stimuli and interpret modulations. The data collected are used to study topics like cross-cultural differences between Western and non-Western listeners’ abilities to identify notes in culturally familiar and unfamiliar music, and how much time our brains take to perceive key changes in music using concurrent probe-tone techniques.


My role in this structure is to help the subjects with the setup of MATLAB and other equipment and assist them in successfully and accurately running the programs. I explain each study and instruct them on what to do to ensure that the program runs smoothly. After the students finish running the programs, Dowling analyzes the results, looking for any possible errors in the collected data. Oftentimes, I am allowed to observe when Dowling evaluates the results, and I get a first-hand look at how he and other researchers examine the data.


There are a lot of advantages of being involved in research as a high-schooler. In fact, anyone my age can benefit from even a short stint in the lab. When I was looking for an opportunity to work in a research lab, my goal was to understand how research works in a professional setting, but I have gained knowledge in many more aspects of research. I’ve learned how researchers use various programs and techniques to receive the most accurate data possible, as well as the paperwork and logistics needed to legally utilize human subjects. I can also identify basic programming errors in MATLAB and know what steps can be taken to correct those errors to extract successful data. One of the biggest takeaways from my experience at MPaC lab so far has been the insight that research is not an esoteric discipline; it involves practical applications, real people, software and hardware, and even mundane aspects such as budgeting. I also recognize now that research in most forms is a tireless repetition of tasks to collect data. So researchers need true passion for the subjects they are studying in order to pursue them long term.


Until I started working in the lab, I didn’t have an avenue to explore my interest in the brain sciences because my school doesn’t offer a psychology course. My work in the lab allows me to become more familiar with an entire area of study, cognitive science. Now, as a rising senior, I plan on applying to colleges as a Cognitive Science major. Not only has my experience as a research intern introduced me to a possible career path, but I have also learned how to interact with faculty members and navigate a college setting. I now feel much more prepared to set out on my own in a university setting and engage with professors, whether to conduct research with them or simply to take advantage of their office hours. Being an intern in the Music and Perception Cognition Lab gives me the opportunity to become acquainted with the world of research and university life before I actually leave for college.


I would encourage every high schooler to pursue opportunities to volunteer or intern in a real-world field in which they hope to major in college. And who knows? While learning about the industry, they might end up discovering things they never knew about themselves.


Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Sushama Sivakumar for the opportunity to express myself through this blog post, and Jay Dowling and Rachna Raman for taking me on as an intern and giving me an incredible learning experience.

About the Author:

Bhavana is a high school senior with a strong interest in cognitive science, human development, and policymaking. Along with her internship at UTD’s Music Perception and Cognition Lab, she is an editor for her school newspaper, plays classical piano, and is on her school’s Mock Trial team. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to music, watching baseball games, and making amateur films with friends.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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