Center for Community Engagement

Profile in Innovation: Daniel Kim '10

Question: What happens when you combine a passion for music performance with a summer research position studying how brains work?

Answer: You find just the right inspiration for innovation.

 

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Just ask Daniel Kim '10, a double major in music and neuroscience from Springfield, Missouri. While conducting neuroscience research at the Cold Springs Harbor Lab in Long Island, New York, Daniel stumbled upon a wealth of new scientific research supporting a theory that music can alleviate symptoms of dementia.

The rest, as they say, is history.

He returned to campus in the fall with a single idea—  to bring music into the lives of patients with Alzheimer's disease, a type of dementia. After initial collaboration with Beverly Pickering, head nurse at the Northampton Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Daniel submitted a funding proposal to the Center for Community Engagement. The proposal was simple: bring talented musicians to a place where music could make an impact. With the financial help of the Innovative Projects Fund, he would coordinate musical performances by Amherst College students at the Rehabilitation and Nursing Center during a time of day called sundowning. Daniel explained in his funding proposal that "sundowning occurs in the late afternoon and early evening, and it is generally the hardest time of day for patients with dementia: they experience greater anxiety, restlessness, tiredness, and/or irritability." Research has suggested that listening to music during this period of sundowning can drastically improve the mood, heart rate, and blood pressure of a patient with dementia.

Daniel's proposal immediately stood out to the Innovative Projects Fund review committee. Jessica Storozuk, administrative manager at the CCE, explained: "We were all impressed with his thoughtfulness and thoroughness. His commitment for this project was evident from simply reading his application, and his passion jumped right off the page." He was awarded $760 to provide for the project with publicity, start up meetings, and to pay musicians.

Student performers and student musical groups are given $60 for a forty-five minute performance at the Center. Daniel views this money as an honorarium, not a payment. He acknowledges that the performers are giving of their time, but he also wants the performers to willingly and actively participate in the project. This has not proven to be a difficult aspiration. The a capella musical groups Sabrinas and Route 9 have both performed to thoroughly engaged audiences. Ching See Lau '11 of the Sabrinas described the ensemble's performance as successful because the patients were so active: "We were told that our group was really effective at 'rousing' the patients, because we had choreography and a lot of clapping and general good cheer. People even stopped by the doorway to listen! Many of them were tapping their feet, nodding their heads, moving or talking." These musical ensembles love to perform to captive crowds, but they have also embraced Daniel's project as their own. As Route 9's Alex Chang '11 explains, "Those two gigs were definitely among the most memorable and most fun. Most importantly, we felt that we had done something meaningful to the community and that we had made others happy with our songs." Bruce Diehl, Senior Lecturer and Director of  Jazz Activites, assembled a jazz sextet specifically to play for the project. He was inspired by Daniel's  work in part because he has been personally affected by Alzheimer's—  Bruce's mother, a lifelong music teacher, passed away five years ago from the illness. Ching See, Alex, and Bruce all plan for their groups to return to the Northampton Center during the spring semester.

Although Daniel will tell you that his project is mostly humanitarian in its nature, his project's innovation does not come solely from the notion that sharing music with Alzheimer's patients is simply a good idea. The true innovation of Daniel's work is in the merging of two disciplines that will potentially lead to an improvement in the lives of these patients, an improvement that can be measured scientifically. While collaborating with Daniel, Beverly Pickering suggested that she could take the patients' vitals (blood pressure and pulse) before and after musical performances. She is also recording her observations of the patients' behavior and demeanor before and after performances. The preliminary data suggests that patients have noticeably positive responses to the music. Daniel hopes to explore the data further, potentially publish their findings, and conduct more in-depth studies to get specific answers. "In June (of 2009) I hope to sit down with Beverly and compile data. I'd like to know what kind of music gets the best responses—  is it classical? Vocal? It will be interesting to see if there are any correlations between patients' reactions and the types of music performed."

He hopes to give a personal performance sometime during the upcoming months, because in part it was his love for piano that helped inspire the entire project. A piano player since the age of four, Daniel decided to take a break from music when he first came to Amherst. He says that it took him "less than two months" to realize just how intrinsic music was for him, and he began to spend a great deal of time in the music building. This proved to be time well spent, as it was in the music building where it was first suggested to Daniel that he contact Beverly at the Rehabilitation Center to begin the project. Combining music and neuroscience may seem an unlikely pair to some, but for Daniel, it is the perfect harmony of both his academic interests and his passions. This proposal highlights an important interdisciplinary connection that could have truly groundbreaking implications for the scientific community. He could continue this research well into his future: Daniel currently aspires to both enroll in a piano performance program at a music conservatory and earn his MD/PhD.

As it turns out, the Innovative Projects Fund award was just the first step in start to of achieving Daniel's vision. He was later put in touch with Jason Trotta, executive director of the Northampton Community Music Center, and together they developed a proposal to submit to the F.A.O. Schwartz Family Foundation. They were jointly awarded $20,000 to bring musicians from the Community Music Center to the Rehabilitation Center's patients. Daniel, Jason, and Beverly are now working together to ensure that this project is sustainable for many years to come. When asked about his vision for the future, he says that he hopes the project becomes a permanent outreach program— "either through a student group or as part of the music department." If the first few months are any indication, Daniel's program will be successful for a long time to come.