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Margaret Schedel: Making Music with Math and Science

Ask Stony Brook professor, composer and performance artist Margaret Schedel what constitutes a typical day for her on campus and she chuckles. “There’s no such thing,” she said, rattling off more than a dozen potential projects she may be juggling on any given day. So in between teaching music theory, analysis or composition classes, she might be found working with Parkinson’s disease patients, organizing an art exhibit or refining a video game about the carbon cycle.

Schedel is director of cDACT, Stony Brook’s consortium for Digital Arts, Culture and Technology. The interdepartmental consortium, whose mission is to “live in the future tense by designing, creating and analyzing new technologies and new cultural products,” was founded in 2007.

“Stony Brook has a tremendous interest in the intersection of the arts and technology, and cDACT is an interesting representation of that,” said Eliza Reilly, a research professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Technology and Society and executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, based in Washington, D.C. “We have several grants from NSF [National Science Foundation] and other sources to support faculty and informal STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] educators in creating innovative, interdisciplinary learning opportunities that connect science to our most pressing civic questions, which inevitably require engaging with other disciplines, including the arts,” said Reilly.

Schedel, who is also an associate professor of composition and computer music and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Music, is a great fit for the vision of cDACT. She has an advanced degree in music composition, electronic music and arts administration from the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music and a passion for math and computer technology.

“I see connections between different disciplines,” she said. “Music is art is math is science is computers. All of these different disciplines can work together to inform and influence each other and advance scholarship in multiple fields.”

For example, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) residency at cDACT and the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology includes “three residents, all grad students: an artist interested in virtual reality, a musician interested in telematic music and custom sensors, and an applied math student who is using super computers to build better guitar pedals,” Schedel said.

She is also using music as a way to collaborate with 11 students studying art, computer science, geology and other disciplines. They have created a carbon cycle video game, The World of Carbon, with a grant from the Deep Carbon Observatory, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. It’s aimed at raising children’s awareness about the deep carbon cycle and how it relates to global warming.

The game is just one of a multitude of innovative, collaborative projects in which Schedel is involved. Another is conducting cutting-edge research in the emerging field of sonification — adding sound to data to communicate information that might otherwise be missed visually. She said that because our ears process information differently than our eyes do, we can perceive patterns auditorily that aren’t apparent visually.

This understanding is crucial in the work she is doing with Parkinson’s patients in conjunction with the Departments of Biomedical Informatics, Physical Therapy and Music and the Center for Advanced Technology in Diagnostic Tools and Sensor Systems. Specifically, they are using sonification to help Parkinson’s disease patients walk.

The research developed after Schedel spoke about sonification at a workgroup of the Embodied Cognition Center, an interdisciplinary research center that uses the arts as the focal point for understanding cognition, the body and intersubjective relationships. Afterward, Schedel was approached by Lisa Muratori, director of research and associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, who was already working with Electrical Engineering on custom sensors incorporated into Parkinson’s patients’ shoes. The sensors communicate wirelessly with a smartphone. Patients listen to music with headphones as they walk. If they walk correctly, the music is heard normally. If their gait is incorrect, the music is distorted — a signal to alter their steps until they hear the music correctly again.

“The collaboration between five areas has been dynamic. We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and refining the experiments, the programming, the data collection, the questions for the participants and the papers,” Schedel said.

The Sound of Innovation

“Meg is a great asset to the College of Arts and Sciences,” said Sacha Kopp, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She’s an innovator who embraces her musicianship and creatively blends it with technology so that students who may not think they’re artistically inclined can appreciate culture in ways they never imagined. Connecting a variety of the College’s fundamental disciplines, Meg helps students explore diverse possibilities — a great part of what the College of Arts and Sciences is all about.”

Schedel is also experimenting with sonification at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory that Stony Brook has a role in running. In September she presented a lecture on data sonification at BNL’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, where her husband, Kevin Yager, is a staff scientist.

Meanwhile, she was also in the midst of organizing Stony Brook and cDACT’s October celebration of the 50th anniversary of Experiments in Art and Technology, when engineers from Bell Labs collaborated with artists from New York City to create new art using cutting-edge technology.

“Every two years we do large-scale events around different themes,” she said. This year’s program included concerts, gallery exhibitions and a hackathon. It’s a massive undertaking, but one Schedel didn’t shy away from. “I coordinated the chaos!” she said, laughing.

Her enthusiasm spills over to her work with students and teaming up with like-minded academics.

As she sums up her experience at Stony Brook: “I love being able to collaborate with scholars who are rock stars in their field. I have so many interests and will never have time to be an expert in all the things I would like to. By collaborating, I’m able to experience a tiny piece of another world.”

Stony Brook alum Claudia Gryvatz Copquin is a New York-based freelance journalist and author.

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