Overcoming Disciplinary Barriers: An Interview with a Highly Successful Inter-disciplinary Researcher

Eduardo Miranda, Professor of Computer Music in the School of Society and Culture, is well known for his work spanning the arts and sciences. Much of his more recent work has involved using music and technology to improve peoples’ health and wellbeing. This includes the recent RadioMe project to support people with dementia and OptiMuscle, which uses music to optimise muscle function for people with dysfunctional breathing. One of Eduardo’s best known initiatives is the Music of the Mind where he used Brain Computer Music Interfacing software to help the violinist, Rosemary Johnson, play music for the first time after suffering from a debilitating accident 27 years ago.

So what lessons could be learned from Eduardo, both for health researchers interested in interdisciplinary work, and academics from non-health backgrounds looking to engage with health research?

In this interview Eduardo tells us about his passion for crossing disciplinary boundaries – creating innovative new projects by applying findings and terminology from one subject area to another. He talks about how he first got involved in interdisciplinary research, the challenges he encountered on the way and the lessons he has learned.

Your whole career has involved working across interdisciplinary boundaries: combining your passion for music and computer technology. Can you tell us how you ended up following this path?

I’ve always been passionate about music but when the time came to decide what to study I had to face the fact that, at the time, a career in music didn’t have strong employment prospects. Instead I became quite excited about studying computing. About 30 years ago computers were still a novelty and the employment market was highly promising, so I took to doing a computer science degree. I wasn’t to be disappointed - after graduating I got a very good job for a company in Rio de Janeiro developing software for retail businesses. However after a couple of years I became disillusioned and resolved to go back to university to study music.

About mid-way through my music research degree I came across publications in the library around music and mathematics. One particular book stood out – ‘Formalised Music’ by Iannis Xenakis – a Romanian Greek composer who wrote about music with the formulas and language I learned in my computer science degree. Xenakis was actually an architect who applied his knowledge of architecture in music composition and by doing so translated a lot of musical concepts to mathematical concepts, thus rendering them in terms which could be understood by someone with a computer science background. Differences in language and terminology are often a major obstacle to interdisciplinary collaboration and Xenakis’ pioneering approach was a revelation to me! It’s one that I’ve found immensely useful throughout my whole career.

The music course was quite traditional so I made the decision to transfer instead to a graduate course in Computer Science where the instructors were quite excited about the possibility of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in music. I sailed through the course easily and to cut a long story short I ended up being one of the very first people to do a PhD in AI applied music.

As you’ve said elsewhere there is a tendency amongst some parts of academia to compartmentalise knowledge and set up rigid borders between subject areas? How have you found your own work challenged by these barriers and how have you overcome them?

The way to overcome them is not to be afraid to talk to people who may not understand you and be willing to understand other people - to accept that most of the things you will tell a colleague from another field will make no sense at all. Similarly you have to acknowledge and make clear your own ignorance. To take my current collaboration with Professor Mat Upton as an example, there is much that I don’t understand of his field but by dialogue we find common ground in which we can work together. There is no magic formula, it’s more the willingness to look over the fence and be prepared to try and make sense of it all with the things that you know. It’s also the acceptance that you may have to backtrack in terms of the knowledge you have developed in one area in order to build something new in another, which can be time consuming.

The competitive environment that academics find themselves in today can also be a challenge to collaboration as there is a temptation to become fixated on what most straightforwardly leads to an increase in publications or a higher profile. However I’ve always felt that if the work is good and touches certain aspects that are important then these things will come automatically.

Then there is the issue of engaging academics in other disciplines in the first place. It’s a particular challenge for me as many in the scientific community see arts as something which is there more for pleasure or entertainment, and don’t always appreciate the value of this. However there is no point developing new technology which solves certain objective problems if they are not also added to the human experience. People understand that now much more than before.

I’ve found the best thing to do is to show an example – highlighting how you have initiated something and demonstrating its impact. I remember going to a neuroscience conference about 25 years ago and there were many engineers discussing the brain-computer interface, but they were so focused on technical problems that forms of application were completely off their radar. When I introduced myself as a musician interested in using this to make music other attendees didn’t really take it seriously. However once I returned to these people with demonstrations of what I had done I began to open up conversations with them and develop trust. Belief and persistency are therefore important.

It must make the work do you more exciting in a way?

Exactly – it’s difficult to get bored! I know of many colleagues who have been through a crises of identity, who have been working on the same area they did in their PhD and are now questioning this. I don’t face that as I am always working on something new. It’s more difficult because you are always having to start from scratch but it is very exciting.

I learned some of this from my time at Sony. They had a policy that no researcher could spend more than 6 months on the same project – the rationale being that if you could not invent something from the research within that time there was no point continuing it – so we were constantly being rotated from one project to another. There are both good and bad aspects to this but it has certainly influenced how I do things at the university. At some point in your projects you may reach a “full stop” either because there is nothing more to do or because the technology needed to complete the work successfully is just not available yet.

Much of your recent work has involved using music to improve people’s health and change lives. In the context of the RadioMe project, which you work on with Professor Sube Banerjee, can you describe how and why music can play so important a role?

Basically music therapy is an area that has been quite neglected for a while because there were no objective results that could be shown. This is changing now thanks to new methods within neuroscience, such as brain scanning, which means it’s possible to show the effect that music has on the brain. There is renewed interest in neurological music therapy which is developing the technologies and conditions for using music to develop potential therapies. Music not only changes brain plasticity, it also interferes with mood and calms people down who may face anxiety. The benefits for music have also been found in specific conditions, including helping people with dementia bring memories back, or helping those with Parkinson’s to retrain their brain and control their movements. So there are a number of benefits to music that are only now being recognised. The key reason for this is that whereas most activities engage only a specific part of the brain, music can involve a multitude of them. There is no specialist brain area for music and quite a lot of potential to use music to engage different areas of the brain, including those that may be damaged.

This is one of the premises behind the Radio Me project. Imagine, for example, if you are living at home alone and you have a sudden attack of anxiety, a system could be developed which could detect that and then play some music which helps calm you down immediately. The same technology can do other things as well, such as use an automated DJ voice to send personal reminders for people to eat, take medicine or prompt movement. The idea is you would have a personal calendar for each listener with points for the radio DJ to come in. We don’t know how people will react to this, they may feel they are being watched or not bother to use it, but these are all things which we need to learn, and various experiments will be needed to see what works.  The project has another 2 and a half years to go, and this year we should have the first prototype built to test with patients.

Your work has often involved working with collaborators from more conventional health research backgrounds such as Salford’s Dr Steve Preece (on OptiMuscle). Can you talk through how those collaborations started?

Well being successful at attracting funding has helped - for 10 years I’ve never been out of funding!  RCUK know me and know that I am in this area so they started inviting me to participate in meetings, because they are interested in fostering this work. I’m in a privileged position because I have made myself known. Last year the RCUK organised a huge national sandpit on technologies for digital health. They brought in psychologists, computer scientists, GPs and health practitioners, and I was pretty much the only person from the arts there, so I had a lot of interest from the other attendees. It was at this session where I met with Steve Preece and other future collaborators who were discussing developing systems to help people learn breathing and I suggested adding music as an auditory element to improve the system. That immediately caught their imagination and our project was one of the few projects that got selected for funding.

Is there more of an interest amongst funding councils in interdisciplinary and exploratory research?

There is but issues can arise when proposals are reviewed. I’ve been caught in a situation a couple of times where I’ve responded to a funding call which has explicitly asked for interdisciplinary proposals, but where the reviewers have failed to understand its multi-faceted aspects. In one case I sent the same project firstly to the AHRC where the reviewers said it was a science project and then to the EPSRC where they said it was an arts project. This has resulted in me having to leave out some of the more innovative ideas from some of my proposals in order to obtain funding, or using terms that reviewers are more likely to understand the relevance of (e.g. ‘audio feedback’ rather than ‘music’).

One strand of your work has involved re-purposing and re-applying discoveries or techniques from the sciences to create music. This includes converting particle collision data from the Large Hadron Collider into music for your Opera Lampedusa, and using processes informed by synthetic biology to produce music. More recently you are working with Mat Upton on reversing the process and using music codes to synthesize antibiotics. Could you explain a bit about your thinking about how music and science can be complementary particularly in relation to discovery research?

On my more artistic side I program computers to make music but in order for them to do it I need data so I am always on the look out for things to use. I found out about the team at MIT working on developing sounds from the Large Hadron Collider. They put me in touch with people at CERN who could explain what the data meant and I came up with the idea of this opera - Lampedusa - about the beginning of the universe. It’s a matter of taking opportunities that come up and make them work for you. At the same time I was doing this I met David Peterson, the well-renowned linguist who creates languages for TV and films (e.g. Game of Thrones) and he developed a language to use for the libretto of the opera. I am now using this same method of transferring symbols from one realm to another for the proof-of-concept project with Mat Upton, funded by the Arts-Health Collaboration Fund.


What are your plans for future research projects and how do you think these might fit with the development of the new Institute?

It’s clear there is a lot of potential. Over the last few years I have developed a number of initiatives related to health and that has given me more expertise and a higher profile in this area. My plan is to forge very strong connections within the Brain Research and Imaging Centre and explore how we could harness the expertise and state-of-the-art equipment there to build upon the work we have already done, with applications in health as well as other areas, such as entertainment or the automotive industry. There is a huge potential there that I am very keen to explore.

Within this context I want to explore the neuroscience side of music perception – to gain a better understanding of why, and how and where in the brain music takes place. This is really important because if you know that certain types of music affect certain areas of the brain you can begin to think about music that is targeted for specific purposes. We know that some music relaxes, some motivates, some makes you sad but what objectively does this? It’s only by engaging with psychologists and neurologists that we can be able to unveil these mysteries. The PIHR Brain and Mind theme is a great home for this. We want to find the brain signatures that give rise to particular states of mind and whether we can learn to develop means through music to change those states of minds. If we can do that then the therapeutical applications including the potential to reduce drug prescriptions could be considerable.

What encouragement would you give to students or early stage researchers who are interested in interdisciplinary research? Are there any tips you could provide?

I used to be fairly shy when I was younger and was reluctant to contact people from other fields and introduce myself. My advice first of all is to make sure the idea you have got is doable or if it is really new that there is a way forward and there are some connections you can make. Second, don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid to admit you know nothing about certain aspects of it and accept advice. Don’t be afraid to contact giants in the field to collaborate. If your idea is good, they will go along with it. If they say no, don’t take no for an answer. Learn from rejections, reformulate your thoughts and have another go. Those giants started from nothing too.