Lauren Li, a senior in biology, has been selected to receive a 2017 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Her project, "Sounds of Healing: Exploring the Treatment of Trauma Through Music," will take her through Austria, Australia, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Watson Fellowship provides a grant of $30,000, and is awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner institutions. According to the Watson Foundation website, "Fellows conceive original projects, execute them outside of the United States for one year and embrace the ensuing journey. They decide where to go, who to meet and when to change course." This year, 40 fellows were selected.
Li, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was first inspired to study the healing properties of music through her experiences with music and health advocacy at Caltech. A four-year member of Caltech's chamber music program, Li also has been active in student groups that raise awareness about and build support for mental health. We talked with her about her motivation to pursue this project and her plans for traveling the world.
What is music therapy and what does it mean to you?
Music therapy, as I see it, is simply music as a means of healing. A true healing process is holistic—one that requires both physiological and mental well-being. This concept appeals to common sense, and it's something that's hard to disagree with, yet few existing treatments focus on addressing both sides of this process. I have always believed strongly that music is innately human. I have taught violin abroad, and through my experiences performing and teaching music, I have learned that by connecting through music you can often transcend barriers in language and culture. It was therefore very natural for me to start with music in searching for that connection between mind and body that is so crucial to healing.
Why did you choose each of these countries to visit? What do you plan to do in each country?
Since I will be working with trauma survivors, I chose to visit English-speaking countries. Through a common language, I will be able to develop relationships and genuine connections with the people I work with.
I will start off in Austria, a country with a rich history of music and innovative means of studying physiological components of music—like how rhythm translates into certain biological patterns in the body. Then I will go to Australia, where I will be working with Iraqi refugee families and learning about music therapy from the perspective of both psychologists and music therapists. Finally, I will go on to South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago, where I hope to take what I've learned and build some foundations where this type of musical application is less established.
Music therapy is a growing field, yet I feel like there is a gap in terms of having a quantitative understanding of how music can translate into healing. So another key part of my project will be developing a way to study music with a more analytical mindset.
What are you looking forward to while traveling around the world?
In addition to my project, I'm looking forward to learning more about ethnomusicology throughout the world. For example, South Africa has a culture and identity deeply grounded in rich musical traditions. For almost 2,000 years, the Djembe drum has continually evolved with the needs of South African societies, taking on roles as a sacred drum in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, and much more. I am excited to explore these types of musical frameworks ingrained in each country's identity. I will also have opportunities to work on musical improvisation and composition in a variety of collaborations with local artists. I am excited to begin this journey in which I will not only grow independently as a musician, but also be able to explore how different factors, such as culture, musical style, and therapeutic techniques, play a role in the healing ability of music therapy.
Juniors interested in applying for the Watson Fellowship should contact Fellowships Advising and Study Abroad.