April 13, 2018

Science and music converge to produce goosebumps at hack competition

Guitar-backed presentation on seizure prediction an audience favourite

There’s little chance of a Grammy or Juno, but among people affected by epilepsy, Ashkan Tehrani’s music is bound to be a big hit.

After helping a graduate team in winning the People’s Choice Award at a recent pitch competition, Tehrani is hoping his sympathetic musical rendition of an epileptic seizure and the emotion surrounding such an experience will inspire further collaboration between STEM researchers and those in the arts.

“Negar Mohammadi and her team had developed a method to predict seizures for epileptic patients using a machine-learning algorithm, and she wanted something extra to give their 60-second lecture an emotional edge over the competition,” explains Tehrani.

Science, meet song

The meeting of science and song was born at the University of Calgary’s first Innovation4Health (i4H) Hack Competition, a student-led contest dealing with the challenges of surgery and recovery.

There, multidisciplinary teams from the Schulich School of Engineering, Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program, Cumming School of Medicine, Haskayne School of Business, and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine had 72 hours to solve a real-world challenge, posed by actual surgeons and veterinarians.

With a single sleep-deprived weekend to provide the most promising solutions to surgery and recovery problems, each team had one minute and a lone information slide to pitch their findings to the public — and that’s when Mohammadi, a neuroscience grad, asked Tehrani to help out.

“I wanted a musical accompaniment that can communicate the emotional content and the engineering solution as an integrated whole during my pitch," says Negar.

Wanted, one guitar player

Tehrani, a postdoctoral fellow of biomedical engineering and a volunteer with Innovation 4 Health, happens to play guitar.

“We started working on a piece that synchronized to her one-minute speech in melody, dynamics and rhythm to convey the mood and emotion of an epileptic patient to the audience,” says Tehrani.

“Deciding on the music a day before the competition was one thing, doing it right without any prearrangement was a different story — I have never played in front of such a huge crowd before.”

On the demo day, 15 teams of more than 100 students gathered at the University of Calgary's Energy Environment Experiential Learning building to pitch their findings.

“It was going to be only one minute but that could determine whether we can take this study further or not — I got the butterflies in my stomach,” says Negar.

Ashkan Tehrani and Negar Mohammadi play and present at the Innovation4Health Hack Competition. Their presentation won the People's Choice Award.

Ashkan Tehrani and Negar Mohammadi play and present at the Innovation4Health Hack Competition.

Andres Kroker

Soundtrack to a brain in crisis

From gentle, rhythmically predictable plucking to a chaotic mess of noise and back to a joyful harmony, the guitar provided a perfect soundtrack to the one-minute explanation of how brain cells go from working in unison to random misfiring during a seizure and then the relief when it ends.

“The intro was a silky arpeggios in Dorian mode that reflects both the melancholy and hope but the outro was a funky bass line that communicated the joy,” explains Tehrani. “The seizure part was mainly high-pitched overtones and a power riff.”

They had some great feedback from the audience.

“After the performance, we had people from the audience and other teams telling us that they experienced goosebumps,” says Negar.

Enthusiasm equals encore

The success of their presentation and the enthusiasm of the audience has convinced them to pursue the idea further.

“For the next step, as the vp academic of the Graduate Student Association, I am going to establish a graduate student group called Science Meets Music at the University of Calgary,” explains Negar. “Who knows, we might one day have three-minute musical thesis competitions just like the three-minute thesis presentation that is now an annual event in many universities around the globe.”

Tehrani says the idea of art and science meeting through music is one that has him very excited.

“As a scientist, I have disseminated my research findings in various formats both verbally and in written, but none felt as exciting and deep as communicating science through music,” he says. “We are reaching out to faculty members and students in science, engineering and performance art who are interested in joining us in this unique, innovative and multidisciplinary interaction.”